At age 59, Nancy A. Shenker changed her life. She gave away most of her belongings, moved to Arizona from New York, and began to focus on writing and public speaking in addition to the marketing consulting that had dominated her professional career. She wanted to create a more intentional life, with flexibility for travel, exercise, education and visits with her grandchildren. She calls it “pretirement.”
Then last year, a client dumped a huge project on her just as she was heading out of town to see her family, which overshadowed the entire trip.
“I’ll never get that time back,” says Shenker, now 64. “Balancing work and life is still a challenge, even though I’m not part of the corporate hamster wheel anymore.”
Whether fully or partially retired, some people are busier in their later years than when they were working full time. Where is that sense of leisurely ease retirees anticipated their entire working life? How can they make the most of precious hours and days that seem to fly by faster the older they get?
“Managing an abundance of time is as challenging as managing a scarcity of time because it requires you to ask what matters to you,” says Laura Vanderkam, author of 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think (Portfolio, $18) and Off the Clock: Feel Less Busy While Getting More Done (Portfolio, $25).
Productivity and time management experts like Vanderkam say you can reclaim your retirement with these nine tips for managing time better.
Forget Multitasking as a Time Management Skill
Before retirement, most people find meaning in their accomplishments. They equate staying busy with significance and importance, and may start to question their identity or value if their days aren’t full.
“There’s this existential vacuum for some retirees,” says Emily Esfahani Smith, Washington, D.C.-based author of The Power of Meaning (Crown, $25). “So many of their old roles and identities are either shifting or being taken away. It’s (losing) all these things at once that leaves life feeling emptier.”
Instead, there’s a tendency to re-create the experience of being busy by multitasking, which simply stresses the brain. “It’s a huge source of low-level chronic stress,” which takes a much bigger toll on our health and well-being by our 40s and 50s, says Christine Carter, a senior fellow at U.C. Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and author of The Sweet Spot: How to Accomplish More by Doing Less (Ballantine Books, $17).
Multitasking burdens your brain with cognitive overload, which Carter calls a “gas guzzler” for burning oxygen and blood sugar. Although that generates the emotional experience of productivity, “it’s toxic for the brain,” she says. “As we age, we want to challenge the brain, but we don’t want to tax it.”
For brain health in your older years, you should learn new things and practice recall, but do them one at a time so that you can focus deeply and more enjoyably on the task at hand. When you’re multitasking, your brain stops accessing the hippocampus, where memories are created and stored.
“If you think you have memory loss, maybe you’re just multitasking too much,” Carter says.
List 100 Things You’d Like to Do
Retirement is the time to make a difference, so assess the meaning and value you have for other people. Then prioritize doing what matters most.
Every week Adela Crandell Durkee of Oakwood Hills, Ill., considers how she can put her priorities—family, faith, a writing career and being a good global citizen—first. “It’s so important, or my life can be taken over by tasks,” says Durkee, 69.
Vanderkam recommends listing 100 dreams of things you’d like to do. Some could be bucket-list-worthy, such as visiting Africa, while others may be more mundane, like arranging a family photo shoot. You’ll have to dig deep to list 100 different ideas, which is the point.
Pacing Yourself is a Time Management Skill
It’s one thing to list those 100 things and another to do all of them. “You could challenge yourself to do one every two weeks, a big one every two months,” Vanderkam says.
As you prioritize the things that matter, you’ll naturally find that there’s less time for you to squander on the more mundane or workaday items.
“We can spend time mindlessly at any phase of life, and that’s the biggest problem.” Asking yourself how you would like to spend your time increases the chances that you’ll spend it the way you want, she says.
Introduce Regular Activities for Better Time Management
You may find that doing something regularly, like volunteer work or a hobby, provides necessary structure to your days and weeks. Or, as you become involved in your church or a nonprofit community, seeing the same people regularly nurtures new relationships, which contribute meaning.
“As people are living longer and living healthier lives, there are these decades in the last third or quarter of life that can be very productive. This stage of life can be defined by play and exploration and giving back to the community,” Smith says
Down Time is Also a Time Management Skill
Don’t fill your entire week with commitments. You want to create that sense of leisure, which is your payoff after a long career, by blocking out some downtime on your calendar.
Durkee likes to let her mind wander on long walks, gardening and bike rides. “Daydreaming tends to be a very nourishing activity for me.”
A whole new level of fulfillment can come just from slowing down, Smith says. “Sometimes that means embracing boredom or embracing empty time.”
Rest is especially important as our bodies age and we need more restorative time.
“When I can really rest and pause, I can hear what my body is asking of me,” says Mia Birdsong, Oakland, Calif.-based author of How We Show Up: Reclaiming Family, Friendship, and Community (Hachette Go, $17).
Good Time Management Means Trading Chores You Hate
The flip side of saying yes to your priorities is setting limits on the things you dislike. Create a massive to-do list and include all your obligations, Carter suggests. Then cross out everything you don’t want to do or dread doing.
“For the things you dread but must do, like laundry, see if you can delegate it to someone else,” she says.
Maybe you can trade tasks with a family member. Or if all else fails, pair the dreaded item with an enjoyable one, like folding laundry while listening to an audiobook. (You don’t experience the cognitive overload associated with multitasking if you combine a physical task with a cognitive one.)
Time Management Tip: Designate a Day for Must-Do Jobs
Consider assigning a limited window of time—perhaps one day a week—for the humdrum but necessary chores of life, like renewing your driver’s license or calling vendors.
“Try to push that stuff to one block of time so you don’t feel it’s always an option, so you don’t feel guilty,” Vanderkam says.
Good Time Management Means Setting Clear Boundaries
Think through your ideal daily and weekly schedule. How often do you want to be social? What time do you want to be home and in bed so you feel refreshed the next day? Honor your own boundaries by setting and sticking to them. “Be aware of what makes you feel really good,” says Carter.
Remember that we’re all socialized to believe our value lies in how much we can produce and get done. Retirement is a good time to let go of that lie.
“We don’t have to demonstrate our value. Our value is inherent to who we are,” Birdsong says.
Just Say No to Help Manage Your Time
Brace yourself for disappointing people who want to see you more than you’d like or ask you to do things that don’t interest you.
“You’re not responsible for other people’s emotions,” Carter says. “You’re making choices based on your own well-being.
Katherine Reynolds Lewis is an award-winning journalist, speaker and author of The Good News About Bad Behavior: Why Kids Are Less Disciplined Than Ever – And What to Do About It. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, Fortune, Medium, Mother Jones, The New York Times, Parents, Slate, USA Today, The Washington Post and Working Mother, among others. She's been an EWA Education Reporting Fellow, Fund for Investigative Journalism fellow and Logan Nonfiction Fellow at the Carey Institute for Global Good. Residencies include the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and Ragdale. A Harvard physics graduate, Katherine previously worked as a national correspondent for Newhouse and Bloomberg News, covering everything from financial and media policy to the White House.
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