Overcoming Overcommitment in Retirement

Some people are busier in retirement than they were working full-time.

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A few months after I retired, my sister-in-law asked me whether I ever got bored with retirement. She was concerned that when she retired she would be bored, which was surprising to me because she enjoys many interests outside of work. So we talked about it a little, and it turns out that her real worry was that she would become lazy in retirement. While I’m sure there are people who experience boredom or even laziness, what I hear most frequently from retirees is that they are so busy they don’t know how they ever had time to work. In fact, a lot of folks are finding themselves too busy in retirement. They find they are overcommitted.

[See 10 Places to Retire on Social Security Alone.]

Overcommitted is exactly how Brandon Carr of San Anselmo, Calif. is feeling these days. He’s been retired for several years, and he is finding lately that he’s missing the freedom that originally lured him away from the work world. He has three small children at home, serves on the preschool board, just resigned from the board of another nonprofit, and spends most of his days working on an extensive remodel of his home. He feels just like he did before he retired: overburdened.

Enjoying the freedom of retirement is really a continual balancing act. Those who miss the structure of the workday may find themselves overscheduling their days. Those who fear boredom may find themselves overbooked. And don’t overlook the power that guilt has to suck the hours of freedom out of your retirement. If all the other parents on the preschool board are working, you may feel obligated to take the lead on a fundraiser. If you’re experienced in construction, you may feel obligated to rebuild a decaying deck at the school. Or perhaps you’re excited to spend more time with your grandkids, only to find that you’ve replaced your old job with a new one as a daycare provider.

[See 3 Questions That Predict Your Retirement Readiness.]

It’s not just obligations that may become overwhelming. You may simply experience activity creep. There are so many activities you’re excited to explore now that you’re retired, you wind up adding more and more of them as the months go by. Rushing from language class to the yoga studio to your volunteer gig at the local animal shelter leaves you no time to read a book, enjoy a leisurely meal, or spend more time with your loved ones.

[See How Retirees Spend Their Days.]

The solution is not an easy one for most people. But to find a perfect balance between boredom and exhaustion and between guilt and overcommitment, you’ve got to learn to say no from time to time. It’s OK to hoard some time just for yourself. But if saying no is hard for you, why don’t you steal my favorite line from an episode of the sitcom, Friends. When Phoebe was asked to help Ross move, she replied, “Oh gosh, I wish I could, but I don’t want to.”

Sydney Lagier is a former certified public accountant. Since retiring in 2008 at the age of 44, she has been writing about the transition from productive member of society to gal of leisure at her blog, Retirement: A Full-Time Job.