In this season of giving thanks, I’ve been reflecting on what I’m grateful for. One thing that’s near the top of my list is that I’m able to downshift into retirement instead of coming to a hard stop. When I turned 65, I made a conscious decision to take this glidepath approach to retirement—which I wrote about in our very first Retirement Voices blog. My intention was to gradually let go of my freelance writing clients, lessening my work commitments over time instead of all at once.

I had no set timetable to begin this “divestiture.” To be honest, until this year I resisted pulling the trigger because I still hadn’t come to terms with stepping away from work (or at least not working as much).

What was the hold-up? Part of it was ego; I liked feeling needed, my services in demand. I also liked having a to-do list—and feeling productive when I ticked things off it. Plus, I liked having accounts receivable, even though I knew that, between Social Security and retirement savings, I had enough to live on without the business income. Then, once the pandemic kicked in, I figured I might as well work since there wasn’t much else to do, right?

In what some might see as a sign that I was meant to downshift, a couple of clients stopped giving me work due to pandemic-related belt-tightening. But I soon realized that I had to take the reins of this transition instead of allowing it to just happen to me. Several things reinforced this awareness.

What finally got me started

First, I took on a big assignment early this year that turned out to be the project from hell. I’d initially turned it down because my gut told me it’d be crazy-making. But the client pleaded and agreed to my request for a different project manager. Plus, I was facing an outsize bill for dental implants and the project fee would more than cover it. So I accepted—and lived to regret how it consumed my life for the better part of five months as the project’s goalposts kept shifting.

I also found myself increasingly contemplating my mortality (and wondering if the stress of the project from hell was going to be the death of me). But there was also the barrage of news about people dying from COVID-19. And turning 67 last June was a stark reminder that there are a helluva lot more birthdays behind me than up ahead. Then, as I was reading through the obituaries in my local newspaper one Sunday (yeah, I do that), I had this slap-upside-the-head realization that I’m going to be among them someday—so why in hell am I continuing to work so damn much instead of enjoying the time I have left on this earth?

Around this same time, Hubs tactfully weighed in that he thought it was time for me to work less and play more—the first time he’d made his preferences known so forthrightly. When someone you love wants to spend more time with you, how (or why) would you say no?

So finally, after at least two years of paying lip service to the idea of downshifting, I began to actually do it. I notified all but two clients over the summer and early fall that I was moving into semi-retirement and wouldn’t be accepting any more work from them. The clients I kept were those whose assignments I enjoy and who appreciate my work—giving me a healthy, manageable way to keep my brain engaged until I’m ready and willing to downshift further.

What I’m learning about downshifting

It’s been an interesting transition so far. I thought I’d have much more unstructured time to simply be—to think, ponder and reflect on what’s next without the pressure of multiple deadlines. But Retirement Voices—writing and promoting this blog, being active on social media, participating in podcasts and virtual meetups, and working with Leslie on our book-to-be—has taken up more time than I anticipated. I am, however, taking Fridays off and trying to function on weekends without a to-do list (it’s not working so far!).

My ego took a bit of a hit as I’ve been reminded of the truth of the adage, “No one is indispensable.” To ensure a smooth transition, I recommended another writer to a couple of longtime clients when I stepped away, and she has stepped in seamlessly. There’s been no gnashing of teeth or rending of garments at my leave-taking. Given how much lighter and freer I feel with fewer client deadlines, however, I can live with that.

Another realization I’ve had is that when you retire all at once, you often go out with a bang—some sort of party or ceremony marks the transition. Not so when you downshift. While I call myself semi-retired these days, it sometimes feels as if my career is coming to a close not with a bang but a whimper (with apologies to T.S. Eliot). Again, though, given how the glidepath approach enables me to ease into retirement at my own pace, I can live with that.

The biggest retirement lesson so far

Perhaps the biggest lesson I’m learning is that retirement really is a process, not a one-and-done event. Many of the women who answered our Retirement Voices questionnaire expressed this same realization, noting that it can take months, if not years, to settle into a post-career life.

In this season of gratitude, I’m thankful that I have the latitude to initiate this process on a timetable I determine. As a result, I’m able to move into retirement the same way I plan to eat our too-big-for-two Thanksgiving turkey: one bite at a time.

And that’s a tasty proposition.

What do you think? What approach to retirement—gradual or all at once—do you think works best—and why? We love comments!