Retirement Preview: The Anxiety-Avoidance Cycle

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June 14, 2013 by Jean

I am now in week four of my “retirement preview” summer, and I have been paying attention to how I spend my time. I am a longtime list-maker, so I begin each day with a list of things to do. I don’t expect to get everything on the list done, but it provides some structure for my day. It turns out that some kinds of listed activities (e.g., gardening) are much more likely to get done than others. I have noticed, in particular, that some major projects always seem to get put off for another day; some, in fact, have been languishing on my summer to-do list for years.

I should make it clear here that I don’t always have trouble with major tasks. It is not unusual for me to take on – and complete – some sizeable projects. For example, over the past dozen years, I have transformed the property behind my house from weedy “lawn” into a perennial garden, single-handedly designing and digging hundreds of square feet of flower beds and hauling tons (literally) of compost and manure to turn my glacial sand into garden soil. During one four-year period, I built a 40-foot walkway of paving stones and gravel, doggedly plugging away at it every summer and then building a flight of stairs to connect the completed garden walkway to the driveway. During these same years, I hired a contractor to build a deck on the back of my house, had the kitchen remodeled, and personally repainted most of the interior of the house.

So what do the projects I keep putting off have in common? They are all sources of anxiety. In some cases, I don’t know if I have the necessary knowledge or skills to complete the project. In other cases, I know I can’t do the work alone and need to ask for help (something that I find difficult to do). Other projects require hiring a professional, and I ‘m anxious about finding the right person to do the job. Some projects make me anxious because I fear that addressing one visible problem is going to reveal a whole host of invisible (and expensive) additional problems. In each case, I have fallen into the anxiety-avoidance cycle: I avoid working on the project because it makes me anxious, but the more I put it off the more my anxiety grows.

The irony of this is that I know all about the anxiety-avoidance cycle; it is something I caution my students about all the time. I’m good at explaining how the cycle works and then breaking what needs to be done into a series of steps that seem manageable to the anxious student. But knowing how this cycle of procrastination works has not protected me from it.

If I am going to have a happy retirement, I need to get some of these projects under control. As someone who wants to continue to live alone as long as I can, I particularly need to learn how to deal more productively with the anxiety-producing aspects of home ownership. I know that the only solution to the anxiety-avoidance cycle is to stop avoiding the problem, jump in, and take action. It’s time for me to follow the advice I give my students. So this summer I am making a list of all my anxiety-producing projects, in order of priority, breaking them down into small manageable steps, and then committing myself to take action on at least one project each week.

I began this week with the biggest and most urgent project, the addition I am planning for my house. I think a project this size makes most people anxious. I need to hire an architect to design the addition and a contractor to build it. I find myself worrying about whether I can really afford it and about all the unexpected problems that can occur in any home construction project. But I’ve been planning this addition for years, and I have already saved most of the money to pay for it. In previous years, I have consulted the town code enforcement officer to learn about the building restrictions that apply and I have had a surveyor out to mark the required setback from the road so that I can see how much room I have for the addition. Where the project stalled was at finding an architect. Last summer, I contacted a contractor who comes highly recommended by a friend and asked him to recommend architects he has worked with. He gave me contact information for three, and one of these architectural firms looked like a perfect match for me. They are quite comfortable with both large and small projects, and they offer a service they call a “design test” – a flat-fee consultation about your project designed to tell you if what you have in mind is realistic, what it would cost, and suggestions for how to proceed. This week I made the call and put the wheels in motion to schedule my design test.

Next week, I am going to tackle my next most urgent problem – the mice who moved into my house several years ago and have been most unwelcome house guests. It’s all too easy to ignore them in the summer when they are happy to be outdoors, but I know I’ll regret it in winter when they become all too visible indoors. It’s time to admit that my personal efforts – mouse traps, mouse poison, and attempts to stop up the places where I think they are getting in with steel wool – have been unsuccessful and to hire a professional.

I am discovering that each time I take a step, however small, to address one of my anxiety-laden projects, it gives me more confidence to take action on the others. This summer, I am stepping into my future by leaving the anxiety-avoidance cycle behind.

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4 thoughts on “Retirement Preview: The Anxiety-Avoidance Cycle

  1. Well I am not sure how my pre-retirement will go. The vacation days I am taking before the official retirement on 8/1. I may have company for a month as I retire so I will not be settling into my new life for quite a while. i think I will need that time to adjust…I am famous for this cycle so I will have to watch for it.

    • Jean says:

      Donna, I must admit that this is the one area where I find myself wishing for a life partner — someone to share the responsibility and anxiety with. But following the advice I give my students is working wonderfully; for the past few days, I have been on a roll, making progress on several different high-anxiety fronts and feeling much less anxious.

  2. Jean says:

    I am a list maker, too—both daily lists and seasonal lists. Your addition project sounds like fun to me, and you’ve done your homework so you’ll be fine. But I know what you mean about hiring contractors causing anxiety. It takes a few years of home ownership to find contractors and service people that you’re comfortable with, but once you’ve built up a little booklet of business cards, the anxiety goes away.

    With building they say you should build for what you’ll need in 15 years, At our age that means it’s wise to remember that someday you may want your addition to be walker or wheelchair friendly with wide doorways and no steps. I’m a big fan of using Universal Design elements when remodeling because when it comes time to need things like wider doorways, etc., you’re not able to contract the changes fast enough to get back in your home. I read a study once about the percentage of people who are in nursing homes who wouldn’t really need to be there if their homes were Universal Design and that made a believer out of me. When my husband had his stroke we owned two houses and neither one could be altered satisfactory to get him home, so I rented an apartment while we built our/my current home. Sorry to go one so long but this is a topic I am passionate about. While adding an addition it might be the perfect time to see if there are other little tweaks in your house (like a wider doorway to the bathroom) that might be cheap and keep you living independent even longer.

    • Jean says:

      Jean, This weekend I tried out a website that has been advertised on local television recently — Home Advisor, which matches people up with contractors. I was checking it out for the first time late Friday night and put in a request for a plumber (for one of my high anxiety projects) just to see what would happen. I have always had trouble finding a local plumber. When I call numbers from the Yellow Pages, no one returns my call; or I actually get a plumber to agree to come out here and they never show up. Well, by 9 a.m. on Saturday I had heard from two plumbers, both with very positive customer reviews on the site, and both eager for my business. I think this high-anxiety plumbing project (plus a couple of smaller ones) will be completed within the next week!!

      Your advice about using Universal Standard design elements was very timely and shaped my choice of plumbing fixtures — so thank you very much for saving me from a short-sighted decision that might have been costly in the long run.

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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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