Using mini-retirements to get more out of life: An interview with Timothy Ferriss

On a cool Thursday morning last July, I woke early to walk into the hills outside Wells in Somerset County, England. After three-quarters of an hour, I reached a point with a broad vista of the surrounding countryside. I leaned against a fence post and took in the view — I could have sworn I was looking at Hobbiton.

After a few minutes of silent contemplation, I walked back to town. I took a brief tour of the Wells Cathedral before picking up a bite to eat a nearby bakery. I then joined the rest of my group for our drive to Stonehenge. In the evening, we stopped in Dorchester, where Kris and I gave ourselves a self-guided tour of the city.

We were standing in the Maumbury Rings when I announced, “I want to retire here.”

“We can't afford to,” Kris said.

“I know,” I said. But I was thinking of the The 4-Hour Workweek, the book I had been reading on our trip. In it, author Timothy Ferriss argues that instead of deferring retirement to the end of our careers, we would be happier, more fulfilled, and more productive if we instead took “mini-retirements” throughout our lives. Maybe Kris and I couldn't afford to retire to England, but could we save enough to spend several months in Dorchester? Or a year? I've been interested in mini-retirements ever since.

In March, I interviewed Ferris about his notion of “lifestyle design”, the intentional sculpting of a home and career that fits your personal goals. Recently, Tim spoke with me for an hour by phone — this time we discussed retirement. It was a long conversation, so I've divided the interview into three parts:

  • Today's excerpt covers the differences between traditional retirement and mini-retirement.
  • Next Tuesday's post features a detailed example of how to plan a mini-retirement.
  • On the following Sunday, I'll post our conversation about entrepreneurship.

Tim and I spoke two weeks ago, just after he'd returned from a weekend in Omaha, Nebraska.

J.D.
I've heard some people say that The 4-Hour Workweek is anti-investing. Is that true?

Tim
No, the book is not anti-investing at all. The philosophies in the book are very much pro rational investing. People confuse investing with viewing retirement as the end-all, be-all objective, where you redeem all the things you've postponed for 40 or 50 years. Those are two separate questions: investment being the vehicle, retirement being the objective.

Because I am in many ways anti-retirement, people think that's anti-investment, and that's a confusion. I'm actually very pro-investment. If I define myself as an entrepreneur, then it's my responsibility to take money from my mattress or in my checking account and put that into an area where it's producing more value.

J.D.
In The 4-Hour Workweek, you differentiate between Deferrers and the New Rich. Deferrers take a traditional approach to wealth-building — they save their money for later in life. In some ways, that's the Get Rich Slowly philosophy. They're hoping to amass large sums so they can retire early. On the other hand, the New Rich distribute mini-retirements throughout life.

One of the reasons the traditional approach to retirement works is that you have compound returns working in your favor, so you're able to build large bodies of wealth. It seems to me that if you were to take mini-retirements, you're thwarting some of the advantages to the traditional approach to retirement. I understand some of the mental reasons you want to take mini-retirements, but how do you approach it financially?

Tim
First of all, it's important to recognize the tendency in every human to create false dichotomies, meaning they say, “You can have either A or B,” and not recognizing that there are often many options between those two and elsewhere. There's usually a C option.

Most people believe you either have to have a low-stress, low-reward job and life — you're a home-based dog-sitter with very few responsibilities, a lot of time and no income, but very little stress — or you can be an investment banker, make $500,000 to a $1,000,000 a year, and work 80 to 100 hours a week. You don't necessarily have to choose between those two. You can get the best from both. You can mix-and-match.

There are a few assumptions I operate on. The first is that long life is not guaranteed. If we define risk as the potential for an irreversible negative outcome, there's more risk in postponing the things that you would most like to do for 30 or 40 years versus taking a perhaps sub-optimal, less-compounded return on investment because you allocate some of that to these mini-retirements.

Assumption two is that your ability to generate revenue and to accomplish business objectives is directly dependent on optimal physical and mental recovery. I would argue that when people add hours and only have “too weak” vacations, they'll benefit from taking a mini-retirement and actually return to work with more perspective, greater endurance, and the ability ultimately to produce more money, so that offsets the amount of money spent on that mini-retirement.

J.D.
Have you found that's true in your case?

Tim
Absolutely. If I hadn't taken my four-week mini-retirement initially to London, this book never would have existed. I would still be doing exactly what I was doing, which was 80 hours a week, 7am to 9pm. If I hadn't forced myself to take that four weeks of space…

And the rules I set during that time — the first rule was I couldn't check e-mail more than once a week. That's difficult for most people to do. If you set that as an operating rule, it forces you to streamline your workflow in ways that oftentimes have permanent benefits. You make those changes because you're taking a four-week mini-retirement, but you're creating and optimizing systems that continue to run once you come back.

Imagine you have a [merry-go-round]. When you push it, it gets faster and faster and faster, and as it starts to die down, you just give it one or two additional pushes and it regains all of its speed. But if you let it go down to where it stops again, it takes an amazing amount of effort to restart. There's a lot of momentum involved. The mini-retirement provides that one push required to maintain the momentum of a high-performance workflow, which is one of the main objectives of the four-hour workweek.

When people think of retirement, they sometimes lose sight of the fact that there are immediate, short-term, intermediate, and long-term uses of capital. I don't think you necessarily have to sacrifice — in fact, I think you can very much optimize — your experience in a macro-retirement, if you want to pursue that, by taking different options and test-driving them during mini-retirements.

Get a bit of dress-rehearsal time so that when macro-retirement does become a viable option, you've really streamlined alternative activities, you've cultivated your ability to fill the void when you remove work and the office, so that you're actually prepared for it. Most people don't think about preparing for retirement, but filling that void is much more difficult than people recognize.

 

In the next installment of this interview, Ferriss walks us through the process of setting up a mini-retirement. Look for that conversation early next week.

Timothy Ferriss, nominated as one of Fast Company's “Most Innovative Business People of 2007,” is author of the #1 New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and BusinessWeek bestseller, The 4-Hour Workweek.

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JerichoHill
JerichoHill
12 years ago

A great point is made at the end of this article. Most retirees do not prepare mentally for retirement. I can see where a mini-retirement can help with this. On my last vacation, my wife and I had no internet capability on our cruise ship. We chose not to pay for it, just as we didn’t pay for unlimited soda either (tea, fruit juices, were already free). 10 days of quiet and disconnect from the worldwide leash put alot into perspective. I also agree with Tim about the compromise between work reward and work stress. I think that idea isn’t… Read more »

April
April
12 years ago

I loved Tim’s book. I’m still trying to figure out how to incorporate this into my life (I’ve got a 9-to-5, technically a 7:30-4:30). I don’t mind my job most days because it’s a nonprofit with awesome benefits and great coworkers, but I want to telecommute a couple of days a week, and, according to those who have been here much longer, historically that idea has been shot down in my department (not directly, they just keep saying they’re “thinking” about it and nothing ever happens). I also want to take mini-retirements. I can’t wait to hear more about how… Read more »

JM
JM
12 years ago

Hmmm, what’s the difference between a mini-retirement and vacation?

4 weeks seems like it’d be a vacation. Over 6 months seems like a mini-retirement or a sabatical.

Frugal Dad
Frugal Dad
12 years ago

The 4-Hour Workweek is one of my favorite books because it breaks so many of the “rules” we impose on ourselves, both personally and as a society. I remember working with a large Fortune 500 client that had offices in California. Their employees were required to take sabbaticals – 6 weeks every five years. At the time I thought that was crazy, and unheard of in my industry, and certainaly at my employer. After talking with someone who just returned from a sabbatical my opinion was changed. He told me he took the wife and kids on a two-week vacation… Read more »

The Financial Philosopher
The Financial Philosopher
12 years ago

The paradox of retirement is that we kill ourselves to live; we live on less to have more; and we work hard for most of our lives so we can work less for what life we have remaining. We must define retirement for ourselves, rather than follow social convention, which tells us we need save enough money to provide 80% of pre-retirement income, adjusted for inflation. Why does it have to be that way? I believe retirement is “getting paid to do something you would do for free” and “doing what we want, when we want, within reason.” Our investments… Read more »

Heidi
Heidi
12 years ago

I’m with JM, 4 weeks just sounds like a vacation. But I’m probably missing something that folks who have read the book understand. Mental note: Check 4 hour work week out from the library!

Thanks for another great post, JD!

Greg
Greg
12 years ago

This is revolutionary, vacations have been renamed “mini-retirement”! (Is there any substantial difference?) Seriously though, I completely agree that we shouldn’t be so tied to our work that we can’t take some time off and actually enjoy life.

B Smith @ Wealth and Wisdom
B Smith @ Wealth and Wisdom
12 years ago

JD-Love the post. Tim’s book opened my eyes. By itself it wasn’t a complete answer but it fit perfectly with the life we are trying to create. I think people misunderstand the premise of the book. Often it is due to their preconceptions. Often it is because the truth in his writing strikes a nerve. His philosophy also flies in the face of many personal development gurus. They preach Pareto’s Law (the 80/20 principle) to increase output. Work harder, smarter, and longer. Arrive early. Stay late. Work with focus. They miss the point that you can also apply it to… Read more »

J.D.
J.D.
12 years ago

The differences between a “mini-retirement” and a vacation or sabbatical are subtle, and in some ways purely semantic. However, I think it’s possible to draw a clear distinction. Mini-retirements are long (one to six months) periods of time spent in one location, living not as a tourist, but as a part of the culture, just as you might if you were actually retired to a location. Ferriss says that sabbaticals are one-time events, whereas mini-retirements ought to be taken on a regular basis. Again, I think much of the difference is semantic, but I don’t think it matters. They key… Read more »

Kevin
Kevin
12 years ago

I’d be afraid that a half-year mini-retirement would kill any remaining motivation to go back to work. Does the book address this topic? How does one sit back down in a cubicle and focus after spending 6 months swimming with dolphins and meditating in Shaolin temples? Wouldn’t you be preoccupied with thoughts of, “this sucks, how can I bail out of this rat race and get back to the dolphins while I’m still young enough to enjoy it?” Also, it seemed like he completely dodged your question about missing out on compound interest returns. He seemed to imply that the… Read more »

Tom
Tom
12 years ago

I enjoyed the book and your interview with Tim. I look forward to the next two posts.

If you think about it, most of us grew up with a summer break from school. Why not adopt something like this in the workplace.

I also like what Tim writes about reducing clutter in our lives. It not only wastes our money but it wastes our time.

Ryan Whiteside
Ryan Whiteside
12 years ago

Great article. I’m a big fan of the 4 Hour Workweek and the philosophy that Timothy Ferriss provides. It’s important to think about the future but it’s also important to capitalize on what you have today. It’s a balanced mix that Tim answers very clearly.

Momma @ Tales From The Road Less Traveled
Momma @ Tales From The Road Less Traveled
12 years ago

What a great interview! The more I read about Timothy Ferriss, the more convinced I am that I must head to the library and pick up that book.

Joel Falconer
Joel Falconer
12 years ago

I often wonder if I’m a little bit strange in that I don’t desire to take off into some obscure part of the world for months, and when I do travel I like to visit friends and family in other cities for maybe two weeks.

A good mini-retirement for me would be to stay in my own city, but ditch work and engross myself in a new interest or project, like writing a book or recording an album, and not come out of the rabbit hole til I’m done.

Is it whacked not to have the travelling bug? 😉

April
April
12 years ago

@Joel–Yeah, you’re strange. 🙂 I kid. You don’t have to use the time to travel, but a lot of people want to do that, so it gets used as an example. In the book, he also says he’ll take off time to study something that interests him with 100 percent focus. The main message is to design your own lifestyle, or at least that’s what I got out of it.

I think mini-retirement basically means taking more than two weeks. Some people take a month, some take a year.

plonkee
plonkee
12 years ago

I think that I would love to do mini-retirements. But I also love to travel, and I need (and like) to work. Too many possibilities and not enough time.

Of course, I don’t suffer from a lack of vacation time, this year I’ve got two short breaks planned, one longer trip to Egypt, have spent a week just doing DIY and still have enough leave left to take a random day off every month. Perhaps that’s good enough for me this year.

plonkee
plonkee
12 years ago

By the way, if you ever do want to experience life in Dorchester, a friend of mine grew up there, and I’m sure they could provide some suggestions.

kick_push
kick_push
12 years ago

hmmmmmmm.. i actually had an opportunity to take a “mini retirement” during the beginning of the year

my company was offering an early buyout (25k plus 4 months pay).. i could have taken a few months off to travel and exlore what other options i had.. sometimes i regret not taking the offer.. being 30, single, no kids, no debt, this might have been the only chance for me to do it

oh well.. i’m still doing fine regardless.. and i’m never going to stop “exploring” my options.. no matter which road i choose

Jesse Hines
Jesse Hines
12 years ago

This quote from Tim in the interview is why I love reading his stuff:

“First of all, it’s important to recognize the tendency in every human to create false dichotomies, meaning they say, ‘You can have either A or B,’ and not recognizing that there are often many options between those two and elsewhere. There’s usually a C option.”

Finding and employing that C option is often the key to freedom.

Thanks for this post, J.D.

Amy
Amy
12 years ago

JD, thanks for doing the interview. I’ve read the book, and I must say it’s very inspiring. I like the “you can have your cake and eat it too” philosophy. (Who wouldn’t?) It’s nice to see examples of people actually living it.

James
James
12 years ago

After reading the 4HWW the interesting characteristics of the mini-retirement that I could see were: 1. Because you can settle more in a place you live at a much lower cost per day than a typical vacation. Tim mentions something like 4 days in a hotel being roughly equivalent to a month renting a nice apartment. When thought of like this, a 3 month mini-retirement is more affordable than thinking of a 3 month vacation. 2. You live the lifestyle you want to live. Spending days running around seeing all the sights in a limited time is not the way… Read more »

zach @ Pennywise
zach @ Pennywise
12 years ago

I haven’t yet read the 4 hour workweek, but the mini-retirement sounds to me like the 3-4 week vacations of Europe. . .

Saving For Success
Saving For Success
12 years ago

I like Tim’s “mini-retirement” idea as an occasional tool to bring a balance between the pressures of work and stress if you have the freedom to be able to do so. For me personally the traditional way to retire is what I’m planning for and is my philosophy. I have many ideas of where and how I plan to live my retired life.

I do have the “4 Hour Workweek” down to read on my list. I love getting new insight.

Chris
Chris
12 years ago

I’m surprised so many people like this.

I work in the tech industry, and even a week away from a computer and I’m missing out on important stuff that’s happening (new security threats, new ideas, etc).

What I do aside, I’m allowed 3 weeks of vacation a year. If I take a 1 month vacation when I come back, I’m looking for a new job.

So to recap, I’m behind in what has been going on since I’ve left (although not much) and jobless. Sounds like I’d be starting from square one every couple of years.

Lo. Price
Lo. Price
12 years ago

I second what Zach (22) said above. Sounds a lot like the European approach to vacation, which would probably work better than our current (American approach), which is to say, don’t take much. I’ve always read that while Europeans on average work fewer days than Americans (with more vacations), they are more productive with the days that they do work.

HollyP
HollyP
12 years ago

Hmmm. This is one of those books whose title makes it sound like a scam, but seems like it will be a good book. Guess I’ll be hitting the library too!

I’m hoping this will address the problem I’ve had: I would love to take a mini-retirement but have a sweet job that I don’t want to lose. I don’t really see my boss letting me take off for 2-3 months even if I have the vacation accrued. Though, I did take 3 months maternity leave 2x, so I know the company won’t stop functioning without me.

whipsaw
whipsaw
12 years ago

A mini-retirement could well be called a holiday if it’s only for a short period of time. What about going for the semi-retirement option whereby you work less and less hours per week as your normal retirement age draws near? That way you still retain some income until your investments are sufficient to fully retire.

TosaJen
TosaJen
12 years ago

We’re trying to set up our lives to do some of this. I’m 100% work-at-home for a corporate job, and I’m (quietly and secretly) doing some of his hour-reduction suggestions. And I could technically work anywhere. We’re trying to set up our housing to be easily “left”. One of my life goals is to take the kids around the country/the world (depends on the USD and our $$) for a year, hopefully between 3 and 5 years from now. I’d like to hear how people “jump back in” to the workforce after a year or so off — how much… Read more »

Tim
Tim
12 years ago

i was talking to a friend the other day and a colleague of his works until he has accumulated enough to max out 401k so he shows no income and to save to go to graduate school. he has 3 masters and has returned to work so he can get a 4th. talk about perpetual mini-retirements. i don’t see a difference between what is defined here as a mini-retirement and vacation or sabbatical, especially in terms of how you choose to define your vacation. the bottom line premise is that money isn’t just for saving, it is to spend as… Read more »

kick_push
kick_push
12 years ago

TosaJen Says: “I’d like to hear how people “jump back in” to the workforce after a year or so off – how much career momentum do you lose? How hard is it to get back in? Is it better to maintain a job of some sort while “mini-retired”? We’re actively looking for small businesses and contracting work we could do “on the road” as well.” ———————————– that’s one reason why i didn’t take the early buyout that was offered to me.. i had already put in 8 years and built senority at my company.. and i’m not sure how starting… Read more »

Gnashchick
Gnashchick
12 years ago

I’m doing this right now. I wouldn’t call it a mini-retirement exactly, more like a hiatus from work, or even a sabbatical.

Over the past 2 eyars, I made smart money choices, and I have enough saved to take the summer off between jobs. I will go back to work this Fall, but for right now, I’m having a lovely summer vacation!

I highly recommend taking a long vacation/mini-retirement if you can pull it off. It’s giving me a chance to re-evaluate where I am and where I want to go from here.

TosaJen
TosaJen
12 years ago

@kick_push: 13+ years here, so I hear you. Hard to bail on the work at home lifestyle and the 4+ weeks vacation/year. Golden handcuffs. I keep saying that as soon as they dispose of me, I’m taking a year off.

Aleks
Aleks
12 years ago

I’d be afraid that a half-year mini-retirement would kill any remaining motivation to go back to work. Does the book address this topic? How does one sit back down in a cubicle and focus after spending 6 months swimming with dolphins and meditating in Shaolin temples? Wouldn’t you be preoccupied with thoughts of, “this sucks, how can I bail out of this rat race and get back to the dolphins while I’m still young enough to enjoy it?” I think that’s part of the point, to get you thinking about ways to spend more time doing the things you want… Read more »

Nottheangel
Nottheangel
12 years ago

I think it depends on your job and what you want to do with your life when it comes to getting back into the work force or how hard it is. Age is also a factor, since starting over at 30 is easier than 50. My husband and I are planning to take a couple years off. I don’t really have a career and the one I’m planning for I can do from anywhere (writing). He’s thinking about changing careers also and that would be a good time to take time out. We’re also thinking about doing some volunteer work… Read more »

Miranda
Miranda
12 years ago

What a great new way of thinking. I really like the point that Tim made in the interview about us always being presented with A or B, when really it is possible to have C. We can create something else, but first we have to change the way we think about money and life.

Gerry
Gerry
12 years ago

Mini retirement is to retirement as a weekend in the Bahamas mini vacation is to a 2 week vacation. I think I retired when I turned 38 years old, 17 years ago when I stopped chasing the buck in the corporate (sales & marketing) world. Since then, 17 years, various entrepreneurial endeavors have kept me doing just fine. I’m not wealthy, I’m happy. Now for me, it’s e commerce for the past 4 years. That’s where I earn. And, I love it. For as long as I can tap a keyboard, pack and ship, I’ll enjoy a good income. I… Read more »

Kaila
Kaila
12 years ago

No comment about the article itself… but the picture of the kid on the merry go round did make me feel a little nauseous. 😀

Charlotte
Charlotte
12 years ago

TosaJen Says: “I’d like to hear how people “jump back in” to the workforce after a year or so off – how much career momentum do you lose? How hard is it to get back in? Is it better to maintain a job of some sort while “mini-retired”? We’re actively looking for small businesses and contracting work we could do “on the road” as well.” –––––––––––— My husband and I took 6 months off in 2005 to travel in Europe and Asia. We both quit our jobs. We did end the trip with visiting family all over the US (driving)… Read more »

Llama Money
Llama Money
12 years ago

I guess if you have a super in-demand degree and are extremely highly skilled in your field, this concept might work. I can’t help but think what a pain it would be to job-hunt after every mini retirement. It’s not as if an employer is going to keep you on the payroll and keep your position open for you while you’re off in the Bahamas.

Neat idea, in theory. In practice I think it fails for most.

akthe47
akthe47
12 years ago

JD, you’re awesome. You’ve just answered 2 of the biggest questions I’ve had for Tim for the longest time, but I’ve never gotten a response from him: 1) Is 4HWW anti-investment? If you’re spending money on a mini-retirement (albeit not much), you could be investing that same money in hopes to spend more money later. 2) What happens if someone took the 4HWW principles and decided to NOT be productive with their free time? Would the 4HWW principles fail? You’ve asked both insightful questions which are not addressed in the book. BIG thumbs up to you , JD, for coming… Read more »

Randall
Randall
12 years ago

A former employer decided that ‘what gets measured gets managed’ and what they wanted to manage was time. We had all these elaborate and ‘non-invasive’ ways to record and report our work time. Well, time is important for bakers and inmates, but for me? Not so much. I was a solid contributor and did good work, but I wasn’t in the office more than 35 hours a week. I sent in accurate reports, but my immediate manager massaged the data so he wouldn’t look bad. Took me two months to work up the courage to quit, but it was something… Read more »

liz
liz
12 years ago

i did my own version of this to go to school in new zealand and australia in 2005; and i caught a travel bug. i’m working now, it took me about a year to double my salary that i had when i left. and now i figure in 2010 i’ll go and live in germany or ireland for a year or so…. i’ll be young enough yet that i’ll still be able to get in on some of the live/ work/ travel programs, so i could get a visa to work over there, with minimal issues. i don’t know, i… Read more »

Jason
Jason
12 years ago

What I want to know about is how does this deal with:

1. Kids
2. Marriage
3. Mortgage

I am all for traveling and instability, in fact I revel in it, but I don’t want to spend my golden years in a state home forgotten by my children, penniless, and divorced.

Get Money
Get Money
11 years ago

@Jason

He discusses having mini-retirements with kids, marriage and (to a lesser extent) mortgage. One of the case studies he uses in the book is of a family who took 15 months off to sail around the world together.

Robb
Robb
8 years ago

this is all great stuff. i’ve implemented many of tim’s teachings tho not in the exact same manner. last year i started a lawn care business. i do what i love, being in the outdoors, and get a nice $30/hr average. i take the extra savings and take mini-retirements in far off places for a few months out of the year. while there i work part time for fun money and to get closer to the culture, which makes work even funner! i can’t stand the thought of “retiring”. who wants to work life away and then after several unfulfilling… Read more »

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