For three decades I was rewarded for being busy. Ask anyone you pass in the hall at work how they are doing and most will give some sort of answer about being busy. “Super busy man.” “Crazy busy, you know how it is.” “Busy AF!” Live that way long enough and it becomes your default state. You forget how to not be busy.
Princeton’s Daniel Kahneman, professor emeritus of psychology, writes about our two kinds of thinking, Fast Thinking and Slow Thinking. When you are super busy you get stuck in fast thinking mode. It’s reactive and instinctual. You gotta keep all the balls in the air and you move quickly from one problem to another and you get things done dammit. But living this way gives us precious little time for slow thinking. A more deliberate thought process where you evaluate assumptions and bounce ideas off of your core values. Do you still hold these values and are they serving you well? No time for this in fast thinking mode, but things get done, and in the world of work, that’s what matters.
Maybe the rules are different in retirement. Chinese writer Lin Yutang claims there is a certain beauty in not getting things done. “Besides the noble art of getting things done,” he writes in his book The Importance of Living, “there is the noble art of leaving things undone.” Stop. Be still. Enjoy a few moments of the simple pleasure of not having a boss. And please don’t become your own, hated boss that you curse and resent.
You’re retired now – nobody should be putting things on your To Do List but you. So if you find yourself super busy with no free time, there’s no one to blame but yourself. You did this to yourself and you can un-do it.
Being a contrary sort, I find great pleasure in making a to-do list with the single intent of not doing anything on the list. So here are a few things I’m not going to mindlessly fill my time doing:
- Home Improvement Projects
- Extensive genealogy research
Not that there is anything wrong with these activities, but I’m not going to jump right from being super busy at work to being super busy in retirement. I didn’t retire in order to be busy. I retired to be healthy, happy, experience my life, create, help others, and come to grips with what to means to be human and to live a good life. I’m not going to figure any of that out with mindless activity.
When I retired I realized that I really didn’t know what I wanted to do next. But I knew I wanted a new life. In order to live a new life, you must let go of the old one. If you want new ideas and insights, you have to give them space to land. You can’t force more water into a full jar. The old contents just spin and recycle over and over again. To make room for something new you have to empty the jar. To do that you have to stop being busy. You have to have some emptiness in your life. And none of this happens over night.
For the last year or so I’ve done a lot of nothing. I’ve slept as late as I felt like, or gotten up in the middle of the night to finish a book I was reading since I was not sleeping anyway. I’ve read, spent time outside, walked a lot, and smiled a whole lot more. I find myself singing or whistling when doing chores around the house – this is new. I’m learning to have fun again. And I’m really trying (not always successfully) not to feel bad about having this free time. It feels indulgent, decadent, and hedonistic, but I’m getting over that. Living in Paris I learned about the Flaneurs and Suanterers. In the 1840s the French called a new breed of idle ramblers Flaneurs, they slowly strolled through the city streets, just taking in the scene with no purpose or intent. Quiet and alone with their thoughts, but in the company of others in the bustle of city life. Oscar Wilde (a consummate flaneur) wrote, “Unlimited and absolute is the vision of him who sits at ease and watches, who walks in loneliness and dreams.”
When you’re busy, you forget to dream, and dreams fuel change. I’m trying to give myself enough quiet time so that I don’t immediately know how to fill it. So much unorganized time that my monkey mind will eventually give up trying to fill it with “productivity” and just be quiet for a minute. Maybe something interesting and unexpected will find the right conditions to sprout and grow.
This is one of my favorite quotes in all of movies – it’s from Benjamin Button and it seems to be where I find myself now –