When Solomon Noy retired from his nearly 20-year career as a correctional officer, he was used to 12-hour days on the job. His typical schedule was 4 p.m. to 4 a.m. or 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. In the decade since he retired, he says he has stuck with those 12-hour blocks because that’s what was familiar to him. Noy is an independent fellow, whose wife still works and who absolutely loves to watch his granddaughter play basketball.  Despite liking to do “whatever comes up,” Noy says it was important to him to maintain a routine because that’s what he’s used to.

Although many people heading toward the ends of their career might rank “Having no schedule” at the top of their retirement bucket list, it turns out that this doesn’t always result in a happy existence. As noted retirement writer Ernie Zelinski said in his 2010 book How to Retire Happy, Wild, and Free, “Losing structure and routine can create much havoc … time must be filled to pass the days, but empty time results in boredom and joyless living.”

Like Noy, most retirees have worked long enough that the structure of the organizations that employed them has become their own. If you worked from 9 to 5, for example, you are accustomed to fitting your pre-work schedule into the early hours between say 5:30 and 8:30 a.m. You no doubt got 30-60 minutes for lunch at 12 or 12:30 and you were ready for a break by 5. When you retire, although there is no real reason to live on this schedule, you just automatically do.

Some retirees want to see for themselves what their own “natural” schedule or routine might be when they are left to their own devices.  As many retirees have done, Suzie Chock Hunt, a retired educator, decided to turn off the alarm when she was finished with her career. “I just wanted to see what my natural schedule might be,” she says, learning that she normally awakens around 8 a.m. rather than 5:30 or 6 as she did when she was working. She spends an hour reading the paper and drinking coffee and then makes her way to a daily three-mile run. As a fine art painter in retirement, she gets to her canvas in the afternoon and may paint or write until 2 a.m. if the mood suits her.

Hunt’s enjoyment of retirement and appreciation of the value of life in her second act demonstrates one of the important lessons for all retirees: pay attention to your own sense of time. It’s easy to imagine that after decades of working, we might go to extremes in how we use time. Many people may think they still need to be productive eight hours a day, without even considering that eight-hour days were simply a product of the thoughts of social theorist Robert Owen during the late 1800s as part of the Industrial Revolution. Owen, who operated the New Lanark mine in Scotland, was actually trying to stop the practice of people working more than eight hours. His slogan was “Eight hours of labor, eight hours of recreation, and eight hours of rest.”

Still, some of us still feel we need to stick to a strict daily schedule like the ones we were on for years, while others may just decide to ad lib and see what works for them. Whatever the result, it’s a good idea to think about what comes naturally to you. Take off your watch for a couple of weeks and pay attention to when you’re tired, hungry, energetic, and reflective. This is your natural clock. Once you have a sense of what works for you, you can fit in other interests and activities around that.

One concern of some retirees is how to balance their retirement schedule with that of their spouse’s. After years of working, each person has established an independence that is impacted when two people retire at the same time. When the couple once spent only a few hours together each day, they are now with each other all day, every day. Having your own individual activities is important, says Hunt, but she agrees that balancing that with your spouse’s schedule is important.  “I’d probably be a totally different animal left to my own devices,” Hunt says. Even if you don’t have a spouse or a partner, it’s important to stay flexible enough to accommodate unexpected opportunities, especially for socializing, which requires considering someone else’s schedule.

David Rasul, a retired counselor and activist in both the Chicano and veterans communities, keeps his weekends largely unscheduled to spend time with his wife, who is still working. This is just one of his “guiding principles,” he says, for how he organizes his time and his life.  As a self-described “Type-A person” during his working years, the transition to open time was easier than he thought it would be.  “Switch your energy from going to work to following your passion,” Rasul says. To accomplish this, he thinks it’s a good idea to combine activities that serve multiple purposes. In his world, this means volunteering at his granddaughter’s school so he can work with kids, but spend more time with her.  He also enjoys interacting with old friends as they reconstruct their community’s past in a Chicano Oral History Project and several veterans’ projects.

Calming activities are also essential, says Rasul, who enjoys gardening, home projects, and San Francisco 49er games. “This is a must for solitude and reflection.” He says he feels lucky to have adjusted to retirement so easily given the intensity of his previous work life.  “When you think about how busy you want to be,” he says, “it’s like the jar that is filled with rocks …is it too much? No, fill it with smaller rocks. Too full? No, fill it with sand. Too full? No, fill it with water. Let your ganas (passionate energy) guide your short time you have above the ground.”

Sociologist and epidemiologist Esteban Calvo thinks this kind of reflection is important to people retiring or considering retirement. Calvo, who teaches at both Columbia University in New York and Universidad Diego Portales in Chile, specializes in researching aging and the life course. He focuses his work on “identifying and understanding the social factors experienced across the life course that influence the health and happiness of older adults.”

Calvo’s suggestion for people getting ready to retire? “Think about what you want to do that would contribute to your happiness and health,” he says. He also reminds retirees that, unlike working long years in one or two jobs, the transitions in retirement are not irreversible. “People can change multiple times in retirement,” he says. “You can design your new life, but you don’t have to do it forever. A lot of companies need short-term consultancies—work for a year or two—and then you can have a second retirement.”

Whatever one does in retirement, it’s remaining stimulated that’s truly important, Calvo adds. “Engage in challenging activities,” he says, whatever those might be for each individual. “We need to remain mentally healthy after retirement. If you were a CEO in your career, it won’t be challenging to do that same kind of thing in retirement,” he says.  “You might think about becoming a musician, instead. Now that would be a real challenge.”

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