“So what do you do with all your free time!? Don’t you get bored?”
This is my second favourite (albeit a combo) question that people ask us now that we are “retired”.
When people ask this question, I feel like it underscores the misconceptions surrounding the pursuit of Financial Freedom, and early “retirement” as a whole. It’s one of the reasons I often put “early retirement” in quotations in my posts. Although the phrase has become part of the whole FIRE trend, it does little to embody what most people are actually after.
For many people in the FIRE/FF community – retiring early is most definitely not about the desire to do nothing all day. It’s about freedom from the constraints of a job, enabling us to reclaim our most valuable resource, time. Time to pursue the things that matter most to each of us as individuals.
The things and experiences you get real value and enjoyment from, the ones that have piqued your interest for years but you just couldn’t quite squeeze in amongst all your other priorities. And rarely does achieving early retirement translate into a situation where early retiree’s aren’t working on a project of some type.
(Take this blog for example. Not to mention, when people ask this question I can only assume that they have forgotten that Mike and I also have two boys to raise.)
But this effect of having essentially total control over how we and our kids spend our days has necessitated some adjusting.
Ironically, in the midst of the insanity of a “working schedule” there’s also something very easy about it.
You all hustle out of bed, get breakfast, drop the kids at school/daycare, show up for work, exhaust most of your mental resources, drive back home while mentally planning dinner, outfits/lunches/activities for the next day, pick up the kids, scramble to serve dinner, off to activities, bath, bedtime routines, and if you are lucky, a little downtime for the adults. Then head to bed to do it all over again the next day.
Which equates to almost always having somewhere to be, or something to do. While I did not enjoy this hectic North American “busy-ness”, there was a mindless ease to all of it. I knew exactly where I needed to be and what I needed to be doing almost all the time.
Even since retiring, I generally like to be doing something that has a semblance of productivity – even if that something is as simple as taking my son out for a walk.
It’s active, gets my son and I some fresh air, and generally I walk to the store/library/rec centre, or some other destination, and therefore feel like I’m achieving some degree of efficiency with my leisurely walks.
But very quickly into retired life I found I was struggling with the whole – what are we going to do today? While AWESOME to be able to choose, I was rapidly feeling like planning my day was becoming akin to answering the “What’s for dinner?” question. I was encountering decision fatigue from TOO much choice – and not enough structure.
That’s when it dawned on me. I am 110% a creature of habit.
Humans are in general, but I do fall towards the upper end of that spectrum. I LOVE routine. Love, love, love, love it.
Not like in an OCD, Jack Nicholson in As Good As It Gets, kind of way. But a nice degree of structure makes me a happier person.
(I actually tried to write myself up a weekly schedule after I made this little self-discovery – turns out that was taking things a little too far. Even for me.)
But, I’ve slowly found my happy medium. Given that we have a toddler – routine works well on a number of fronts right now.
I have a pretty set pattern for when I get up in the morning (make coffee and breakfast, spend some reading time with my youngest while Mike takes our oldest to school), once we’re both presentably dressed (which sometimes takes awhile because my toddler has an aversion to wearing pants), we then have a nice big chunk of “free time” in the morning where I alternate between going for a walk and running errands, or taking my little guy to an activity, the zoo, appointments etc, then a set routine around his nap (that’s when I churn out all this awesome content for the blog, or sometimes I clean the house, its hard to write when there’s laundry to be folded), then another chunk of “free time” during the afternoon, where I generally split my time between some sort of household cleaning/maintenance, a waiting DIY project or craft, and playing with the kids.
5 o’clock still comes really quick, and then I start getting dinner ready, followed shortly thereafter by the little ones bedtime routine. After he’s down, Mike and I try to spend some quality time with our oldest playing a board game, taking him to his activities, or lately we’ve been watching the entire series of the Office with him (He gets about 60% of the jokes at this point, there’s still quite a few “what does that mean?” moments, but nevertheless it’s a lot of fun), then it’s his bedtime, Mike and I debrief our day, read or maybe watch a TV show, and then lights out in the house.
There. That’s the answer. That’s a decent representation of what I do with 80% of my time, and yet my days still seem plenty full. Pretty exciting stuff hey? (The other 20% is generally structured around travel of some sort to visit family, which is definitely a perk of retirement!)
As I’ve come to recognize, my affinity for routine isn’t just satisfying my desire for self-imposed structure. Routines also have the added benefit of reducing stress, decreasing the occurrence of decision fatigue, improving sleep, increasing your odds of consistently exercising, and overall contributing to a higher likelihood of efficiency and organization.
And of course, all of those things end up seamlessly feeding into each other in an upwards spiralling effect. Less stress means you sleep better, when you sleep better, you exercise more, when you exercise more you have more energy and tend to be more efficient and organized, which causes you to be less stressed, and so on and so forth.
You get the idea.
The beauty of a routine is that it doesn’t need to be a plan for every minute of your day. You can tailor it to fit your needs and personality, gaining all the benefits in a way that seamlessly integrates with your life.
Given that most people lose the majority of their traditional daily structure when they transition to retirement, it’s a big reason to plan in advance what your ideal routine will look like when you do make that leap.
Even better – take that “ideal routine” for a test drive at least a few times before hand. You’ll quickly identify what you do/don’t like, and can change up your plans as needed to help that retirement transition go even more smoothly.
Note* I did not do this, but I wish I had – I have spent a LOT of post-retirement time A) figuring out that I need a daily routine, and B) tweaking said routine (which is still in progress).
The Anti-Routine Enters From Stage Left
BUT – for all the benefits that routines have, there is one area for which they don’t help us at all. In fact – they can actually be a hinderance.
Remember when I said that working life had a degree of mindlessness to it’s flow? Well that’s exactly the problem. Our brains are incredibly good at taking repeated behaviour and consolidating them into “brackets” or “chunks”, which allows for habitual actions to be performed near effortlessly. (Think brushing your teeth, putting on your seatbelt, etc).
So when you follow a rigid routine day in and day out, those behaviours and sequences become habits, and your brain goes into auto-pilot mode. Great for a Tesla – not so great for your brain. At least not all the time.
Putting your brain on auto-pilot means you’re using the exact same neural pathways day after day after day, failing to challenge your existing pathways or create new ones. This is an amazing way to hone an intense skill, like playing the piano, or solving a Rubik’s cube. To be good at those things we require well worn neural pathways that can perform the action without us even being consciously aware of the movements we are making (often referred to as muscle memory, except it has nothing to do with our muscles).
Unfortunately, auto-pilot is not a great way to keep our brains sharp in our retirement years.
But don’t despair, it turns out that there are many easy ways to garner the benefits of a routine, while introducing sufficient flexibility to keep your brain in top form. Way’s that don’t require crosswords or sudoku puzzles (although those are awesome too.)
Allow me to introduce the anti-routine.
The balance of the routine / anti-routine comes down to introducing sufficient structure to harness the power and mental ease of the routine, while allowing for ample variables to keep your brain matter on its toes.
What does that look like?
Simple. If I like to take my little guy for a one hour walk every morning at 9AM, I can maintain that part of my routine, BUT I can choose to vary up the path I take each day. Rather than walking the same route, navigating turns without a second thought, by adding in the variability of new route combinations, I force my brain to have to THINK about what I’m doing.
You can do exactly the same thing with your commute to/from work.
This also works well with cooking. Sure you may start making dinner at 530 every night, but by consistently adding new recipes to your repertoire each week (even just 1), you’re yelling at your brain “Hey, pay attention!”. If your brain knows it doesn’t want to deal with eating burnt enchiladas (or your kids complaining about them) it’s gonna snap right to it.
Or maybe you always start your work day by checking your e-mails? Send your brain for a loop and sort through your paper inbox instead (wait, people still have those, right?).
If you want to up the ante, learning a new activity, language, or musical instrument are also ways to activate new neural pathways, challenging your mind on multiple levels. What better way to kick off your retired life than making space for a hobby or interest that’s always caught your eye?
The great news – studies show that even by adding in small variables to our daily routines, people see consistent improvements in the brain regions controlling learning, memory processes, emotional regulation, and perspective-taking.
The Bottom Line
Routines are great – but not if they are so rigid that your mind RARELY has to jump in and make some ninja moves.
In order to capture all the benefits of both the routine and anti-routine as you move into early retirement, develop a daily routine that works for where you fall on the “creature of habit” spectrum, but allow for sufficient variability to keep your Hippocampus firing on all cylinders.
The beautiful thing about retirement is, if you find your routine/anti-routine isn’t working for you, chances are you have all the freedom in the world to change things up 🙂
Hope you enjoyed part 2 of our 5 part Early Retirement Series!
Next week is all about the impact of Early Retirement on your relationships. Trust me, you don’t want to miss this one.
If you are enjoying our blog, step outside your routine and consider giving us a shout out on your favourite social media platform! Or stick to the usual and just hit one of the social media buttons below, that works too 🙂
I can relate to this! I work out of town for two weeks of long days and a very strict routine. Then home for two weeks of ‘freedom’. It’s very easy to burn a day because all of a sudden I have no routine. Like you, productivity plays a big role in whether I feel like I’ve had a good day or not. I’m always the happiest when I find a DIY project that I can get deep into or some volunteer work that gets me up and doing things on a schedule. It really is such a fine balance between feeling like one has time affluence and yet still some structure and routine.
Thanks for the comment 🙂 I think huge swings in your structure/freedom can pose their own major challenges in finding that balance! Do you find you need a day or two to unwind when you come back from work – or is it better when you launch into a project etc straight away?
The DIY projects are a big one for me too – I always feel accomplished when I build or improve something, and that makes the R&R that much more enjoyable!
That’s a good question. When I’m coming home to a project that I’ve planned. I’ll jump on it right away while I’m used to the early mornings. However, if there’s nothing pressing I’ll definitely laze around for a couple of days before getting my ass in gear. The danger of that is having to overcome the procrastination and how quickly the routine has been erased.
Makes sense – I find that’s key for me as well. Having clarity in my to do list/priorities for the week helps keep me on track, motivated and feeling accomplished. Keeping that list do-able allows me to avoid the danger zone of procrastination!