What To Do When You Don’t Know What To Do In Retirement

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By Nancy Colmar, next avenue

Last year, my husband Joel, then 65, retired from a 30+ year career as an IT consultant. Initially, he reveled in his newly found freedom. But over time, the leisurely life lost its luster and Joel himself seemed a little lost.

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now as a retirement coach, I wasn’t concerned by Joel’s growing restlessness. Retirement can be surprisingly challenging and it often takes two years or more for people to settle down. Still, as his wife, experiencing the ups and downs of this transition for the first time was eye-opening.

Over the course of the year, Joel thankfully finally found his place. I want to tell you how this happened and what you can do if you are about to retire or have retired so that you can figure out what to do in retirement to maximize fulfillment.

What is my husband doing in retirement?

In Joel’s case, he got a wonderful mix. Joel stopped enrolling in a program to become a master naturalist, volunteered to teach a course on artisanal cheeses (a longtime passion of hers), took online courses, and started playing tennis again.

“It’s a work in progress,” Joel says. “On the one hand, I’m glad I have a decent portfolio of activities. But I know the specifics will change over time.”

Before I share the exact formula Joel used to craft his next act, I want to first say that there is no definitive recipe for retirement happiness.

A satisfying retirement is crafted with small steps and a sprinkling of calmness that takes you in a new direction. Maybe you have a conversation with a friend that results in an introduction to a new course that inspires you to join an exciting volunteer opportunity or a part-time gig.

It is almost always an unexpected journey.

Fortunately, even if you don’t know exactly where you’re going, there are things you can do to build momentum. Along with some suggested resources, Joel takes five key steps to get unstuck:

5 Critical Steps to a Successful Retirement Transition

1. Invest in self-reflection. Once you have clarity about what is most important in your life, your decisions about how to spend your time become easier.

What Joel found most helpful was to ponder and discuss questions that helped him articulate his driving motivations and interests. Four he found particularly useful:

What do you want to learn about? Now you have the opportunity to learn about new subjects for which you didn’t have time while working full time. Once you’ve identified your areas of interest, you’ll find endless books, webinars, lectures, podcasts, and classes to fill your day. For Joel, who had been the biology major in college, the opportunity to study the natural sciences again was at the top of his list.

When do you feel most useful and valuable? Think about a time when you felt most appreciated at work and in your personal life: Who were you serving? How specifically did you add value? Time spent on this question can lead you to interesting volunteer or part-time work possibilities.

What were you waiting to do? Many people have a bucket list of things they look forward to doing in retirement, like traveling, playing golf, spending more time with their adult children (and perhaps grandchildren) and relocating. But beyond the obvious, think about the day-to-day priorities, wellness goals, and legacy activities you want to pursue.

In Joel’s case, taking long daily walks was a priority, an indulgence for which he rarely had time before retirement, when he was a travel consultant.

Do you want to work in semi-retirement or volunteer? And if so, in what capacity? Options for Part Time Retirement Work Never been more diverse.

But don’t jump at the first “opportunity” offer, just to fill out the calendar. Last winter, at the peak of his boredom, Joel considered applying as our housing community’s clubhouse manager—a thankless volunteer gig advertised in our local newspaper. Luckily, after realizing that the job would be more pain than pleasure—and, well, a little nudge from me—she opted to put her effort toward finding a better fit.

Caution: While it’s important to ask yourself what type of work or volunteering you want to do, it’s equally important not to fall into analysis paralysis. The key to building momentum is to take action.

2. Sign-up for a class (or several). Thanks to the pandemic, free and low-cost online learning opportunities have exploded for retirees, both in person and virtual in all three.

Attending in-person classes is ideal for socialization, but virtual classes may be best until the virus subsides. Classes offered through retirement-focused programs such as OLLI and GetSetup.io offer many benefits: intellectual stimulation, skill building, and opportunities to meet like-minded retirees. And you never know where things can lead.

In Joel’s case, after attending virtual classes through the Delaware Valley University Center for Learning in Retirement, he decided to teach a six-session class about artisan cheese. Although he had never taught before, Joel found the experience quite rewarding and looks forward to offering the class again (the student feedback was great!).

3. Research Volunteer Opportunities. Joel and I relocated from Connecticut to Pennsylvania in 2020, so my husband was unfamiliar with the local volunteer landscape when he retired.

To find volunteer roles linked to his interest in the natural sciences, Joel searched Volunteermatch.org, a national databank of volunteer opportunities that can be filtered by location and interest area. When he didn’t return any matches, he went directly to the websites of several local nonprofits.

Here again, luck stepped in.

It was on the volunteer page of our local wildflower preserve that Joel first learned about becoming a Pennsylvania Master Naturalist, a designation that combines the study of local ecosystems with conservation work. The following year, as part of the certification process, he will volunteer in the protected area as well as several other places.

4. Make friends with a friend. As my favorite career guru Barbara Sher famously warned, “Isolation is a dream killer.” So, to boost your mood and momentum, look for ways to work together with a friend or perhaps a former colleague to do new things in retirement.

You might be surprised how much other retirees will appreciate your outreach. After hearing about the naturalist program from Joel, his friend Martin also enrolled, which made the experience more enjoyable for both men.

If you can’t find someone with similar interests, search sites like Meetup.com to expand your options.

5. Go slowly. Finally, I offer this final tip in honor of our wonderful editor, Rich Eisenberg, who retired from his job as managing editor of Next Avenue and its Work and Purpose and Money and Policy channels on January 5, 2022. are happening. Portfolio of “retirement” activities: While an empty calendar and the loss of a stagnant paycheck can feel unnecessary and unnatural, resist taking on too much, too quickly.

The noted authority on transition, William Bridges, says that all transitions are made up of an end, a neutral zone, and a new beginning. It is in neutral territory – the “fertile void” – that realignment takes hold and forms the foundation for a meaningful next work. Just ask Joel.


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