Finding a Sense of Purpose in Retirement

Finding a Sense of Purpose in Retirement

Finding a Sense of Purpose in Retirement: Parkinson’s Law and Time


Finding a sense of purpose in retirement takes time. Time and understanding Parkinson’s Law, that is!

Time in Retirement—the idea that you have time to find your sense of purpose in retirement, but, ultimately, that time is limited.

Parkinson’s Law—that a task takes exactly as much time to complete as you give it.

How can mixing the two together help to find a sense of purpose in retirement?

Let’s start with Parkinson’s law. Does Parkinson’s law hold in retirement? How can it help us to find a sense of purpose in retirement?


What is Parkinson’s Law?

Parkinson’s Law states that work expands to fill the time available for its completion.

If one has two weeks to do a project, I bet it will take 14 days! If it has to be done tomorrow, well, it will get done.

What does Parkinson’s law have to do with retirement? Well, in retirement, you have as much time to devote to your passions as you wish. Does pursuing your passion as “work” mean that it will take as much time to complete as you allow it?

That is, if you don’t schedule and actively pursue your passions in retirement, will they never get done? Parkinson’s law suggests not.


The History of Parkinson’s Law

“It is a commonplace observation that work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”

So begins his 1955 essay where Cyril Northcote Parkinson eponymously coins his Law. He goes on to say:

“The total effort which would occupy a busy man for three minutes all told may in this fashion leave another person prostrate after a day of doubt, anxiety and toil.”

Aside from the flowery language, there is therein the key to finding a sense of purpose in retirement: if you don’t, you might wind up prostrate after a day of doubt, anxiety and toil! The implication: find a passion and put it on a schedule!

Need help with the passion part? See the section on Ikigai on my blog Doctors Retiring Early Because of Covid.


Parkinson’s Law: Finding a Sense of Purpose in Retirement

Hang with me for a second, as I’m going to propose that Parkinson’s law is all about finding a sense of purpose in retirement.

In fact, let’s make it an equation: Retirement = Purpose – Time.

What is the work of retirement? It is finding a sense of purpose. And how much time is available?

This is where it gets tricky, because the time available is unknown. It is known, however, that time in retirement will end.

This equation boils down to two conclusions:

  • Figure out your purpose. Do it now!
  • Next, Schedule Your Purpose

If all you have is time, and the quantity of time is unknown, get your purpose on a timeline. This allows you to find your sense of purpose in retirement.


How Purpose in Retirement Works

In life, small improvements compound over time and lead to massive change.

In retirement, constant attention to your purpose compounds over time as well, and the result finding your purpose in retirement.

Small, incremental improvements. Once you find your passions, schedule it. Small scheduled projects to obtain your goal in retirement. Maybe this is the key to retirement happiness.

After all, remember that the U-curve of happiness goes straight up after your middle age!


All you have is time.

Speaking of which, let’s look at time.


Finding a Sense of Purpose in Retirement

Time in Retirement: are you busy?

I bet time affluence is something to which most busy Americans do not ascribe. In fact, I suggest in our culture of always being “so busy,” that most face time poverty.

Yet what is more important: to have an affluence of money or time? The nice part when you retire—you don’t have to choose! What does this have to do with finding a sense of purpose in retirement?


Time Affluence vs. Time Poverty

First, what’s up with the term “time affluence?”

It appears as if concepts such as time poverty have been around in management literature since prior to the 1990s. Even prior to the internet, ideas like awe, gratitude and giving your time to others were suggested as ways to get your time back.

Time affluence appeared in research 20 years later, again originally applied to the workplace.

Research shows then (and now) a majority of people “always” feel rushed. Even a higher percentage wish they had more time in the day.

Is that all posturing, or do people actually feel that way?

Or, is this more survey-based junk science that cannot be replicated?

Maybe we might find a kernel of truth to the notion of time poverty. The research indicates that, while people believe they are busier now than in the past, the opposite actually may be true.

People think prior generations had easier lives. But prior generations thought the generation before had it easier, too, and better as well. And were less busy!

We have a tendency to think that the golden age is the age right before ours. And that age thought it about the previous age as well. Of course, I am more rushed than the generation that came before me.


Time Poverty: Why People Feel Rushed

So, people have always felt rushed. And thought that prior generations were less rushed.

But do you want to know what really bothers me? I dislike when people say I “have” to do this or that. No, you “get” to do this or that. It is a choice, and one you must make affirmatively.

You make a day busy by “having to” and you make it affluent by “getting to.”

In retirement you no longer need to choose. Finding a sense of purpose in retirement means scheduling your passions and getting them done. You get to schedule and incrementally improve on your passion in retirement.

Money is not a predictor of happiness either. Once you have enough, well, how many hammers do you need to drive a nail? Apparently, around 60k a year is enough to flatten the curve of negative emotions, and the positive utility of money goes flat at 90k a year. Beyond that, and you are not happier. Enough is enough, except for time.

There is a limit on time, as life is a terminal condition. We each have what we have, and time affluence may better predict wellbeing than material affluence.


What Do I Want?

Another interesting thought: ask yourself “what do I want?” and then ask “why?” Reduce what you want enough, and the reason why you want it is because you are going to die someday. That is, keep asking “why” you want what you want. Why, why, why? And the reason is “because I’m going to die someday.”

Retire and you can focus on utility. Happiness. You have time affluence. What is the point of more wealth when you can have a wealth of time to do what you want before you die. Time affluence: have more time. Schedule your passions.

So in summary, focus on utility and the positive time affluence. This is finding a sense of purpose in retirement.


Finding a Sense of Purpose in Retirement: Parkinson’s Law and Time

To restate Parkinson’s law: a task requires exactly as much time to complete as you give it. Limit the time you allow to certain tasks, and you spend less time on them.

This comes down to the big rocks and the mason jar. Here, if you fill up your jar with sand first (the small annoying things that fill up our lives), you can’t get in the big rocks (which are the important actions that make your day and life work).

But, if you put in the big rocks first (by scheduling them and not doing small unimportant things), then you can add the pebbles (important and urgent tasks) and the sand fits in after everything else.

Finding a sense of purpose in retirement means getting your big rocks right: your passions on a schedule. You have an affluence of time but only if you use Parkinson’s law to your advantage. After all, traditional retirement is dead: RIP Retirement!


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