I had an epiphany last week.

It was the second week of our pandemic-related stay-at-home mandate and I just wasn’t being productive. My to-do lists were getting longer, not shorter. I had committed to Roxanne that I would edit some chapters of our book and I couldn’t get focused. My spring garden clean-up was still a wish, not a reality. What was going on with me?

A consummate goal-driven and achievement-oriented person, I felt that I was somehow failing. There were things I should be getting to now that other activities could no longer occupy my time. The only activity I was feeling good about was my hospice volunteering, even though I had to transition the support for my clients from in-person visits to phone calls. But that was working well. Why was that different?

I thought about what makes a good hospice volunteer: the ability to simply be present with the client, to give them a supportive, non-judgmental, safe space for all their thoughts and feelings. You can’t fix their situation; you can’t do for them. You learn how to be present and accepting. To just be.

Then the epiphany struck. I realized that I was operating 100% in doing mode, pushing to cross things off my list when what I really needed was to balance doing with being. To support myself in the same way that I do my hospice clients. The world had changed but my operating mode hadn’t. I needed to slow down, take the pressure off, accept that this novel coronavirus was causing some stress, live more in the present, and just be.

So what is doing mode? This is the mode we’re in when we process information, take action, solve problems and achieve the goals we set for ourselves. We review the past, measure our progress and plan for the future. We desire change and improved results. Doing is usually focused outward.

And what about being mode? In this mode we practice acceptance of existing circumstances, find patience and compassion, become mindful of our thoughts and emotions, and allow things to exist without the pressure to change them. We take in and appreciate the richness of the present moment. Being is often inwardly focused.

As I was pondering these two ways of operating, it also struck me that this tension between operating modes is often what occurs when we’re newly retired. While we’re working, we’re able to accomplish what we do in our careers (while simultaneously managing our families and our homes) by constantly acting in a doing mode. We know how to get things done.

Then we retire, with less structure to our days and maybe an abundance of free time. Our world changes. Some of us don’t miss a beat and move on to new ventures where doing mode continues to serve us well. A few of us relish the newfound freedom and space to just be, to explore ourselves and our world—have a coffee with a friend, begin a gratitude journal, take a walk in the woods and listen. I suspect, however, that many of us struggle to achieve balance between our prior accomplishment-focused doing mode and the ability to be in the present, to relax into our new retirement life.

To learn more, I reached out to retirement coach Virginia Macali, from Columbus, Ohio. She agreed that gaining an understanding of the concept of doing vs. being is a significant part of the retirement transition. She describes this transition as a shifting away from the first half of life, which is characterized by producing and by establishing our careers and our identity. During retirement, she sees her clients moving away from this work/home/identity phase and into a time of being—more present, more authentic and open to discovery.

But this doesn’t happen immediately on the first day of our post-work life. Virginia observes that her clients are initially still focused on doing. They have momentum from their work life and are used to being productive. They tackle long to-do lists and declutter, downsize, travel, volunteer and spend more time with family—things they didn’t have time for while working.

“It takes a while to get out of the work mentality,” she says, “but after a while, things start to slow down and we feel rested. Then comes a time when we refocus, renew, become more reflective and begin finding new direction.” She likens it to the shedding of an old skin before we can grow into a new one.

Hmmm. Slow down, refocus, become more reflective, find new direction. Good advice for those of us facing big life changes like retirement. And maybe for all of us right now, during this very challenging time.

Virginia Macali is a Retirement Transition Coach in Columbus, Ohio. Her website is virginiamacali.com.

Does this concept of doing vs. being during retirement resonate with you? How has it applied to your retirement journey? We’d love to hear from you.