Transitioning to Retirement: How Will I Spend My Time?


March 28, 2013 by Jean

One of the biggest changes accompanying retirement is the change in how we use our time. For most adults in full-time jobs, work schedules provide the structure that the rest of our lives are organized around, and freedom from those time constraints is the central dream of retirement. We imagine lives that will be simultaneously rich and relaxed, full without the stresses of our work lives. But this freedom can be a double-edged sword; it can leave us feeling unmoored.

Recently, I read Margaret Roach’s And I Shall Have Some Peace There (Grand Central Publishing, 2011), a memoir about leaving her high-powered executive position at Martha Stewart Omnimedia to live the rural life. The parallels between Roach’s situation and my own made me feel that hers was a cautionary tale. Like me, she spent more than two decades shuttling back and forth between a high-stress job and a rural home where she lived part time, all the while planning for a future when she would live full time in her rural retreat. Her dream of leaving the rat race and living the idyllic life in the woods reminded me of my own retirement dream. But the memoir tells us that when she finally left her job to live in the country, Margaret Roach found herself paralyzed by the lack of structure in her daily life.  Eventually, she worked out a way to live without the structure of full-time work, but the transition was not the idyll she had imagined. Will this happen to me? Unlike Roach, I have been able to spend some extended periods of time (summers, research leaves, and a couple of year-long sabbaticals) living in my Maine home without the structure of daily work responsibilities. Have these prepared me for the experience of retirement, or will I have a similarly rocky transition?

Thinking about how I will structure my time in retirement is important, because I know that I am a person who needs and thrives on structure. (I have often joked that when others think they’re in a rut, I feel as though I finally have a comfortable routine.) I used to pride myself on being good at dealing with unstructured situations, until I realized that my way of managing such situations was to immediately impose structure; if I were ever faced with a truly unstructurable situation, I would probably just disintegrate!

So how can I create structure without also creating unwanted stress? What do I want from my use of time in retirement? I want time to relax, to literally and metaphorically smell the roses. But I will also need intellectual stimulation, a sense of achievement, social interaction (see Transitioning to Retirement: The Issue of Social Relationships), and a feeling that I am making a meaningful contribution to society. To get this mix, I know that I’ll need a combination of unscheduled and scheduled time, time alone and activities with others.

I can get some of my intellectual stimulation through activities like reading and solitary research and writing. But, after several decades spent interacting with students in the classroom, I’m pretty sure I’ll also want the kind of intellectual stimulation that comes from interacting with others about ideas and challenging myself intellectually. For starters, I plan to enroll in classes for Master Gardener certification. I can also imagine the right book club as a source of intellectual stimulation. Intellectually stimulating activities like taking classes and writing should also meet some of my need for a sense of achievement (provided by work for most of my adult life). In addition, I think I can combine a sense of achievement and a feeling that I’m making a meaningful contribution to society through volunteer work. I expect that taking classes and volunteer work will also meet some of my needs for social interaction.

Even as I imagine all these ways to use my time and meet my needs, though, I am aware of the danger of going overboard. I don’t want to schedule myself with so many activities and commitments that I don’t have enough time to just relax or to complete projects at home. One way to guard against this might be to limit my days with scheduled activities to no more than two or three a week. The trick will be to find the right balance between structure and freedom, between activeness and relaxation. Like much about retirement, I imagine that finding this balance will take some time and will be a process of trial and error.

9 thoughts on “Transitioning to Retirement: How Will I Spend My Time?

  1. Jean isn’t life wonderful…I am tired of the structure and want my freedom. I hope to travel for a while and then discover my wishes and goals for retirement. I have lots of ideas but no real plan. I had a chance to get used to the idea of that freedom when my job was reduced to half time. It forced me to break from the rat race and discover a life full of joy and freedom. I was forced to go back to full time work in order to retire, but that flash of freedom hooked me and made me realize I need to live a new life. That freedom also brought me back in touch with writing and is how I started my blog.

    I often think about this transition and it is the possible theme for a memoir. Loving this blog Jean!!

    • Jean says:

      Donna, I had a similar experience of getting hooked during my 2002-03 sabbatical in Maine. That was the year I created most of the back garden, and I loved having all that time to devote to it. My 2009-10 sabbatical just confirmed the sense I already had that this was the life I wanted. I also started blogging during that year, and like you, it got me in touch with a kind of creative writing that I found very satisfying.

      I’m glad to hear that you’re enjoying this blog. I’m still stumbling a bit toward finding my voice for this blog — the right mix of information, sociological analysis, and personal experience.

  2. Jean says:

    Every retired person I know without exception always says that they don’t know how they ever found the time to work. That lasts about five years before you find a groove that works without over-extending yourself. Classes to become a Master Gardener and joining a book club are great ideas.

    I do better when I try to keep a rough schedule—certain days of the week for certain activities so I have a rhythm to my life.

    • Jean says:

      Jean, I definitely don’t have any concerns about being bored or at loose ends; I’m more concerned about over-committing myself. I like the idea of creating rhythm and structure by having certain days of the week designated for certain activities (although I think I also want to keep some “free” days). I think I may also find it helpful to have certain times of the day designated for certain activities.

  3. Emily says:

    Jean, I feel like I’m “listening” to you across a table. You’ve definitely found your voice here. I’m so enjoying this blog! And I laughed out loud at your section about “when others think they’re in a rut.” I know what you’re talking about so well. As someone who was without much structure as a child and young adult, the structure of academia was ideal. So when I retired I knew that I’d need some sort of self-imposed structure. Master Gardeners helped with some of that for both of us–as well as supplying us with some new friends. But the intellectual stimulation is still a bit of a reach for me at times here. I wrestle with wanting to take or teach a class versus wanting my time free, without those sorts of responsibilities. Still working that out.

    • Jean says:

      Emily, I’m very much enjoying this “conversation” with you. I think the intellectual stimulation piece may be a tricky one for me, too. This past semester, I had one of those marvelous classes with exciting class discussions, where I left the classroom each day vibrating with new ideas and feeling as though I were flying. It made me realize how important that sense of really engaging my intellect and learning something new is. I think the Master Gardener course will be a good starting point for me; in the past year, I’ve written a few garden blog posts that were more scientific and I definitely enjoyed the challenge of learning the science well enough to explain it. I don’t think I will want to take on the responsibility of teaching a class again; if I did, it would probably be a 6-8 week course in one of the senior college programs (and without any grading — which I can’t wait to leave behind forever!).

  4. […] scheduled weekly volunteer activity that would anchor my time and provide needed structure (see Transitioning to Retirement: How Will I Spend My Time?). I have found instead that I prefer my structure to be more flexible, in the form of scheduled […]

  5. […] her blog, Stepping Into the Future, Sociologist Jean Potuchek  wrote: “One of the biggest changes accompanying retirement is the change in how we use out time. For […]

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I am Jean Potuchek, a professional sociologist who has just stepped into the next phase of my life, retirement, after more than thirty years of college teaching. This blog is about my experience of that new phase of life.

Please join me as I step into my future.

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