Back when I was in high school I started down the road to OCD, I mean toward being a wealthy accountant, by recording everything I did. Every penny that came in and every penny that went out went into the columnar pad. Tracking my progress was so important to me I refused to go to bed at night unless the “books balanced”.
Once I reached adulthood I continued recording my financial progress and expanded it to other areas of life. For decades I have recorded my daily electrical usage. No fancy devices are used because that would cost money and you know how we feel about spending money around here. Except for vacations, I can tell you how much electricity I used on any particular day for the last twenty years or more. (In the near future I will share how my electricity usage obsession helped me reduce my utility bill 80% for the farm and 65% for the office.)
Such anal obsessions may sound like a sickness. When running a business the obsession frequently is the difference between survival, failure or massive success. I keep two sets of books in my accounting firm. Before you scream to the IRS that I am cheating on my taxes I ask you sit down and listen first.
There are some things QuickBooks does not do. I track my income and expenses in QuickBooks and on an Excel spreadsheet. The Excel allows me to also track non-financial items, too. Like my electricity usage, I can tell you how many tax returns I e-filed back to 1990. (Yes, they had federal e-filing way back then. I was an early adopter.) The Excel worksheet also allows me to review my business over long periods (decades) in a different way from QuickBooks or any other accounting software.
My massive Excel grows each year as another year of business is added to the data fields. For over twenty years now I have had enough data to make predictive models. I can tell you will great accuracy how many people will walk through the door on any given day during tax season. This allows me to micromanage employee hours, thus saving me money and reducing employee stress during tax season.
There is an occupational hazard from all this data. While I hate budgets and never used one, I always have my eye on one number: last year’s results. My goal: beat last year. It does not matter how much I outdo last year by as long as it is a win. Sometimes I fail, most of the time the numbers continue on an upward climb.
Sounds like a fun game, doesn’t it? It is as long as you understand how the game progresses after several decades. I never lusted for a massive accounting firm to stroke my ego. Still, after decades of growth, financially and in the number of clients served, the numbers began to take over my life. By the early 2000s I was preparing over 2,000 tax returns a year in a small office. To justify my goals I decided to focus on business returns and reduce the total volume of clients, thereby allowing my ‘numbers’ to continue climbing on the financial side of the ledger.
The Sickness Within
By 2008 my e-filed returns dropped to the low 700s and then started climbing again. The financials never skipped a beat. I would pound my chest over my awesome management style if it were not for other, not so ego-thumping, issues. I fell for the worst fallacy of all: growth for growth’s sake. It was never about the money. My lifestyle would not change one bit. It is a sickness inside that compels me to keep pushing for better numbers each year.
It is unhealthy to be so unsatisfied. The drive to beat “last year’s numbers” requires greater and greater amounts of time to meet the goal. Yes, I hired more people. Managing people takes time. Running a business is “…constant worry” according to Steve Jobs. The constant demand on time and mind takes away from the illusion of early retirement.
The Countdown Clock
Long about 2005 I started a countdown clock to my ‘real’ retirement. In three years I planned on selling my practice and living a ‘real’ retirement lifestyle. As I pulled back I had more free time to play on my farm. The ‘ol OCD sickness raised its ugly head fast. I went from a handful of steers to 50 and started butchering 400 chickens a year Amish-style. My time was now consumed by a different business: farming.
The office manager, Karen, discovered my countdown clock and started harassing me about it. She wanted to know what the hell I was up to. I kept tight-lipped until the clock ticked below one year. Karen guessed I was looking for the door and would not let it rest. She offered to make my life easier by managing the company for me. (Try running that one past a successful businessman with OCD.)
As you already know, the countdown clock was put to rest and I did not sell. A lot of local competitors were licking their lips thinking of the jewel they were going to get a chance at acquiring. I still dream of selling. However, Karen runs the office so well I spend nine months a year with a small workload. I love tax work so I put in serious hours during tax season. I found balance (sort of).
Live Retirement Right
I never subscribed to retirement as a beer in one hand and the remote in the other. Retirement should be the opportunity to do what you enjoy most. I still track my income, expenses and e-filed returns religiously. I try hard not to get caught up in “beating” some invisible ghost expressed in “last year’s numbers”. I came perilously close to working for “money” as a sole goal when I act the way I do. Stephen King calls that a “… chump’s game.”
Early retirement is only retirement if it is a balanced life. Come to think of it, you should have balance in life whether you are retired or not. I cut back on the farm, struggle with balance in the tax office and now have a blog to write. I work too hard and I suspect you do the same. Your methods are different than mine, for sure. It is still a sickness you and I need to manage.
There are things you can do to increase your quality of life. The tax office is filled with clients who have retired and either have no idea what to do with themselves or fill their life so full they don’t have time to enjoy retirement. Balance is hard. Once you have enough money to choose your path in life, you are retired. Do you keep pushing for more? Does your lust for more consume your life, forcing you to keep working to pay for your fear of retirement? That’s right, your fear of retirement. We fear retirement because we will no longer be recognized for what we do. We are scared because of the unknown. Deep down we know retirement is not like one big long vacation. Retirement is how we will live the rest of our life. Where will we find meaning in that new life?
It all comes back to balance again. I should talk. I tend to bite off more than I can chew and run with it. I thrive on the challenge. It defines me, gives me purpose, makes me feel alive. Taken to an extreme it is unhealthy and is unfair to family, friends or the community. Let’s call it what it really is: selfishness.
I work too hard; I get it. So do you. No accusation intended. Anyone of us can pay the rent on only a few hours of work a week. Modern technology grants us the freedom to live well without busting our ass in the hot sun from sunup to sundown. The human body was never designed to sit in a chair for 40 hours a week, either.
Here are a few ideas I use to create balance while still doing the things I love doing:
- Every morning and every night I kiss my girls on the cheek and ask about their day. My children come first, no matter what. My wife gets a smack square on the lips and I inquire about her day, too.
- Drink water. Sounds simple. During tax season the hours get long and I tend to drink a lot of tea. I find I feel better if I start the day with a large glass of water to cleanse the body.
- Stop considering a few quiet moments at work or home a crime. A few moments to reflect can do wonders for the spirit.
- Know when to stop. There is always work to do in the office during tax season and the work never ends on a farm. That is not a reason to kill yourself working. It is okay to close the books and go home. It is okay to go for a walk during the workday. It is okay to leave work for tomorrow. It is also okay to take a pass on work sent your way. With rare exception, most work can wait for another day. We call that an extension in the tax world. You are not a wealthy accountant if your soul is unsettled.
- Find time to read good books.
- Spend time with friends talking about things not work related. Don’t fall for the busman’s holiday.
- Remember what retirement is: the ability to do what you enjoy most. Don’t play Stephen King’s “chump’s game”.
- Enjoy nature. Go for a walk in the park or woods. Your spirit requires the solitude to remain healthy.
- Tell people you love how much you do love them. It ends sooner than you think.
- Eat healthy. Garbage in, garbage out. A poor diet destroys happiness faster than you ever imagined as you lose the ability to do the things you value most.
- Eat, drink, play, and work in moderation. Too much of any activity in unhealthy. Enjoy a drink if you want. Eat delicious foods. Play. Almost anything you do becomes harmful when done in the extreme so use moderation.
- When did it become a crime to take an afternoon nap? Adequate sleep in imperative.
- Every day close your eyes and focus on your breathing for at least five minutes. It is so relaxing.
- Your body needs to move, lift and run.
Like me, you will not be perfect in these matters. It is the journey, not the destination that counts. The destination is death. Don’t worry; you will get it right the first time. I never met anyone who did not die the first time they did. Life is about the journey. Learn “to sit quietly in a room alone” as Blaise Pascal taught us. I pray we cross paths on this journey we call life; it is only meaning life has, the only reason to be.