What retirees do when they leave the workforce

Modern workers can have a tough time imagining what retirees do all day, or what retirement might be like when they reach that stage. Here's a look at one retired technology executive's typical day.

beautiful sunset

When you think about your life after leaving the workplace, do you think of a beach or some other form of an extended vacation? This is not unusual as it comes from your frame of reference.

Think about how you spend your days before retirement. Work consumes much of the time, and you try to fit in everything else on your days off and the time before or after work.

The only time this is different is when you go on vacation, and that's why it is easy to think about retirement as a permanent vacation. When you go on vacation in retirement, it will be like the vacations you experienced prior to retirement but you will no longer have the stress of worrying about what is happening back at work. However that is not an average day in retirement.

Rather than a vacation, retirement is simply the replacement of work tasks with all those activities you jammed into your non-work hours. The trick is understanding these activities are no longer secondary items that need to be accomplished quickly, but rather they are very important pursuits that should be appreciated and celebrated when they are completed. (For more on this concept, read my article on the keys to a successful retirement.)

Below I describe a typical day in retirement for me. I am not going to detail a day by providing a list of what I do.  Instead, I am going to specify different activity types and then describe what I might do within each type. That should make it easier for you to substitute what you like to do. For example, if I say I spent time splitting wood, that might not mean much to you. However, if I say I like to do active projects and then say I split wood within this activity, you can think about active projects you might like and substitute them.

A day in the life of Bob Ronan

Quick hits, get the day started

I check email, pay bills, order things online or read the news.

Exercise

For many people who retire, one of their first goals is to get in great shape. It is nice to have all the time you need to be able to focus on your health. At work, it is sometimes difficult to find the time to exercise. Now, my exercise time is not confined to the windows before or after work. On a day that starts out cold but is expected to warm up, I might wait and go for a bike ride in the nice weather. 

'Go-to' activities

These are activities I enjoy doing any time I have 20 to 30 minutes of free time. They are things I could spend hours doing, but I limit myself so they are always a treat when I do them. For me, reading is my favorite "go-to" activity. I often read 30 minutes in the morning and then another 30 minutes in the afternoon. Being retired allows you to read dense books that might be difficult to follow if you aren't reading them consistently.  Puzzles are another go-to activity that I enjoy doing.

Active projects

It is important to have a few projects that are on the active side. When I first retired, there were logs laying around — some of which were seven years old — that needed to be split, so that was a great active project, as well as one of my first go-to activities. I also assumed responsibility for work we otherwise would have had a landscaper do.  For example, we had several limbs down from an ice storm so I cut these into logs, starter kindling and brush.

Nonprofit or consulting work

For many retirees, this will consume some days. Be careful. I have two good friends who went down the nonprofit route and ended up working more hours and having more stress than when they were at work, at no pay. For me, I have one nonprofit commitment that I enjoy, and it does not consume too much of my time. I have had several opportunities to do consulting or project work, but I am just not interested. I would rather do activities I want to do than do projects someone else wants me to do.  Some of you will be different on this one.

Get out of the house

It is important to get out of the house every day, especially in the winter, even if it is just to go to the post office. There are usually errands that need to be run, or doctor's appointments, or a need to buy groceries for dinner.  My favorite get out of the house activities are doing things I could not do while I was working. As an example, last summer I went to an open practice held by our local professional football team. I've thought it might also be fun to go to a courtroom. 

Learn something new

Retirement provides the time to acquire new skills. As examples, you might want to learn a new language or learn to play a new musical instrument. I do this by buying DVD courses on different subjects such as cooking and photography.

Intellectual projects

It is important to keep the mind active. For me, I have enjoyed writing this column in retirement. It doesn't pay anything, but it allows me to express myself and stress my mind a bit. Other examples in my first year included moving to a smartphone and a new laptop. Perhaps "embarrassing" is the word I should use to explain how much time I have spent, as a retired technology executive, trying to figure out how to do some tasks on these devices. But, I do tend to push the limits of the technology and it is rewarding every time I figure out how to do something new.

House-related projects

There is always work that needs to get done around the house, such as washing the dishes or working with contractors on repairs. What is great about retirement is that these tasks get done on a timely basis. When I retired, we had a blown TV speaker that, without exaggerating, had been sitting in the middle of our family room for over a year. Retirement finally provided me with the time to take that speaker in to be fixed.

Hobbies

Hobbies are an area of life that often get the short shrift when you are working.  Retirement gives you the time to do the activities you love. I like to cook so I had a goal to write a cookbook. This was a good project for me because I could focus on one recipe at a time, and it became one of my first go-to activities. Golf is another great retirement activity because, a) it takes a lot of time, b) there are many different skills to work on, c) there is a feedback mechanism, and d) it is a social activity.

Miscellaneous projects

There are always projects that need to get done, and retirement gives you the time to do them. For example, putting together a vacation can be time consuming and stressful if you are trying to do it while working. Another example is to work on your genealogy as there are great tools on the internet. I did this and traced one of my bloodlines back 600 years.

Cook dinner

A great day for me is when I watch a cooking DVD, go to the store to buy the ingredients, and then cook the dish for dinner.

Watch sports or news

At this point of the day, my life is almost the same as when I was working. The one big difference for me is that I spent time reading at night when I was working but now I can do that during the day. Notice that I do not have a "watch TV" activity before the evening. I do occasionally put on the TV during the day, especially if there is a sporting event, such as the Olympics, but I generally try not to do it because it can make me lazy. One final point about TV is that retirement does allow you to stay up late watching sporting events or other shows because you know you do not have to get up to go to work in the morning.

The importance of personal activities vs. work activities

That's a typical day for me. One important point to note is that I have many types of activities and I do several of them every day. This is how I have great days; I generally don't do one thing for hours. Instead, I do many different activities 30 minutes at a time. When I wake up in the morning, I feel energized because I have all these different activities I could do, and I can pick the ones I want to do on that day. 

A friend of mine who retired before me kidded that in retirement, you have to be able to do nothing, and he said he found that he is very good at it. While this was said in jest, there is a gem of truth in it that I alluded to earlier in this article. When you are working, most people consider the activities I have described above as less important than work activities.

But why should activities you do for a company be more important than activities you do for yourself? As I noted in my first retirement article, you might think it odd if I told you going on vacation was a goal that I accomplished. But, if you enjoy traveling, you should consider traveling somewhere exciting an accomplishment.

The problem is that most of us develop a bias and believe traveling on business is more important than traveling to a bucket-list destination. Or we think completing a monthly status report is more important than going for a long bike ride. Not so, I say.

In retirement, some people can make the transition to regard personal activities as important accomplishments which add value to their lives. Others have difficulty doing so. Those who have difficulty tend to go back to work or spend much of their time with nonprofit organizations, and they can't understand how the rest of us "sit around and do nothing all day." Those of us who have made the transition love the retired lifestyle and can't imagine why anyone would work when they could do whatever they want.

Which group will you be in when you retire?

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