The “fog of work”

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This essay caps off the book’s first seven chapters of ways to leverage your military career & benefits for financial independence and retirement.

I wrote it after an exchange with Tomcat98 at Early-Retirement.org. We realized how often the daily grind of work gets in the way of planning, let alone recognizing new opportunities or being able to break free of the routine. One of my great personal regrets in my career is that I stayed on active duty and bulldozed all the way through to 20 instead of transferring to the Reserves at about the 12-year point. At the time I was too tired to plan and too ignorant of the opportunities that were knocking on every door around me.  Nearly a decade later, Tomcat98 was looking at a similar situation and trying to pick his best answer. While he was doing that, I was writing this:

The “fog of work”

This blog’s advice has been distilled from a dozen books and websites on lifestyle and financial management. There are literally hundreds of other books with even more detailed information, dozens of computer programs, and thousands of websites ready to walk us through every step of the planning process. The military’s pension and Tricare systems are great solutions to the retiree challenges of inflation and affordable healthcare. So why aren’t there more military retirees? Why is this so hard for so many people to accomplish?

By now you’re beginning to appreciate that the goal takes dedication, commitment, and time. However there’s another major disruption to the retirement mindset:  the “fog of work”.

You’ve probably heard of Clausewitz’s “fog of war”, or the servicemember in your family spends a lot of time dealing with it. For those who haven’t had to study military strategy, Clausewitz wrote one of the classic warfare books. One of his most famous quotes is “All action takes place … in a kind of twilight, which like a fog or moonlight, often tends to make things seem grotesque and larger than they really are.”

“The fog of work” is the perfect military metaphor for retirement!

During your working years you’re expected to strive to get ahead and to stay alert for opportunities. If you don’t act when the time is right, then you might miss a great chance to improve your life or your net worth. If you’re not happy with your current situation then you’re supposed to take a step back, calmly consider the pros and cons of change, and make a rational decision. Sounds simple, right?

But when we’re at work, most of us are focused on our, um, work. We’re not free to work on something else, either, let alone go part-time. In the rare work moments when our laser-keen focus wanders off task for a second or two, we’re just taking a mental break. It’s like recess at elementary school, with less running around. All too soon the task at hand (or our sense of duty) puts us back on the job. This routine goes on for hours!

When we’re not at work, we’re getting ready to go to work or taking care of the errands, domestic chores, or childcare that supports our work. At night when we’re slumped on the couch channel-surfing the TV we’re still watching comedies about work or thinking about what needs to be done before we’re going back to work. Even if we’re raising a family we’re training them to, um, finish school and go to work.

When we’re on vacation, we’re working at playing. We get away from the routine, have new experiences, and socialize. However it can also turn into a military mission order: Drive that highway. Fish that lake. Hike those mountains. Occupy that beach. It’s not a time for thoughtful contemplation– it’s turned into a time for going places and doing things. It goes on for a week, maybe even 30 days (Woo-hoo!) before we stop working at playing and start working at getting ready to go back to work. Woo hoo.

We’ve planned most of our life around work. We do a lot of work, whether it’s productive or not. But when do we get around to planning our life?

Let’s not kid ourselves– what we call “planning” is mostly a series of isolated short-term actions along a random walk toward a vague goal. It starts when we’re teenagers and continues through adulthood. “Dude, that college campus was so cool, I have to escape this loser high school and go there!” And then:  “Hey, I could spend the rest of my life with this person.” Or:  “Someday I’d like to raise a family.” And hopefully even:  “Hmm, no frappalatté today, I’m saving money.” “Hunh, what’s this about the TSP’s ‘lifestyle’ retirement fund?”

We’re “saving money” to buy a house or to go back to school. Meanwhile we’re thinking: “Gotta learn more about the housing market soon. And we’re going back to school someday– maybe even next year!” We “plan” to get more training and promotions so that we can earn more money while we do more work. We “contribute to our retirement accounts” so that we can retire some day. (Maybe even next decade!) But no one, not even nuclear engineers, plans our long-term budget to project the cashflow savings and its compounded growth into a specific calendar date when we’re going to start school, buy that house, and accumulate enough savings to retire. We’re lucky if we spend any of our off-work time on “long-term” planning beyond the next meal or social activity.

Perhaps the common factor in the lack of planning is a fear of money. Some people lost money in the stock market and feel that their portfolio has to recover, while others have no idea how much they spend now or how much they’ll spend in retirement. If people sat down with financial software they could put together a net worth summary and a cashflow statement. Many would be less afraid, even surprised, at the results. Yet when people determine that their retirement income is higher than their expenses, the response is “Yeah but…” followed by “What if?” or “I don’t want to have a problem with…” or even But… but… but what will I DO all day?!?

The real problem is that people rarely find the time to reflect on these life questions or their finances and almost never make the time to do anything about them. We’re too busy working. It’s hard to learn about the 4% rule, let alone read life-changing books like “Work Less, Live More” or “Your Money or Your Life“. But veterans can achieve a net worth at least double that of most retirees– even without having any idea whether they can retire!

This “fog of work” can continue for years or even decades. Maybe work is fun, maybe planning is too hard or even scary, or maybe we’re too busy with the daily minutiae to focus on the long-term picture.

But one day something clears the fog for a few minutes. Maybe you go to work for the 6473rd time and realize “Whoa, this isn’t fun anymore!” Maybe there’s no 6474th time because you’ve just been laid off. Maybe you have a health crisis or a family emergency and you’re not going to “regular” work for a while. Maybe you realize that you have no cashflow, let alone compounded growth. As the fog of work creeps back in around your ankles and wraps around your legs, you appreciate that your current strategy (if you have one) just isn’t going to carry you to victory anymore. But we’ll take care of that real soon. Whoops, the phone is ringing and there’s new e-mail. And soon the fog of work returns you to its smothering embrace…

So the long-term planning happens sporadically, randomly, and superficially– if it even happens at all. No wonder the concepts of financial management and retirement are so foreign, even frightening.

Clausewitz’ “fog of war” teaches military commanders to plan, adapt, keep moving, and re-plan. Today we observe, orient, decide, and act. However there’s never enough information at hand to fully understand the situation. There’s never enough time to figure everything out, let alone to develop a perfect plan. The longer we delay then the fewer options we’ll have (or the enemy will remove those options). The commander’s only solution is to pull their heads out of the tactical situation for a minute, stop hoping for the answer to present itself, and look at the bigger picture to see where they can go. Break free. Go there. Now.

It’s the same for the “fog of work”. People have to find a break from their daily busy-ness to learn how to become financially independent and to review their savings plans. They have to practice living retirement without trying to work (there’s that word again!) through a huge catch-up To-Do list. No traditional cross-country family vacation or painting the house or writing the Great American Novel. No aggressive new exercise program or yet another diet or one more online course. Try just “being” for a while instead of “doing”. After a two-month sabbatical, how many veterans would be interested in going back to work? If we had enough assets (and confidence) to not return to work, perhaps we’d move easily into parenting, exercising, home improvement, and rediscovering our non-work interests. We’d do whatever we wanted without having to sign a contract or make a deadline.

There’s only one solution: whisk away the fog of work. Heads will clear after a couple weeks of naps, long leisurely walks, and family discussions. Instead of worrying about “now” or “dinner” or “tomorrow’s meeting”, the focus can shift to the future and a plan for getting there. Suddenly there’s time to design a budget, to read that Bernstein book on asset allocation, and to analyze a retirement portfolio’s Monte-Carlo survival during bear markets. There’s time to read an entire Ernie Zelinski book and to finish his “Get-a-Life Tree”. Try doing those things on a Thursday night after a 12-hour work-fogged day.

Free of the fog of work, many of us would return to duty after a sabbatical and think “What a bunch of toxic waste.” Retirement planning would be promptly executed and swiftly implemented. No more random walking– just a confident stride to the nearest exit.

In a military career, a good “sabbatical” opportunity pops up during a 30-day leave or after leaving the service. It could happen after retiring from active duty, or after leaving active duty for the Reserves, or even when making a clean break from the uniform. A similar opportunity in a civilian career is after a corporate sabbatical (for the few companies that still do sabbaticals) or… a layoff.

Now that you’ve read this blog, you can find your own path to financial independence. Break free of the fog of work. Plan your financial future and check it a few times a year. Take as much leave as you can get, or find a way to carve out the contemplative time to make a plan. Figure out what you like to do, what you need to be able to do it, and when you can start. Stay alert to the alternate career opportunities around you— the Reservists who report to your command for active duty, the government employees you work with, or the civilian contractors you encounter every day. They can tell you how to make your own transition. As you travel around the world, learn how other cultures view work and retirement. Learn how people in other countries balance living and working. Ask how you can apply the things you see and learn to your situation. Stay in touch with shipmates who’ve made the transition to civilian careers or retirement, and ask for their help in developing your own plan.

Let’s say that again: Break free of the fog of work. Make a plan, and then execute it.

Related articles:
The biggest obstacles confronting all retirees
The biggest benefits of a military retirement
Financial myths of retirement (part 1 of 2)
Financial myths of retirement (part 2 of 2)
Myths of military retirement and early retirement

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WHAT I DO: I help you reach financial independence. For free. I retired in 2002 after 20 years in the Navy's submarine force. I wrote "The Military Guide to Financial Independence and Retirement" to share the stories of over 50 other financially independent servicemembers, veterans, and families. All of my writing revenue is donated to military-friendly charities.

14 Comments
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    Taking a Gap Year | Living a FI August 24, 2015 at 5:30 AM

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  13. Reply
    Doug Nordman January 6, 2011 at 10:29 AM

    I wonder if it ever really goes away while we’re working.

    The only solutions seem to be a few weeks’ leave of doing absolutely nothing… and of course terminal leave!

  14. Reply
    Tomcat98 January 6, 2011 at 10:09 AM

    Your post couldn’t have been more timely. I remember having this discussion a few months ago. However, unfortunately I let the “Fog” role back in on me and despirately need clear skies ahead to think. I just finished the Holiday Season break and it was so fast paced that I had not time to contemplate the “bigger” picture. And now it is back to the grind with more things than ever piling on. It would be nice to hit the pause button for a few weeks! I wonder how others handle this situation?

    Tomcat98

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