X. Busy Doing Nothing

My transition from being a frazzled, nine to five professional into a leisurely and not too busy retiree should have been smooth and easy. Instead it was complex, chaotic and contorted. Why was it a problem that I now had time to read for an entire afternoon, or spend all morning working on that essay I’d wanted to do for months? What’s wrong with me?

Retirement advice books and articles contain gems of wisdom. You just have to do it. You have to live through it and come out rediscovered. Down time is not wasted time. Be prepared to revise plans as new interests and opportunities pop up. But mostly the advice was that it was up to me to decide which options to take. No right or wrong answer.

One noted that many people just slide right into retirement with no trouble while others have a more difficult time. Obviously, I’m one of the latter. I’d moved back to this town after eight years and to a new apartment following divorce and retiring. Too many changes all at once. After everything was unpacked and put away, I had to face the anxiety of having nothing to do. No one was expecting anything from me and it didn’t matter to anyone if I got up in the morning or not.

Friends were also full of advice. Those who’d retired before me advised that I needed to find something to do each day. One friend said she purposely did one thing a day. It got her out and also gave her something to look forward to. Another said she “bundled,” meaning she waited until she had several things to do and then went out and got them done all in one day. She liked to stay at home more than me. Out of habit, I’d still get up and dressed early, then have my morning chai tea and head down to the library to read the newspaper. That took all of a half hour and I was back to having nothing to do.

I went through a period of anxiety and negative self-talk. I felt useless and nonessential. Often, I had to sit myself down and think this through once again to arrive at the conclusion that I was a very lucky person. Here I was, relatively healthy, having had a productive and satisfying career in a field that I loved. Because I’d been wise enough to save and plan, I had the money and other resources to have a near-perfect retirement. So, why wasn’t I happy?

Chronic list maker that I’d been throughout my work life, I continued this habit with abandon. It made me feel like I existed even though the things on my list were general rather than specific. Kind of mundane, too. Update the maps on my GPS. Sort through the folders in my file cabinet. Update my phone address book. Anything I thought of was added to the list. It made me feel real.

My appointment book was just as necessary as when I was working. I’d turn the page to the next week, find it blank and get a little anxious. But then as the dates neared, items were added and before I knew it, my schedule was as filled as I wanted it to be. And they’re all things I want to do!

With no deadlines, my chores kept getting put off. I began to think of myself as Scarlet O’Hara. I’ll think about that tomorrow. Each evening I’d make a list of things to do tomorrow; but the next day, I’d put them off. I can do that tomorrow. More negative self-talk. After sitting and stewing for a few days, I’d get a burst of energy and suddenly become productive. It felt good to check a few things off my bloody list.

It took about a year to find my way. And the journey is far from over but at least I’m on the right path. I accept that I’m a list maker and I’m using that to my advantage. I’m satisfied to get one or two things done each day, leaving Scarlet O’Hara in the dust! I’ve reconnected with old friends and have many lunch and coffee opportunities.

I’d quickly joined several book groups and writing groups which are my favorite activities and this gave me people to see and something to do. Now that I’m settled I’m ready to pare down these activities to a more manageable amount. Having a do-little day is more enjoyable than running from one thing to another.

My original promise to myself to take it slow and not jump into things just to fill up my time has worked. I still hold back on any serious commitment. I volunteer in the library in my building but I was wise to pick what I wanted to do and do no more. I shelve books and sort the magazines. That’s enough. I’m also volunteering for a writing association I belong to but I’m particular about what I say yes to.

The things that fill my days aren’t vital to world affairs or essential to the future of America; but they are important to me. I worked hard for many years and deserve this time. I know I’m not done yet. There are new adventures ahead and I’m open to whatever they may be. Retirement has turned out to be a precious and exciting time and I love being busy doing nothing.

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