Over the years my job has fluctuated between periods of slowness and boredom and periods of mass hysteria and weekend-marathon testing calls. Part of what makes the field of software delivery so appealing is the decent pay. But that comes with the trade-off of high stress. Learning how to slow down might be the better tonic, as opposed to giving in to a perceived need to retire.
Unlike jobs where you have a steady flow of work and the outputs are within a high level of control, software delivery is like forecasting the weather in the 19th century. Some projects can wrap up within six months or less with no issues. Other projects can last three years or even longer and burn you out with ease.
One such project was the impetus for my five-year early retirement goal. February 2020 was supposed to be my early retirement target. But I’m now looking at maybe 2021 or 2022 since I’m finding work a hard habit to break.
Stress reduction is a huge expectation with early retirement. When you retire, you are in control of your schedule. You are the boss and the agenda is yours to create. Certainly, you can’t expect 100% of your stress to melt away. Stress is a key part of life. The game is to find ways to control it, so it doesn’t overcome you.
Remember the Danes and their way of life summed up by the term Hygge? The ability to enjoy the simple things in life is made much easier by eliminating as many of the worries, stressors, and “clouds” that hang over your head: a bad job, high debt, poor health, stressed relationships, etc.
That’s all easier said than done. I’m not so naïve as to think the Danes are impervious to the same trials and issues we face in the U.S. However, they have come up with clever ways to live a sustainable life. Early retirement will bias one to Hygge: foregoing all of the excess consumption that comes with a typical American life.
The Secret May Not Be to Retire, But to Simply Slow Down
Long before I picked up on the early retirement scene back in the fall of 2014, I had developed an interest in optimizing life and lifestyle for health and happiness. There are countless books and theories by self-proclaimed experts to entertain.
You might learn a thing or two, and even get some inspiration along the way. Titles like Play, The Four-Hour Workweek, and The Blue Zones have all found spots on my bookshelf. In a personal quest to land on a lifestyle approach for a long, happy, and healthy life, I’ve come to question the motivation behind early retirement. Is escaping the rat race simply a mirage?
With my proclivity to numbers and statistics, I’m in a constant search for empirical evidence on life and lifestyle optimization. When I first read The Blue Zones about five years ago, I was energized by the possibilities of simple lifestyle changes that could lead to happy and healthy longevity.
Although a few lessons stuck with me, by and large, the lifestyle has remained elusive. Why? Blue Zones work because they are self-sustaining communities. It does in fact, take a village. The good news is there are U.S. communities that have taken up the Blue Zones challenge in an attempt to move the needle.
The Blue Zones
In The Blue Zones, author Dan Buettner set out to find places in the world where people live independently and contentedly into their 90s (or even 100s). They do so at significantly higher rates than folks do in the industrialized western nations.
Buettner found Blue Zones in a mountainous patch of Sardinia, the Mediterranean island of Ikaria (Greece), Nicola (Costa Rica), Okinawa (Japan), and (of all places) Loma Linda (California).
Factors That Contribute to Superior Longevity
- Diet. High in vegetables and omega-3 fats (olive oil, goat/sheep dairy). Zero processed (junk) food. Minimal meat consumption. Lots of beans or tofu. Red wine daily, in moderation (except in Loma Linda, where the Seventh Day Adventists avoid alcohol altogether). A few cups of coffee or tea daily.
- Exercise. Built-in to daily life by walking or hiking to get from A to B. No gym memberships.
- Family. Families stay close and often three generations live under the same roof. No nursing homes.
- Community. Friends grow up together. They remain close. The community looks after each other, as sort of a built-in safety net.
- Purpose. There is no “retirement” per se. There are fields or flocks to tend, grand-kids to nurture, and chores to do.
- Pace. It’s slow. There is no rush. No hustle and bustle in these zones. Daily naps are the norm. Stress becomes hard to manufacture here.
Can you choose a life of work and still faithfully follow the Blue Zones path to healthy longevity? Read on!
The Benefits of Slow Food
With time for better eating habits, you can explore several cookbooks and online recipes from the Blue Zones to help you create a diverse menu. For starters, avoid processed, preservative-laden foods. Go with organic and mineral-rich whole foods.
Blue Zone’s populaces tend to eat a diet that swings more closely to vegetarians. The Loma Linda population group is primarily vegetarian, a facet of the Seventh-Day Adventist faith that’s dominant in this community.
Maybe you don’t want to go “cold turkey” on meat? Well, if you can limit your meat consumption to a couple of days a week, you could still add a few years to your life. Okinawans limit their meat consumption to a few special occasions each year. Further, at each meal, they only eat until they’re 80% full. Consuming fewer calories than you think you need could be key to a longer life.
The good news? Some moderate drinking is fine. Ikarians enjoy a glass or two of red wine or maybe a beer with friends. The flavonoids in the wine mixed with the social benefits of friends seem to have a positive effect on health.
We can appreciate slow food if we make it a priority. It’s a lot easier to prepare healthy foods when we have more time. Good eating habits are inextricably linked to good relationships. Maintaining and building strong bonds whether we’re still in our working years or retired is crucial.
Finding the Time to Be Active
Many of us have a cubicle (or during a time of pandemic a Zoom) problem. We sit and stare at a screen for nine or more hours. And repeat that sordid habit daily.
We also have a commuting problem. We sit and stare at tail-lights for 30 minutes, some for up to an hour or more. (Admittedly, Covid-19 will solve the commuting riddle for a segment of the workforce, for now. Sadly, essential workers and those in lower-paying service jobs don’t have the luxury of a work from home arrangement.)
We could drop some good coin on a gym membership, but the time away from family can create more problems. Blue Zones populations are unaware of cubicles and commutes. They don’t have gym memberships.
How these folks get their exercise is quite simple: Daily living. Tending a garden, walking to the market or to visit family and friends, or tending a flock of sheep up in the hills and mountains. Every day is a new hike in the outdoors. Some might call this a strenuous life, but it’s what gives Blue Zone’s elders the advantage in graceful aging.
In our go-go society, the nut to crack is finding time in abundance to get outdoors and walk, hike, or bike. You might even find new and creative ways to get outside when it’s 20 below, and all paths are buried in three feet of snow. Even at the office (when we get back to the office after lockdown ends) remember to get up and move often. And take the stairs!
Spending More Time With Family (and Less Time With Stress)
Our day jobs can make it pretty tough to form a tight family unit. We try our best even with both parents working full time. Spending more time at home with the family, as opposed to being stuck in traffic at 6 PM? Blue Zones living may provide some answers.
Blue Zones communities feature pastoral living. Most of us would find this kind of existence “quaint” or “old fashioned.” It’s idyllic to think about working alongside your kids as they grow up. You teach them the skills that have been handed down for generations. (Sadly, even in Blue Zones the modern lifestyle is creeping in and younger generations are pulling away from tradition.)
The more time spent bonding with family and friends not only strengthens relationships, but it’s also healthy for you. There’s a multi-generational dynamic in Blue Zone communities. Grandmas and grandpas (and even great-grandparents) play a big part in the upbringing of grandchildren.
Early retirement frees time we can now spend time with our families and friends. Even if we’re not tending flocks of sheep with our kids, we can forge strong bonds through all sorts of meaningful activities. This is good for our health and longevity.
We should consider our modern society and rethink how we value and care for our elders. Rather than putting our parents into assisted living arrangements, are there opportunities to instead integrate them more into our lives?
Our friendships often suffer as a result of the culture we have here in the U.S., where a job or school-based migration is common. I moved away for school, then further away to find work in Minnesota.
I feel fortunate to be where I am now. The friends I had growing up seem to be happy where they are now. But I often wonder how much more meaningful life would be if lifelong friends were within miles, not time zones.
In contrast, Blue Zones communities don’t suffer the dispersion and migration of its peoples. Friends stay friends for decades from youth to the grave. Those are bonds we can try to keep in our modern go-go world, but Facebook and phone calls don’t quite hit the mark.
We can do more to strengthen community bonds wherever we end up living. Being active in our communities and building friendships with neighbors is a good first step. Keeping in touch with friends over distance is still very meaningful, even if we miss the benefits of having them near.
Retirement Without Purpose Is Risky
The centenarian with a purpose in life is a sight to behold. You can rely on him or her to perform any number of chores or tasks. Independent living is expected, and the norm.
Blue Zone elders can be found looking after great-grandkids. They’ll be found tending a garden or preparing healthy, whole-food-based meals. There’s a reason to keep going. This is a vital key for those aspiring to retire early.
We have the gift of following others who blog about their post-retirement exploits. We can peer into whether there’s a purpose in how they spend their newfound time.
When we slow down and simplify our lives we can zero-in on our life purpose. We don’t all have to take on the burden of saving the planet, but we certainly should aspire to meaningful uses of our time. Helping others while we grow and learn can happen before or without retirement. Try 10 minutes of daily meditation to aid you in your journey…
Stop and Smell the Roses
Blue Zone’s adherents have little regard for clocks. Elders sleep in a little, they stay up a little later, and they take naps.
It sounds like a vacation! A healthy aversion to an oversubscribed hustle and bustle life we know as the norm is the key. You’d be hard-pressed to find an open shop during the early afternoon hours in the Ikaria Blue Zone. It’s nap time.
There are a select few examples of workplaces in the U.S. establishing nap time programs. But I don’t think this will get a ton of traction.
It’s up to you whether you continue to live with your head buried in your phone or LED 50” TV. Blue zone folks spend their time connecting with their friends and family in real-time.
Instead of the traditional retirement of golf and boredom, we can aspire to help raise our grandchildren, learning, volunteering in the community, remodeling, gardening, hiking, and more.
We need to slow down and take stock in what matters most. It’s not net worth, super saver deals, and side hustles. It’s the family, community, and getting back to basics. If living to 100 years old with good health is the reward, sign me up!
Give Me My Time Back!
Work in and of itself is not an awful concept. Throw in a bad boss, questionable ethics, a toxic culture, then it’s another story. Avoid those dynamics and you’re in better shape. Easier said than done I hear you say, but with training and education, we can improve our mobility in the workforce.
There have been times when I’d find myself the last one to leave the office at 8 PM. The comical part about that is the lights get turned off at 7 PM. I had to stay on that “war room call” though. Blue Zones have no war rooms. (And either software or conventional war, for that matter…)
Freedom to pursue our passions is one thing, it’s another to figure out what our passions are and land a job working in that particular field. I’d argue most of us have to simply make peace with the fields we find ourselves in, and shape them to serve our needs.
Do you have a charitable cause you’d like to pursue with vigor, given the time? Is there an invention waiting to be refined in your garage? You could opt for early retirement from the cubicle to pursue these things, given financial independence. But that’s a ticket available only to a select few.
One thing I can guarantee, the Blue Zones denizens aren’t living their best lives by jet-setting travel, sipping Pina Coladas on white-sand beaches.
How to Slow Down 101:
- Taking a walk, not sitting in front of a computer.
- Sipping a coffee at the coffee shop catching up with a friend, not playing online video games into the wee hours.
- Preparing a home-cooked meal with the family, not working late to impress the boss, relying on fast food for dinner.
- Taking all of your vacation time to immerse yourself in nature and facetime with friends and family, not sacrificing PTO out of fear.