Some Changes at Time Goes By

Finding One's Own Kind of Retirement

A month or so ago, I received an email from long-time TGB reader James Wallace Harris who blogs at Auxiliary Memory. He has been retired for awhile now and is feeling restless from what might be too much unaccustomed freedom:

”Doing whatever I want, when I want, is like a habit forming drug,” wrote Jim. “Want to kick back and listen to Van Morrison for two hours – cool. Want to watch the Oklahoma Kid, a western from 1939, sure, why not. Want to put off lunch until 2:30 to keep reading my science fiction novel, that’s a-okay...

“The trouble is, I’m writing less, letting the house go, ignoring things on my to-do list, and losing all sense of discipline.

“I don’t know if this is because I’ve gone eighteen months without working, or because I gave up junk food January 1st, and don’t have enough brain fuel to keep me energized. However, I don’t want to get a job just to force a routine on myself.”

Jim also mentions that some tell him he is going through a well-known phase of retirement and he wonders, he says, if some older people with more experience can help him work this out (as he notes, I am 10 years older than he is).

First, let's look at that notion of “well-known phase.” There are plenty of so-called retirement experts who will tell you this is true. They will especially tell you this for a good-sized fee that might include email or telephone “retirement coaching” sessions.

(I've done the calculations and discovered that there are precisely the same number of retirement coaches as there are people who tried and failed real estate sales in retirement.)

Okay, that's my personal prejudice – stages of life, including retirement. That's way too neat and tidy to be human and from the people I've known over years, few fit into the pigeon-hole categories pop psychology books like to lay out for us.

Even as we share some similar experiences, there are so many variables in our backgrounds, sensibilities, habits and personalities – moreso in old age than when younger - we can't be reduced to pre-digested ranks and classifications.

What I mean is that Jim is asking really hard questions for which there are no easy answers. There is not even a Chinese menu list with items to choose from columns A, B and C.

The fact is, one person's schedule is another's freedom. Some crave structure, others abandon it altogether and follow their whims each day. Undoubtedly, most of us fall somewhere in a spectrum between the extremes.

I understand completely how Jim has fallen into a kind of sloth (if he doesn't mind that description). I've been there.

It is my habit, after feeding the cat first thing in the morning, to read the news online and answer overnight emails with my coffee. Early on after I retired, that period gradually expanded from a couple of hours until I found myself still at the computer in my granny gown at noon and beyond.

Finally a day arrived when I saw what I had become and I was appalled with myself. After all, if you make it past noon without showering, why bother at all? And if it seems too much work by early afternoon to dress – well, there must be an old can of tuna in the cupboard that can work for dinner.

(As I write this, Jim, it strikes me now that structure or lack thereof is only one kind of issue people confront when we no longer owe most of our time to the company store. I've known plenty of people who happily cruise into retirement without a backward look or thought.

Me? I discovered that I need to impose structure on myself or it all goes to hell.

Seven or eight years have passed since I pissed away half of every day and now it is my habit to be washed and brushed and fed by 7:30 or 8AM, a schedule that includes plenty of time for the news, email, exercise and meditation that prepare me for the rest of the day.

On the other hand, there must be plenty of people who are completely relaxed about sitting around in their pajamas for many hours. If they are not bothered by it as I was, it's not a problem as far as I can see.

This blog takes up a large part of my time and I like it that way. Many elders volunteer, some work at paid jobs and others have one or more interests in their lives, as ageing is for me, that are so compelling there is no question where they will put their energy.

And that brings me back to where I started. There is no objective answer to Jim's question. There are only individual, subjective answers – and anyone who says differently is wrong.

What I do know that has always helped is hearing how others have handled such dilemmas. The particulars don't necessarily match our own but there are similarities of place and time and experience that give us new ideas on which to ruminate.

So, dear TGB readers, this is a crowd-sourcing day for Jim's retirement restlessness. I know for sure that others have wrestled with these questions.

At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Marc Leavitt: The Tea-Baggers Manifesto


I have a self imposed schedule that allows me to sit in my PJ's until 10 Am. I get up between 7 and 8:00 and I hop on the computer with my first cup of coffee. It's when I do most of my writing. At ten I get ready to face the public. I schedule all appointments for 12 or 1:00 and am gone from the house most afternoons. I'm rarely in bed before 1:00 AM. I think having a self-imposed rhythm to your life helps a lot in retirement. It just makes sense because the whole universe and Mother Nature operates that way.

My husband and I balance our time between family, doing a couple volunteer jobs each, regular fitness classes, cycling group, movies, dinner, entertainment, travel and walking around downtown.

My DH is in two choirs. He has a beautiful voice. He also sings when mowing our lawn.

Dogs hear that and start barking.

We can be spontaneous, like hey, let's take a road trip.

Between all that, we love to read, hang out with friends and I write. The library is my favourite writing spot.

I like to sit at a big table surrounded by hard working university students,

They don't say a peep, nor do I. Their heads are stuck in their books or on laptops.

That inspires me.

I am up at the butt crack of dawn, grab paper, eat breakfast and go online, but not for long

There is always that moment when I look out the kitchen window, survey the trees, birds, and appreciate everything we did to achieve this life.

Make every day matter. Life is shooting by like a freight train, I would rather be the engine, than the penny flattened by the wheels.

Jim's struggle gives me another reason to stick with my job for as long as I can. I'm single, no kids, few friends (and even fewer who are single and without kids and grandkids). When I'm home, I get bored and lonely, and I waste a lot of time. I have interests I could volunteer at...but it doesn't make sense to me to work for nothing when I can work for $$$!

I hope some more people who have been there respond.

For myself I need about two days a week where I sit around in my PJs and work on photography or reading or computer blogging. But the other 5 days I force a structure on myself. It is too easy to waste time.

One of the pleasures I've discovered is I have the freedom to do as I please when my energy and the spirit moves me. So some days I'm up and dressed early and on the go. Other days when my energy is low or I just plain don't feel like it I loll around and read, meditate, do my yoga exercises or watch what I call stupid TV like a cooking show that requires no brain power at all. I still take care of business, pay my bills on time, meet with friends and have fun. What I like about this is for the most part after a lifetime of schedules and reporting to others, I can now do as I like when I like and only if I like. So far it hasn't gotten old or boring. It suits me.

A person really has to do a lot of self-discovery in these autumn years; either before they get there, or soon thereafter.
My advice, find that 'soft spot'. That place where and what you do brings pleasure and ultimate satisfaction.
Believe it or not, there are places you can meet and exceed your needs.
As an example we've heard people say all our lives, "Those who can't do, teach". Try that one for awhile . .
Like to travel? How about the Peace Corps? Feel like giving back, teach to the Native American?
"Give a person a fish and they eat for a day. Teach a person to fish and they'll eat for a lifetime"

Try it. We did.

Good luck Jim, in finding your calling.

I need to work. Without a job to do, I'd be the unshaven curmudgeon who never leaves his apartment. I don't work for hire though because then I could be right back in that damn cubicle I retired to escape from.

Based on my own experiences I tell friends new to retirement just know that your time management can go to pot, figuratively, of course. That is ok. It's the time to do what you want when you want. If it takes time to find your groove with the new freedom, so be it. When the new wears off, look for the things you've always wanted to do, but didn't have enough time for when working. More happenstance than planning has allowed me to combine a hobby and volunteering and brought new challenges I never imagined I could tackle. I think the best you can do for yourself is routinely managing down stress levels and reassess stresses that might sneak up on you; i.e., Ronni's new schedule. I still have slouch days and really productive days...just at my own discretion. Some people need more regimented routine, some don't. What makes you feel right is what works for you.

Routines are still important I think but in a way that has meaning. Don't just do something to be doing something.

I walk the dog each day for both exercise and thinking time. Depending on the weather and yard-needs I'll get outside and work to collect my daily dose of Vitamin D. A 20 minute bike ride around the neighborhood for more exercise and then I start preparing the menu for the evening's dinner.

My wife still works full time as a school nurse so I prepare the food. I have learned to cook in a variety of ways, especially healthy foods with little or no meat. I try to get creative with dishes and learn the nutritional value of foods we need as we age. Finding sources of protein without meat can be challenging, especially when you avoid packaged, processed food.

I make time to read whatever book I've recently purchased and by the time the wife gets home we'll settle in for an episode of whatever were currently tuned in to through Netflix.

It's not dramatic or romantic stuff but I make it purposeful. Without purpose our actions are meaningless and life can lose its appeal.

Sad to say, Jim's dilemma is a familiar scene with Englishmen in this corner of Spain. Many have retired here and don't know what to do with themselves, having no hobbies or interests. If they take up golf, as some do, their partners hardly see them and that seems to suit the women as they have been unused to having a man around all day every day. Spanish men get turfed out of the house when they retire and they congregate in the plazas to talk. They are let back in for meals!

For those with hobbies and interests I have heard comments similar to the above: they value the freedom to do or not to do, as the mood takes them.

Jim sounds very insightful, he's recognized his potential problem and I'm sure he'll find a schedule that works for him.

As much as I looked forward to retirement I found it difficult to not be doing something, to not be useful somehow. A friend of mine took to retirement like a duck to water, feels she worked long enough and hard enough and now enjoys her free time. Me, I felt guilty reading a book or doing a crossword when there was so much to "do". Now finally these past 2 or 3 years I figure it's enough to take care of my house and yard, the cat, myself, and occasionally my car. At 82 I give myself over to my muses:" Fritter" and "Putter" and they guide me through my day.

I am just working on replacing the To Do list with a list of choices. I keep to a schedule with my blog because it means so much to me.

I have just begun to muse regarding what next. Having been retired for 10 years, I took a couple years to just breathe, then moved and refurbished
a bit which took a couple years to be able to afford without going into debt.

I then began a 3-day-a-week dog and cat caring for a friend on a volunteer basis.

That enjoyable volunteering recently ended. So I am now considering the possibility of other volunteering.

I agree it would be nice to earn some much needed money, but with a chronic (though currently not progressing) blood/lymph
cancer, I can't bring myself to commit to work.

I am also considering the possibility of running for
the condo board of directors. But, when I truly consider that, something in me tenses.

We hear the idea that having fear about doing something means we should certainly do that very thing.... Perhaps that is so for some, at sometime in life and not so for others and anytime in life.

Right now, I am taking that tension as a warning for me to go slow, maybe put a toe in by helping some committee on the Board.... Easy does it--I have been a plunge in—go full speed—once a decision is made.

I don't think I have the stamina to do that anymore. Right now, I am taking Lola's muses as
my guides and frittering and puttering, while muttering, and mulling.

I do have plenty reading to keep me busy which is, IMHO, a legitimate busyness. And, I have a pen and ink activity I do that helps me to free my mind and that sometimes becomes an artistic rendering of something. But it must call me to it, or it is just me marking on paper.

I retired four-ish months ago. First thing I did was make me a "want to do" list. Then, promptly went into "I'm on vacation and I'm vegging out" mode. I sort of expected a week or two of that, but I was surprised that it took me this four-ish months before I was motivated to pull up my "want to do" list and start on it.

IMO, if you want to veg for the rest of your retirement, then go for it. If you don't want to veg, then look around for something to do.

It's all good, either way.

When my still working friends ask me about retirement I tell them that if they need a regular routine or some kind of structure to their days then don't be too quick to retire. For myself I need no structure. I sail through my days wherever the winds of life blow me. Some days Dorothy and I baby sit the grand kids. We garden. We've been remodeling for years but as I get older I lack the stamina for hard physical work so we will hire it done. If we can't afford it it will go undone. My to read book list is longer than I can accomplish in a life time. We travel when we can. I have lost any desire to work and answer to another human. Life has never been better for me.

After thirty years of two difficult marriages and forty years of high-stress high-profile work, I love love love being retired without responsibility for anyone but myself. Since I take care of a largish house and yard myself, I keep "need to be done" lists for both as well as errands and what I call "adventures". Those can be anything from strolling around a plant nursery to going to a museum exhibit or having coffee with a friend.

I'm on the board of a large senior studies group, facilitate a Great Courses group with 70, 80 and 90 year olds (very bright people)and audit courses at nearby colleges. That part is scheduled. The rest I fill in with what I feel like/need to do, reward myself with ice cream and a few chapters in a book under a cozy throw. I earned it and I'm loving it.

I had no intention of retiring - ever. I worked for myself for 35 years and have been very involved in politics and community issues for over 40 years. I have written three books and was well in to my fourth until - suddenly - I lost all energy for the project and didn't want to 'be bothered'. So, for the past year I've been doing more or less what I want. Sometimes not getting dressed until mid morning, other times I'm up and out at the crack of dawn. In addition to politics and community issues I've started gardening and taken up needlework again (after 50 years break). Always a keen cook, my food has become more creative and plant based and I'm fitter now than I was 10 yrs ago. Actually, that is a regret - that I didn't have a more active lifestyle in my younger years (probably due to being ridiculed at school for being useless at sports).

Jim is absolutely right. We all need structure, and in retirement we have the freedom to decide what that structure will be. And there really ARE stages of retirement. Don't poo-poo this concept. It helps many of us to know there are stages, and that what we are feeling is shared by others, and that there are ways out of the doldrums.

today is one of those days when I am NOT leaving the house. I intend to read, write, meditate, do a few loads of laundry and perhaps work in the backyard.

I need these days after a week of being on the go, doing volunteer activities. I have told people, if you want to do something with me, you must give me notice and get it on my calendar. I just got an assignment for October.

Structure? i had enough - more than I ever wanted. Boarding school,the Marines, high stress and profile jobs that made the 9-5 routine seemlike a lunch break. So when I retired 15 years ago I knew I was ready to do what I wanted to do when I wanted to do it.
I never cared much for structure anyway.

Thanks Ronni, for getting others to comment on my plight. I've been away from my blog for days, and tonight I realized just how much discipline I've lost.

The direction I'm going is not good if being productive counts. I'm having big fun running around with friends and do anything that comes up, but I just don't feel like I'm accomplishing anything.

Somehow I've got to become my own boss and make myself get some work done. And the one thing that's kept me going is blogging. I can't let that fall behind. I'm very impressed with what you do with Times Goes By. My goal for getting back on the discipline highway is to commit to writing two essays a week. That's a start.

And it's really insightful to see all the comments here. Everyone is different, and on different paths, but I think we can learn from each other. That's why Time Goes By is such a great service. And I agree with Rin, in still thinking there are stages we can study.

I just finished Being Mortal by Atul Gawande, and it seems like it's a handbook for getting old.

It seems as though I waffle between nose-to-the-grindstone working on projects and completely slacking off. Twice I spent six months working on a political project - opposing a local ballot question and helping a friend run for office, spending a month working on a novel. I went through months of cleaning out my basement and am about ready to continue that one. between these projects I completely slack off without even bothering to get dressed, spending hours online or reading mysteries or binge watching "The West Wing". Should I be more disciplined? I don't know.

After 58 years in the workforce (mostly full time) I became "involuntarily retired" 4 months ago and am still figuring out the how-to of retirement. Like Jim and others, I need structure of some kind. I also need to feel productive in some way-- like I'm not just taking up space. These are my issues; retirement is different for everyone.

I volunteer for a cat rescue-and-rehome agency and am in the midst of several projects in my house and yard, although my spouse (85) and I (78) can no longer do some of the things we once did. I now pretty much live in jeans and hoodies instead of "work clothes" (much less expensive, too), but I get dressed, put on a little makeup and do my hair every day. I'd feel like a total sloth if I didn't. I also spend more time at the computer than I thought I would--such interesting folks at TGB and other places as well.

I lost my job in June 2013 due to a downturn in our office business. I was 73 and I was devastated! I loved my job. Approximately eight months later I went back to work for the same company as a contractor and was very happy. I still loved the work (I'm a geologist) and the structured environment. Two months ago I got an itch to quit so less than a month
ago I formally retired. Presently I am sitting around, puttering, reading, making some jewelry, and drinking ice water. I love it. I may one day figure out something to do that is productive, but if not I don't really care. We should do whatever makes us happy.

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