Retiring Slowly

Dear Jewish Fairy Godmother:

I’ve worked at my engineering firm for almost thirty years, starting as a mid-level
analyst and rising to a revenue-generating project director. I have seen this
company through huge cycles of change, in ownership, profitability, market
orientation, and staffing. I’m almost the last of my generation left, though there
are still two graybeards who may die at their desks. I’m in my second marriage,
and the job certainly contributed to the demise of the first.


I could retire but my wife works for our health insurance and I genuinely like what I do. So I negotiated a .25 FTE for 2018 (primarily reading project work plans and draft final reports) to see if it was possible to take a job with huge stress and frequent deadline-
imposed weekend sprints and turn it into a quasi-hobby while I develop some of
my former hobbies into avocations. I’m looking forward to making art, going to
the gym, and volunteering as a wine steward at the local jazz club. But people
don&'t seem to realize that reducing my FTE means I am not available 24/7 to
respond to emails or bail them out of crises, self-imposed or thrust upon them by
clients. It’s Monday at 9:00 (not an official workday for me) and I’ve already had
two “Helllp!!!!” calls and many more emails. Am I delusional thinking this will

Retiring Slowly

Dear Retiring Slowly:

As you suggested, this is an experiment, and like most experiments, it may fail or
give you a result different from what you hoped for or were expecting. The critical
thing you need to know is that the burden of setting boundaries will rest
exclusively with you. Your colleagues are likely beleaguered and envious, neither
of which gives them any incentive to learn new behaviors. Like any form of
behavioral change– think recovery from substance abuse– both they and you will
need different patterns reinforced.

For them, have an auto-reply for your email and a message for your voicemail
that explains your new working hours and assures them that you will reply ASAP
with emphasis on the as possible rather than the soon. A clear conversation with
each is a good way to reinforce this, reinforcing that you are quality control on the
front and back end of projects but hands-off in the middle. For yourself, every
time you think about work, or responding to work outside your new hours, put a
two-minute timer on and then unplug from that world. When it&'s over put a
ten-minute timer on and think about your new life. Repeat until you are only thinking about wife, wine, workouts, and art.