Getting into the retirement habit


Over the years, you’ve developed dozens of habits, whether you’re aware of them or not. The weekly flow of going to bed, getting up in the morning, driving to work, and coming back home, form a familiar routine. This routine becomes a lifestyle that you’ve grown accustomed to and comfortable with.

When you retire, these habits and this lifestyle instantly disappear. For many people it’s disconcerting, to say the least. Here are some ways to adapt.

It’s often been said that humans are creatures of habit. This is sometimes meant in a negative way, but in fact habits are necessary for us to function.

Our brains have to accomplish many things. At a basic level we have to breathe, eat, and walk. On top of that, we have to

  • carry out complex tasks at our jobs
  • converse and interact with our coworkers and spouses
  • navigate the traffic to and from work
  • make small talk with the cashier at the supermarket
  • perform dozens of other actions and behaviors

How do we possibly get all this done?

This is where ingrained habits come in. Starting with making breakfast in the morning, getting showered and dressed, driving in to the workplace, clocking in to work or checking your email inbox, and so on, many of your movements are largely automatic and almost happen by themselves. If something is on your mind you may find yourself pulling into the parking lot at work with little recollection of how you got there. If you’re doing a task at work that you’ve done a thousand times before, it may be done before you realize it.

Without all of these habits, you would have to consciously choose and control every action, from which route to take to get to the office, down to which shoe to put on first in the morning. All of these decisions take mental energy, and research shows each of us has only a limited supply of it each day. Without habits, we might be mentally exhausted before we even left home in the morning.

When you retire – poof! – all those habits are gone, literally overnight. And there’s nothing to replace them.

Studies find that it’s impossible to change more than one habit at a time. When you retire, you’re being forced to abandon a bunch of deeply ingrained habits, all at once.

On top of this, habits are comforting. Humans find comfort in routines and regularity. For years, you might have worked at the same place, sat in the same chair, seen the same familiar faces, talked with the same people, stopped at the same coffee shop on the way home. Many people don’t like change, because people are afraid of the unknown. We believe that the unknown in life is like walking in the dark, harrowing and dangerous. When you retire, you’re shoved out into that darkness, often before you’re ready.

What can you do to prepare for this abrupt break? Here are some suggestions.

1. Take it slowly. Since you can’t change more than one habit at a time, try focusing on one habit you have and change it now. If you typically exercise in the evening, try exercising at lunchtime and on weekends. If you always stop at the same coffee stand on the way home, try a different place. Look for a new way to do a task at work.

The point is to vary your routines. Habits are useful and convenient, but they can also stifle our creativity and lead to complacency, just the opposite of what you need to get ready for a huge life change like retirement.

2. Try easing into retirement. Instead of just calling it quits one day, an idea that’s gaining popularity is phased retirement. Under this plan, workers who are eligible for retirement reduce their working hours to half-time for a few years before they finally leave. This allows them to ease into retirement by combining their working and retired lives for a while. They have a chance to see what retirement is like and mentally prepare for completely leaving the workforce. For employers, this plan allows them to keep their most experienced workers for a while longer to train and mentor younger employees.

3. Meet new people. Make a conscious effort to join new social circles outside of work. Some ways to do this are by joining a social or recreational club, doing volunteer work in the community, becoming active in a local cultural, artistic, or government planning committee, or getting involved in a church.

Many people become socially isolated when they stop working. By picking up new social contacts that you will carry into retirement, you avoid this happening to you. And the social contacts you develop may lead to new interests and ventures that you didn’t expect.

4. Form new routines. It’s immensely helpful to know what you plan to do in retirement. Once you know that, you can start living that before you retire. If you’d like to pick up painting or a musical instrument, or learn a foreign language, start now. Even if you have only 15 minutes each night to practice, cultivate that habit. Once you retire, you can increase the time. If you want to travel in retirement, start taking short trips now so that you get in the habit of planning and going on trips.

The idea is to start small, and gradually replace your work-related routines with new ones. By making retirement into a series of small and manageable changes instead of a single huge one, you can reduce the stress and mental anxiety that many people feel when they leave the workforce.


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