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Retirement is more than working on your bucket list


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

Physicians tend to be goal-oriented achievers. To get through the trials by fire of medical school and residency, they had to be laser-focused on a one-step-at-a-time approach. So it’s not surprising that many think of retirement as an opportunity to complete tasks or activities that they never had time for during their busy careers.

Some call this a 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. And while making a list can be useful, it’s important to recognize that retirement is not just a 20-year (or more!) vacation. It’s a whole new chapter of your life.

The nature of the profession presents many physicians with special challenges when they retire. Many have put much of their energy into their job. Their identity has been closely tied to their career, and they’re used to being very busy. As a physician, if you don’t have a plan for how to replace those elements when you move into this new phase, you risk undermining the quality of your life.

Planning the next chapter

Dr. Amy D’Aprix, a gerontologist and life transitions expert based in Toronto, says that retirement was originally conceived as a period of rest and reward for a lifetime of hard work. “Now,” she says, “we’ve created a whole new stage of life, and we often don’t know what to do with it. We haven’t planned for it.”

Dr. Amy, as she prefers to be called, explains that while a bucket list can add value to retirement, most people don’t realize that they need to create a new life, not just an activity roster. “The bucket list thing can become a problem because for most people it’s a list of travel, sports and other activities. But you really need to be thinking about your life holistically, including aspects like your family and social connections, your physical care and your living arrangements. It shouldn’t be just a list of things you’re going to do.”

“Keeping it real”

Another problem with bucket lists is that they can turn out to be more fantasy than reality. Dr. Amy uses the example of men who say they want to get into woodworking when they retire. “They buy all the equipment and materials for woodworking and then they discover: ‘Now I know why I never did this before,’” she says. “Women may have similar ideas about arts and crafts that ultimately don’t turn out to be fulfilling.”

A good strategy for preparing for retirement, she says, is to consider what parts of being a physician have contributed to your sense of purpose and meaning, and how you’re going to replace them. “Bucket lists are fun by and large,” she notes, “but life is more than just running around pursuing fun. Most of us want to experience something richer and deeper.”

Investing in relationships

By their nature, bucket lists are highly personal. But if you’re involved in an important relationship, such as with a spouse or partner, adapting to changes in that relationship will already be one of the biggest challenges of retirement. So adding the complexity of aligning bucket lists may not be feasible.

“Say you’ve always wanted to visit Australia,” Dr. Amy says, “but your spouse has no interest in going. You might say: ‘This is so important to me that I’m going to Australia without you.’ That’s fine if it works for both of you. But you might decide you’d rather do something together because that would give you more joy than just checking 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 channelling that energy after you retire.

Finally, there’s evidence that completing bucket list items doesn’t necessarily make people happy. In fact, it can lead to depression. “Checking another item off your list doesn’t actually contribute to a fulfilling and connected life,” Dr. Amy explains. “When you complete an item, you may feel a hit—a high. Then when you get home, you may suddenly confront the need to go on to the next item to get that high again.”

The upshot: You’ve had clear goals throughout your professional life. 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.