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Throw Out Your “To Do” List and Get More from Semi-Retirement

By Becki Cohn-Vargas February 13, 2017 Lifestyle

Do you have a checklist in your mind that ticks off what counts? I do. It’s a proverbial one.

Let’s see, I get a point for working long hours, another point for making money, a point for having a day when I did not overeat and did my exercises. I get points for visiting a sick person, but not as many as I do when I get a new job contract, especially one that affords status.

Then the list goes on. Yet, the minute I finish one thing, I am on to the next.

What It’s Like Being Semi-Retired

The problem is that in my semi-retired state, I have some days with nothing on the schedule. My life is very different from the one I lived just five years ago. I got up at 4 a.m., exercised, and did a one-hour commute to my job as superintendent, and returned home at 8 p.m. I got lots of points then. I worked like that for over 30 years – not only working, but getting a doctorate and raising three children.

Oh yes, my point-meter was off the charts. The most intense years were in the 90s when I was a principal and my youngest kid was in preschool. At that time, the checklist included leading singing at Jewish Sunday School, being a football mom and baking cookies for the class. I was lucky the chocolate chips bag had a good recipe on it! I never was much of a baker. Sound familiar?

When I stopped working, I remember being at Pier 39 in San Francisco at 10 a.m. on a weekday. It was full of people. Who were all these people who did not have to go to work? There was a whole world out there!

Still Writing a Lifestyle Checklist

The problem is that I still have that old checklist going. After all those years. If you saw me now, you might laugh that I am worrying about the checklist. I may not have a regular job, but I am not sitting around.

In the last week, I led a teacher’s study group, had a meeting with my County Supervisor about our community efforts to stop hate and went to a Toastmasters meeting. I have a webinar tomorrow and Skype call with college students about the upcoming trip I am leading to Nicaragua.

Also, I visited my sister in the hospital (so grateful she is home); I visited my friend with cancer who is in hospice and took my 90-year-old Dad to synagogue. Yet, I also got to sleep in, read, and lounge around the house.

Unfortunately, the old checklist voices are ticking away. The world is in such disarray, maybe I should be doing more. During the US election cycle, both presidential candidates were older than I am, and look at the schedule they were keeping! Maybe… should I get a regular job again?

Do You Have Any of These Voices in Your Head?

Well, this message is for me as well as any of you – just wipe out the checklist. The list was always based on a set of shoulds and a guilt-mongering value system. It combined a societal set of values that only recognized climbing the ladder to money and success with stereotypical women’s roles. I had a double dose of that because I also felt it was incumbent on me to change the world.

As a young woman, I thought that if I stayed up through the night working, just maybe I could change the world. If I hardly slept at all, just maybe I could fix things. I learned fast that a good night’s sleep was the least I could do to keep my body functioning to do what my activist friends and I called the triple workday of a woman: family, a job and changing the world.

Turning the Checklist on Its Head

I also have a healthy dose of another kind of guilt-ridden thinking that “you aren’t doing enough.” And that is a vicious cycle. You discover that you never are doing enough.

There are two great books that have helped me. One is an old one called “Composing a Life” by Mary Catherine Bateson. While it was published in 1990, the message is even truer today. Bateson interviewed five very different dynamic women who share the stories of their lives. Her message is that in these turbulent, changing times, our very lives are like an act of creation.

This book turns the checklist on its head. The value, instead of race to productivity, is about creativity and service, woven together with reflection. Its message to me is that I need to look at my life at each juncture from the point of view of creating a work of art. Balancing acts of contribution and compassion, together with practical concerns of managing health and finances will lead to a full and vibrant life.

The other book is a new one. Thomas Friedman’s “Thank You for Being Late” was published in 2016. A New York Times journalist, Friedman has a window on the constantly changing world of technology and the political spheres across the planet, together with an understanding of the many different cultural implications and impacts.

He has travelled and spoken to all kinds of people in all parts of the world. His message is loud and clear. The world is changing so rapidly that the speed of change outruns our human capacity to adapt. The three spheres of change are in technology, the environment and globalization. The good thing about Friedman is his optimism. Like Bateson, he harkens to innovation and reflection. He also says we need to define ourselves differently, basically to re-invent ourselves.

How to Apply Our Wisdom in Troubled Times

So, where does that leave me? A few things are rattling around in my mind. First, the world seems to be in terrible shape no matter how you look at things. So, how can I take my knowledge and experience forward and contribute?

I have a few skills: writing, speaking and knowledge of education and social justice. I have the time to help friends and family with ill health. I still might need to earn money to pursue some of my travels and the project of taking care of our little rain forest reserve in Nicaragua. This is a recipe for a life that might work well without a checklist.

So, I say, let’s throw out the checklist! Rather, let’s focus on composing lives of creativity, innovation, service and connection.

Are you enjoying retirement or semi-retirement? Do you still use “to do” lists? What kind of a life are you composing? How are you living a creative, connected and innovative life? Please share your thoughts with the Sixty and Me community.

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The Author

Becki Cohn-Vargas, Ed.D, has been blogging regularly for Sixty and Me since 2015. She is a retired educator and independent consultant. She's the co-author of three books on identity safe schools where students of all backgrounds flourish. Becki and her husband live in the San Francisco Bay Area and have three adult children and one grandchild. You can connect with her at the links below.

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