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.


  1. If it takes a few more years to save enough to retire comfortably just take them. You'll still have plenty of time to enjoy the fruits of your labor and you might enjoy your labor a little more. I am barely getting by, especially since I left my wife, but I am actually much calmer and happier. I'll never have much, but I really don't need it. Hopefully, I can just work a little in a few years, but I am doing just fine.

    1. I'm sorry finances are a struggle for you. I am definitely enjoying work more with the reduction in workload. I just need to accept the lower income and slower progress to retirement (both of which are totally okay).

  2. Enjoyed this thoughtful post

  3. I feel a lot of this, now that we're close to the finish line, friend. Mrs. Done by Forty is about to start work and I'm interested to see if that makes things better from a stress/burnout perspective (more money!) or worse (less time to do all the things!).

    Either way, I do think the lesson of not approaching money from a place of fear is a good one, and one I always need to re-learn.

    1. I'll be interested to read about your journey as Mrs. DB40 goes back to work! It's always hard to predict just how things will go.

      It's hard to learn to let go of money fears, especially if you've lived through scarcity and/or have people in your life with their own money anxieties. I've been doing tons of yoga lately, and I love the idea of yoga being a "practice" (i.e. something you're constantly working on and will never perfect). I try to apply that idea to the rest of my life, particularly my mindset about things, so that I get less upset about all of the things that still need work.

  4. I'm glad things are starting to get better. I think we all need to overdo it sometimes so that we know where the line is. I can relate to the idea of making decisions from a place of fear and I've done similar things in the past (even though I'm nowhere close to retirement). If cutting down allows you to enjoy your work more, that sounds like the better thing to do. I'm starting to realise that peace is priceless

  5. I see this so much in myself. On one hand, now I'm an attending and have so much more earning potential! We are doing so well at the moment. On the other, I worry about becoming burned out at my job and wanting to walk away, but not being able to because of having to pay for myself the rest of my life, not to mention my daughter and husband. I think about how we are on the cusp of having two cars die, which would be expensive to replace. How we spend an inordinate amount on childcare, school, and activities for our kid, and how it would be very difficult not to do that given where we live and our current jobs. I think about new ways to optimize so that money doesn't literally fly out of our bank accounts every month, but it is really difficult to do so more than we already have. And then I begin to despair because I think of how long it will be before I feel like I have walk-away money (i.e. enough so I can afford to walk away from a toxic job, if it ever comes to that). I need to figure out how to let these intrusive thoughts go and learn to focus on where I am right now.

  6. Grateful to hear your perspectives, and those of your other readers. For me, nursing no longer resembles at all what I decided on as a career so many years ago. I have another job that I prefer (long story), but I grieve for my dream, and sometimes struggle with the complicated financial stuff. Oh, well, I'm also grateful for my experiences...

  7. OMG. You are so right!

    Except for my not being a doctor or making anywhere near a doctor's salary (LoL), I could have written a large part of this post.

    Yes, burnout is REAL. I'm in that decision making cycle right now. My career field has changed so much in the past 5 years, that it's not the same job in many ways. It's no longer a good fit for me. I'm burned out and I don't feel like I can keep up anymore. On the other hand starting over in something else is scary and will require a substantial pay cut. It's a miserable state to be in.

    Thanks for sharing this.

  8. One of my ongoing dings against FIRE is that I'm not convinced that RE is something I'd enjoy. FI, yes, I'm all for FI and work towards that. But RE, I think about what happened many years ago, when I spent about 9 months unemployed after a layoff. I was single, no kids, living in a cheap but nice studio apartment. I had enough money saved that I was okay financially that whole time, but I just about lost my mind because I didn't have the structure and interpersonal interactions that come with work. And socially... the company that laid me off was one that was so demanding when it came to hours that I didn't really have non-work friends where I lived. Post-layoff, I had a hard time figuring out even how to meet people or how to feel okay when I couldn't answer "what do you do?" without feeling like I needed to give extra explanations.

    I still work hard and am in a good state financially, but I think if you want to be on a FIRE path, it's wiser to choose a slower way to get there that doesn't require working all of your waking hours and burning out. The fastest path to FI is also one that's really hard on the mind, the body, and social connections. Your life needs to have enough space in it now to experience joy, develop the relationships, and engage in the activities that will continue post-retirement, whenever that might happen. So you can build the /life/ part of your post-retirement life as strongly as you're building the financial part.