One of the questions we asked women via our Retirement Voices questionnaire last year was what surprised them about retirement. What surprised us was how many women mentioned time—and how there wasn’t enough of it!
So if you fear you’ll be bored or at loose ends with too much time on your hands once you stop working—something I admit I feel some angst about as I’ve begun downshifting into semi-retirement—this sampling of our respondents’ experiences may help set your mind at ease. It did mine.
“I’m so busy that I wonder how I ever had time to work!”
This was the most common refrain we heard from respondents. Having held down a job (sometimes two!) in addition to raising a family, maintaining a home, tending to pets, and pursuing personal interests during their working years, they’re surprised by how busy—or even busier—they are in retirement. Their struggle isn’t about finding things to do (my fear)—it’s about finding room in their schedule to do everything they want.
A former IT project manager from Canfield, Ohio, put it this way: “[I’m surprised by] how little time there is…every day to do what I want to do…and how little time there is left on earth to make a difference. How did I ever work?”
Another respondent admits she used to be scornful of retirees who made such a claim but says that now she “gets it” because her post-work days are so full.
Perhaps it’s a variation on Parkinson’s Law—the notion that work (or, in this case, post-work activity) expands to fill the time available for its completion. Regardless, I find it reassuring that so many retired women find this stage of life so rich in ways to spend their time.
How fast time goes by
While I often find myself bemoaning how quickly time seems to pass as I get older, I’ve thought it might slow down once I slow down in retirement. Apparently, so did many of our respondents—and they’re surprised to find it isn’t so.
“The days, weeks, months just fly by,” writes this former assistant to a seminary president; she retired to San Miguel de Allende, Mexico in the 1990s. “I measure time in years now. I never have enough time.” Another respondent says that each day feels like it’s only 12 hours long, not 24.
Turns out, there’s a scientific explanation for this. According to a July 1, 2016, Scientific American piece by James M. Broadway, a researcher in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and Brittiney Sandoval, a UCSB graduate, how we experience time varies with whatever we’re doing and how we feel about it. In other words, time does fly when we’re having fun. Why? Our brain encodes new experiences into memory and, looking back, our judgment of time is based on how many new memories we create over a given period. In other words, the more new memories we create during a vacation, for example, the longer that trip will seem in hindsight.
This phenomenon may explain why time seems to pass more quickly the older we get. As children and young adults, we have countless new-to-us experiences. As we age, however, our lives often get more routine and we have fewer out-of-the-ordinary moments. As a result, our early years seem to occupy more real estate in our memory banks and, in retrospect, seem to have lasted longer.
The good news is that scientists tell us we can alter these perceptions about time whizzing by by keeping our brain active, continuing to learn new skills and ideas, and exploring new places. Sounds like a great way to spend time in retirement, right?
The fear of being bored has vanished
As I downshift toward retirement, I confess that I wonder if I’ll feel bored without the demands of work to fill my time. I’m not alone. Several respondents wrote about how they thought they’d need structure, goals and timetables to keep them from being bored once they stopped working. One wrote about how she was advised to have something planned for every day so she’d have a reason to get out of bed. But she soon discovered that she loved not having a schedule and having the flexibility to say yes to a last-minute lunch date or gardening class.
I get it. As a freelance writer, I’m perpetually on deadline. There’s always something I have to do to fulfill my commitment to a client. But as I lessen my workload, the specter of a shorter to-do list gets less scary and more enticing. This retiree’s response gives me hope and confidence:
“Many of my friends who knew how much I poured myself into work thought I would be bored in retirement; that has NOT been the case,” says a former medical research clinical trials protocol manager from Annapolis, Maryland. “When we are given or have earned the gift of free time, filling it with learning, building, reaching out, etc., how could one POSSIBLY be bored? Time [is] such a gift.”
Filling your time as you choose
In retirement, when you’re no longer marching to the beat of an employer or client demands, your time is your own—and you’re freer to spend it on the things you want to do versus those you must or “should” do. But there are still surprises that come with charting your own course.
One retiree wrote about how all the projects that she thought she’d knock off once she retired remained undone several years later because they still weren’t a priority—even now that she had the time to complete them. Another realized her anxious need to be busy wasn’t just a holdover work issue but partly a personality issue—and she’s learned that she can “waste” time doing “nothing” because she now has enough time to do so. I can appreciate that lesson!
But what I found to be one of the most poignant insights about time and retirement came from a former jewelry designer, shop owner and art teacher from Portland, Oregon, who writes:
“The biggest surprise is the sense of how finite time is,” she says. “One quickly learns that it’s necessary to make clear choices everyday of how you want to spend that precious time.”
So, what do you think? If you’re retired, how do these women’s responses compare with what you’re experiencing at this stage of life? Or if you’re not there yet, how do you think you’ll feel when work no longer dictates how you spend your time? Wherever you are in your retirement journey, please share your thoughts!