Aggressive Hours Reduction: Why Every Physician Should Chase ‘Virtual Retirement’

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What is this ‘virtual retirement’? And how does one experience it?

Some guy named Leif reached out to me, offering to write up a guest post on this idea. It turns out he himself is living what he calls a virtual retirement, a life that shares many features with that of the retired life, but also keeps most of the perks of a career with fewer of the downsides.

I had just one question.

Who names their kid “Leif”?

It turns out that’s not his real name, but one he liked and chose for a pen name. You know, it actually is a pretty cool name, and when you pair it with a cool Scandinavian last name — he chose Kristjansen — it’s even more badass.

Let’s see how Leif from Five Year Fire Escape, a blog name that always puts that Fastball song in my head, approached his aggressive hours reduction and virtual retirement.

 

Aggressive Hours Reduction: Why Every Physician Should Chase ‘Virtual Retirement’

 

Let me ask you something. Do you love every day of your practice as much as the day you started?

Do you ever tell yourself you should start focusing on being a better physician by maybe taking time to read the latest research, being more present and compassionate with your patients, and heck, by taking better care of your own health?

Well, today I argue that physicians should pursue aggressive hour reduction to achieve a ‘virtual retirement’ and that physicians are amazingly well-equipped to take on this lifestyle.

Working part-time is an amazing way for everyone to improve their quality of life. (And as a bonus, it’s also a known solution to the upcoming epidemic of doctor burnout. Go you!)

 

My personal experience with part-time retirement work

 

On my path towards early retirement, I discovered that aggressively reducing my hours at my original day job was practically an early retirement lifehack by being a form of ‘virtual retirement’ (mine is supported largely through real estate investments).

My virtual retirement magically combined the benefits of retirement and the benefits of working. (And there are many non-money benefits to working, believe it or not.)

Plus, working at your original job in a minimal capacity opened up some secret retirement work benefits, such as being happy at work due to having so many days off.

And a stress-free path to retirement in knowing that I can jump back to work if I decide retirement isn’t for me.

 

What very few hours can look like

 

I completely love my virtual retirement.

I show up one day a week (two if things aren’t going well,) meet up with everyone and help out on the issues that have come up. I have limited time so I blast through a few 1-on-1 meetings and run around to the various labs to discuss issues.

Then, if I planned everything properly there just happens to be some sort of after-work meetup going on.

If I portrayed my job right, you’re probably rolling your eyes right now, thinking that there’s no way you could ever reduce your work hours to something so glorious. But you can!

 

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Physicians are the #1 candidates for aggressive hour reduction

 

I thought the same thing about my insane high-tech job, but once I committed to it, (with a lot of persistence,) I made it happen. It wasn’t easy but it was worth it.

During my adventure, I realized some professions are much more reasonable to use for a ‘virtual’ retirement than mine. Physicians are #1.

I want to educate you as to why this is a great path for physicians to follow and how you too can have a better home and work life by working less.

‘Virtual retirement’ a special skill you all have and you should seriously consider taking advantage of aggressive hour reduction as under-utilized physician perk.

 

Are you retired if you are working?

 

First, to address the white elephant in the room. Technically I suppose no, you are not retired if you work. But labels are stupid and we are aiming to make a life that works for you.

If you are doing what you like every week and can spare a day to gain the benefits of part-time work, your living situation will be amazing whether or not you want to call it ‘retirement’. I’ll call it ‘virtual retirement’ just to keep things clear.

And no, I don’t mean I’m declaring a little hour reduction as ‘virtual retirement’. 1/2 time work is still called ‘part-time.’ That’s definitely not retirement.

I progressively dropped my hours until I was happy and I ended up at 1/4 time which I think is the sweet spot. There you are pursuing your non-work life most of the week and, and visiting your workplace, somewhat like a hobby.

 

The 6 big reasons why doctors are perfect for aggressive hour reduction

 

1 – You will have time for compassion.

 

Have you ever filled a balloon so full of air that it popped in your face? Imagine your patience being that balloon. It gives out when it’s stretched too thin. Before you know it, you go from feeling thoughts of empathy or pity to feelings of resentment and dejection.

Of course! It’s such an issue in medicine it has a special name: compassion fatigue.

Most full-time doctors work long grueling shifts and hear a slew of problems from patients the whole time. That doesn’t lend itself well to stopping and smelling the roses (or long lists of ailments.)

Aggressive hour reduction removes the rush and stress and leaves some time to actually keep feeling compassion.

“I love my doctor because he ignores my health concerns and rushes me through my appointments,” said no one ever.

Your patients depend on you to help them and you’ll feel far more willing to care when you hear 1/4 the issues and are 1/4 as tired as a typical full-time physician.

And to really drive the point home, you know that you don’t want to lag behind in the latest advances to be the best doctor you can. But how will you fit in time to go to conferences or keep up with all those medical journals when you struggle to keep up with everything else?

If you were only working one or two days a week think of how excited you might be to bring back some new knowledge from a conference and use it in your practice.

Really, you’re using your time to choose where to focus your energy. And this brings me to my next point.

 

 

2 – You can focus on actually enjoying your job.

 

Think of what causes burnout. When your patience dwindles, your quality of care suffers. This might end up looking like a hostile work environment where everyone’s about to snap, or poor reviews by patients describing your impatience in painful detail, or worse – a mistake in your practice.

All of those situations would stress me out!

Is this risky path of destruction worth the extra luxury car semi-permanently sitting in your garage?

At one point in your life, you were excited to start your career as a doctor. Do you still wake up excited to get to work? What happened?

By coming into work well-rested and ready to hit the ground running, you are ready to give your patients more quality time and treatment. Staying late to hear someone’s story is way more palatable when every other day you are out hiking or playing with your kids.

 

 

If time is a problem, it’s time to look back to why you became a doctor. Does it match your reality? Has your pursuit for research, compassion or humanitarianism turned into a redundant routine of pushing patients out to live through your shift?

I’m not saying that a fat paycheck is a bad thing but it’s probably not why you chose medicine. In fact, that huge paycheck takes us to the next thing I’d like to discuss.

 

 3 – You make a lot of money per hour!

 

In 2018, the average household income in the US was $61,372. Many doctors make more than twice that amount. If a vast percentage of people can live happy and productive lives on a much lower income, do you think you can too? (Once you have paid off your incredible debt of course).

You are at an advantage in this quest towards virtual retirement because your hourly pay is so high that if you cut most of the days out of your work-week, you’ll still be making a lot of money.

Really, your $/hr is so high that you can easily live the virtual retirement dream if you avoid going into big doctor debt (I know that’s a bad doctor habit…tsk tsk). You spent a long time becoming qualified for what you do, so put that high $/hr to use and minimize those hours to maximize your happiness per hour.

 

Money is multiplied in practical value depending on the number of W’s you control in your life: what you do, when you do it, where you do it, and with whom you do it.” – Timothy Ferriss, author of “The 4-Hour Workweek.”

 

Fewer work hours allow for more time to rewind, and that takes us to another advantage of having fewer hours.

 

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4 – Long vacations!

 

Have you ever had your vacation cut short because you couldn’t juggle the shifts around like you originally wanted?

That can all change when you spend less time working. Not only will you learn to appreciate the joys of having more free time, but you can juggle your reduced shifts more easily and take some really meaty vacations.

Whatever length of vacation was possible when you worked full time is probably only half of what you can do after aggressively reducing your hours. (I assume someone will impose some limit on juggling your shifts…otherwise this would be too amazing!)

 

“When you say ‘yes’ to others, make sure you’re not saying ‘no’ to yourself.” – Paul Coehlo

 

 5 – You can keep the perks of having your job.

 

Things like healthcare and having the proper coverage in early retirement isn’t cheap. Your overwhelming work schedule may have you ready to throw in the towel on planning these things out, but this is one issue that you can solve with partial work.

Simply, you can keep a lot of perks (or pay a little bit to top them up) when you are a virtual retiree.

Another special doctor perk! Physician-only investments and RVUs! You can keep your access to those and you should because sometimes they are like striking gold.

One final ‘perk’ is that you won’t get cut off from your circle of work friends. If after-work events are a big part of your social life you don’t have to give them up with a virtual retirement.

Plus, you’ll have the time and energy left to actually go out when others want to! I know I remember I always turned down after-work events from my full-time work exhaustion.

Like I mentioned, now I show up on days that have parties just so I can join in!

 

6- You’re still an asset.

 

Oh, yes. There is a shortage of doctors and you are a good one! This gives you tremendous leverage because you are desperately needed and can help spread your knowledge. You are in the perfect position to make demands and help your industry at the same time.

You can even negotiate yourself out of doing the things you hate doing the most (this was my biggest goal when I was reducing my hours) and you can be a mentor for new physicians if that excites you.

 

Amazing! Right?

 

I think all of that sounds amazing. Virtual retirement through aggressive hour reduction was the path I chased for my early retirement and I think physicians will have an even better go at making it happen than I did.

So, everything is great and we should all go aggressively reduce our hours? Yes, but I should tell you downsides that do exist. It’s not all rainbows but these issues are all solvable.

 

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 There are a few downsides, although easy to fend off.

 

1 – Workaholism is a bear to get over.

 

You might hate not working full tilt. You’re used to it. A slower pace just seems so… slow. And then on top of that, if you still have access to full-time work you might be tempted to go back. Be strong!

The best thing you can do is ease in and slowly reduce your hours. You’ll find it helpful to dwell on how stress, poor sleep, and fatigue are all bad for your health and what you are doing now is good for your health. I meditate and work out now.

At first, I felt a little like it was a waste of time. Now I couldn’t imagine living without it.

I also slowly transitioned from full time to virtual retirement. If you have a way to break up your hour reductions, use it to your advantage.

Worst case scenario you can take an hour reduction break at ‘only’ a few removed shifts while you adjust to your new free life.

 

 2 – Your fellow colleagues get green with envy.

 

I’ll keep this one short and sweet.

The haters are going to hate, but remember that they are also burnt out from working seven twelve-hour shifts in a row. It is nothing to take personally.

Don’t rub it in their faces and you can keep it positive by using it as an opportunity to educate them.

 

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3 – You will indeed have less money.

Having less money isn’t that bad. You make plenty and having more doesn’t make you happier.

I like to look at having less income as a challenge, and who doesn’t love a good challenge? To me, finding new ways to get something done at a lower cost or cutting out frivolous spending is like discovering a whole new world. I don’t always go cheap but I do always try. (I bet you love a challenge too.)

By the way, this might be a good time to ask yourself if you’re trying to keep up with the Joneses. Well, the Joneses are more focused on the Joneses. (And possibly, the Joneses are trying to keep up with you.)

 

What about Dr. PoF??? Do I think he’s nuts?

 

Yes. He’s nuts! For a lot of reasons but not for quitting physician work. He’s running a half marathon! I’m tired just thinking about that much running.

I am jealous of all physicians’ abilities to make these great lives for themselves but he basically had two jobs. Medicine and blogging.

He chose blogging about medicine/finances which is basically a virtual retirement in my eyes. He has co-workers, some perks, job enjoyment, easy vacations, all while staying attached to his medical roots.

He would be nuts if he stopped both jobs or took both of them back up again after tasting this sweet sweet freedom.

 

 

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And how about you? What do you think of an aggressive hour reduction, and what would be your first step to making it happen? I’d love to hear from you on TwitterFacebook, or over at my blog – FiveYearFIREescape.com.

 

28 thoughts on “Aggressive Hours Reduction: Why Every Physician Should Chase ‘Virtual Retirement’”

  1. The biggest problem I had with full retirement was my days were so less structured and filled that I felt a bit adrift. I had to feed the horses AM and PM, but in between was NOTHING PRESSING. I used to dash from farm to full time job, work till 8pm, then dash back home to farm and do night chores, then collapse on the sofa. No free time at all.

    I started out with lots of mojo to work on home projects, then totally lost that when the Florida summer hit, and instead enjoyed a lot of afternoons hanging out with friends. Even took an afternoon nap or three, which is something I never do unless I feel terrible.

    So definitely figure out what you want to do with all that free time, and start scheduling the fun days. Enjoy the slower pace, and be grateful you’re not just frenetically dashing from one thing to another anymore.

    Reply
    • This might be the biggest reason to work part-time and then 1/4 time – it gives you the ability to pursue your hobbies and learn other skills before a “full retirement.” I agree, if you have nothing to do all day that would be terrible and boring. But if you’ve created a full life outside of medicine including great friends, recreation and hobbies, that will never be a problem!

      Reply
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  3. I totally agree that working a few clinical hours can be a wonderful way to add meaning/joy to “retirement.” I like to use my specific skills to help people. I like to interact with colleagues who get me. I like to have variety in my week.

    Financial Independence is really important because it gives flexibility. When I go in to work knowing I am there only because I want to be, I enjoy myself so much more. And when something comes along like Covid 19, and I prefer to take an six month or longer “family retreat” with my husband and kids, I can just make a quick call to change gears without giving a second thought to the loss of income.

    Reply
  4. Not every specialty is able to do this. For example in primary care you need someone to cover the days you are not there. Haters gonna hate true, but Haters might be right to hate if you are expecting too much from your partners. You need to be really good about tying up loose ends and offering to help them out as much as possible. Even then I can see resentment brewing.

    Support staff? What are they doing on your days off?

    Expenses. Rent needs to be paid. Lights need to stay on. If you are working 1 day a week are you even covering your overhead?

    Health insurance. Are many organizations willing to provide health insurance for the very part time worker?

    I imagine a lot of other specialties and practice models that would have similar issues. Basically any clinic based specialty.

    I can imagine issues with surgeons as well but not my field so I will let that be.

    But for those who have shift work jobs (ER, Hospitialist, Anesthesia) and practice models that allow them to scale down you made some good points.

    Reply
    • Many good points, Lordosis. The best way to make it work in primary care is to be the locum covering the days when the regular doc is not there, rather than the practice owner or partner. DPC models can allow you to work a lot less with little overhead, as well. Urgent care as a 1099… there are some outside the box options for just about everyone.

      Cheers!
      -PoF

      Reply
      • Lol if PoF could have told you that, he’d have a business consulting physicians on how to FIRE and work 1/4th of your time with investment property investing

        Reply
    • It’s true. It is easier for some fields and shift work makes for an easier path. I was a topic expert which made my path harder at my company. I wish all jobs were easy to take to a virtual retirement. 🙁

      Some fields like education also have a decent time of it since they at least all share the same educational background which is very untrue in tech.

      For clinics:
      The clinic I go to has many (5?) practitioners in it and they have some sort of rotation. They are off teaching or in hospitals other days, not sunbathing (or at least that’s what they tell me) 😛
      So there is some sort of precedent there?

      Reply
  5. I know doctors in all kinds of specialties who work very few hours and are paid in the top 10%
    I have been one of those throughout most of my career. It isn’t easy to pull off, but it is worth aspiring to.
    The idea isn’t really new either. Bertrand Russell wrote an essay about “life-long semi-retirement.”

    Reply
      • Poor Doc,
        I love the name!

        I have been in practice for over 20 years and have worked in three different practices. So it is a long story. I have my own blog that may be of interest and you can reach out to me there with specific questions.

        But I have worked in private practice, academia, and as a salaried employee for a non-profit. Any career trajectory can work. One can work 3-4 days a week and earn at the top levels. Now I have enough income streams that I could cut back or drop work and be fine.

        You can do the same. Keep learning and growing. You are already reading PoF so you should do fine!

        Reply
        • Thank you so much Wealthy Doc for getting back to me. I will definitely check out your blog first and reach out to you with questions! I look forward to connecting with you on your blog soon.

  6. During the current pandemic, our workload has been reduced by 60 – 70%.

    It’s making me think – I could get used to this! Work a couple hours in the morning, read a book, take a walk, swim. And still make enough to live on. Of course, it would be even better if health clubs and other places were open!

    I’m also very glad I have no debt and put 5 years of living expenses in a CD ladder just over a year ago. Peace of mind is priceless.

    Reply
  7. Covid has made me realize how people sort of lived before the “go-go” culture took root. Now that we don’t run the kids the kids to every event or go to every social gathering, free time is in great abundance. As a bonus my spending is down dramatically. Maybe this work like a dog paradigm is over and we can just start living without the extra noise! Starting my 3rd year of part-time and still used to work too hard. Covid has convinced me to go part-part-time.

    Reply
    • I hear you.
      I have been “part-time” for over 2 years now. But my productivity is similar to full-time doctors. I’m really wondering if it is worth it to churn, burn, and stress out. I’m glad to have a job and work (and benefits) but maybe I should be truly part-time instead of trying to do full-time work on a part-time schedule.

      Reply
  8. At age 67, when a lot of people retire, I changed specialties. I was an obstetrician and took care of a large number of women with addiction problems over the past 8 years. I took my addiction boards November 2018 and passed. I couldn’t take the busy 24 hour calls in Labor and Delivery any more and my OB department didn’t want me just doing office work. So, now I work Mondays, Tuesdays, and every other Wednesday in the addiction department and have 4-5 day weekends. I have a 20 acre tree farm and trout stream that keep me busy. Yes, I took a big pay cut, but it will give us time to get used to the reduced income before full retirement in a couple of years.

    Reply
  9. Well folks –tell ya what–keep all those part time M. D.’s away from me and my family.
    I want the ” cutting edge” Dude or Dudette who is a bit haggard and overworked. They are iin my experience the best and the brightest. Worked full time till I was 81. Did I luv it all? No!. Would I do it again? Absolutely. My last case on my last day was 4 hrs long., and suddenly it was “over”. Still miss it.
    BTW–I also managed to have an active sailing hobby–inshore and offshore, plus scuba diving , plus skiing, plus plus.
    I t ain’t the same anymore–everyone(hopefully NOT everyone) wants EASY.
    God bless you all—

    Reply
    • Dr. Fisher,

      Good for you. That is amazing to have such a long and successful career. It sounds like you also managed a good life outside of medicine.

      I’m not a big believer in retiring early. Many of my academic mentors were in there 70s and 80s. I’m grateful that they didn’t retire sooner. I learned so much from their experience.

      I’m not sure that working the most hours = the best though. I know doctors who work 80 hours or more and are stressed and angry. They jump to conclusions, don’t have time to listen carefully to histories, and never do CME above the mandatory.

      I have no intention of quitting medicine. My “part-time” work still takes about 34 hours a week for me. The rest of the time I teach medical students and residents. I take practice tests. I do extra CME to maintain three board certifications.

      In my clinic, I’m relaxed, skilled, and eager to do the work I love. I spend more time with patients because I don’t have a minimum sRVU to make a mortgage payment. I’m far from “God’s gift to medicine” but I have picked up on diagnoses that busier, stressed out, brilliant doctors missed.

      Dedication and self-improvement are important, but I’m not sure weekly work hours are the best measure of that.

      Reply
  10. As one who scaled back before actual full retirement, there is one drawback in medicine. You still have all the hours of CME, MOC, and all the hoops that various managed care entities and hospitals require. I was spending more time doing that than practicing. It was not worth the hassle.

    Reply
    • Agree with Janice. Am fully retired from Orthopedic Surgery. Don’t see it working in this discipline unless you’re employed by a HMO or large corporation and even then patients want to see YOU-not your colleague or a PA especially if a surgical complication needs repair.
      What about the Elephant in the room-Malpractice. Haven’t seen one mention of it in any of the Polly Anna comments above! Was lucky to save and am in decent position even after the big downturn. Doing research in orthopedic implants to keep busy.

      Reply
  11. FP, pushing 70 with both hands. I hit my lifetime financial goals more than 15 years ago, but I kept working 84 hour weeks till 10 years ago. I did a year of locum tenens while my non-compete decayed, then went “part time” with an FQMC. In the beginning, I had 4 day weekends and reasonable call, but mission creep set in, which wasn’t as bad as the horrid EMR. I been working locum tenens for the last 6 years. My wife and I are making fabulous memories. I took some vacation from my vacation in January, then the pandemic hit. No patient care now for 3 months and I miss it. Between Social Security and the rent my farmland produces, we could live comfortably and not draw a penny from savings or retirement. But I really miss the structure and the status of medicine. 24 hours a week would be ideal. This virus will go from pandemic to endemic, it’s not going to go away, and the first vaccines will have flaws. But I’m not ready to fully retire. I’ve been blogging for 10 years now: walkaboutdoc.wordpress.com.

    Reply
  12. I like working half day because I, am still working, which I enjoy, but I can look forward to the afternoon as being able to go to the grocery store without rushing and getting home before evening. I can pull a few weeds or just sit down for a while and put my feet up. I continue learning at my own speed .I remain in touch with the hospitals.
    Now, I am not looking forward to returning to work all day every day.

    Reply
  13. I also have concerns about coverage for my patients on my days off. I have heard of physicians who share a practice where both are part-time and cover for each other. I think this is a great idea if you can find a partner who also wants to cut back.

    Reply
  14. Retirement has been really good. Having time to daydream is a dream. It’s been over 5 years for me but my license is still valid and there’s a retirement waiver in my state. With the current pandemic raging it’s foolhardy for me at over 70 to contemplate clinical work. My family would lock me up! Compassion fatigue got me in the end. Initially my specialty was Internal Medicine but after 8 years and a Fellowship in Geriatrics there was no way to practice aside from nursing home care and research. Then I was offered a position in Palliative/Hospice. After a year my empathy was gone but I managed to slog through another 5 years. We talked a lot about self-care but no one did it. What was noticeable is that all of my colleagues had time for conferences and administrative time but my role was clinical scut work. Always the designated driver while others drank from upward mobility to the big boss jobs. And my crime? Refusing to network and do research. The location was a tertiary training hospital. So with the current situation medicine is in I’ve started thinking about telemedicine. In fact that’s what I thought this article was about which is why I read it. Maybe, just maybe it could be good for me. But more research is required.

    Reply

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