How to transition into retirement: A complete guide

It is possible to alleviate anxiety and make it a time to really look forward to.
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It’s the stage of your life to relax, without the daily grind and without commitments. A time to enjoy the spoils of what you’ve worked for decades to accumulate. To chase your unrealised dreams. To travel, to read, to spend time with friends and family.

Well, that’s the plan anyway. But the reality is that retirement is a huge change in our lives and can be fraught with fears and worries. Life coach Rik Schnabel from Life Beyond Limits says you can expect to cycle through five emotional stages in your journey: planning, excitement, honeymoon and disenchantment, before finally landing on reorientation and stability.

“Adjusting to retirement can take a while,” he explains. “There’s an emotional process that most people go through. At first, there’s a feeling of freedom. It’s like you’re on a vacation that’s going to last forever.

“That sense of novelty wears off, however, and you will settle into a slower lifestyle. There might be a stage that involves a lot of, ‘Oh, no! What did I do?’ thoughts, followed by anxiety and boredom. You might even feel guilty for not enjoying retirement as much as you think you should.”

So how do you move through this and shift into that final stage?

Find structure

Whether working full- or part-time, in or out of the house, an element of routine likely formed the backbone of your weekdays. Structure gives us comfort and clarity. Planning your weeks can be key to seeing that those early days of retirement arrive with far less stress.

“Experiment with various activities and time slots to see how it makes you feel,” advises Rik. “Pencil in time for lingering over the newspaper and enjoying a cup of coffee, but add in regular time for exercise, social activities, volunteer opportunities and family meals. While your days don’t need to be rigid, having a set wake-up time and routine can help you feel more normalcy now that you aren’t going to work.”

Solving worry

While Rik has identified one early emotional stage as “excitement”, Dr Jodie Lowinger – clinical psychologist and author of The Mind Strength Method: Four Steps to Curb Anxiety, Conquer Worry & Build Resilience – warns there’s a fine line between that feeling and one of apprehension or even terror. And it’s important to lean into this discomfort so you can move on in a healthy way.

“By building acknowledgment and acceptance over the things we can’t change – that are beyond our control – we can then move into problem solving and action planning,” says Dr Lowinger.

“By writing things down and labelling them, you can stop that worry snowball from taking hold. Specify the problem in solution oriented terms: reorganising my finances, for example. Then brainstorm action items. Part of that might be finding out who the professionals are, what social services are available, what there is in the community to facilitate transitioning into retirement. Can you retire gradually? Find part-time work or a volunteer service to give a sense of fulfilment? By writing all this down, you start to feel more in control.”

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Set small goals

At work you probably had KPIs or targets to meet. In retirement, you can still focus on goals, albeit different ones from what they were. “Accomplishing new things can give you a sense of achievement,” says Rik, who suggests writing a list and formulating deadlines. It could be reading five new books or planning a trip to a new destination.

“I like to say small is better than not at all,” Dr Lowinger says of her approach to goal setting. “It can be really scary to take on all these new things. So instead of running a half marathon in retirement, it might be ‘I’m going to join a walking club,’ or ‘I’m going to make sure I walk around the block every day.’ But realise it’s okay to be imperfect and that, in fact, a small act is brilliant.”

Maintain connection

As human beings, we require connection. And sadly, in retirement we become more likely to feel a sense of isolation and loneliness. Again, structure can come into play in staving off this effect.

“Ask one friend to meet you for lunch every Monday, another to go walking through the neighbourhood with you on Wednesdays and a third pal to grab a coffee on Friday afternoons,” suggests Rik of ways to keep bonds alive.

“If you and your spouse are friends with other couples, invite them over for dinner or a fun board game night. If you don’t feel like you have enough people to keep you socially active, take advantage of the extra time in your life to make new friends. Check out any programs offered at your church or a local community centre; or find a group of like-minded individuals who share an affection for your favourite hobby, whether it’s golf, crafts or cooking. Meet-up groups are also available for many hobbies and activities.”

Ride the emotional wave

Along with freedom, retirement often brings uncertainty, a loss of identity and fear of the unknown. And, as with many big emotions, the worst thing you can try to do is numb them.

“Some of the ways people do that might be through comfort eating, gambling or alcohol consumption,” says Dr Lowinger. “The big message is that you don’t have to suffer in silence. Seek out the help you need. It’s okay to not be okay.”

It’s important as well, adds Rik, to give yourself the flexibility to figure out exactly what you want from your retirement and continue to pivot along the way. It’s time to finally dream big and try all those things you told yourself you’d never have the time (or the gumption) for.

So take up that new instrument. Volunteer for the cause you’ve always been passionate about. Head back to university for that course you always wished you’d studied. Go skydiving, deep-sea diving, trekking.

“There are many different ways you can spend your time,” adds Rik. And fortunately, there’s no need to figure it all out right away. It will probably take a fair amount of experimenting to help you find just the right balance of how you want to spend your time. You can always increase social activities at a later stage or develop new hobbies if you want to stay busier.

“The joy of retirement is that you’ll have plenty of opportunities to experiment. It’s up to you to design the type of day – and kind of life – that you want to live.”

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