Just over a month ago I wrote about my intention to write a monthly (or thereabouts) blog about typical retirement problems and perhaps as a bonus some remedial suggestions about what a retired person could do to tackle these problems. Last month I looked at the feeling of not belonging to a group. This month’s offering is the problem / opportunity retirement can present to some us related the lack of structure in our lives. It goes something like this – when we are working we generally have some kind of structure imposed upon us. True it varies from the solid 9 to 5 and be fired if you don’t turn up regularly each day, to people who, say, are required to work 40 hours a week but it’s up to us how, where and when we fulfil this commitment. Self-employed people have a similar working arrangement. Most of us are somewhere in between. It is probably obvious that the nearer to the flexible end of the spectrum our working lives have been, the easier we will find the lack of structure typically associated with retirement. I say easier but of course it’s not quite that straight forward. You wouldn’t have expected anything to do with retirement, at least as I write about it, to be simple, would you?For the person who had greater flexibility while the lack of structure might be less problematic, there was still a considerable degree of accountability, a task to be completed within a given time span. I think it’s fair to say that any kind of labour which brings financial reward is not free from obligation. This obligation either self-imposed or externally generated is one component of our self-esteem as a working person. We are needed. If we do our job well, however that might be defined, even more of our self-esteem is linked with this success. These factors tend to impose a structure on our working lives. Furthermore, this structure, this level of accountability, means we have little time to agonise about whether the structure that is imposed is good, bad or indifferent. We’re too busy getting on with our lives and supporting our family or ourselves to worry about the quality of that structure. On a daily basis the structure is simply what it is. True there are moments when we consider whether the career we’ve chosen / had chosen for us is the ‘right’ one, but mostly life is what it is.
Then we reach 65 or whatever it is for people these days and almost at a stroke, unless we’ve been sensible enough to wind down gradually ( I did and it hasn’t made a blind bit of difference to my satisfaction levels with retirement), everything we counted upon for good or bad, disappears. Poof, all gone. We stand in the station and watch the train pull out without us on it. Some of us might chase the train down the track for a distance, we might even remount the train and then get off at another station further down the track, but, on the whole, it’s gone and everything you knew about in life gone with it. Predictability, certainty, routine ‘all gone away’ as my daughter used to say when she was a little girl, usually referring to her vegetables on her plate when the evidence was that they clearly hadn’t. But I digress.
So let me turn to the part of the blog that challenges me, as a retired person with a background in psychology, to come up with some tactics for lessening the pain that lack of structure (for some of us) brings.
- Understand the concept, with understanding comes acceptance (sometimes). One of things you might do, as a means of getting the beast under some kind of control, is to examine in a bit more depth what this thing called structure means to you. If you understand the beast a little more it might help you decide whether you actually want ‘it’ under control or whether you might be willing / even keen to give it a longer leash. So try some word association, make yourself a mind-map of the concept of structure. Like the one in the image at the beginning of this blog, it’s not a great example but you’ll get the idea. Ask yourself which, if any, of your connected words you like the look of and want to build on in terms of guiding principles for your retirement life. Which ones are you happy to kick into the long grass?
- Change yourself. Don’t worry / care about this change, in fact welcome the opportunities that a blank diary brings. It’s a variation on that old Ghandi thing again – it’s not a problem unless you make it one. Or to call upon the Cognitive Behavioural perspective – if you think it’s a problem, it will be. As Dreikurs or was it Adler, wrote there are no such things as facts, only the interpretation we put upon them. If we think lack of structure is going to be difficult then it certainly will be. Psychologists call this faulty thinking. They would recommend perhaps a little self-examination of our thinking, asking ourselves, why should a lack of structure be a problem for me? Even, what am I afraid of? Why should this lack of structure be a threat to my self-esteem (if it feels like this)? I don’t want to go into too much depth about the area of self-esteem in this blog because I want to return to this important aspect of retirement in a later blog. Most of all convince yourself that this tabla rasa is an opportunity not a threat.
- Change your environment. In the last strategy you might say, you change yourself. In this approach you change the environment and keep your ‘needs’ basically the same. Let’s just assume you are the kind of person who likes a little routine in their lives, nothing too stifling but just a bit of predictability, you know, so a person knows where they stand every now and again. Then you might try doing what Mrs Summerhouse and I worked on the other week. Strangely for her, she decided she needed a little more organisation in her retirement life so we set about devising a timetable for her activities. It was actually harder than we thought. For example, the first question was an obvious one – what activities do I want to include in the timetable and which ones can be left to take care of themselves whenever seems right. The second question was what period of time are we looking at here – daily, weekly, monthly? She decided on weekly but then instead of going the whole hog and writing out a weekly timetable with, for example, Monday 9 until 12, art, she decided she wanted to think in terms of each activity having a ‘required’ number of hours each week. When those hours fitted into the week is up to her to decide. Will this work for her? Well, too soon to say, I know what I predict but time will tell. Incidentally, we have committed the cardinal sin of any goal-setting exercise and not built in a monitoring and review process. But, as I’ve said I’m surprised she engaged in this process at all, so better not over egg the pudding. Is that the expression?
So there we have it, number two in the series of problems unique (mostly) to retirement. I’m pretty confident that the ‘area’ exists, it’s up to you to decide whether the advice I have offered here is specific and related to the area to be helpful. As always please feel free to let me know or any other suggestions about the tricky area of retirement and lack of structure.