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Downshifting From a Life in Overdrive

Do we slow down because we retire? Or do we retire because we slow down? 


Do you think that when we slow down, it’s because we’re aging or because the nature of retired life demands less of us?

I ask because, as I near 64, I look with a mix of wonder and bewilderment at the politicians, judges and entertainers who are more than a decade older than I and going full-tilt at their careers. Where do they get their energy? Are they aberrations? Or do their demanding jobs keep them young?

I ask because, as I approach retirement, I see indications of slow-down. I can’t tell if what I’m experiencing (common things like short-term memory loss, diminishing energy reserves, earlier bedtime) is a natural byproduct of aging or if it’s the unintended side effect of stepping away from the fast-paced life of a demanding job.

Am I, in other words, slowing down because I’m moving toward retirement? Or am I moving toward retirement because I’m slowing down?

It’s not that I can’t stay at my desk and crank out copy when an editor needs it. (Nothing like a deadline to focus your attention and energy.) But most days there are no deadlines beyond those I impose on my own writing projects. Unlike decades past, when nothing less than three to four hours of concentrated writing would satisfy me, I now feel sated after two hours of dedicated writing. Some days, I feel pretty drained, actually.

Is that because I’ve lost the habit of putting in long hours? If so, am I my own co-conspirator in my aging process, allowing changing habits to hasten the process? Or is this slow-down driven by biology, a natural part of the aging process that’s demanding I slow my pace, whether I like it or not?

Certainly, my disinclination to put in long hours — let alone late hours — supports my sense that I would not relish a full-time workload at this point in my life. I like my less-jammed, roomier schedule. I like having the ability to choose what kinds of work, paid or volunteer, I take on. I like having the opportunity to explore activities that I haven’t investigated before.

I don’t, however, like days when I have little on my calendar.

Granted, many of these are weekend days, but given the absence of a regular workweek, it makes little difference to me if it’s a Tuesday or a Sunday. Where once such an abundance of unstructured time would have filled me with joy, now it sometimes drags on me — a weight that makes me wonder if, by leaving the regular workforce, I’m accelerating my aging.

A Checklist of Interests

Certainly, I’ve made efforts to fill the expanded free time with worthwhile and satisfying endeavors. In addition to getting certified as a life coach in order to launch a post-retirement, part-time career as a grief and divorce coach, I’ve been proactive about developing the sorts of interests that retirees are encouraged to explore.

Volunteer work? Check. (I’m a crisis counselor on the Crisis Text Line, a 24/7 hotline that offers support to people of all ages in all 50 states.)

Exercise? Check. (I attend Pilates classes four, sometimes five times a week. I think I’m actually more fit now than I was in my thirties when I was lucky if I could squeeze in a lunchtime yoga class once a week.)

Creative activity? Check. (Took a drawing class. Not my cup of creativity. It probably didn’t help that my drawings looked worthy of a fourth grader. I also dove into coloring for several months. Not quite sure why I’ve let that one slide. Maybe I tired of all those mandalas.)

Soul enrichment? Check. (Been meditating for two years now. More days than not, I put in 15 minutes on the proverbial cushion; once a week, I participate in an hour-long sit with a group.)

Friends? Check. (In addition to maintaining old relationships, I’ve nurtured new ones, among them my meditation and Pilates buddies.)

Grandchildren? (Not yet, and none in sight. But my husband and I did get a puppy recently. Very entertaining. The dog, that is; not the pee and poop accidents.)

All of this is supplemented by activities that I hope will help keep my brain cells active and healthy. I listen to lots of thoughtful podcasts (a substitute, of sorts, for the interesting office conversations about international and domestic issues I used to enjoy with fellow journalists). I play a few online games that challenge my speed, logic and vocabulary. (Also, hey, they’re fun.)

And I read. A lot. Novels. Memoirs. Nonfiction. As for my news diet, I swear I consume more newspaper, magazine and online articles now than I did when I was a working journalist. I’d like to believe the time I’m putting in is not only well invested, but a reflection of the times we’re living in. (All the truths I held to be self-evident while earning a BA in politics back in the ’70s are now being tested so rigorously that I sometimes feel like I’m earning another degree, this time at the Ph.D level.)

The Value of ‘Intentional Idleness’

But then I remember a friend’s father from childhood days, one who seemed older than most of the other dads. Didn’t matter what time of day I showed up to play with my friend, there was her father, reading The New York Times in the living room. I remember thinking: Doesn’t he have anything else to do?

Don’t I?

I ask because, as I move closer to retirement, I look at those septuagenarian and octogenarian politicians, judges and entertainers, and I wonder: Are they doing it right? Am I doing it wrong? Did The Beatles throw down a false marker on this “when I’m 64” business?

Then I think about what those elders’ days must be. All that running around. All that doing what they’ve been doing for the last several decades. Do I really want to keep tilting in the same direction I always have? Where’s the learning curve in that?

I have a meditation friend who speaks of “intentional idleness.” He encourages people to let go of so much busyness and slow the pace. Only when we’re not rushing through our days, he says, can we create space for the new to arise.

I like the sound of that.

Jill Smolowe
By Jill Smolowe
Jill Smolowe is the author of Four Funerals and a Wedding: Resilience in a Time of Grief. To learn more about her book and her grief and divorce coaching, visit www.jillsmolowe.com.

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