Thoughts from a Retirement Coach
By Mariella Vigneux, MBA, ACC
Certified Professional Coach
I’m hearing a tune being sung by new retirees, those still adjusting to being retired. The song is about fighting inertia and the words go something like this:
I haven’t played the bagpipes, like I thought I would,
I haven’t gotten fit, and I really, really should,
I haven’t volunteered, as good retirees do,
And my novel is blank pages – it is no good.
Coffee time is stretching, the paper must be read,
I love watching TV, especially while in bed.
Why am I so lazy; I’m playing way too much
I had such dreams, such dreams; but now can’t move ahead.
I confess, I felt inertia as I sat on the couch, thinking about writing this article. I felt that the concepts were too big: the Law of Inertia, the Self-Determination Theory, and Taoism. Too much. I brewed some coffee. I wrote a grocery list. I went outside to see the daffodils. I talked to the cat.
Fighting the Law of Inertia
Do you sometimes find yourself in a state of inertia, with one day drifting into another and not much to show for it? A vague uneasiness drifting into your consciousness?
One definition of inertia, is “the indisposition to motion, exertion, or changes.” The Law of Inertia states that “unless acted upon by an external force, an object at rest remains at rest, or if in motion, it continues to move in a straight line with constant speed.”
How are we to break out of this Law of Inertia? It’s a law, after all. Having retired from The Job and without people telling us what to do, what gets us going? How can we boost that intrinsic motivation they tell us is so important to reaching the big dreams we have…or think we should have?
Not to Worry – we’re internally programmed: The Self-Determination Theory
Well, apparently, we have three needs that carry us along our merry way: a need for autonomy, a need for competence, and a need for psychological relatedness. Autonomy: we try to control the outcomes of our experiences. Competence: we seek to be causal agents in our own lives and to act in harmony with our internal selves. And psychological relatedness: we want to be connected to others in caring relationships. We are, thus, internally programmed to take on challenges, to grow, and to strive. Ah, we can stop worrying.
Too much striving, however, can be as bad as too much inertia. Which brings me to Taoism.
The Taoist Twist
According to The Wisdom of Taoism, everything already has its own nature within it. We need to live in harmony with our nature, to imitate Mother Nature.
“Nature never strives; therefore the Sage should guard himself from striving too. Nature is ever passive; therefore the Sage should let things take their course, contenting himself with following in their wake.”
There! Our inertia has been sanctioned and blessed! Amen. I should have remained on the couch and let this article write itself.
And that leaves me confused. What about self-determination and our needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness? The Self-Determination Theory tells us that people with high levels of intrinsic motivation have a higher level of happiness. Taoism tells us that happiness depends upon remaining passive. How can we follow the Taoist principle of not striving, yet be on the lookout for ways to boost our intrinsic motivation? Once again, we face the challenge of balancing the yin and yang of life.
Three thoughts about dreams that seem far away
What we can take from this, perhaps, is that if we force ourselves, we run into trouble. If our big dreams aren’t in line with our inner natures, then we are forcing ourselves. And if we are overdoing autonomy, competence, and relatedness, then we are forcing ourselves. Forcing spells trouble.
We’re the same people after retirement as before. Our natures don’t change. Add to that the lack of structure in our days, that same structure that made us so productive at work, and we’re going to feel adrift at times. Excited and motivated, but adrift.
My take on it (and Taoists may suck in their breaths at this) is that our dreams aren’t going to come true by themselves. So, my striving little soul has these thoughts for your consideration:
1. The inertia we feel could mean we’re in a creative stage
I like to think that some of the inertia we feel is the quiet gestation of creativity. The embryos of brilliance need undisturbed, rich, fertile soil. The seedlings won’t sprout until they are ready. One key ingredient is social support. Our apparent idleness during this period of outward unproductiveness needs to be understood and supported.
2. Maybe we’ve chosen the wrong dream
Some of that inertia might be related to doubt about what we really want. The dreams we had while working may not scratch the itch we now have.
In an earlier article called In support of doubt, I made the case for spending time being unsure of where we want to head next.
“I’ve learned that it’s better to spend time in the place of not knowing, instead of making a hasty, ill-judged decision. The passionate exercise of dancing in doubt strengthens our self-awareness. Spending time in the place of not knowing lets us explore ourselves: our strengths, needs, desires, the conditions we need to thrive, and our fit in the world. This clarity about ourselves and our ideal world allows us to discover where we will thrive – the place where we can play at what we do best.”
It may take some time to figure out which dream to pursue, but once we do, our intrinsic motivation will be higher, and the process will seem effortless.
3. The dream may seem too big
If you’re anything like me, the big projects get pushed to the back burner. The same is true for big dreams. It’s easier to do the little task – send an email, clean the sink – than to tackle the scarier, but more rewarding, dreams. Getting back to playing the piano, joining the board of a non-profit organization, learning to fly an airplane… these endeavours require thought and energy.
Maybe our big dreams need to be broken down into bite-size pieces. Sharpen the pencil, get the pad of paper out. Or make one phone call. Baby steps.
Some people find it helpful to work backwards… to establish what the dream would look like in full fruition and figure out the steps backwards.
And as my wise eldest sister said, it’s too hard to muscle through on willpower alone; we need to create a routine, a regular pattern of activity that gets us where we want to go.
Embracing inertia in retirement
We have highly developed skills for being productive, working hard, and having great things to show for it. Retirement might save us – it might be the time we learn to stop. To listen. To live mindfully, in full possession of all our senses. We can still be motivated to follow our dreams, but by being more in tune with the world within us and around us, the pursuits we choose to follow will be more in tune with our values and interests.