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.