When I finished work, I wrote a post on the lessons I’d learned from my years in the workforce. For those interested, below are some lessons I’ve learned in retirement (I know I’m only a couple of years in, but it’s not like I can write a post after I finish being retired).
Retirement is an adjustment. I don’t mean that in a negative way, but it takes a bit of trial and error to figure out what works. You can’t really practice being retired until you are retired, so the picture in your head may need to be re-drawn a few times before you get it right.
1. How you spend your leisure time can change when it’s ALL leisure time.
Before I retired, my favourite pastimes were reading and traveling. I assumed that in retirement I’d want to do more of the same, but surprisingly, those activities aren’t as high of a priority as I’d expected them to be. When I was working full-time, I’d read a couple of books per month. Now that I’m retired, I haven’t read a book in eight months. I’m not sure why that is, but it could be I have less need to relax and decompress than I did when I was working.
2. The idea of something can be more appealing than actually doing that thing.
Soon after I retired, I made a retirement “mind map” that included a few new hobbies I wanted to take up. Quilting, for example. I’d seen movies and read books where quilts were central to the plot and I liked the idea of creating something unique that could tell a story. I liked the idea of piecing it together like a puzzle. I bought a sewing machine and looked at quilts online and in magazines, imagining the quilts I’d make as gifts someday. Most of my ideas required fairly advanced quilting skills. I took a beginner’s quilting class and finished most of a small lap quilt. That was a year ago and it’s still in the same state it was when I finished the class. Nick asked me to make him placemats for the beginning of the school year. They’re also “in progress”. It turns out I don’t really like sewing things together, which is an essential step in making a quilt. It’s also a rather sedentary hobby and I already have enough of those, so I’m shelving that one for now and will maybe try again when I’m older.
The point is, sometimes things we think we’d do if we only had the time, we don’t do even if we do have the time, because we aren’t willing to put in the work required to get the results we want. But it’s nice to imagine that we’d be better people if we only had more time. Be prepared for retirement to burst your idealistic bubble of who you’d be if you weren’t watching Netflix (because you’re tired from working all day).
3. For people with high “couch potato” potential, scheduling activities helps ward off lethargy.
Certain personality types are at greater risk of becoming couch potatoes if left to their own devices, and I fit quite neatly into that category. In the cold Canadian winters, with a fire burning in the wood stove, I’d never leave the house if I didn’t schedule activities that forced me to get up off my butt. I fill a few hours each weekday with commitments I’m somewhat accountable for showing up to – personal training sessions, spin classes, run club, volunteer work, dog training classes. That keeps me busy enough that I don’t become lethargic and bored, but still leaves me enough free time to wake up when I want, enjoy a leisurely cup of tea, and fill the empty hours with activities I want to do – meet a friend for lunch, play with the dog, stare into the fire thinking about the meaning of life – and activities that need doing – laundry, dentist, dishes, finances, etc.
Ray’s potential as a couch potato is quite limited. It’s one of the few things in life I’m better at than he is. He doesn’t need to book things because he’s driven enough to set his own schedule and keep himself busy. He needs to remind himself to sit down and chill once in a while so he doesn’t overdo it.
Saturday and Sunday we keep our schedules mostly clear, so weekends have that laid back vibe and are still something to look forward to. Keeping ourselves busy during the week means we aren’t in each other’s space 24/7 so we have enough to talk about when we do spend time together.
4. Setting your expectations too high can derail your enjoyment in retirement.
This one may be a cop-out…but when I first retired I set some lofty goals for myself. I was going to write a book. I thought maybe I’d start a charity. I was going to make intricate quilts for people. And the pressure I put on myself to do those things – and the fact that I wasn’t actually doing any of them – started to make me feel like I was failing at retirement. So I cut myself some slack and chose a few key areas to focus on this year – fitness, teaching kids to read and agility training with Juno. Maybe I’m being risk averse and avoiding failure by staying within my comfort zone…or maybe I’m just taking smaller steps, focusing on things I want to do rather than things I feel like I ‘should’ achieve. Not sure. In any case, I’m more content now than I was when I was putting pressure on myself to become an over-achiever retiree.
5. Doing something that gives you a sense of meaning and purpose is critical to retirement happiness.
If this one sounds a bit preachy, blame it on all the time I spend staring into the fire contemplating the meaning of life. It only makes sense that a basic human need is to feel that you matter and are adding value to the world in some way, whether that’s through sharing your creative gifts with the world, doing volunteer work or fostering relationships with people that matter to you. How we each create meaning varies, but the need to figure out what gives your life meaning, and to nurture that, is – in my opinion (but research backs me up) – an essential element for happiness, especially during retirement where the contribution you make at work is removed from the equation.
So, while I enjoy travel and books, they’re not the things that give my life meaning. Experience has taught me that it takes less than most people think to change the trajectory of someone’s life, and that’s where I’d like to focus my energy. How I do that might change over time, but the ‘why’ will likely stay the same. Right now, it’s through working with struggling readers.
6. Switching from saving to spending is easier in a bull market.
This one is just a hypothesis, but I’m fairly confident it’s true. One of the transitions you have to make in retirement is going from being a saver to being a spender. Instead of watching your money increase, you watch it decrease. Even just symbolically, that can be a bit unnerving. It’s like watching an hourglass of the rest of your life, filled with money instead of sand.
I have a government pension, but it’s quite modest given my relatively short career and the penalties for taking it early, so it only makes up about a third of our retirement income. The other two-thirds is dependent on the stock market. Given that we’re in the midst of a record-breaking bull market, we have yet to experience the feeling that comes with seeing the numbers decline. So far, so good.
7. A blank slate and unlimited options can be paralyzing.
A paradox of modern retirement (and modern life) is that the multitude of options available, and the amount of information about those options, can be overwhelming, to the point of causing ‘analysis paralysis’.
Retirement provides a sort of blank slate for the future. We can change our lives at any time. There’s nothing tying us down. We could move to a different town. Or province. Or country. We could sell the house, buy a sailboat, and cruise the Caribbean. We could spend winters down south. We could buy an RV and travel around North America. We could move to a condo. We could buy a house on a lake. We could buy an alpaca farm. We could open a B&B. The possibilities are endless, and there’s so much information available that you can feel swamped with indecision.
Having more choices seems like a luxury, the ultimate in freedom, but it creates the illusion that the perfect answer is out there somewhere in the vortex of data. Want to buy a sailboat? Monohull or catamaran? What size? What brand? Don’t worry, there are countless reviews and blogs and podcasts to help you decide. It’s a recipe for discontent, because ultimately you have to make a decision, with the knowledge that you might find something better if you just did a bit more research. I can’t imagine what it must be like to try to find a life partner these days. We used to select from the people we met in school or at work or through friends. Now you have access to an endless supply of profiles online. “This guy seems great, but there’s another two billion single people out there, so if I just keep looking there might be someone even more perfect!”
8. Shit happens.
The flip side of the above is that, although the future is a blank slate, life can step in and change our plans in an instant. As the poem I carried around in my wallet as a teen said, “tomorrow’s ground is too uncertain for plans and futures have a way of falling down in mid-flight”. A good reminder that the present is all we have so we need to enjoy the moment we’re in.
[Editor’s Note: We do not currently have any plans to buy a sailboat. Or an alpaca farm.]