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Forget Leaning In, Let's Talk About Leaning Out

After 50, it’s best to trim commitments and spend more time on what matters most to you. Here are seven ways to Lean Out.

By Caroline Mayer

I don’t know about you, but I’ve heard way too much about Sheryl Sandberg and her new book, Lean In, encouraging women to be more assertive, especially in the workplace.

At this stage in my life, I simply want to Lean Out.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t want to become an inactive couch potato or a hermit. Far from it.

I just want to step back from some of the many work and personal responsibilities I’ve assumed over the years so I can spend more time enjoying the activities I value most.

Turns out, I’m not alone.

My Friends and I Want to Lean Out

In a completely unscientific poll of my boomer friends, almost all nodded enthusiastically when I asked if they were ready to “lean out.”

(MORE: How to Get Your Life in Sync)

Whether retired or not, most told me they’re still struggling to juggle all their daily duties. Many of their tasks are voluntary, like helping out at local charities. But others are mandatory, like taking care of their aging parents.

My friends, like me, said they had hoped life would be simpler once the kids had grown and their desire to climb the corporate ladder had eased (or disappeared when they retired).

The problem is, it’s still just that: a hope. We still feel exhausted and frazzled, unable to grab a few moments of quiet time just to sit down and read a good book.

No Thanks, Sheryl Sandberg

So hearing Sandberg tell people — particularly women — to lean in and "assume responsibility," to step up and “own” a job or duty and to sit at the table, not the back or side benches, and speak with a loud, assertive voice is not particularly what we’re eager to hear.

Personally, I don’t want to withdraw from life’s activities even slightly. I want to remain engaged. But sitting on the side works just fine for me right now. So, too, does speaking out less frequently, although anyone who knows me will acknowledge that could be a challenge.

(MORE: The Secret to Living the Life You Want)

Leaning Out Is Hard to Do

Indeed, I’m learning that leaning out isn’t easy. It’s why so many of us take on a myriad of volunteer posts after leaving our full-time jobs and why nonprofits often say the best volunteers are the recently retired.

My friends and I are learning slowly but surely how to lean out, though.

For some, it means paying to cater a big birthday celebration that a few years ago would have featured elaborate, homemade dishes.

For others, it’s learning to say no. I still deliver meals to the needy, for example, but I’ve stopped being a coordinator finding volunteers to shop, prepare and deliver bagged lunches once a month. I’ve passed the job on to someone else, who’s doing a terrific job.

7 Ways to Lean Out

So how exactly can you lean out?

I have some tips below from my friends and me. But I’d love to hear how you do it; please post your suggestions in a comment or email me at [email protected].

1. Prioritize. Make a list of your responsibilities and aspirations and organize them with the most important ones at the top. Next, steel yourself and lop off the bottom third. Then, develop an action plan to help you manage what’s left on your list.

When I recently reviewed my frazzled schedule, I realized I’d taken on so many writing assignments and volunteer jobs that I was spending too little time with friends and family, traveling and exercising.

So I’ve eased up on my workload (with some guilt, I confess) and have made a point of setting aside days to hike with friends or travel.


(MORE: The Easy Way to Find Time for Everything You Want to Do)

2. Find the stress points in your life and figure out how to eliminate or reduce them. For example, if you have no head for numbers, quit volunteering to be treasurer of your club.

3. Review your past 30 years, searching for your greatest successes and pleasures. Then see how you can focus on repeating them.

This advice comes from a retired friend who realized he’d found fulfillment working one-on-one with people. So he resigned from a few nonprofit boards and has become a patient advocate at a hospital and a clerk at the library information desk.

The stress of his leadership roles on the boards had caused a health scare, prompting his re-evaluation. His new posts are less demanding, but wholly rewarding.

“Assessing your strengths now is a lot easier than, say, in college, when we were trying to figure out what to do with our lives,” he says.

4. Create new traditions. Who says you have to continue playing host to the holiday dinner for the extended family year after year? Perhaps it’s time to share the burden or, better yet, pass on the duties to your children. (Hint to my daughters: Get ready for next Thanksgiving!)

5. Challenge the underlying assumptions behind the big decisions in your life. I’m talking about your financial and emotional choices.

For example, you may be holding on to your large house even though the kids have moved out, thinking you need room when they — and their children — visit. Does that really make sense, especially if they live far away and visit only a couple of times a year?

Downsizing by moving to a smaller house or an apartment could reduce your stress worrying about the yard, storm damage and, if you live in a cold climate, snow removal.

6. Stop listening to the mother in your inner ear. You don’t have to make everything perfect, even though your mother said so.

You needn’t bake everything from scratch — or bake at all (carry-in and catering work just fine). You don’t have to pull out the good china for guests. There are plenty of easy ways to make friends feel welcome without breaking your back.

And perhaps most important...

7. Just say no. Who knew that Nancy Reagan’s anti-drug slogan would be so relevant to so many of us today?

One over-committed friend told me she’s slowly learning how to retrain her reflexes. “When someone asks for volunteers, when you get the call from a friend asking you to do something that would seriously put you out, when you face anything that used to automatically, doggedly elicit a cheery ‘Sure!,’ just stop,” she advises. “Say nothing. Take three deep breaths and don't sweat the silence. You have just short-circuited the do-er reflex that forces you to lean in.”

Sometimes you’ll say no. But even when you don’t, you’ll at least be more mindful of the commitment you’ve made.

By the way, none of these suggestions are irreversible. You can lean out now and always decide to lean in later if you want. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a book I want to finish reading.

Caroline Mayer is a consumer reporter who spent 25 years working for The Washington Post, covering such issues as product safety, scams, and credit cards. Mayer has received several awards, including the Betty Furness Consumer Media Service Award. She has written for Consumer Reports, CBS MoneyWatch, Ladies Home Journal, Kaiser Health News and others. Follow her on Twitter @consumermayer Read More
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