In 2004, I left Microsoft so Patty and I could homeschool our son Trevor. He was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder at age five, and when he was entering seventh grade, we decided he needed more help than his public school could offer. I was his math and science teacher for two years until he re-entered public school in ninth grade. After my homeschooling period, I decided to focus on writing and consulting, and then Patty and I started a publishing business. From that time until now, I have been regularly asked if I am “retired”. Initially, I would answer with a resounding “no” due to my opinion that retirees spend their days on the golf course or playing bridge. Over time, however, I recognized that I needed to find a better description of what I do as a profession. It’s not a choice between the golf course or the 8 to 5 grind. For me, it’s something I call sustained lifestyle.
So what is a sustained lifestyle? Here’s the definition, then we’ll unpack it:
A sustained lifestyle is when you have a high sense of accomplishment accompanied by a low degree of stress, making it something you can sustain for a long time.
Let’s talk about achievements first. It’s about doing something meaningful that achieves the desired result that brings you joy. It could be delivering a project on time, helping people in need, or training less experienced professionals. It’s about doing something you care about and seeing the fruits of your labor.
Next is stress. This is the degree of mental, physical, or emotional strain undertaken to achieve a desired result. Delivering a project on time with high-pressure executive meetings, project team infighting, and an unreasonable client is much more demanding than one with cooperative executives, project team members, and clients. The end result is a complete project, but execution was like pedaling uphill in tenth gear.
When stress and achievement are combined in the context of lifestyle, one of four outcomes is achieved:
A lifestyle of frustration is the result of a high level of stress accompanied by poor performance. Think of burning the midnight oil on projects that are canceled at the last minute or never used.
A lifestyle of boredom is the result of low stress levels accompanied by poor performance. Think about waking up every morning with nothing to do.
A lifestyle of exhaustion is the result of a high level of stress accompanied by high performance. Think of successive strategic projects with demanding clients, a dysfunctional team, and irrational management.
A sustained lifestyle is the result of a low level of stress accompanied by high performance. Consider volunteering for a cause you’re passionate about in terms of your job.
Now don’t get me wrong; I am by no means saying that a sustained lifestyle means no stress. Certainly there are things in life that come up and cause great stress. However, a sustained lifestyle gives you room to handle unexpected stress more effectively than if your stress bucket were already full.
Here are eight tips for creating a sustained lifestyle that is enjoyable and fulfilling for you:
- Run towards a calling – Creating a sustained lifestyle involves having a post-career plan to work on once you’ve left your job. The plan could be to discover your sustained lifestyle calling or, if you already know what you want to do, how to make that sustained lifestyle a reality. Painting a picture in your head of what it will look like will help you get excited about bringing it to life.
- Be clear on your decision criteria – Deciding what your sustained lifestyle looks like means being very honest with yourself about your decision criteria. Is a continuous income important or necessary? Will you need something to keep feeding your ego? Is flexibility important to say no to things? There are no right or wrong answers to the criteria, but be deliberate in defining it. This Excel-based assessment tool will help you think through your criteria using nine crucial elements of satisfaction.
- Make each day have a purpose – I have a theme for each day of the week that focuses on some aspect of my vocation; Monday is Amazon book announcement day; Tuesday is article writing day (Yes, I am writing this article on a Tuesday); Wednesday is tutoring day, etc. While I can move things around on schedule, I know what my main activities will be each day of the week.
- Agree on the guiding principles with your spouse/partner – Patty and I have several guiding principles about our sustained lifestyle, the most important being the freedom to do what we want from where we want. We like to travel and regularly take winter walks to warmer weather. We can continue publishing books and I can write no matter where we are. Having an understanding between you and your spouse/partner about what is important and what you want to protect is crucial to a sustained and happy lifestyle.
- Have at least one goal you are working towards – After my father-in-law sold his locksmith business, he pursued other hobbies that kept him growing, most notably photography. Having goals not only keeps you learning, but also satisfies the need for a sense of accomplishment.
- Responsible – I am a member of a men’s business group that meets twice a month. Three of us want to lose a few extra pounds, so we agree that before each meeting we will share our current weight. It’s amazing how much more I think about what I consume because I don’t want to report poor progress to my colleagues. Being accountable to someone else helps you focus on your goal and work harder to achieve it.
- Be aware of what stresses you – Maintaining a wide distance between achievement and stress means being honest with yourself about what stresses you and putting things in their place to keep stress to a minimum. Know your stressors and keep them under control.
- Create a comfortable space – I have a standing desk in our living room with three monitors and a big screen TV on the wall. Every morning, after I have my first cup of coffee, I go to my workstation and use it throughout the day. It’s a very comfortable setup that I enjoy and don’t mind spending time on.
Whether you’re nearing retirement age, or just thinking about it, keep the concept of a sustained lifestyle front and center. Think high performance and low stress.