How will you spend your time in retirement?

While preparing for the financial aspect of retirement is important, it’s also vital to figure out how you’ll spend your time too.

When you think of retirement, what comes to mind?

(Okay, you probably are feeling some dread that you’ll never be able to afford it, but try to put that aside for a second.)

For many of you, you probably think of traveling the world, spending time with your kids and grandkids, or maybe gardening.

Most people I talk to have this “Villa in Tuscany” dream, where they will go to all these exotic locales and live a life of leisure.

But the reality ends up being much different. And we need to talk about this reality.

And I’m not just talking about the financial piece. We all know that retirement is harder now than at any time in recent memory. That’s a conversation for another day.

Because what I’ve found is that people don’t focus enough on the non-financial aspects of retirement. In short, what are you going to do with all that newfound time?

Working life

In the U.S., our working life is our identity.

This shows up in all sorts of little ways, like saying, “I’m a musician” or “I’m a lawyer”, or even “I’m a Customer Relations Manager II”. Note the use of the “to be” verb. “I am”, not “I do”.

And this shows up in big ways too, such as how rates of depression and suicide are two to three times higher in those who are unemployed versus those who are employed.


Our cultural messages are very clear: Get an education and then get a good job. Work until you hit 65 66 67 whatever the retirement age is.

But notice that this is where the culture directives stop. Okay, save for retirement and…then what?

Working for the weekend

You can get a preview of the problem I’m about to describe by looking at your working week.

If you’re like most people, you work Monday through Friday. You’re excited for the weekend, where you can not work for two days.

And then the weekend happens. It initially feels amazing to not be working; you might go out, or might sleep in, or do some things you’ve been meaning to do around the home.

But then, sometimes, do you feel a little adrift? Here you have all this time, and you don’t know how to spend it.

Now, this may not be you, but what about extended breaks from work? Would you feel that way after a week? Two weeks? A month?

What about 20 years?

Pandemic languishing

If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that just because you have time and you have plans, it doesn’t mean that you will use that time to take care of those plans.

How many people said that they would use the time they were spending at home to learn Spanish, or clean out the basement, or read up on world history? We learned very quickly that that didn’t happen.

When faced with a long time at home, people didn’t find themselves doing much of anything, except surviving.

Will retirement be any different? Do you want it to be any different?

All that time

Let’s say that you’ve reached retirement age, and you’ve stopped working a full time job that you’ve been at for decades.

At this point, actuarial tables say that you’ve probably got about two decades of life ahead of you, possibly three.

It’s the longest weekend of your life. And it doesn’t end.

What are you going to do?

If you’re like most people, you probably don’t really have a clue. And that’s okay.

Retirement dreaming is like a muscle; if you haven’t used it in a while, it might be hard to start. It takes time, and it takes work.

Which is why, no matter what your age, it’s time to start flexing that muscle right now. Because 20 years is a long time.

Idea: Create your own structure

With nothing creating structure in your life aside from meals and sleep, you want to create structure of your own. Perhaps you tackle a different project each day of the week. Think: Walking Wednesday, Meeting-Up Monday, Crafting Friday (sorry, couldn’t think of anything that started with F).

Put something on your calendar every day. It doesn’t need to take up the whole day.

You need to find a reason to get up and out of bed, every day. Otherwise, you might not.

Idea: Find community

You also need to be around people. If you have family of your own, this can be a good source of getting your people needs met, but you shouldn’t rely solely on your family.

Join a book club. Join a walking club. Join a skiing club. Join a knitting club. If clubs don’t exist in your area, start one.

In previous decades, we had the Kiwanis Club, the Lions Club, the Elks Club, the Masons. Those institutions still exist, but they aren’t as viable for most people anymore. You need to find your own version of them.

Do something beyond social media. I think one of the reason why so many older people have become such angry Fox News hatemongers is because it gives them something to feel passionately about. (Yes, I just said that Fox News is providing a valuable community service.) Let’s do better by being a part of something more constructive.

Idea: Work

You may even wish to get a job.

Sound crazy? It shouldn’t be, not if you use the definition of retirement that I do. Retirement is merely the time in life where you stop working for money, and instead let your money work for you.

But you can work for lots of things other than money: meaning, structure, enjoyment, community, enrichment. Working is awesome. It allows you to contribute to something larger than yourself.

So get a job doing something you enjoy. It can be part time. You can even start your own business. Be a consultant, create an Etsy store, walk dogs. I bet you that you can think of lots of things you would enjoy doing.

Start today

Making retirement achievable from a financial standpoint is going to be hard. It’s probably going to take most of your life to be able to set up properly.

All the more reason to plan for what it’s going to look like starting now.

If your life isn’t amazing now, it’s not going to magically become amazing in retirement. You might rent a villa in Tuscany, but if you’re unhappy at home, I assure you that you’ll be unhappy there. (And besides, you’ll still have to eventually come home.)

Retirement won’t solve any problems. You’re going to need to solve them yourself.

Epilogue: Don’t be like Bill Bryson Sr.

Here’s a cautionary tale.

In his book, Neither Here Nor There, Bill Bryson, while visiting rural Norway trying to see the northern lights, had many days with nothing to do. He wrote:

“It occurred to me that this was just like being retired. I even began taking a small notebook with me on my walks and keeping a pointless diary of my daily movements, just as my dad had done when he retired. He used to walk every day to the lunch counter at our neighborhood supermarket and if you passed by you would see him writing in his notebooks. After he died, we found a cupboard full of these notebooks. Every one of them was filled with entries like this: ‘January 4. Walked to supermarket. Had two cups of decaf. Weather mild.’ Suddenly I understood what he was up to.”

Don’t let this be you. You’ve got many years of life ahead of you. Make them meaningful.

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