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Which is better: frequent short holidays or long breaks?

Before joining Barnaby Cecil, I worked in a role similar to an NHS emergency department. Emma and I ‘looked after’ over 150 families, and servicing them was intense. On top of that, every second of our day was quantified so we clocked in and out meticulously.

In reality, we were responding to emergencies as firefighters, putting out fires whenever and wherever we found them. During this period our only sanctuary was the prescripted 28 days a year holiday we were entitled. But they weren’t holidays because, when work is intense, you don’t switch off over 14 days, which is often the maximum single stretch of break allowed. 

In that sense, having brief 2-week stints is counterproductive because you know you’re returning to over 1,000 emails and more stress than you left behind. 

Life is very different now. Emma and I ‘look after’ around 50 families, and as we discussed recently in our annual strategy meeting at a quiet London pub, we are almost at capacity. To stay small, agile, and effective, we believe we can manage about 90% of our total client capacity without compromising service quality or risking burnout.

Emma and I meet every twelve months and spend the afternoon thinking about one question, “How can we make Barnaby Cecil better for everyone?” 

These annual sessions often trigger reflections about past plans and decisions that have led us to this point. While firefighting, my plan would have been to work flat out until my 50s and then do less stressful work. 

I recently listened to the plans of a software developer who works for a blue-chip tech firm. His workload was intense, with hours spent pacing up and down on calls dealing with one emergency after another. Reflecting on my time as a firefighter, I could relate to the intensity of his workload. To avoid the inevitable impact on his health and wellbeing, his plan is to retire at 55.

But when you are in that hyper-productive, fast-paced mindset⸺and everyone around you is as well⸺it’s hard to see how unsustainable it is. Fifty-five is young, but even at that age, your career may have already spanned 34 years. That pace, for that length of time, takes its toll. 

I encourage someone who works in that manner to think, what am I sacrificing? What will I gain from working non-stop when my children are young, and gaining more free time when they are teenagers and young adults? Or physically, will my body be able to run, or climb or do some of the things I could have done when I was younger? 

So which is better? Fast and full-on? Or steady and consistent?

Everyone is different. Like anything in life, work can be addictive. Having discussed financial plans with individuals for over twenty years, my experience is that in some jobs the level of intensity is hard to replace. Generally, shifting gears from a fast pace to nothing isn't an easy adjustment to make, particularly at age 50.  

Switching from 6 am starts, calls, emails, chaos from 8 am to 8 pm to lazy mornings, late brunches with friends and afternoon walks isn't as simple as one imagines. It's easy to see how people become irritable, restless, and bored with the slower pace. 

Instead, perhaps it's more helpful to think of the alternative as a steady, consistent approach and a career that goes deeper. There are some downsides, and I can think of three. 

Delayed enjoyment. “When I’m X, we’ll do Y.” The tragedy and risk there is that not everyone will make it to Y. 

Technological advancements. There are already some aspects of our job, usually around technology, where Emma is more nimble than me. I am beginning to find it harder to learn how new pieces of technology operate. That’s only going to increase over time. 

And finally, complacency. I do see a drive to “get out” from some individuals as a motivating factor. That has benefits because they have an end in sight. We solve complacency at Barnaby Cecil by always having simple 1, 3, 5 and 10 year goals for the company. Doing so allows us to target small margin improvements that keep the job satisfying and the company improving.  

Early retirement can offer health benefits by reducing long-term stress, but the intense work required to reach that goal can have adverse effects. Conversely, a steady work approach promotes consistent health habits but extends work-related stress over a longer period.

A blended approach, where you save aggressively while maintaining a balanced lifestyle, might offer a middle ground, allowing for flexibility and adjustments based on changing circumstances and goals. 

You may remember in 2022 I shared aspects of my WealthMap plan. One goal was to create a job I never wanted to retire from and two was to build in a six-week break every two years to spend time with Otto Barnaby and Charlie Cecil. 

That time has come around again, and this time it’s Puerto Rico. If you recall, I did something similar two years ago. Emma chose Brazil for her long break in 2023. After the addition of Joe and Debbie to the team, I leave the company in even better hands this time. 

Looking back, the longer break in 2022 was a fantastic experience and when I review my plan, slow and steady suits me, and hopefully the company too.

Image credit: iStock

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