We’re throwing the baby out with the bathwater when we decide retirement means totally giving up work. Give up the commute, the office curmudgeon, nasty customers, demanding bosses, and the overall stress level of a typical fulltime job. Yes, letting go of all that certainly make sense. But that’s different than giving up work.
Work is not just doing a job for pay. Work—sustained effort toward a desired goal–is an essential piece of being happily human. It connects us to the world, proves we are capable, and makes us think. Work helps give life both structure and meaning. We need work—even if we choose not to be employed.
Once you retire, you need to pay a lot closer attention to doing the right work—the work that makes you happy though. During the career years, you barter that right to choose what kind of work you do for the sake of a paycheck. You do what the company needs and get paid for spending your time that way.
In retirement, you get paid whether you work or not. That sounds like heaven, but for many retirees it’s the road to decline. When you don’t have to do anything, deciding what you do want to do is often downright difficult. So you either start doing everything with little satisfaction because it’s not a good fit or you do nothing and get more and more depressed because of the emptiness. Once you get stuck in either of those grooves, it’s hard to get out. And both set the stage for health problems.
Please believe me: we do need to work once we retire. Let go of the notion that you have a right not to have to do any work once you stop going to the office or the shop or the mill. Think twice before you hire the yard guy and a housecleaning service and start going out to eat every night. Continuing to do the parts of those kinds of work that bring you joy makes a lot more sense.
To find the right things to put effort into, you need to listen to yourself rather than loved ones, retirement gurus, get-rich-quick experts, or even your spiritual advisor. Knowing yourself is not a luxury or a New Age bluff at this stage of the game. If you want to be happy once you retire, you not only need to know what kind of work you get excited about, you need to know how to structure it and how much of it is enough for your personal satisfaction.
Sounds easy but it’s not. I have wasted years pursuing my writing like I did the jobs I held in corporate America. That meant I lost steam after a few months on a project, regardless of how excited I was about it when I started. I took me a long time to learn that when I make writing the ultimate and exclusively important priority, I lose the balance with the rest of what I want in my life now in a matter of a few months.
Typically we assume the dissatisfied feeling comes from having made the wrong choice about what to do as work. But be sure it’s not a matter of having relied on an outdated approach to structuring it before you scuttle the whole dream. If you make everything else wait until it’s done, start with an unrealistically large pile of it every day, and rush to make it all happen—just like the good ol’ career days—you are on the wrong track. That is not satisfying as retirement.
This is our last, best chance to live a balanced life. Work really does need to be part of it. But so does play, rest, personal adventure, spending time with the grandkids, sitting with a sick friend, learning to ride a bicycle, or whatever else beckons you. If you go at the work you choose as if you were back on the job, you gobble the time you need for the other things. To get it right at this stage of the game, you need to come up with a way to structure your work time so that it leaves room for the rest. You need a more comprehensive priority scheme that includes everything that’s important to you in how you plan your day.
Knowing yourself well is the place to start to get this right. If you haven’t already done it, that’s your first retirement work. Use Supercharged Retirement or any book that helps you. Talk to a life coach or other advisor whose opinion you value. Think quietly, regularly, and carefully about how you want work to fit into your overall blueprint. Then live that way.
This article originally appeared in the Feb 2014 edition of Barbara Morris’s online newsletter Put Old on Hold.
Mary Lloyd is a consultant and speaker and author of Supercharged Retirement: Ditch the Rocking Chair, Trash the Remote, and Do What You Love, a manual for building your own best retirement. Her first novel, Widow Boy will be out in 2014. For more, see her website.