Is Busy Better?

Many of us will feel exhilarated when we retire — at least for a while. Bernice Bratter and Helen Dennis, authors of Project Renewment: The First Retirement Model for Career Women, pose five questions to help you figure out how to make yours a time of renewal.

“In the first few months of my retirement I was so busy I didn’t know how I ever had time to work. The first thing I did was to take everything that was broken out of my storage cupboard and have it repaired. That included the vacuum, cracked porcelain plate and the bent silver spoon. I cleaned and organized my house. I took clothes to the tailors, shoes to the shoemaker and I had the house painted and windows washed. I even tackled the garage. I went on a trip to India and had breakfasts, lunches and dinners with old friends. I took yoga classes and long walks in the middle of the day. I read books and took computer lessons, honing my skills since I no longer had an assistant. My biggest luxury was reading the morning newspaper — in the morning.

“After everything got fixed and I grew tired of eating at restaurants every day, life began to feel superficial. I panicked when I realized that I was busy — and bored. I didn’t miss work, but I missed the mental stimulation, camaraderie and challenges that I had while working. I was scared that I could never find these things again in retirement.”

Clearly something was missing.

The early days of retirement are filled with choices: a time to catch up with friends, take the extra yoga and Pilates classes and start (and complete) the never-ending to-do lists. There is even a choice to do nothing. We initially may feel liberated and relieved, knowing we now have the time to do all of those things for which there was no time during our working years. This glorious honeymoon can last a lifetime or disappear and reappear many times.

At one time, retirement was considered the most stable period of life; today it can be one of the most dynamic life stages. And change is an integral part of it. Since retirement is an opportunity that can last as long as thirty years, just being busy for that amount of time may not be sufficient.

One of the unsettling retirement experiences of successful women is the prospect of an empty calendar. We are used to filling every minute, knowing where we are supposed to be, what projects are due and what clients to meet. Now the calendar is empty. If not, it is filled with different kinds of appointments — the doctor, mechanic, hairstylist and trainer. One woman commented, “Sometimes I write my own name on my calendar so I think I’m busy.

“There’s part of me that finds the prospect of not having something to do all day–every day a delicious concept. And then there’s part of me that is panicky about the idea that I’m not going to have something to do every day, that I am going to get bored, lose my sense of self-worth and not have anything to talk about to people.”

Why do we feel so compelled to be busy? Part of the answer is the Puritan work ethic. The Puritans were members of a group of English Protestants in the seventeenth century who were advocates of strict religious discipline. Their teachings were based on their Bible and emphasized hard work and perfection as necessary for salvation. Pleasure was considered sinful. Puritanism was well received by early capitalists because it created a self-disciplined and hardworking labor force. These values continue to define the American work ethic. American employees often do not take the full amount of paid vacation time because of the stress of returning to work to face a slew of e-mails and a huge to-do list. They also fear their absence will affect their job security. One-quarter of Americans don’t have any paid vacation time, and those who do have fourteen days; the French have thirty-nine days and the Brits twenty-four.

This ethic has formed the framework from which we derive implicit positive rewards as a result of the work we do. We gain a sense of self-respect when we demonstrate initiative, industriousness, productivity and self-discipline, all traits valued in the workplace.

If we are chairing the board of a nonprofit organization, raising a quarter of a million dollars for the art museum or getting up three times a week at 5:00 A.M. to oversee the local soup kitchen, we likely are deriving great meaning from these endeavors. They demonstrate our ability and commitment to achieve and complete tasks.

And by being busy, we are protected from the perception that others may have of us as no longer being able to perform. Keeping busy may give definition to our emerging role, which can be clouded at best. It motivates us to continue contributing to society, families, the arts and the nonprofit world. We try to make this world a better place. The key is to find value in our busyness.

A retired executive director in Project Renewment shared her uneasiness when asked, “What are you doing with yourself these days?” “I would mention so many activities that people would gasp at the number of my commitments. But what I was doing had little or no social value. I felt that others perceived me as being shallow and that my life lacked purpose.”

The American author Barbara Ehrenreich writes that “the secret of the truly successful . . . is that they learned very early in life how not to be busy.” This suggests that life is to be savored and not rushed.

When busyness no longer has meaning, it is time to stop, take stock and figure out what is missing in our lives. The board meetings may become tedious, the book clubs may be getting arduous and the gym may become boring.

Maintaining a busy schedule is not the same as being fulfilled. Being busy without meaning implies that quantity is better than quality. Most of us want that quality of life with activities and relationships that replenish our soul and have personal meaning. Being too busy may prevent our continued growth as suggested by the German classical scholar and philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. “A man [woman] who is very busy seldom changes his [her] opinions.”

Questions to ask yourself:

  1. How do you feel about unscheduled time?
  2. Assuming you will have fifty unscheduled hours of time per week, what will bring you pleasure and satisfaction?
  3. How would you define a quality activity?
  4. If you want to keep a busy schedule, do you know why?
  5. How do you want to balance your time between leisure and activity?

Bernice Bratter, author of Project Renewment: The First Retirement Model for Career Women (Copyright © 2008 by Bernice Bratter and Helen Dennis, Illustrations copyright © 2008 by Lahni Baruck), is a native Angeleno who graduated from UCLA with a major in psychology. She did graduate work at the Phillips Graduate Institute, where she obtained a master’s degree in social science. She is a licensed marriage and family therapist and has served  as president of the Los Angeles Women’s Foundation, a public foundation dedicated to reshaping the lives of girls and women in Southern California, as well as executive director of the Center for Healthy Aging, a nonprofit interdisciplinary health care organization for older adults and their families. An advocate on aging and women’s issues, she has appeared in front of various government agencies and has lectured and served as a consultant to nonprofit organizations. In 1981 she was a gubernatorial appointee as observer for the State of California to the White House Conference on Aging and is the recipient of numerous awards and commendations including the Santa Monica YWCA Woman of the Year Award as well as the Center for Healthy Aging Community Leader Award. Bernice holds an honorary doctor of law degree from Pepperdine University and has served on the board of directors of Tenet Healthcare. She has appeared on 60 Minutes, 20/20, The Phil Donahue Show and in Hour Detroit magazine. In 1999 she cofounded Project Renewment, which explores the different challenges career women face once they leave the workforce. As cofounder of Project Renewment she continues to meet the demand of women who want to join a Project Renewment group.

Helen Dennis, author of Project Renewment: The First Retirement Model for Career Women (Copyright © 2008 by Bernice Bratter and Helen Dennis, Illustrations copyright © 2008 by Lahni Baruck), is a nationally recognized leader on issues of aging, employment and retirement. She has conducted research on these issues for organizations such as The Conference Board, AARP, UC Berkeley and the U.S. Administration on Aging. Nationally, she has lectured extensively to the business community, professional groups, nonprofit organizations and government agencies. In her consulting practice Helen has worked with more than ten thousand employees planning the nonfinancial aspects of their retirement, including men and women who are senior executives, managers, factory workers and university faculty and staff. She is the editor of two books, Retirement Preparation and Fourteen Steps in Managing an Aging Work Force, and a weekly columnist writing on “Successful Aging” for The Daily Breeze, a MediaNews group newspaper. As a leader, Helen has served as president of three nonprofit organizations and currently serves as chairperson for the American Society on Aging’s Business Forum on Aging and the Healthcare and Elder Law Programs in Southern California. She was appointed as a delegate to the 2005 White House Conference on Aging and serves on the national board of the American Society on Aging. A lecturer for more than twenty years at the University of Southern California’s Andrus Gerontology Center, she has been the recipient of several awards for her teaching effectiveness and contributions to the field of aging. These include the Distinguished Teaching Award from the Association for Gerontology in Higher Education, the Excellence in Teaching Award from the Andrus Associates at the University of Southern California and the Francis Townsend Award in Gerontology from California State University, Long Beach. Her views on age, employment and retirement issues have been quoted by the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, the Christian Science Monitor, the Sacramento Bee and others. She has also appeared on 20/20 and national network news programs. As cofounder of Project Renewment, she continues to support the formation of Project Renewment groups and has made numerous national presentations on the challenges and opportunities facing career women in retirement.


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