How To Be A One Car Family

Man, time flies…

It’s been almost 4 years since I sold my old Jeep and we became a one car family.

When I did it, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I had recently read Your Money or Your Life and Early Retirement Extreme, and I think I was still caught up in the excitement of retiring early and just ready to start making major life changes. I didn’t really think things through, I just did it. Come to think of it, this is how I make most major decisions in life. It seems to be working for me so far.

Anyways, after these 4 years of being car-limited I sometimes forget how unusual a lifestyle this is compared to other folks living the average suburban lifestyle. But this morning as I rode to the library to write this article, I was once again reminded.  I’d stopped at a red-light, looked over to the car beside me, and saw a middle-aged man staring angrily into his smart phone.  In the next lane over, a 20-something girl was also checking her smart phone. I selfishly smiled, as I breathed in a deep breathe of the fresh September air.

As I stood at the red light straddling my bicycle, I was reminded of a time a few years ago when I was taking a motorcycle safety class.  The instructor was gloriously describing the freedom and thrill of the open rode on a motorcycle. And I remember distinctly as he described a scenario where he had stopped at a red light next to a man and woman sitting in their car.  And how he had observed the man in the car look over and just stare at his motorcycle, lustful for the enviable feeling of freedom that a motorcycle provides, a feeling that he suspected the guy’s wife wouldn’t let him have (poor sap).  And my instructor, breathing the unconditioned air of the open rode, rev’d the throttle and smiled at the envious man. And he just gave the man a look that says, “I know you want this life.”

And so here I am on my bicycle, unplugged from smartphones and unhindered by the dependency of a motor.  My legs relaxed, but ready to work again.  My lungs open, my heart beating mildly.  My mind free from worries and my soul at rest, just happy to be in that moment. I looked again at the middle aged man who was angry at his smart phone, and I wanted to give him that same look my instructor described to me, the one that says “I know you want this life.”  Except my look would be just a tad different.  It would say, “I know you want this life, even though you don’t know it yet.  And the shame is, you can easily have it.”  But I couldn’t give him that look, because his eyes remained buried in his digital life, despite his clear look of frustration with whatever it was that he was looking at.

Of all the discussions I have in real life, as well as emails I get from this blog, a common and consistent message from people is that they wish they could ride a bike around town like me, but….  And then they insert their many reasons why it isn’t possible for them.

But here’s the thing: I’m lucky with so many aspects of my life, opportunities I’ve been given and situations I’ve stumbled into.  Despite working very hard, I will admit that much of my success and my ability to retire this early is total luck and circumstance. But my ability to bike as my primary and nearly-sole form of transportation is not one of these “lucky” situations.  It’s a situation I prioritized, planned for, and created.  And it’s something most people could do too, if they really wanted it.  There are just a few simple steps that’ll get you out of the constraints of that motor-powered metal box, and onto the two-wheeled ticket to freedom.

How A Family Can Live A Normal Life With A Single Car

The purpose of this post is to show how any family can become a one car family, and also explain why it’s so great. To some, it may look impossible. To others, it may look very easy. But in my experience, both groups would be wrong.

It’s not impossible, but if you don’t plan correctly, it could also result in a lot of unnecessary spousal arguments (at least it did for me!). So without further ado, here’s how you can also become a one car family…

The 90% Commitment

The first, and most important step to becoming a single-car family is what I will call the 90% commitment.  This is where one of the two adults in the family makes a commitment to accomplish 90% or more of their transportation needs without a car.  This can generally be accomplished through biking, walking, or public transit. In my case it’s almost entirely biking.

Most of the tips below will describe how to address the other 10% where biking, walking, or public transit aren’t possible for a variety of reasons.  Some of these tips are easy and convenient, others not so much. And it’s because of the occasional inconvenience that the 90% commitment is so important. It’s not so bad to work around the inconveniences of having a single car on occasion, just a few times per month.  But if it’s a few times per week, it will lead to fights over who gets the car when, and ultimately will lead to going back to being a 2-car family.  I know this, because my wife and I had some rocky moments in the first year.  Now, however, it’s mostly smooth sailing.

In our case, I was the one that made the 90% commitment.  This only made sense, since I was the one going to work 5 days a week, while my wife had 2 kids to haul to school, gym, swimming class, and ballet lessons.

In order to accomplish the 90%, my wife and I determined the places we most often would go to.  For me, it was my office, the grocery store, the gym, the library, and the coffee shop.  In fact, these 5 places made up about 95% of all of my travel destinations in a normal week – often 100%.  So when we moved to Colorado, we chose a location that was central to all these places.  My house is 3.5, 1, 3, 1.5, and 0.5 miles away from these places, respectively. Which means I can bike or walk to any of them without a sweat, even at 7000 feet altitude and on the hilly front range of the Rockies.  Year round, no problem.

Once the 90% commitment is met, and in my case it’s almost entirely biking, there are many other ways to fulfill the other 10% of transportation needs. I’ll describe them below.

Walking

I love to bike everywhere, but sometimes biking is just inconvenient or even dangerous.  For example, when there’s snow and ice on the roads, I really don’t want to share the road with cars that could slide right into me.  I also don’t want to get my chain dirty with mud and slush if I know that the warm sun will be melting all the snow and muck the next day.  I don’t mind cleaning my bike, but I also don’t want to spend a ton of money on chain oil and degreaser for one or two days of biking before the weather gets nice again.  The same is true for riding in the rain, although I do enjoy that on occasion.

In the case of heavy snow, my first contingency plan is to walk.  Even my farthest destination, my office, was only 3.5 miles (fortunately, I don’t need to go there anymore).  With 6 inches of unpacked snow, I’m still able to easily make that trek in less than an hour.  This may seem like a long time to some, but considering that it’s only during rare weather situations, it really has no long term impact on my schedule.

And besides, who doesn’t like a cold, quiet walk through the snow? By walking, I’m able to take some paths away from the main road, allowing me some peaceful time to practice walking meditation on my way to work.

Sharing The Car By Planning Ahead

When dealing with a single automobile, I can’t stress how important it is to plan ahead when you know you’ll need the car.  It’s especially important that the person who made the 90% commitment plans ahead, since they should assume that the car may not be available when they need it.

It’s pretty easy on a normal work day.  You know where you’re going, and it should be accessible by foot, bike, or public transit.  It’s the other days that get more complicated.  For example, maybe you’re setting up a doctor appointment downtown, and it’s too difficult to get there without a car.  Or perhaps you need to make a run to a nursery to pick up some compost, you can get there but it’ll be pretty tough to bring it all home by bike.  This is where planning ahead is so important.

In my case, I make sure I communicate any needs for the car well in advance.  If I’m setting up an appointment, I’ll check with my wife first to make sure she doesn’t already have plans to use the car.  And obviously I wouldn’t set up the appointment at the same time that I know she’ll be taking the kids to school, sports, etc.

Now that I’m not working and my schedule is much more open, we’ve started a calendar that we hang up in the kitchen.  On here, my wife keeps track of all her commitments as well as the kids activities.  This way I have a general idea of when the car will be available.  Even with that, I’ll still check with her if I know I’ll need the car, just to proactively avoid any contention that’s bound to occur when trying to share our limited resource.

It sounds obvious, but before we took this simple step of improving our communication, I found that we had completely avoidable arguments about using the car.  Usually because I made some last minute plans to do something, only to realize I would need to change it because my wife had also made plans.

Getting Dropped Off (sometimes very early)

Another option when both adults need the car is for one person to be dropped off early.  This requires patience and flexibility, but it’s definitely a good option in some cases.

Recently, I had an appointment several miles away and the weather was terrible.  My wife needed the car about an hour before my appointment, so there was no way I could take it.  After some pondering, I realized there was a very simple option: she could drop me off early and I could sit and wait for an hour at the location of my appointment.

Like many of the other “solutions” I’m proposing here, this sounds obvious. But when you’re first getting used to having a single car, it can be a stressful and irrational time – making it more difficult to reach such a commonsense solution.

So she dropped me off early, I sat for an hour of quiet leisure, and then attended my appointment.  This, by the way, was before I’d quit my job so it’s not like I had all the free time that I have now.  It was a little stressful to sit and wait for an hour, but it turned out fine. And when my appointment was done, she picked me up and took me home.

Borrowing A Friend’s Vehicle

Borrowing others’ cars is a tricky proposition for me.  My friends are always happy to help, but at the same time I’m conflicted because I don’t want to come across as a moocher – particularly since my lack of a second car is what’s allowed me to have a more laid back life than the friends I’m borrowing from.  For this reason, I don’t make a habit of borrowing cars but I will occasionally borrow a truck if I need to haul something large.  This is convenient, since just about every friend I have in Colorado drives a truck anyways.

Several months ago, my wife and I bought a new furniture set for our family room.  Our car at the time was a Subaru Outback, making it impossible to bring the furniture home.  Delivery was an option, but it was going to cost $150.  Although that’s still far less expensive than having a second car or truck sitting around, I didn’t want to pay it.  So I asked a friend of mine who had a truck, and he happily offered not only to let me borrow his truck, but he also volunteered to come with me and help load and unload the furniture.  Our wives and kids are also friends, so we had their whole family over, bought some pizza, and had an enjoyable evening with them. In this case, not only did we get our transportation needs met, we turned it into a fine social interaction.

In another instance where I needed to borrow a truck for an hour to pick up a new mattress, I emailed 3 of my friends with trucks and said that the first person that lent me their truck would get a 6-pack of the beer of their choice.  Not surprisingly, it took 5 minutes for me to get 3 positive replies.

The point here is, I recommend that if you borrow a car from a friend that you try to make it a winning experience for everyone involved.

Renting

In the past three and a half years that we’ve lived in Colorado, I’ve experienced exactly two times where my wife and I really wanted a second car for an entire day.  In both cases my wife was leaving town for the day (and therefore needed a car), and I simply didn’t want to be stuck in the house with my kids, unable to get to any good parks or the library by foot (my son and I could get to those places, but my 4 year old daughter is still a little too young to travel the paths necessary to get there).

In the first case, we found a car on Relay Rides for $20.  The guy we borrowed it from even offered to drop the car off at our house the night before.  It was perfect.

The second case was similar, but seeing that Relay Rides doesn’t have a great selection of cars in Colorado Springs, we weren’t able to find a good cheap car that time.  After looking around, we found a great deal using usave.com.  In fact, we were able to borrow a brand new car for just $25 that day.

Using A Home Depot Truck

The final option we have used in the past 4 years is reserved for when I have large items purchased from Home Depot where I can’t bring it home with our family car. The solution for this is easy, rent their truck for $25 (first 75 minutes). In my case, I can easily make multiple trips back and forth if I need to in 75 minutes, since Home Depot is only 2 miles away.

Cost Savings

Some of you might be wondering why I would jump through all these hoops to be a single car family, especially since many of the options I listed above cost money.

Well, the answer is simple – the financial savings are huge.

I’ve seen a lot of people set goals like “I’m going to bike to work at least 2 days per week” or some other similar goals, and I think that’s great. They will save a bit of gas money, put a few less miles on their car, and experience the health benefits of riding a bike. All good things.

But let’s be honest about the financial savings, it’s not much. The real cost of the car goes way past the gas and mileage – it’s everything else that adds up. The initial purchase price, depreciation, maintenance, insurance, registration, and interest (if not paid in cash) are all costing you daily, whether you drive the car or not.

According to Consumer Reports, the median car costs $9100 per year to own, with only 24% of that going to fuel costs. The rest goes to things that will cost you whether you’re car is in your driveway or on the road. Admittedly, some things like maintenance and depreciation will be reduced as you drive less, but they don’t go to zero.

Being generous, let’s say that by buying a reliable used car and reducing your use of the second car can reduce that annual cost $9100 to $6000, or $500/month. Using the rule of 300, that would require an additional $150,000 in savings to retire. How many years does that tack on to your career before you can retire?

Health Benefits

This post is already really long, so I’ll keep this short. I get to the gym about 5 days a week, and I try to eat reasonably healthy. But even if I didn’t, by riding my bike anywhere from 5-20 miles on any given day, I will remain healthier than 90% of the US population very easily. It costs me nothing, and I enjoy it.

If ya’ll have any questions or want to throw a wrench in my strategy described above, leave them in the comments and I’ll try to help. If I can get a single person to give this one-car family thing a shot, I will have accomplished my goal.

The Lost Art of Leisure

“A plongeur is a slave, and a wasted slave, doing stupid and largely unnecessary work. He is kept at work, ultimately, because of a vague feeling that he would be dangerous if he had leisure. And educated people, who should be on his side, acquiesce in the process, because they know nothing about him and consequently are afraid of him.”
― George Orwell, Down and Out in Paris and London

“My father taught me to work, but not to love it. I never did like to work, and I don’t deny it. I’d rather read, tell stories, crack jokes, talk, laugh — anything but work.”
― Abraham Lincoln

You might have noticed that I’ve gone incommunicado the past 2 months.  I haven’t been writing, as you can see.  I haven’t been answering email, or checking in on Twitter.  I had an occasional urge to write a new post here, but that always quickly subsided and I got back to doing whatever it was that I was doing. Which usually did not involve sitting at a computer.

This new lifestyle started in mid-June, when my wife was set to leave town for about a week and I was to stay home with my 2 kids.  Right before she left, I lost my phone.  I wasn’t too worried about it, and I decided to just to replace it with a prepaid flip phone rather than another smart phone.

Then on the day she left, my laptop battery charger stopped working. She had taken her laptop, as well as our Android tablet, and so between my lost phone and uncharged laptop I found myself suddenly without internet access.

So there I was, in just a few days I went from having a normal life with all the glories and pitfalls of the imaginary leash created by smart phones and laptops – to total freedom.  A sweet, quiet, liberating detachment from the constant communication we surround ourselves with by carrying the internet in our pockets.

This had surprisingly significant effects.  When the kids would escape to the playground to play with each other, I typically would have used that moment of freedom to do something really useful like check Twitter on my phone, or read some sensationalized news article on cnn.com.  But I didn’t have my phone, so I just sat there and watched the kids.  And read books.  And sometimes just stared into space and rested my brain that hadn’t been truly rested in decades (though I hadn’t realized it until then).

When my kids did something Instagram-worthy, I had to just capture the memory in my head to tell a story later, rather than chase them around with my smartphone camera.

And after just a day or two of adjusting to this scary sound of information silence, it felt shockingly great.  I had accidentally stumbled upon a powerful realization: The increasing ease of immediate information in this technology age has created a direct attack on the art of leisure.  Even when we’re not at work, we’re working.  We’ve created non-paying jobs out of thin air.  Keeping up with the news, keeping up with our Netflix queues, taking pictures and sharing them, texting constantly, checking Twitter and Facebook…  You get the picture.

“I don’t envy “busy.” Busy means having a schedule, not living life. What I really covet is leisure and peace of mind. Those who have both, have it all.”
― Donna Lynn Hope

All of this was by chance, of course.  I didn’t plan some grand scheme of becoming disconnected and, ultimately, deeply relaxed and present and in the moment. I mean, that was a state I knew I wanted to reach, but I didn’t conceive of a plan to lose my phone and break my laptop charger to achieve it.  Nor did I realize that losing those things would be a good thing.

But there I was, disconnected and present and relaxed.  Practicing real leisure for the first time in a long time.

That was two months ago, but after that I was in no hurry to return to the busy world we live in without leisure.

We’re a culture of people checking Facebook while sitting at red lights (or worse, while driving).  People rushing from place to place, always behind and stressed.  Filling their weekends with chores and activities then complaining that they didn’t get recharged as Monday morning rolls around.  People getting anxious because they’re falling behind on their Netflix queue, or because they’ve caught up on all their shows and need to hurry and find a new one to kill time in the evening (which, I’ll argue, is not real leisure).  I’ve even recently had a discussion with a friend who was stressed about making their vacation plans.  It’s insanity!

So here’s my advice: Stop!  Be still.  Rest.  Go find a quiet spot where no cars can access and people are few and far between, and just read a fictional book that teaches you nothing, one that is only meant for entertainment.  Or, better yet, forget the book and just sit quietly with your own thoughts.  Embrace that scary sound of silence.

And it will be scary at first.

Once you’ve done this, do it again.  Increase the duration and frequency until you actually look forward to truly doing nothing.

“Leisure is only possible when we are at one with ourselves. We tend to overwork as a means of self-escape, as a way of trying to justify our existence.”
― Josef Pieper, Leisure: The Basis Of Culture

I’m sure some of you are thinking “Sure, easy for you to say BNL.  You’ve already achieved financial independence and quit your job.  You have all the time in the world now.  Have you already forgotten what it was like when you did have a job?”

No, I haven’t forgotten what it was like.  If I had, I wouldn’t be inclined to sit in front of my laptop and write this down (an activity that certainly is not leisure).  But I’ve been blessed with the opportunity to see things with a new perspective now that I’m in this early retirement, and I can see things more clearly.  And what I see is a culture of people that are so damned busy and stressed, and they don’t realize that much of the busyness and stress is self created.  Partially because it’s in our nature, but mostly because it’s scary not to be busy.  I would even go so far as to say that people are proudly addicted to their busyness, without realizing the harm they’re doing to themselves.

And after seeing all of that clearly, I realized that I was the epitome of that self-created stress, and if I could go back and give my 30 year old self any advice I would say to slow down.  Get rid of the non-essential activities, reject overly high ambitions and all the anxiety that comes with it, and enjoy each individual moment for what it is.  Proudly embrace the art of true leisure.

There’s something wonderful about finishing up a transaction at the bank, only to notice a new used book store across the street, then spending the next two hours browsing their selection completely unplanned. Or riding your bike 20 miles down an unknown trail just to see how far it goes.  Or walking 3 miles to a destination when you could have biked or driven, just because you’re in a walking mood and in no hurry.  Or listening to someone apologize for being late, and honestly responding that it’s OK because you’re not in a hurry.  I point these things out because they’re all things I did this week, while practicing my newly renewed art of leisure.

These things may not all be possible for you right now, since I’m sure most of you have jobs, kids, and other responsibilities. But if you start analyzing your time and figuring out what “responsibilities” you can start stripping out of your life, I’m sure you can all free up significant time for real leisure.  And if you do it, you won’t regret it.

“We can say without exaggeration that the present national ambition of the United States is unemployment. People live for quitting time, for weekends, for vacations, and for retirement; moreover, this ambition seems to be classless, as true in the executive suites as on the assembly lines. One works not because the work is necessary, valuable, useful to a desirable end, or because one loves to do it, but only to be able to quit – a condition that a saner time would regard as infernal, a condemnation.”
― Wendell Berry, Bringing it to the Table: Writings on Farming and Food

Bored In Retirement?  I Don’t Think So!

Bored In Retirement? I Don’t Think So!

This morning I woke at 6:30, not by an alarm clock but by the quiet lurking of my 6-year old son as he crawled into bed with my wife and me.  I rolled over, told him good morning, and just rested quietly with him next to me.

This rest I experience in the morning now is a deep rest.  Not just a physical rest used to mentally prepare for another day.  This is also a mental and emotional rest.  It’s a deep relaxation.  It’s the outcome that hard working folks seek as they leave the office at lunchtime to go to yoga class, and what many yearn for when they join meditation groups (sanghas), exercise daily, and why they drink alcohol after a long day at the office.

And so this morning, like every morning since I’ve retired, I laid there and rested. I focused on my breathing, I listened to the birds chirping outside my window, and I slowly began to awake.  Unlike when I was working, I didn’t immediately kickstart my brain into planning my day, writing a mental list of what I needed to do that day, and worrying about how I would keep up.  These days I don’t worry about my day at all, because I know the day will come to me.  And boy does it come to me.

That’s right.  Although I’m in a different and far superior mental state of relaxation, I’ve never had so much time, energy, and desire to do so much.

Most mornings, after I eventually roll out of bed, I’ll head downstairs to play with my two kids as my wife (usually) cooks up a hearty breakfast.  I sip fresh coffee as I play games, read books, or play guitar with my two kids.  This morning, we did origami together using some instructional books my kids found at the library.  And so we folded and twisted paper in our front entry room, a room where I recently replaced the nasty 20 year old carpet with a dark, clean hardwood.  I did this myself, saving a few thousand bucks with just a few days of effort.  It’s unsettling to have the floor ripped up and furniture piled up in another room while the work is in progress, but a benefit of early retirement is that time is plentiful, and so I was able to finish the flooring myself in just a few days.

After we finished reading books and eating breakfast, I grabbed the fish food and journeyed outside to my backyard aquaponics setup that I recently built (again, after I retired and found myself with so much time).  The plants are really starting to grow now, as the nutrient rich water is finding a natural ecological balance between the ammonia fish waste, the bacteria that converts ammonia to nitrates and nitrites, and the vegetable plants that feed off the nitrates and filter the water for the fish.

As I feed the fish, I think about the eCommerce store I’m beginning to research and build.  I’m reminded of it because it’ll be a store that sells aquaponic supplies and equipment for other modern gardening techniques that I believe will be the future of a decentralized, healthier, and cheaper food supply.

I’m then reminded of the stress I used to feel when I would think about starting yet another nano-business.  I smile to myself, thinking about how I used to get so terribly stressed when I had an idea for a business but I lacked the time and energy to go make it happen.  My mind would be torn, wanting badly to work a side business to fulfill what seems to be a deeply engrained entrepreneurial spirit, yet lacking the time and energy to fulfill those needs.  But not today.  Today, I’ll have the time.  But I’m also able to relax, knowing that tomorrow I’l have the time as well.  So if I have the itch this afternoon to work on it, I will.  If I don’t, then I’ll wait and reconsider it tomorrow.  I have many other things to do…

After taking care of my aquaponics, I went downstairs to my new office.  A month ago, this was an over-crowded guestroom that we barely used, except to traverse on our way to the laundry room. But with all the free time retirement has granted my wife and I, we’ve now converted it to an office for our nanobusinesses.  Soon, I’ll be building a cheap DIY murphy bed, so that our guests can still have a nice place to stay.  But that’s for another day.

In my new office, I began my work.  Last night, I built a DIY photography lightbox for $1.50 plus some materials laying around the house.  I’m using it to take picture of products that my wife and I have for one of our other nano-businesses, buying liquidation products in bulk auction and selling them for a profit on eBay. That business makes about $1000/month these days, which works out to about $100/hour considering the limited time we spend on it.  We don’t need the money, but it’s a fun activity for us after the kids are in bed – and our thought is that it’ll pay for any over-the-top discretionary expenses that we haven’t budgeted for.  That business alone could have us taking a vacation every money or two (or three, if we took a really fancy and expensive trip).

After I finished taking pictures, I went back upstairs and helped get the kids ready for a play date (yesterday was the last day of school).  Now my wife and kids are gone off to the playdate, and I’m back in the office writing this article.  It’s not quite lunchtime, and I’m already as satisfied with my day’s output as I was from any long day in an office.  Actually, much more so.

At 4:00, my son has his first ever karate practice at the YMCA.  I’m grateful that I’ll be able to go and watch some of it, even though it’s held at a time that most people are still at work.  I know that many working parents are lucky to have just one adult that can get away from their job to pick their kid up from daycare and rush them to an activity like this.  It’s not lost on me how fortunate we are that both my wife and I can be there on his first day, and in the future we can split up this task so that the other can have some more free time.

 

Life is good right now.  My passive income continues to pay for our basic necessities (and growing at a rate that should be faster than inflation), and our nano-businesses are more than capable of paying for some any luxuries we might want.  Time is plentiful, and stress is at an all-time low – which says a lot considering we have a 4 and 6 year old!  I know how fortunate I am, but I also know that my circumstance didn’t come without making some serious life changes.  The good news is, for many people reading this, it’s a life that’s possible for you if you’re wanting and willing to make similar changes.

It’s lunchtime now, so I think I’ll go upstairs and make something to eat.  After that, my kids will come home.  Maybe we’ll all go swimming.  Or maybe I’ll go outside and work on refinishing my deck.  Or work on that aquaponics website.  Or maybe I’ll just relax and read a book. It doesn’t matter, whatever I don’t do will be waiting for me tomorrow.

 

Socrates once said “Beware the barrenness of a busy life.”  I believe he was right.  I don’t lack things to do these days, but I’m not “busy.”  Most importantly, this life certainly isn’t barren.

“The Man” Is You

“The Man” Is You

If there’s a bad part about retiring early (and so far there aren’t many), it would be that I have to shift my blogging muse perspective from the negative (“here’s why it SUCKS to be stuck in an office”) to the positive (“here’s why it’s AWESOME to NOT be stuck in an office”).

But before I wrap-up that paradigm shift, I’m going to dig into the well one more time.

This is an alternative optimistic follow up to my previous post on corporations. It wasn’t my intention to be pessimistic in the last post, just honest.  But I know a few of you didn’t like it.  ;)

During my last week in the office, a coworker of mine came up to me to vent. He’d just finished a conference call with our management and one of our large customers. The project he was working on is way behind schedule, and the customer wasn’t happy. Even worse, the scope of the project was increasing without changing to the schedule.

This scope increase is a common scenario in the engineering world, and I suspect it’s pretty common in most corporate environments. I like to playfully refer to this as “planning for failure,” but unfortunately most people haven’t accepted this. Instead, they think of it as “planning for overtime.” This might not be so bad, except we’re all on salary so overtime really just means “working for free.”

Here’s the conversation as it played out:

Andy: (sighs) I just got off the phone with <insert customer>. Do you remember when we scoped out this project, and we all agreed that we would buy an off-the-shelf <insert widget>, rather than designing our own custom <insert widget>?

Me: Yeah. Why?

Andy: Well, now they want us to design and test the <widget>. That’s weeks of extra work, and we’re already way understaffed and behind schedule.

Me: That’s not good. I guess you’ll have to change the schedule and the budget.

Andy: Yeah, you’d think. But <insert manager and director> were on the call and they said we’d do it. They told <customer> we were committed to this project and that we’re willing to do whatever it takes to get back on schedule and give them what they want. They didn’t even act like it was additional work.

Me: What’s in the SoW? (This is the Statement of Work: The detailed definition of what the design teams will provide, including the scope of work, budget, and schedule)

Andy: It says that we’d buy it off the shelf.  That we’d do no design and only a small amount of integration testing.

Me: Then you’ll have to change the schedule if they want more than that.

Andy: It’s not that easy.  Our fearless leaders already agreed to it.  So the SoW doesn’t do much good if we don’t stick with it.

Me: You’re looking at it wrong. The SoW isn’t just an agreement between our two companies, it’s also an agreement between Engineering and Management.  If you accept this overtime, then you’re condoning it. And if it was a one-time thing, maybe that’s the right thing to do.  But do you think that in this case it’s the right thing to do?

Andy: No, but…

Me: Engineers are terrible, and electrical engineers are the worst.  We complain about the long hours and having no social life, and yet we constantly blame “The Man” for our situations.  The truth is, we create this environment for ourselves by always sucking it up.  If you don’t want to work nights and weekends for the next 6 months, then you need to go take the SoW to <insert manager> and tell them that this is out of scope, and that we’re not resourced to pull it off.  It’s one thing to work overtime when we screw up, or during “crunch time” on a project, but to actually plan for it is absurd.  And if you condone it, or even accept it, then you are The Man.

(end scene)

The irony is, I worked crazy long hours during the first decade of my career.  And it would be easy to call me a hypocrite now for calling someone else out now that I’m in retirement. But there’s a key difference: when I worked those long hours I actually wanted to.  I was young, energetic, and filled with ambition.  I didn’t do it because someone made me, I did it because I wanted to be the best. I wanted more money and more authority, I wanted to beat my peers and rise up the ranks faster than anyone ever has in the industry.  I never ever complained.  Like a cyclist in the Tour de France that actually pushes the pace near the top of the Col du Tourmalet, I wanted to keep working to see if I could break everyone else in the Peloton with my relentless pace.

But let’s face it, most people aren’t like this.  Instead, most people will complain under their breath, and begrudgingly suck it up. Like Andy…

For me, when the day came that I no longer wanted to work long hours (coinciding with when my son was born 6 years ago), I stopped doing it.  And you know how much my career trajectory slowed down?

None.

Not a bit.  I continued to rise up the promotional ranks, get maximum bonuses, and increased authority.  As that continued to happen, I realized something: The Man, who’s been pushing us to work more and to prioritize our work over our family, is within.  No one ever expected me to work like I did, and no one punished me when I stopped.

I realized that The Man is just a figment of our imagination who we let control us through fear.  Fear of being fired, of letting someone down, or of not getting a much-desired promotion.  Sure, there are plenty of people that will let you work your ass off: managers, customers, stockholders, and even your peers – they will all let you work harder to make their live’s easier.  But they aren’t The Man.  They can’t be The Man because they’re all busy working for their own “Man.”

What To Do About It

The power in this message is simply in recognizing the truth, that The Man is an imaginary guy in your head that holds no power over you unless you give him that power. There’s no one holding you down, no one holding a gun to your head to work so hard that you’re sacrificing your physical, mental, or emotional health.  There’s no one chaining you up and keeping you from your family. There are plenty of people that will let you believe that there’s a gun to your head if it means they get some benefit from it, but with rare exceptions there’s no one ready to fire you for not letting your career overtake your life.

In the case of my buddy Andy, I told him to try exactly what I’d done many times in the past.  I told him to take the SoW, mark it up and present it to his manager with logic and reason, and no emotion.  Explain that it was out of scope, and that he couldn’t support it without a schedule change.  I told him to explain that we write the SoW for a reason, and that we shouldn’t “plan for overtime.”

When he removed the anger and frustration from his mind and his communication to his manager, he was able to rationally explain the situation to his manager and the customer.  Ultimately, the customer prioritized the schedule and regressed back to the original scope of work, knowing that he was right.  And just that easily, The Man was emasculated.

Even now in retirement, I still love sticking it to The Man.  :)

tl;dr?  The Man doesn’t exist.  So stop blaming him, and take responsibility for your own work/life balance.