We may not expect it, especially considering many of us work towards it for most of our adult life, but retirement can be a challenging and sometimes frustrating experience. For many of us it is the first time in a long time we have had both the financial resources and time freedom to do what we really want. The challenge is . . . we often don’t really know what that is.
We typically know what we don’t want, which is to keep working. So with that as our driving force we take the necessary steps to get to the end of our employment years. However, knowing what we don’t want, and knowing what we do want, is not the same thing. That difference can lead to frustration, depression, and a sense of confusion as we transition into retirement.
Since our time is such a precious commodity, here are three steps which can help us ease into our new found freedom -- steps that can help us enjoy our retirement with the same degree of enthusiasm as we enjoyed thinking about being retired.
Step #1. Avoid the Vacuum.
Nature has a set of rules that govern our environment. For example, water will always flow to the lowest point, and gasses expand to fill all available space. One of the other rules is that nature abhors a vacuum. (Not the clean the carpet kind, most of us husbands abhor that.) Nature doesn’t like it when suddenly something big is taken away and there is nothing to fill that space. Imagine filling your bathtub with water and trying to remove only the water on the left side. It doesn’t work does it? Since we are part of nature, it’s not surprising that the same principles apply to us.
There is a big difference between saying “I’m going to retire and quit working,” and “I’m going to retire and start relaxing, or start swimming, or start traveling . . .” In the first example a vacuum is created. We are taking something big away -- something that for most of us has been occupying 65-70% of our awake life five days per week. And we’re not replacing it with anything else. And just like in the bathtub example, this doesn’t work. It’s the reason so many smokers have trouble quitting and dieters can’t keep the pounds off. They are trying to not be something, or not do something and since they aren’t identifying what they will be or will do instead, they create a vacuum.
In terms of human behavior, vacuums create confusion, which then often leads to depression. When we create vacuums in our lives, such as someone trying to quit smoking or lose weight, and we start to experience the unpleasantness of confusion and depression, we do our best to get rid of those emotions. More often than not, we refill that empty space with the easiest and closest thing at hand -- the exact thing that was filling it before.
This same principle applies to retirement. When we say we are going to quit working and we create that vacuum, the emotions of confusion and depression can follow. Only in most cases, we can’t go back and re-fill that space with what we were doing before. And, unlike smoking and eating which for many people provide short term immediate gratification and pleasure, we really don’t want to refill that space with what we were doing before. We don’t want to go back to work. This inability or lack of interest in refilling the space with what was there before can leave us feeling even more lost, confused, and depressed.
There is a simple solution to the vacuum problem. Don’t “retire and quit working”. Instead, retire with the intention and knowledge that you are going to fill your previous “work time” with whatever it is that you really want to do. If you are struggling to figure out what that is for you, keep reading. You’ll get a great tip in step #3.
Step #2. Realize these transition emotions are normal.
While eliminating the vacuum will certainly help you ease into retirement, change of any kind brings out certain emotions in people. In his excellent book called Transitions, William Bridges talks about how when people encounter changes, ranging from small to significant, they often go through a very predictable set of emotions. As you enter retirement, just knowing and understanding that this may occur and the emotions associated with it, can help ease you through the process.
It’s one thing to get lost and not know which way to turn. It’s a very different feeling to be lost but have a good guide map in front of you that shows how you can get from where you are to where you want to go.
Step #3. Find your Big Five for Life.
For many people, their work career began as a means to an end. It provided the financial means to purchase the things they needed and do the things they really loved to do. Unfortunately, our jobs can sometimes become so consuming that gradually over time we lose touch with those things we love to do. We forget about our non-work ambitions and passions. If you find yourself in this position, now is your chance to re-connect to what you truly love and want out of life.
Take some time and write down the five things you want to do, see, or experience in your retirement years. The five things that if you did, saw, or experienced them, that at the end of your life, you could look back over your retirement and say that it was a success as you defined success. They may be things with short term durations, like visiting the Eiffel Tower. Or they could be things that span a longer time period like having a truly loving relationship with your spouse, or kids, or grandkids. This is about you defining retirement success for yourself.
Be careful to avoid putting limitations on yourself. A man once told me that he had always wanted to be like Ted Williams and Clark Gable when he was growing up. But now he felt he was too old for that. The truth is that we are never too old. He could go to a fantasy baseball camp and be like Ted Williams, or join a theatre group and be like Clark Gable. Better to be someone who was like Clark Gable for a day, than someone who wished they were like Clark Gable for a lifetime.
If you are struggling to figure out your Big Five for Life, you may be limiting your thinking because of how you view yourself right now, or the career you had while you were working. Here’s a little trick to help you get by that. Think about and write down who you wanted to be before you became who you are now. Maybe you have to think back to before you took your first job, or even as far back as your childhood. That’s ok. What got you excited back then? What did you want to do, see, or experience then?
You may find that what you uncover is really who you are. The same things you wanted to do, see, and experience then, you still want to do, see, and experience. You may have just forgotten about them. The great news is that you are still poised to do them. A former business owner can still be a Peace Corp. volunteer, a race car driver, or a professional sand castle builder. A trauma nurse can still be an author, a surfer, or a professor.
Use your Big Five for Life to avoid the vacuum from step number one. Now you aren’t retiring and quitting working, you are retiring and starting your Big Five for Life.
Enjoy your retirement. You earned it, and you deserve it.
Copyright © 2006 John P. Strelecky