Yesterday was #PancakeDay, apparently, a fact I learned while scrolling through Twitter from bed, after waking up at the brisk hour of 11:00 a.m. I told Mark of my discovery when he woke up, a little after noon, and we decided that – YES – it was our patriotic duty to eat pancakes on #PancakeDay.
And so we feasted on chocolate chunk pancakes at the oh-so-responsible breakfast hour of 1:00 p.m…
… wearing a mouse onesie…
…because early retirement is glamorous.
And then we jumped on the beds, had a pillow fight, filled the washing machine with dish liquid so that suds filled the house, played video games all day and ordered five pizzas for dinner. (<– We didn’t actually do any of the things in that sentence. But we could have. Because there’s no one around to tell us not to.)
All of which begs the question:
Who left these two overgrown children in charge?!
Or maybe just:
When will we actually adapt to our new structureless lives?
Of course I picked a particularly lazy day to highlight here, and it just so happened that it fell on Mardi Gras/Shrove Tuesday, a day of indulgence for Christian Lent celebrants. Some of our retired days have looked a lot like work days, with me writing writing writing and Mark doing his thing for the nonprofit board he chairs. Other days we’ve been hiking up steep cliffsides in Taiwan, or skiing uphill or otherwise challenging our bodies. But on other ones still we’ve barely left the couch, polishing off whole seasons of Netflix shows friends have been recommending for years, but which we never had time to watch while working. It’s safe to say:
So far, every day of early retirement has been different.
We’re only 60ish days in, so maybe that shouldn’t be so surprising, but it’s interesting to observe the interplay of our natural inclinations and our sense of obligation now that our actual list of obligations is vastly smaller.
But Are They Our Natural Inclinations?
One of the questions we’ve both found ourselves wrestling with is: Do I really want to sleep this much, or is this just the catch-up sleep in the detox period? And related, especially on those lazy days: Is this really what I’m drawn to, or is this just the detox from years of high-stress work and work travel talking?
And the short answer is: We have no idea. At least not yet.
Feeling Our Way Through Unstructured Days
It’s absolutely the lack of structure that makes us feel like mom and dad left us at home, the babysitter peaced out and nobody has called the cops on us yet. Some days I walk around the house thinking, “Geez, this is the sweetest playhouse ever. I can’t believe we get to play house here.” It definitely feels like we’re going to get found out, and someone is either going to show up, Mary Poppins-style, and whip us into shape, or drag us back to work kicking and screaming, because that’s where grown-ass people belong. (And we are, despite all signs to the contrary, grown-ass people.)
It means we’ve already achieved something we set out to do: becoming the adultiest adults while working so that we could make early retirement a return to childhood. But it also probably means that we haven’t come close to figuring out how we’ll live in an unstructured environment.
The challenge of adapting to an unstructured life was something we anticipated, thanks in part to notes from readers who said that it was a real challenge for them when they retired. (Thanks for the heads-up, guys!) And so a few years ago, I did an experiment that I called the Unstructured Early Retirement Dress Rehearsal. And in the post in which I wrote about it, I said:
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.
It’s fascinating to go back and read that and know that the conclusion I drew was based entirely – and out of necessity – on limited stretches of unstructured free time crammed into a day or two here and there. Now, there’s no limit to our free time, and so far it’s a mixed bag. Some days I get things done. Other days I get nothing done. Some days I get up off my butt, and other days I kick it on the couch in a mouse onesie the whole day. (I also have a much fancier black onesie. I bust that one out when I watch Queer Eye, because that is fancy TV.)
Comparing Now to Past Unstructured Times
Mark had a few weeks after he graduated from college, before he started work, when he stayed in his college town and just hung out with his buddies. And though he did little in those weeks beyond playing GoldenEye and throwing the Frisbee, he woke up each day with a sense of guilt that he wasn’t doing anything productive.
That time has been a big mental anchor for him lately. On our laziest days, he does feel a little guilty – as do I – and it’s hard to know if it’s real guilt, or shadow guilt from our old lives, when we had to make perfect productive use of all of our free time. It’s true that we both have plenty to do, and days when we do nothing, the to do lists are in the backs of our minds, at least a little.
I think the guilt in Mark’s post-college weeks makes sense: He had a negative net worth, he knew he needed to move and find a job and start earning money, and not taking action toward that must have felt self-sabotaging or at least stressful on some level. So of course he didn’t feel the pure elation of true hang time. But everything is different now. We don’t need to move. We don’t need to find jobs. We don’t need to start earning money. Eating pancakes at the crack of 1 might not exactly be the healthiest thing we can do, but it’s hardly self-sabotaging, at least so long as it’s not an everyday thing. (P.S. We’re giving up pancakes for Lent.)
But it’s a big question we are asking ourselves every time we feel that impulse to be more productive: Is this a real impulse, or just a ghost of our old life? Is it real guilt or shadow guilt?
To Add Artificial Structure or Not?
Right now, my only recurring commitments are to post here on Mondays and Wednesdays. I’ve still had appointments of one sort or another most days, between volunteer stuff, local activism, podcast interviews and travel for speaking gigs, like when I hung out with SoFi last week.
(SoFi shares a building with Lucasfilm, you guys. And while I only got the derpiest driveby selfie with a Stormtrooper, there was Star Wars stuff freaking everywhere. Nerd heaven.)
And those commitments have given some structure to plenty of our days. But a good portion still have no structure whatsoever. We can sleep as late as our bodies will let us, we can blow hours doing childish unproductive nothing (remember the Great Punctuation War of 2018?) and we can push off the to do list to another day.
I know that will sound like heaven to plenty of folks. It would have sounded like heaven to me in those stressful working years, too. And, to be completely honest, it is heaven. Like how the Edward Norton says in Fight Club, after beating up Jordan Catalano (not really, just Jared Leto’s character), “I felt like destroying something beautiful,” there is something exquisite and delicious about wasting an entire day.
But just like we ask the question with the impulses and guilt – Is this real? Or a shadow? – the question we’re asking ourselves with time wasting is: Is this real? Or just novel?
A year from now, will we still take delight in wasting whole days once in a while? Will we feel okay sleeping until noon some days, or will we wish we’d gotten up and done something healthier, more productive, more purposeful? Will we feel drawn to create some artificial structure for ourselves, to correct for the babysitter-on-the-lam feeling, and the natural tendency toward entropy (and laziness)? Or will this children-in-charge feeling, the sleeping in, the binge-watching and pancake munching in the afternoon subside after the newness wears off and the ghosts of our own careerist selves dissipate?
I don’t pretend to know.
And we’re not in a rush to find out.
Let’s Talk Structure!
Think you’ll have some pancakes at 1 pm and onesie on the couch kinda days in early retirement? For those who’ve already retired, does any of this sound familiar, or are we off the map on this one? Does the idea of wasting time seem like something you’d enjoy for a short time, or forever? Same question on sleeping in – appropriate for the detox period only, or for as long as you feel like it, thankyouverymuch? And on structure generally, do you think you’ll miss it? Crave it? Thrive without it? Share all your thoughts in the comments, and let’s chat!
Categories: we retired early