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Crafting your next chapter: Pursuing a fulfilling retirement

Older man holding a surfboard looking at the waves in the ocean.

Checking items off your retirement “bucket list” of activities doesn’t necessarily contribute to a fulfilling life.

Physicians tend to be goal-oriented achievers — that is what turns medical students into practising physicians, after all. So, it’s not surprising that many think of retirement as an opportunity to complete tasks or activities that fell by the wayside during their busy careers.

Some call this the “bucket list”: activities to do before you “kick the bucket.” The freedom to do things that you never got around to while working is certainly one of the benefits of retirement. It’s also a benefit that physicians say they’re looking forward to in retirement, with 75% of physicians surveyed saying they’re looking forward to travelling in retirement, and pursuing hobbies, new learning, or areas of interest.1

While making a list of activities you’re anticipating once you retire can be useful, it’s vitally important to recognize that retirement is not just a really long vacation. It’s a whole new chapter of your life.

The nature of the profession presents many physicians with unique challenges not only as they’re planning for retirement, but when they’re retired, as well. Many have invested the lion’s share of their energy into their jobs — their identities are highly intertwined with their demanding careers. As a physician, if you don’t have a plan to replace those elements when you move into this new phase, you risk undermining the quality of your life.

Stay engaged, plan out the next chapter

Originally, retirement was as a period of rest and reward for a lifetime of hard work. As we live longer and healthier lives, retirement has shifted to be a whole new stage of life, one that can last several decades or more. You need to figure out what you want to do to live a fulfilling retirement and you need to plan how you’re going to get there.

That’s why thinking of retirement as merely a bucket list can fall short. Instead of creating a list of activities you can “check off” one by one in retirement, consider thinking about your life holistically, including aspects like your family and friends, social interactions and connections, your physical care and your living arrangements. Your retirement plan needs to be more than just a list of things you’re going to do.

This is where the opportunity to develop more tangible plans can help physicians prepare for retirement. Only about one-third of physicians surveyed said they had concrete plans for retirement, while half said they only had a general idea about what retirement might look like for them.1

“Keeping it real" is the key to fulfillment

Another problem with bucket lists is that they can turn out to be more fantasy than reality — a wish list reflecting the pressures of your medical career, instead of a true reflection of what you’ll find rewarding in retirement. For example, a long put-off hobby may turn out to be less interesting and fulfilling than you had thought, or may even be frustrating.

A good strategy in preparing for retirement can be to consider what parts of being a physician have contributed most to your sense of purpose and meaning, and how you’re going to replace them. Doing fun things is one thing but finding something deeper and richer is another. This could mean finding volunteer or community activities to participate in, or ensuring you nurture and maintain your relationships through regular, planned contact.

There’s also evidence that completing bucket list items doesn’t necessarily make people more happy. If your focus is on “checking off the next box,” you may be missing the forest for the trees — losing perspective on why those items were on your bucket list in the first place.

Invest in your relationships and they will pay you back many times over

If you’re involved in a special relationship, with a spouse or partner for example, adapting to changes in that relationship will already be one of the biggest challenges of retirement.

More than a quarter of physicians surveyed said that the timing of their spouse’s retirement would influence their own decision about when to leave work.1 Meshing two separate retirements can mean physicians need to mix and match work arrangements over time — such as moving to reduced hours and a phased retirement, for example.

On top of that, add the complexity of trying to align two separate and highly personal bucket lists, which might not even be possible.

As an example, say you’ve always wanted to visit Australia, but your spouse has no interest in doing so. You might go alone and that might work if you both agree. Alternatively, you might decide to do something else together because that would provide more joy than crossing Australia off your list.

That’s just one example of a broader point. Physicians as a group tend to be passionate, driven individuals. If that sounds like you, it’s wise to acknowledge that. And when you do, you’ll recognize that you’ll need to remain passionate — to find ways of channeling that energy after you retire.

You’ve had clear goals throughout your professional life and that’s unlikely to change. At the same time, your new goals should evolve, and you may need to adapt them. And remember that they’re not written in stone: They’re just one part of the whole picture of your new life circumstances.

1 Environics Research (2018), MD Physician Retirement Readiness Study.