When I found myself getting antsy this week, wishing a trip back east were coming sooner than it actually is, I realized I was tired of the routine I’d gotten myself into, stressed by the way I’d engineered things. Somewhere between, “I’ve taken on too much and I wish I lived in Hawaii,” it occurred to me that it probably really is time for a change—maybe in my schedule, or my focus, or even in how I set up my days and weeks.
When I was teaching for many years, there was a clear pattern and schedule over which I had little control. I could ask for an afternoon or evening class if I were teaching something with many sections, but mostly I did what I did for 18 weeks until the semester ended and then I fell in a heap. I could rejuvenate myself during the weeks between semesters, but then it would all begin again. I would feel ambitious and energetic at first, less so as the piles of papers to grade increased, re-focused just before finals and among the walking dead by the last day of the term. When I became a dean, and didn’t have long vacation breaks, this sense of being controlled by the external structure was even stronger.
I grew very accustomed over the years to fitting myself, my energy level and my work product into a schedule that didn’t actually match who I was.
Regardless of the job we do, we’re on a schedule, and more likely than not, it has nothing to do with our own energy level, the times of day we work best, the negative effects of stress and exhaustion, or even the positive effects of having regular time to rest, be outside, or spend time alone. I also know that few of us are in the position to just tell our supervisors that we would like to set our own timetable for our days. My point is really that it has taken me nearly three years of retirement to realize that I probably need to change things every six or eight weeks and that I am more creative and productive if I re-evaluate what I’m doing more frequently than I'm conditioned to do.
After more than 30 years in the world of work, I was completely accustomed to sitting at my desk and slogging through something complex at 3:30 in the afternoon, despite the fact that this is my lowest energy time of the day. Because I had to be at work at or before 8 a.m., I often had to run at 6 or 6:30 in the morning. It wasn’t the worst thing I ever did, but I know that I have much more enthusiasm about exercising if I do it at 8:30, rather than two hours before. I’m sure this sounds like I’m bragging about the obvious privilege of being retired, but I’m really making a finer point.
I’m not ready to stop being in the world. I’m embarking on an entirely new time in my life and I’m interested in learning things, trying activities I haven’t done before, pushing myself to develop my skills in ways I haven’t had the chance to in the past. What this means is that I can set it up the way I want to with my own goals and outcomes. I can determine and create my own level of achievement and I can decide what it takes for me to thrive. I’m thinking after a couple of weeks of feeling frustrated and tired and stressed, that part of this self-determination will come in the forming of planning only a couple of months at a time. Rather than thinking back on my New Year’s resolutions and whining that I’m not anywhere near where I hoped I’d be, I’m going to look at two- or three-month blocks and focus on that.
As I look back to my days of working, I also think that my flexibility now would be much greater if I'd practiced it more back then, regardless of the strictness of the traditional work schedule. I fell into a bad pattern back then, when I could have gone for more walks during my lunch hour, learned something new every semester, pushed myself more toward the things that brought true joy. Most of us would agree that we would be happier and even better employees if we built in more time for change, for doing things differently, even if it means asking to work on an extra project. When we're exhausted and burned out at work, we aren't likely to engage in new ventures in our off time, but this type of life redesign will help move us forward as developing humans. What counts most in our lives is how fully we use the skills and energy we have, whether we apply them to a hobby, a cause, or other people. We all need change and we all need to understand our own rhythms so that we can get the most out of each day.
All of this really just means that, like most people, I grew very accustomed over the years to fitting myself, my energy level and my work product into a schedule that didn’t actually match who I was. When I retired, I was aware that I could cover this blank canvas any way I wanted to, but this is the first time I’ve dug down deep enough to realize that means literally any way I want to. I need to reshape things after six or eight weeks and it’s not going to come out of thin air. I need to plan for the nose-to-the-grindstone time, but I also need to be mindful of my need for alterations in course and focus.
The world of work is established as it is for efficiency’s sake and for profit. We can’t just hope that people come into the office when they feel the energy to do so. But when we are lucky enough to be able to find a way to design the picture so it better matches who we are, it’s good to remind ourselves to do it.