When was the last time you truly took a deep breath? For me, it had been a really long time — weeks? months? — since I had consciously filled my lungs, appreciated that breath, and then let it go. #thingsiwontmissaboutwork That is, until I took two days off last week to reflect and write. But those days ended up being so much more, teaching me new things, affirming others and — best of all — giving me space to breathe for real for the first time in forever.
A New Approach to Weekends
I’ve been trying this new thing lately of treating weekend days not like these precious bits of time we have to cram everything into, but instead as mini early retirement days — days that I treat just like any other, but in which I happen to have full control over my time. Instead of thinking all week, “What all do we need to get done this weekend?” I make no plans, and when Saturday morning rolls around, I ask myself, “What do I want to do today?” (Mr. ONL has been away the last few weekends, which is why this hasn’t been a “we” question.)
Last weekend I went for two long hikes, and the weekend before that, I did the same thing. Both weekends I also wrote a lot, got some quality doggie snuggle time, and still had time to read and veg out.
All of that was spontaneous. And super heartening, too. A lot of the conversations we’ve been having with you guys lately have revolved around the question of goals and structure, and I’ve said that we’re craving less structure, fewer goals, while many of you believe that you need structure. Certainly we all need different things, and it’s also completely contextual — we’ve had SO MUCH structure for years, especially from all the work travel, that my gut has been telling me that what I really need is the opposite of that. It’s not just about escaping from the rigid calendar, but also about having time to let my mind wander, time to actually get bored.
Learning What Sparks My Creativity
I’ve realized recently that I really get creative only when I reach the point of boredom (or maybe near-boredom), and it’s been ages since I’ve had the luxury of that much time to get to that point. But hearing so many of you say that structure is helpful to you has gotten me worried — am I wrong about not wanting structure? Do I actually need it more than I think? Do I actually need clear, time-bound goals in order to get things done?
It’s both super awesome and quite a relief to see that the answer is no. I’m under no illusion that these few days of pretend early retirement are not necessarily replicating the real thing, but they’ve been enough to affirm that, when given the freedom of no structure, I do actually get up off of my butt and get things done.
But the lack of structure itself isn’t enough. I’ve found that I have my best ideas out in nature, with no one else around, when I have the time and space to breathe for real, when I hit that point of What else should I think about? I love my weeknight hikes when I’m home, but they are usually a race to get in my 10,000 steps before the sun sets, which is not the same thing.
The Extended Experiment
In part inspired by Cait at Blonde on a Budget and her recent solo writing retreat, and wanting to test out my theory of motivation and productivity under unstructured conditions, I decided to take off from work last Thursday and Friday to give myself a full four days of early retirement dress-up/writers retreat.
The plan was not to structure the time or put parameters around it. I’d try to write in different places — at home, at a cafe, and on the comfy couches at a local hotel — but wouldn’t schedule any of it. If I felt like going to visit a friend, I’d visit a friend. If I felt like getting on my bike or hitting the trails, I’d do that stuff. I wouldn’t do chores around the house or run errands, because even though those are the norm on weekends, they won’t be an everyday thing in retirement.
It’s impossible to assess from a test this short what my motivation will do long-term, and if I’ll stay focused on my goals of writing books and making documentaries after we retire. So I didn’t try to test that. Instead, it was all about the question of: What happens when I have my days to do with as I please, with nothing scheduled and no real structure other than the sun rising and setting?
What I Learned
Besides affirming that I’m not going to waste my time on the couch in early retirement, the four day respite from work was so much more than a short staycation. I felt a renewed sense of excitement to live where we live. The trees looked greener, the mountains sparkled, the streams took on new beauty. And every day felt filled with possibility. Instead of “How will I fill the time?” every day’s question was “What can’t I do?”
But beyond that hippie dippy stuff, I learned and affirmed some important things that I think will serve us well once we pull the plug for real next year and are no longer just playing early retirement dress-up on the weekends:
The morning is the best time to be active — I found that if I hit the trails or pavement right after breakfast, I was in a great mood all day, and my productivity soared. The days when I saved outdoor stuff for later in the day, it felt like more of a chore, and I didn’t have the benefit of the endorphin boost to fuel my day.
No structure = More stoked = More productive — Though I was strict with myself in avoiding plans, if I even had a sense going into a day (“Today I really should try to write out of the house”) that I should do something, I was generally less stoked about the day than if I left it entirely unstructured. And the days when I was most excited generally were those where the words flowed effortlessly and the outdoors stuff was most fun.
Changes of scenery are important — I’ve been making a big effort to hit our local trails lately, which has been awesome, but the downside is that I’ve covered every inch of ground on our most accessible trails a few times in the past few weeks. While I still see new beauty in it every time I’m out there, I’ve found that my best creative inspiration has happened when I’ve traveled to new trails, or sought out new vistas. So I need to keep making an effort to change the scenery.
Solo time is key — By virtue of our schedules, Mr. ONL and I have not been in a same place a lot lately. And while we’re a couple who can hang out nonstop for days on end without getting sick of each other, I’ve found myself really enjoying this solo time in unexpected ways. Besides giving me time to let my mind wander without having to try to articulate anything out loud, I’ve found that the solo time allows for greater spontaneity, because I can do exactly what I feel like doing, without having to take another person’s preferences into account, even if all that means is extending my hike to check out some spur trail I’ve never gone up before. I have always scheduled my time, even on weekends and vacations, so this is a pretty huge lesson for me. I also love hanging out with Mr. ONL more than just about anything, so it’s been a big surprise to see how positive solo time has ended up being. I now see that it will be beneficial to dedicate some time to solo activities when we’re retired in addition to all the stuff we’ll for sure want to do together.
Proper chairs are still important — This one is silly, but I bet I’m not the only one this applies to. I so strongly associate work with sitting at a desk that I thought I’d experiment with writing in other settings that don’t feel like work. But, man, those places — a slouchy couch and then another slouchy couch — did a number on my back. So lesson learned: either write at a desk with a proper chair, or write at the counter where I can type standing. ;-)
Your Own Dress Rehearsal
I really can’t recommend the dress rehearsal early retirement highly enough. It has been a great learning experience for me, even just on the weekend days. Approaching them differently has already taught me a lot about how I function in a time environment that’s the opposite of our current work lives.
Have you ever done an experiment like this? Other people may not worry about the structured vs. unstructured time question like I did, but a dress rehearsal could help answer other questions, too, like whether you’re happy retiring where you live currently, or want to move. Or whether you can expect to interact much with your current friends after you retire, or will need to expand your social circle.
We’d love to hear from you guys on if you’ve ever done something like this and what you learned. Or if you want to do a dress rehearsal, and what you’d hope to learn from it. Share your thoughts in the comments!