I recently finished reading a fascinating book on productivity by Charles Duhigg, the author of The Power of Habit. In Smarter, Faster, Better, Duhigg writes about how certain characteristics and features of our self-life can lead to more productive and fulfilled existences. The very first idea is on motivation- what motivates people to get something done, how motivation works in our brains, and why being motivated is so important. Why does this matter in and approaching a retirement life? Many high functioning people who have led companies, captained airplanes, or owned successful businesses have gotten a deep-seated and almost fully inherent sense of self-control, being in charge of their people, companies, and environments. With the reversion to a position in the next chapter of life, retirement, where there is a lack of focus or direction for what will happen next, there can be a loss of perception of (or actual) self-control. This phenomenon is common in neurological injuries or even in emotional dysfunction where the striatum, the part of the brain which lights up when we make decisions/choices and turns those into actions, is inhibited or restricted in some way. The result is an apathy that can be paralyzing on a spectrum from not doing anything to not caring about anything.
Duhigg goes back to an anecdote regarding the Marines’ training program which was updated a few years back when it was noticed that the new recruits were often unable to make decisions, in crisis or not. The change was made from instead of learning techniques in decision-making to strengthening each individual’s internal locus of control–the belief that the choices they made impacted the outcome of their tasks, projects, and life. This critical difference, applied in Marine boot camp, showed that as a learned skill, practicing the feeling of being in control of one’s destiny actually resulted in individuals choosing actions to get the desired results accomplished.
In retirement, the search for meaning and purpose often stymies people’s enjoyment of these years, where now there is time to do what one has been waiting to do for many years. Especially in abrupt or arbitrary departures- retirement due to illness, injury or birthdate- the sense of loss of control can be devastating. Once it is lost, it is very difficult to self-motivate and take action to regain that feeling from a dejected or depressed position. So the antidote to loss of motivation or drive to perform is twofold: choose meaningful and challenging goals, and always ask yourself, WHY? Why do I want to walk the Camino de Compostela? Why do I want to volunteer as a youth mentor? Why do I want to write a book on fly-fishing, baseball, dance or my passionate life interest? As Duhigg says, “CHOICES ARE NOT JUST EXPRESSIONS OF CONTROL, BUT ALSO AFFIRMATIONS OF OUR VALUES AND OUR GOALS.” *
Knowing about this phenomenon in advance of the retirement event can be instrumental in making the transition tenable as well as uplifting. Even while in a working environment, we can start practicing to boost our motivation skills by seeking the answers–is this experience meaningful? Why am I doing it? And take note of your responses. If you find there is a lack of self-motivation, try to create challenges for yourself and exercise this muscle of internal locus of control. Observe others who have successfully mastered a sense of contentment and purpose in their new phase of life and explore their motivation with those people. Finally, intentionally notice in your current environment how good it feels when you are in control. Reinforcing what you know, while you experience it, will help you recall that feeling if there is a shift in motivation when you retire.