Lifestyles in Early Retirement: Habits and getting things done

Charles Duhigg’s new book, “The Power of Habit”, already has 120 people on the waiting list at the Hawaii State Library system. (That means it’s popular!) As part of his book marketing, last week he put up a guest post about spending habits on Get Rich Slowly. So while I’m waiting to read the book, I thought I’d blog about retirement habits.

One of the quotes from Duhigg’s guest post made an impact:

Most of the choices we make each day may feel like the products of well-considered decision making, but they’re not. They’re habits. And though each habit means little on its own, over time, how we spend our money — as well as the meals we order, how often we exercise, and the way we organize our work routines — have enormous impacts on our health, productivity, financial security, and happiness.

He doesn’t mention retirement, but habits have the same enormous impacts there too.

Apparently the human brain has evolved to favor running on autopilot. If we don’t have to think about every little thing then we use less energy and we respond faster. Regrettably we don’t wake up each morning, look at the schedule on our nightstand (the one we wrote the night before), and spend the entire day carefully measuring our accomplishments against the clock and the list. Instead we start our morning habits that get us going while we’re trying to wake up. Instead of focusing our entire attention on a specific task like fixing breakfast, we’re thinking about other things. All day long we respond almost unconsciously to behavioral cues around us. Habits don’t just derail our train of thought– most of the time there’s not even a train on the thinking tracks.

Part of “habit” is avoidance. If you have to do something during your “routine” that you’d rather not do, then you’re going to unconsciously keep finding other “higher priority” things to do first. Eventually your unpopular task becomes a priority only because it’s a deadline crisis. We don’t want to live that way, but somehow there’s always something that we know we should be doing and yet don’t get started on until it’s almost too late.

Luckily for most of our lives, an externally imposed autopilot routine keeps us more or less on schedule. When we’re kids, it’s our parents and the school system. When we transition to the workplace, it’s an extension of the same routine with slightly different tasks. Even when we’re out of the workplace for the rest of the day (or a weekend, or a vacation) and we decide that “We don’t want to do anything!” we’re still carrying out our own personal routines. They may involve TVs and frosty beverages instead of workplace reports, but they’re still a habit.

You can see where this is going. For most of your life, your daily routine is imposed upon you by life’s priorities. You fill in the rest of the time with your habits. You only spend a few minutes a day planning the schedule for tomorrow, and you may not ever get around to changing your habits. What happens when you retire?

The popular joke about retirement is that you have to be responsible for your own entertainment. Well, the reality is even harsher than that: When you retire, you have to be responsible for your own habits.

If financial independence really gave us control of our own time, then we’d have our lives squared away. We’d spend an hour a day at the gym, we’d be eating a healthy diet, we’d be learning our fourth language, and we’d have read all those books on our “great literature” list. The reality is that retirement gives us even more time to spend on the habits that we’ve developed during our lives. If we tend to have the “habits” of eating too much food, drinking too much alcohol, and watching too much TV… then in retirement we’re going to be spending our time on those habits.

The other side of “making new habits” is trying too hard. If you decide to overhaul your life and fix all of your bad habits at once, then you’re rapidly going to wear yourself out. Part of that is the problem of “decision fatigue“– instead of living by habit, every new situation that you put yourself in requires you to make a new choice. Before long you’re tired of making the “right” choice, you use up all your willpower, you revert to your old bad habits (unconsciously or deliberately!) and you feel like a failure.

Retirement is still a great time to fix all those bad habits, but take it slow. Focus on one habit at a time. Make a list if you want, but only work on one habit from the list at a time. Once you’ve created that new habit and it’s really working for you then you’re ready to start on the next. Be ready for setbacks, too. You’re still learning how to be a retiree, and it may take you some time to figure out your new life. You may need different habits than you expected, or you may take on a new role in managing your household or your family duties.

I thought I had my new retirement habits all figured out, but I’m still learning.

Six months ago we completed a major demolition renovation of our familyroom. We’d been planning it for nearly a decade, and when the time was right we made it happen. In retrospect the project went very well and the contractors did a great job, but life was total chaos for several months. Every day was noisy, sweaty, and cramped. We completely exhausted ourselves trying to keep up with the daily cleaning and painting and problems decisions, and at night our sleep would be interrupted by plastic flapping in the breeze– or by a rodent exploring the new work. We stopped working out. I even dropped out of taekwondo training for a few months.

I eventually stepped on a weight scale realized that I needed to get back to taekwondo. I actually missed it and wanted to get back to it. However, after seven years of training I’d seen a number of martial artists go through that same restart, and I’d watched most of them fail at it. They literally tried to jump right back in to a workout, and they’d quickly wear out or even injure themselves.

By this point I was writing every morning for at least 20 minutes, and that habit was going well. However, I needed to add the taekwondo habit back into my life. Instead of starting each morning with the computer, I started it with basic stretches. After 10 minutes of that I’d get on the computer and start my usual routine of writing.

Some mornings that daily stretching would take 15 minutes, but I knew I needed to keep working on it. After two weeks I was surprised to notice how good I felt when I started writing. I used to sit down at the computer while I was still waking up, perhaps favoring a sore muscle or even just yawning for a minute. Now I was relaxed, awake, and ready to work.

For two more weeks, I kept stretching. I also added in a few minutes of practicing my taekwondo forms. By now I’ve learned over a dozen forms, but I still needed to spend time with my training books and videos.

I also deliberately told my instructor the date that I’d return to training. Now I was committed, and I had a deadline. There was no way that I’d try to make up an excuse to avoid it.

I returned to taekwondo two months ago, and it’s going well. Surprisingly, the break let my body heal a chronic injury. The month of stretching and forms practice helped me avoid starting any new injuries. I’m much more flexible and I’m (finally) able to hit a couple of advanced moves. I’ve learned my fifth black-belt form, too.

But more importantly, I’m still stretching most mornings and I’m still reviewing my forms. I’ve “cut back” that morning routine to just 4-5 times a week, but I look forward to it. It’s become part of what I do… and it’s a habit.

Another indulgence I carried into retirement was Windows Solitaire. It’s actually a minor rebellion because my military commands forbade even having these little casual games on workplace computers, let alone using them.

However, even that little amusement can become too much of a good thing. When I’d be waiting for my computer to start up a program or a website to load up, I’d distract my impatience with a little Solitaire. After a few years I noticed that my competitive nature meant that I’d spend 15-30 minutes getting my score up instead of doing my computer work. If I was tired or if the writing wasn’t going well, then I’d spend an hour pondering the writing problem playing Solitaire while I was waiting for inspiration to strike.

I inadvertently got rid of the need for the habit: I finally upgraded our PC to Windows7. It’s much faster. There’s no need to play Solitaire while I’m waiting for the operating system or the Web browser to catch up.

I was curious whether I could break the habit, so I deleted the Solitaire shortcut from my desktop. I could still go find the file and start it up, but that would take more effort than just clicking the desktop icon or the Start menu.

However, having to find the file was a huge revelation: I’d been clicking that little icon a dozen times a day. Sometimes it had been frustration with the computer, but mostly it was a habit that had grown out of control. It’s been three weeks so far, and I miss it less every day, but I still miss it. I know now, though, that I’m going to break the habit. I’m going to add a couple more gigabytes of RAM to this old machine to help speed things up even more, but I’ve also learned that I need to take an occasional writing break to do something else.

Next week marks my 10th year of retirement. You would think that I’d have it all figured out by now, but apparently I’m still learning.

Those little successes over the past few months have added up, and I’m clearing out a lot of the project backlog. Letters are getting written, research is getting finished, new plans are being developed. I feel much more productive. I enjoy seeing all the things that I’m getting done, and I’m looking forward to more.

Now I just have to wait for those other 120 readers to finish Duhigg’s book…

Related articles:
Retirement: relax, reconnect and re-engage
Update to “Just Write It”
Retirement: don’t recreate your old environment

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About Doug Nordman

Author of "The Military Guide to Financial Independence and Retirement" and co-author of "Raising Your Money-Savvy Family For Next Generation Financial Independence."
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5 Responses to Lifestyles in Early Retirement: Habits and getting things done

  1. Deserat says:

    What a great post! So true – I am struggling mightily with my semi-retirement. I still do Reserves part-time and have my consulting, but they offer brief bursts of concentrated activity with longer respites. With my consulting, I am fully responsible for my time and just need to meet the producible requirement by a certain date. Sometimes find myself procrastinating horribly. My habits in between the bursts aren’t as good as I’d like. I’ve noticed that some of the external motivators (requirements) of a job forced me to do what was right, but when on my own, I’m not so disciplined. I’ve also noticed that there are times when I am *very* productive, for some reason. I get into my head I need or want to finish something, and hot damn, I plow through it.

    My husband just recently retired and I’ve noticed that he is struggling with this as well. Basically, one is now responsible for your time – the spending of it. You’d hope to be wise about that, but sometimes, the demons of sloth and other things grab you. In the retire early group, I notice that some people eschew lists, but I’ve found that tool really motivates me as I like the look and feeling of that crossed out task. Yes, I’m a slave to the task most times, but then I get lot more done and feel a lot better in the end.

  2. Jay says:

    Hi Nords,
    This is a great post! It helped me understand my workload in college, no matter my intentions each quarter, when so much reading and prep piled up for finals week. Things seemed to always work out, but it was not fun! I can see now that there were so many (really good) distractions on campus that classwork was easily pushed back.

    I’ve also seen that successful people in academics or business are incredibly focused on reaching a goal and pretty much neglect everything else in life. This can be awfully frustrating for friends and family, but it works.The secret of successful habits must be having the right goals.

    I look forward to learning more when your name reaches the top of the book list!

    • Doug Nordman says:

      Thanks, Jay! I recently heard the same feedback from another college student…

      • Jay says:

        Hi again. The college habit of shfiting the workload to finals’ week probably works only for liberal arts majors. You won’t see much of this “habit” at the service academies or engineering schools, since science and engineering majors who don’t keep up with labs and problem sets will most likely be looking soon for another dorm room address.

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