Lessons I’ve Learned in Retirement

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.]

23 thoughts on “Lessons I’ve Learned in Retirement

  1. That was brilliant. I was rubbing my hands together with glee when I saw that you’d posted because I love reading anything you write, but this post was incredible. You were in my head! All the things I’ve been thinking about, worrying about, dreaming about – for when I retire in another 5-8 years. So thank you. And please keep writing about your retirement, it was such a pleasure to read.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Great post, Lynn! I chuckled at the thoughts on saving and spending…it’s a good thing I’m married to a saver because I’m definitely in the spender category. One day he will let me know when I can retire too and then I can visit with my favourite cousins!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Chodura No.5

    Wise counsel, as always, from Carolyn. [Ever think of becoming a retirement counsellor?]

    On point #5, one discussion with a very senior government Executive some 12 years ago now has always stuck in my mind. As we chatted about his advice for a position I was interested in applying for, I asked him how he was enjoying retirement, which he had “entered” a few years before. I assumed that he must be bored, and missing all the excitement and intrigue of his former work life. His reply was along the lines of: “All that stuff we did that we thought was super critical and stayed up nights and working weekends on is bullshit. One smile from a developmentally challenged child whom I have just helped put in a horse’s saddle is worth more than 30 years of what I thought was “important” in my “career”.” Through my recent work on mental / workplace health, I have to say I agree with him 100%.

    Thanks for your perspectives!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s very true Antony. It’s hard to maintain perspective when you’re in the midst of ‘urgent’ meetings and deadlines. I remember having the same feeling when I left the Ivory Tower after a decade of academia, and suddenly realized that the semantic debates academics were having about ethnomethodological theory, weren’t nearly as important as they felt when I was immersed in those discussions. They weren’t, in fact, important to anyone outside that small group of academics having the conversation. Retiring was made easier for me because I’d already been off work for a while and, given the circumstances at the time, it was very easy for me to put it into perspective.


  4. What a great article. I retired at 55 expecting to have 5 yrs of doing whatever I wanted and then hubby would retire and he could set the agenda. He died unexpectedly 6 months into my retirement and I have been struggling to find a purpose ever since. Like the author, I need to schedule things to get me out of the house. And the point about spending instead of saving really applies to me since I have the RRSPs that were supposed to support 2 and I was very much a saver. We spent a lifetime saving for our retirement and now I’m thinking, “What am I supposed to do for the rest of my life?” Bottom line is, retirement probably won’t be what you expect. Don’t spend your life waiting for retirement. My new mantra is “build memories, not RRSPs”.


  5. Great post. I think many are going to get a big surprise when they retire. Filling the time is not the same as filling the purpose. I’m not sure so many should make those big sacrifices to seek that early retirement. Perhaps find work you enjoy and stay in there for a meaningful period. Consider semi retirement.

    But someway, find real purpose.

    Thanks for the honest post. It’s a consistent theme that I witness.


    Liked by 1 person

  6. Saving, spending, traveling, blogging, volunteer work…..whatever turns you on!…..but always remember the difference is in how our own mind & soul views your journey…..you are not responsible for anyone’s happiness except your own…..so remember this along the way….in retirement or out of it……expect nothing in return, but give of yourself generously ( and to yourself) wherever you go, whatever you do….this is the greatest challenge and reward….. especially in retirement


  7. Carolyn: I just found your blog after reading Rob Carrick’s post through the Globe & Mail. Your retirement lessons are helpful for those of us contemplating that “r” word. I’m a few years older than you, and, some time ago, took a year off to try my training wheels. Did I ever love the free time; the year just flew by! Having been back at work awhile now, I must say it’s been a bittersweet experience. That decades-delayed “gap year” really highlighted how going back to a cubicle (!), a boss, stress, always-unreasonable deadlines, email tsunami, technology demands and office culture is…exhausting and unhealthy. Never mind that employers today have no clue how to manage and best make use of an older worker’s talents. Learning of your insights helps to focus one’s decision making—and one’s resolve to take action! Please continue posting!


  8. A great definition of retirement and very true. Now that I am in it , it is a whole new life of unexpected things that never entered my mind. I had a lot of dreams for retirement but life throws curve balls and I was catch every time dodging them trying to find my happy medium for an enjoyable retirement. Now, I am alone after ten years of looking after a loving husband that developed dementia and has just passed away two years ago. Life isn’t much fun, so I am continuing to try and find that happy medium for myself. One works hard all their life waiting to retire, but find out something very different. Thanks for your post for pointing out life as it really is. Enjoyed your post and very humorous that makes us smile or chuckle about others and ourselves.


  9. Thank you Carolyn for posting your lessons regarding retirement. I found them very relevant to what I am now experiencing (after 3 months retired). Many of your points were so dead-on! The biggest insight that really struck home for me was that when we retire, the idea that we could finally be the better person we always wanted to be, if we had the time. Now that I have retired, all those lofty ideas I had are getting a bit of a shakedown, as I am now coming to terms with what I really want to do. I am going to still give myself some time to settle into retirement, before I make major revisions, but your lessons, written in such a humorous way, are allowing me to laugh at myself a bit more.

    Thank you!


  10. Nice relevant post for someone that’s looking to retire in the next 2 years. I have to say that having a purpose in retirement is a common theme I don’t really understand. Maybe that comes from 30 years in medicine working with “purpose” every day, but I feel I’ve had enough “purpose” to last 3 lifetimes. I’m looking forward to simple goals. Improve my short game in golf. Get some weight off. Teach my dog to play dead. Grow some flowers. No need to “save the world” anymore.

    What I do fear in retirement is not loss of purpose but loss of vitality. To me that will be my greatest fear. I know my last golf round, tennis match and high level conversation about politics will eventually come. Dealing with frailty both physical and mental is what I’m not looking forward to it. That’s probably why I’d like to reinforce Point #3. Too many retirees fail to focus enough on activity and fitness. It’s so important in the fight to keep ourselves vital. Slay the Couch Potato inside. After years of looking after others I’m looking forward to having time and energy to look after myself.


    1. Thanks Brian. Maybe ‘meaning’ is a better word than purpose. I think work provides a lot of people with direction and structure and a ‘purpose’ and they struggle with aimlessness in retirement. It doesn’t sound like that will be a challenge for you. Enjoy your retirement finding joy in the simple things. 🙂


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