Annals of Retirement

Brian Taylor for The Chronicle

November 01, 2012

For years, I refused to consider the possibility of retirement. As a grants director at a small university in the Midwest, I would say, to my wife's dismay, "I'll work until I croak."

But in my early 60s I began to tire of the mundane parts of my job, the interminable and petty disputes on the campus, and the erosion of support for higher education in my state and across the country. To my surprise, I discovered that I could actually afford to retire. My wife pointed out that she had retired early, successfully, and happily.

So I started to think about stepping down, and wrote several columns in 2008 and 2009 for The Chronicle about my "road to retirement." (I wrote them under a pseudonym as I was still working at my university at the time but you can read them here, here, and here.)

I knew lots of retired folks, of course. I asked them what it was like, how they entertained themselves, how they filled their time. Most of them said something like, "I'm so busy I don't know how I ever found the time to go to work." I didn't believe them at first, but eventually they convinced me that filling their time was simply not a problem. A former dean gave me an excellent bit of advice: Before you retire, line up six months of tasks. Otherwise, on the first Monday you don't go to work, you'll be asking yourself, "What do I do now?"

I've been lining up tasks ever since. We live on six acres in an aging house, so I knew I would have a never-ending list of home and yard chores demanding attention. In addition, I had moonlighted as a consultant with several colleges, universities, and organizations on short-term consults, and my clients told me they would continue to hire me after I retired. So in the summer of 2010, at age 66, I screwed up my nerve and pulled the plug on my full-time career.

I confess: Since then I've told a few folks that I don't know how I ever found the time to go to work. After retiring, I immediately began a three-year term as president-elect, president, and (now) past president of the Council on Undergraduate Research. I could not possibly have filled those offices while working full time. I've also expanded my consulting business. I help with grant proposals, serve as external evaluator, and lead workshops on undergraduate research or proposal writing. I estimate I'm working about half time, although the workload fluctuates considerably.

Those tasks take me to distant campuses and parts of the country, teach me about other ways of doing things, give me a chance to exercise my professional muscles, and pay me a little. Best of all, I can pick and choose the tasks I wish to take on. And I go to very few meetings.

The rest of my time I spend with my grandchildren, on home and outdoor chores, traveling, and playing around in my woodshop. I bought a lathe soon after retiring and have had a great time making bottle-stoppers, small bowls, and large piles of wood chips (excellent mulch for tomatoes). It's all good.

Still, there are significant differences between my working life and my retired life. I don't have as much stamina as I used to. When I started writing grant proposals, many years ago, I could write for four hours straight, break for lunch, write for another four or five hours, have dinner, and then edit and brainstorm for an hour or two before bed. Now I can't write for more than two hours at a stretch before I have to take a break. Working outdoors or in the woodshop, it's the same. I can weed or cut brush or turn wood for a couple of hours, but then I lose my concentration and have to do something else.

I gave a keynote speech a year ago in Washington, D.C. The next day, my wife and I started the circuit of museums and galleries we like to visit, but I wore out before noon. That had never happened before, so I consulted with my doctor, who sent me for a series of tests, including an extremely grueling cardio test on a treadmill. Her conclusion: "Your heart is fine, you're in good shape, but you're older now. Giving a keynote address is stressful. It's not surprising you got tired. Keep going to the gym, you'll live a long time. But your stamina won't improve; get used to it."

On the other hand, I have found it helps to alternate tasks. I might spend a couple of intensive hours in my home office, grinding out the final report from an external evaluation, then spend a couple of hours in my woodshop, break for a long lunch, and finish the day clearing brush. Any of those jobs would become exhausting, or boring, or both, if I labored at them for the entire day. In smaller doses, they stay interesting and I stay focused.

Still, I used to accomplish a great deal more than I can today. I don't attempt as much as I used to, of course—I'm retired, after all. We all know that tasks expand to fit the time available. I have more time than I used to, so I spend longer on each task.

And so the rhythms of daily life are different in retirement. I used to do mundane or mindless chores—mowing the lawn, paying bills, laundry—in the evening after dinner. Now I do them during the day and sit in my chair in the evening, reading or watching Breaking Bad.

One bad thing: I'm much more prone to putting tasks off, since I know I'll have time enough tomorrow, or even the next day. I meant to write this column a year ago. Oh well, I'm retired.

Bill Campbell was director of grants and research at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls.