For a happier retirement, the key isn’t how much free time you have to spend, it’s how you manage whatever free time you have.
That’s the conclusion of a fascinating new study about time management in retirement I think is worth heeding.
Earlier research has found that leisure time is important for retirees, positively influencing their happiness and sense of peace, and that a lack of planning can lead to boredom.
But this was the first study I’ve seen that looked at the significance of managing that leisure time.
Measuring Quality of Life in Retirement
The Taiwanese researchers — Wei-Ching Wang of I-Shou University, and Chang-Yang Wu and Chung-Chi Wu of the National Pingtung University of Science and Technology — studied 454 Taiwanese retirees to determine whether there was a link between how they managed their free time and their overall quality of life. (The retirees had an average of 8.3 hours of free time weekdays and 8.75 hours on the weekends, incidentally.)
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The study’s authors discovered that retirees with more free time weren’t happier than ones with less on their schedule. The “telling factor” was the way retirees used their idle hours.
“Individuals who manage their free time well enjoy a higher quality of life, whereas those who gain free time but do not use it properly gain little benefit,” the authors wrote in their article about the study appearing in the journal, Applied Research in Quality of Life.
How Much Time Management Is Enough?
I worried that using free time “properly” might mean scheduling your days maniacally which, to my mind, is the antithesis of retirement.
Actually, the researchers said, astute time management wasn’t about rigorously blocking out every minute of your day.
It was primarily about setting goals and priorities for your free time and then evaluating whether they were appropriate and achievable.
And, the authors say, a goal could be as simple as “I want to maintain relationships with others by joining in at least two recreational groups and programs.”
Organizing your activities on a daily or weekly basis (not hourly) is also important, they noted.
What Two Retirement Experts Think
The study’s findings resonated with two of the most astute retirement analysts I know: Bart Astor, author of AARP Roadmap for the Rest of Your Life, and Bob Lowry, who writes the Satisfying Retirement blog and recently published the e-book, Living a Satisfying Retirement.
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“It comes as no surprise to me that research shows having goals for our free time increases the quality of life when we’re 50+,” Astor told me. “The key I think — just as it is for our younger years — is to be able to always create new goals and challenges.”
To help retirees do that, Astor’s book lays out “Ten Steps to Creating Your Life Goals.”
Cautionary Advice for New Retirees
Astor advises not getting tied up in knots over making the right leisuretime choices. “It’s wonderful that we have so many options now, including things like encore careers, voluntourism and online learning. And it may not be easy to narrow the possibilities, but that’s OK,” he says. “It’s not a contest. We don’t have to get it right the first time.”
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Lowry, who recently completed his own survey of American retirees and pre-retirees, told me: “The freedom to structure one’s day around passions and interests is what can make retirement so satisfying.”
Figuring Out a System That Works
In July, the former management consultant wrote a terrific blog post about his trial-and-error experiences with time management during his first few years of retirement. Lowry was frank about his errors, conceding that the use of his newfound free time continues to be an issue, even after 12 years in retirement.
When he retired, Lowry returned to his old ways and became “the master of the to-do list,” with a fully structured schedule. “My daily calendar looked just like my work calendar: 15-30 minute blocks of time assigned to various tasks and activities,” he wrote. Lowry even scheduled time for napping.
“Surprise, surprise, this was a no-go,” Lowry said. “Not only did I feel pressured to meet a made-up schedule but I was doing most everything just so I could check it off the list.”
He then tried a different approach — the wholly unstructured “go-with-the-flow system.” Turned out, that was even worse. “Without a structure I didn’t know what to do,” Lowry wrote.
Ultimately, he arrived at a happy medium, blending schedules, to-do lists and free-flow. He jots down tasks he hopes to tackle but gives himself the freedom to move things from that day’s list “to tomorrow, next week or next month.”
I like that approach and hope to adhere to it when I retire someday. Time will tell.