The idea of kicking back with “nothin’ to do” in retirement sounds fabulous in young adulthood or middle age when life can feel overloaded, so it comes as something of a surprise that a major complaint about retirement is having “nothin’ to do.” To be fair, the contradictory complaint of “too many options” remains a common grumble among retirees as well, leaving us with the classic insight every kindergarten teacher, clergy member, and cruise director will offer: People need structure.
Freedom from choices or prioritization is appealing, but all it takes is one frustrated late afternoon wondering where the day went for most of us to recognize we needed a little more design. The blessing and the curse of our jobs have been they told us who we were, where to go, and what to do most of any given week. Exiting that phase of life is mostly a boon; each of us just has to make it so with some forethought. The need to have a plan is no less true at home than when we travel.
What follows are 10 recommendations for structuring your day in retirement to create the right balance of freedom and goal orientation. You’ll notice that some inter-relate, such as adding novelty through your nourishment. If 10 is too many for you or some of them aren’t your cup of tea, pick the top three that resonate for you and put them to use!
1. Start With A Plan
Your first hour is when you craft the narrative for what the day will be like. Whether you wake up grumbling or radiating light, carve out a moment for yourself to decide the theme of the day. What do you want it to feel like? Any specific outcomes in mind? You can accomplish this many ways, such as jotting a phrase on the kitchen eraser board or journaling for half an hour, but prescribe what winning means for this particular day.
Pro Tip: “I’m ‘Off Duty’ and deeply relaxed” is a perfectly good option.
Bonus: Pick a theme song for the day.
2. Create Daily Rituals
The root of the word “ritual” is rite, a sacred act. Rituals are moments in our lives we consciously devote to expressing our values or our gratitude, and feeling tuned in to something greater than ourselves. Some people conduct rituals through contact with the natural world, others through religious customs. Identify where this already exists in your day and can be enhanced, or if it needs to be introduced.
Pro Tip: The difference between a ritual and a routine is the consciousness we devote to it. This is about presence of mind.
Bonus: Ask someone you respect what their rituals are.
3. Establish Routines, Then Repeat
Routines are no less important than rituals. Functional habits are an asset to our longevity because of what they accomplish for us on a streamlined, unconscious basis. Are the nightly “sweet dreams” texts to your sibling or the daily clearing of your emails sacred acts? Maybe not, but it’s the very predictability and effectiveness of our routines that provides the canvas onto which we can add a splash of color to our lives.
Pro Tip: Drop a routine you should have stopped ages ago (Still paying for a newspaper?) and add a new one that’s overdue (How about a ripe piece of fruit before lunch?).
Bonus: Copy someone else’s routine that seems to work for them.
4. Experience Something New
You heard it here first! Okay, maybe not, but you should still add a little novelty to your day. Even driving different routes gets our brains firing, and following our curiosity either spontaneously or with more sophisticated planning not only makes life more interesting; it makes us more interesting. Researching your next travel plans counts — the learning and the anticipation are just as essential to the fun as the travel itself.
Pro Tip: Museums change their exhibitions periodically — same site, new museum. Get back in there!
Bonus: Try a new healthy food every week. The worst-case scenario is you get to complain about how bad it was.
5. Keep Moving
Every single day. Every day. Get out for a walk at the least, and running errands on foot counts. If you’re more interested in sports and achieving personal bests, build that into your day, or do your screen time on a treadmill or stationary bike. Fitness and movement practices now are the defining behavior of the quality and ease of your longevity later. Bring your water thermos and drink up!
Pro Tip: The enemy is sarcopenia (loss of muscle as we age). A little exertion goes a long way.
Bonus: If you’re a solo exerciser, more power to you, but get a buddy and combine your routines to add a little novelty and a lot of support in follow-through.
6. Make Social Connections
No, not social media. Do that to whatever extent it interests you, but be sure to build into each day some meaningful voice-to-voice social contact. That could mean lunch with a friend, a regular phone call or video meet-up, or routinely convening with acquaintances to play a game and shoot the breeze.
Pro Tip: Every other human being needs social contact, too. Plan to make some invitations, and also be ready to discuss changes if a stale social routine needs re-design work.
Bonus: People like to help. An easy way to convert acquaintances into friends is by asking them to pitch in on a volunteer action with you.
7. Enjoy Quiet Time
Even the most extroverted of us need some balance of “blessed solitude” to turn within for reflection or to have the feeling of “nothing going on” that we need. This is especially critical in the transition into retirement when we might discover a commute to and from work was giving us digestive time that we can no longer rely upon, or we suddenly have triple the time with a spouse or community members. Sometimes less is more.
Pro Tip: This is a proverbial Band-Aid removal conversation. It might be awkward to say “I need more time to myself,” but people get it and things will work so much better having had the dialogue.
Bonus: Caregivers absolutely must design the recharge of their own batteries, whether they gravitate to the role by personality or are thrust into it by circumstance.
8. Discover Your Purpose
It’s been well-documented that not only are our lives extended but also the quality of that longevity is enriched by purpose. Merely setting a daily goal or two is useful and provides a sense of direction and impact. You can also embrace a larger purpose, such as mentoring up-and-comers in your field of expertise or identifying a societal need and devoting time to address it.
Pro Tip: Shop around. The contributions you make don’t have to be grandiose. Something as simple as a weekly grocery shopping trip with a neighbor who shouldn’t quite be doing it solo anymore is high-impact, well-placed care.
Bonus: Think you’re not a green thumb? Experiment with a cactus. Providing care, and being interested in the well-being of something that needs us, matters profoundly.
9. Establish Good Eating Habits
At our house, there’s a state of mind we call “hangry.” Anything orchestrated while “hangry,” especially deciding what to eat, is a recipe for derailment. A better structure is to procure groceries with a full week in mind, and each day confirm tomorrow’s plan. This is true during travel as well. It seems like kids’ stuff, but let’s all admit we’ve had a bag of chips for lunch in lieu of a properly planned meal and suffered the consequences. Decide in advance what you’re eating, when, and with whom.
Pro Tip: “Doing lunch” does not have to be in person. Book regular lunches with people over video conferences. The social benefit is obvious but so is the health factor of accounting for “What are you having?”
Bonus: Here’s a simple, high quality resource on meal planning from the National Institute on Aging.
10. Reassess At The End Of The Day
Take a reset moment at the conclusion of your day. Even if you brilliantly designed “doing nothing” and accomplished it, your day was a trove of experiences. Whether your context for this pause is gratitude, prayer, meditation, or identifying lessons learned, this pause is when you crystalize the benefits of being you for that day or identify the items you’ll do better next time.
Pro Tip: Make a “note to self” for the next morning to inform your design of the day. That future version of yourself can always disregard the advice, but the continuity of experience is valuable.
Bonus: Sluffing off a bad day or disappointment is important, too. Stating “I ain’t lettin’ that happen again” can be a freeing act, especially coupled with a specific plan of how to make it different.
We really do have a choice in how we perceive, and approach, retirement. We can outlive our jobs and find ourselves surviving that new status, or we can maximize a new phase of life with particular specifications unique to our own interests and needs. The word “structure” comes from the Latin structus, meaning “assembled or arranged.” Have fun designing your ideal retirement, day by day — some assembly required!