Monday, August 5, 2019

How FIRE led me to Burnout

For a physician, I think and talk and write a lot about taking time off.  Two years ago, I committed to taking vacation every three months, and I have done a pretty good job of sticking to that ever since (I even took an extra vacation this year!).  I talk to trainees all the time about taking time away from work in order to maintain their mental health and have some joy in their lives.  So, until recently, I really thought I had the right mindset with respect to so-called work-life balance.

Except...underlying everything has been the idea of FIRE.  Work my ass off for a few years, save as much as possible, and then run away to a life of complete freedom and constant joy.  The dream!  While I still allowed myself vacations, the desire to have enough money to retire as soon as possible led me to make other bad decisions that were perhaps worse than never taking time off.  Sure, I'll add more patients to my already overbooked clinic.  Sure, I'll take on some lucrative contract work that I don't have time for.  Sure, I can do an extra Friday afternoon clinic even though I'm barely clawing my way to the end of the week as it is.  I convinced myself that I was being a good doctor by seeing more patients, but if I'm being honest, the real driver was the extra money that could go directly into my retirement savings.

And so, as I've already written about, I crashed in a somewhat spectacular way.

I'm actually kind of thankful for the crash (or, at least I think I will be when I look back on it someday), because it has forced me to reevaluate my decisions.  And two big things have come out of my months of self reflection.  First, continuing to work at as a physician is the best option for me, at least in the present.  I have contemplated taking a significant chunk of time off or quitting to pursue another career altogether, but when I look at it in the most practical of ways, doing so doesn't make any financial sense.  I could go part-time as a physician and earn more than I would doing most other jobs.  In the years it would take me to study to do something else, I could work full-time as a physician and save up most of what I need to retire.  My current reality is that I need to work to pay bills and save for the future, and medicine is by far the most efficient way of doing that.  As an added bonus, I also often like my job, at least when things aren't as overwhelming as they have been recently.

Second, and probably the more important, is that I need to stop making my decisions from a place of fear.  While part of my motivation for achieving financial independence has been a desire to not work, most of it has been a desire to not need to work.  To know that, whatever illness or mental health crisis or government overhaul of the healthcare system may hit, I am going to be okay.  Because as a single person with no one else to rely on, I worry a lot about my financial future, even when there's zero necessity to do so.  And that is a really unpleasant and unhealthy approach to money.

Thankfully, things at work are starting to get better.  I have only one slightly overbooked clinic left, and my clinics are going to continue to get lighter over the next few months until I achieve a point of actually being slightly underbooked.  I'm at the point where I can usually get my work done within the 45 hour a week maximum I've set for myself.  I'm scheduled to start six days of call tomorrow, and I'm not having panic attacks or suffering from intractable insomnia.

There are moments when I'm actually enjoying my work and remembering why I became a physician in the first place.

So I am going to keep practicing at letting go of all the things that have been driving me to burnout.  Letting go of my obsessive tracking of my net worth.  Letting go of the countdown to retirement.  Letting go of the belief that the future is going to be so much better than the present, and the desire to burn through time in order to get there.

I'm going to try, as much as I can, to live in the now.  To enjoy what I have, to be grateful for all the good, and to simply breathe.