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Figuring Out What Works


I spend an inordinate amount of time in my life trying to figure out where to set the bar. My little monkey brain perseverates over endless questions that seem to take precedence over action. Should I aim for this goal? Is this too little to do in one day? Too much? Am I being lazy? Am I being insanely over-ambitious? Is this over the top? Can I do more? Should I do less? What’s not enough?

When I was younger and the imagined opinions of others ruled nearly every move I made, I was sure my decisions about what I should be attempting to accomplish were all based on what my friends might say when I told them I’d just sat on the couch watching bad TV all day. Eventually this fear backfired and I developed a reputation for being an overachiever. Even then I was concerned about the razzing I’d take from people who thought I was insane for getting up early to clean the house before the house cleaner came.

As I edged my way toward 60, those who had traveled here before me were all cheering about one of the great benefits of this period of life: you don’t care what other people think. Needless to say, I was relieved. I imagined just doing whatever I felt like engaging in each day, never having to concern myself with the views of those I presumed would think I was being lazy or overdoing it. And yet, it turns out that it wasn’t their judgment I was worried about after all. It was all my own.

I realize now that where I set the bar—whether it’s about how much I weigh, how many pages I write, what books I’m reading or not reading, or what I make or don’t make for dinner—is really just me figuring out my life. But we grow up measuring ourselves. We are always comparing ourselves on some scale to someone else—whether it’s our older siblings, our friends, our academic and professional colleagues, or just society in general.

When I first retired, I knew that having a lot of open time would present a challenge for me. I could imagine the anxiety I’d feel waking up in the morning knowing I could do whatever I wanted to do for the day. Of course my first thoughts went to wondering what other people like me were doing. The best option as I could see it was making a schedule to work out every morning, followed by four hours of writing. I didn’t share this plan with everyone, because I knew people would laugh at my compulsiveness. Still, I memorized the schedule. When I ended up breaking it on Day 3 (duh!) and not going out for a run, I texted my best friend to confess. On Day 6, when I decided to help a friend instead of writing, I started to get nervous. Move the bar, I thought to myself. Maybe three hours of writing instead of four. You can imagine where it went from there.

When I consider the ways I've bullied myself with unrealistic expectations, I often think I have no business managing

my own time.

Of course it doesn’t help that I know people who think I’m nuts. “I wouldn’t be on a schedule again for the rest of my life if I were retired,” a guy from my old job told me recently. Now I know to share my obsessiveness only with those I think will feel the way I do. When I asked a close friend the other day what she thought she might do when she retires in a few years, she said, “It gives me anxiety to even think about that.”

Having an external measure is a source of comfort for lots of us, but I really do see the ways I use it to torture myself. Sometimes I think it would be good to put a little super glue on that bar and just keep it somewhere in the middle. That way, I could have some great days, when I far exceed my expectations and an occasional slacker day where I give myself a break. The constant moving of the bar is the part that drives me nuts. When I am in the middle of a good five-mile run, instead of being glad I went that far, I start right in with a plan to do the same distance every day, every week, for the rest of my life.

Mostly all of this just reminds me that—probably like most of us—I am pretty primitive at my core. I’m a grown-up with a house and responsibilities, but in a huge way I’m still that kid who made to-do lists in my diary and checked them off at the end of the day. When I consider the ways I've bullied myself with unrealistic expectations, I often think I have no business managing my own time. My biggest goal now—one that requires no moving of any bar—is to pat myself on the back for being present enough in the world that I can remember how awesome it is that we’re here doing this at this time in this place with that beautiful sky.

It’s a high-bar moment in itself to just be glad to be here. For now, I’m aiming for that.