June 22, 2015 by Jean
Retirement seems to present a paradox about time. Those who are looking forward to retirement often imagine the luxury of free time, but many of those who are actually retired report being so busy that they don’t understand how they ever found time to work. Now that I’m about one year into my retirement, how am I experiencing time? The answer is that I am experiencing both sides of this paradox.
First, there is the luxury of time, especially freedom from the tyranny of the clock. Those who know me know that I have a very strong sense of time and like to organize my day around a schedule. That is still true, but with a difference. My day is now organized around large chunks of time, not fine divisions. I find that certain activities are best allocated to certain times of the day.
Temperamentally, I am a morning person, so morning is the best time for me to exercise and also the best time for me to do serious reading and/or writing. But morning is also the time that I want to eat a leisurely breakfast, walk slowly through my garden, and savor the pleasures of a new day. I can fit all of this into the morning if I get up early – which, fortunately, I am naturally inclined to do. At this time of year (when the sun is rising before 5 a.m.), I am usually up about 6, which gives me 6-7 hours of both productive and relaxing time before lunch.
I am less sharp in the afternoon than in the morning, so this is a good time for chores like house cleaning, for social visits or for running errands. I also find that mid-late afternoon is a good time for me to work in the garden – both because the work leaves me too physically tired to do much of anything else afterward and because starting in mid-afternoon keeps me from overdoing it. Right now, I am laying 1’x1’ concrete pavers for a patio and walkways around my new addition. This is fussy, tedious work that I am not particularly good at. Two hours in late afternoon is just enough time for me to make some measurable progress, but not enough time for me to get tired and careless.
Even though I still follow some sort of schedule, I am much more relaxed and flexible about time than I was when I was working. I no longer set an alarm, and I get all the sleep my body needs. If I find myself absorbed in my morning reading, I may continue with it until lunch and forego writing that day. Or if I find I’m just not on the mood for heavy-duty intellectual reading, I may read a light novel or memoir instead. If I get absorbed in a creative project, I may work on it late into the night, knowing that I can just sleep late in the morning.
But even as I’m enjoying this new-found freedom and flexibility, I am also feeling that time is speeding by and that there is too little of it to get everything done. I wake up on Monday morning with the luxurious sense of a whole week stretched out in front of me, and then I blink and it’s Friday. Although I’m usually good at gauging how long it will take to do any task, I have several ongoing projects that are behind schedule.
So how can I be having so much trouble getting everything done when I’m no longer working 60-80 hours a week? I have several ideas about what might be going on. First, because my deadlines are self-imposed, I find it easy to extend them in favor of more time to relax and savor life’s small pleasures. Second, as we get older, time just seems to pass more quickly. I think it was Alvin Toffler, in his 1970 book Future Shock, who proposed that we measure a unit of time in terms of how many of those units we have already experienced. So, a year is half the life of a two-year-old while it is a much smaller 1.5% of the life of a 70-year-old. Third, even as the years are speeding by more quickly, we become more aware that time is finite as we get older, which imparts a sense of urgency to do those things we still want to accomplish.
That sense of urgency can be an important part of the motivation for retirement. Like many retirees, I’m trying to do all kinds of things that I never tried to do when I was working. Even though I spent a lifetime working in colleges where I could audit courses for free and dreamed of doing so, I never did find the time to audit any of those courses. Now that I’m retired, I am finally getting a chance to study subjects long deferred. I’ve also gotten involved with volunteer work and with choral singing, both desired activities that I couldn’t find time for when I was working. When I was teaching, I always looked forward to school breaks as time to get caught up with various tasks, projects, or desired activities. And I was always shocked when the anticipated break finally arrived to realize that I had a list of items at least a month long for a week-long break! I think I did a similar thing as I anticipated retirement, making mental lists of long-postponed activities that I would now have time for. It turns out that retirement days and weeks, like school breaks, aren’t as long in actuality as they were in anticipation.
So, yes, retirement has brought freedom from rigid time constraints; but it has also brought a sense that there is so much I’d like to do and so little time to do it in. Many retirees overcommit themselves in the first year of retirement and then find that they need to set priorities and scale back. This has not been true for me, but I am feeling a need to think carefully about what is most important as I pick and choose among possibilities. Perhaps one of the lessons of this life stage is that I’m never going to get to the end of my to-do list. I’d rather arrive at the end of my life with goals and a sense of anticipation than with everything crossed off!