Pandemic Productivity

daily activities board
Empty Daily Activities Board by Greg Montani

Just a quick note about my pandemic productivity – or lack thereof.

I’m feeling a little guilty lately because in these pandemic times when we are semi-trapped at home, I have more “free time” than ever before – and I am being less productive.

I love to read. I have time to read. I’m not reading. I do read every day, but it’s articles online mostly. I have “read” a few audiobooks while working in the garden. I started a few books and ended up skimming or giving up on them.

I had a long talk with a friend about the pros and cons of to-do lists. I’m still making the lists, but I’m not checking off many items. Those lists can be a reminder of things not done. Sort of depressing.

One of my sons says his team has been more productive than ever working from home. As a member of the unretirement workforce (yes, that’s a real thing), I do get “work” done, but I definitely don’t feel very productive or more productive.

DIY sales are way up. My wife has been on a sewing and quilting binge of production. People are doing projects around their homes. I fixed a broken sensor in our oven, but the sheetrock job I started in the basement is still waiting for me since March. Cooking and baking supplies, books and TV shows are booming. You all are adding to my guilt.

How are you feeling about your productivity during this pandemic times? Am I the outlier in all this?


Retire, Unretire or Keep Working

Jane Bryant Quinn is a well known financial journalist who writes about personal finance. Her books and columns are about investor protection, health insurance, Social Security, and the sufficiency of retirement plan. Now 80, she is retiring.

I read a farewell article by her in the AARP magazine (Yes, I do read my AARP magazine) and I thought it would be interesting to see how someone who has been advising others about retirement would handle her own retirement. Obviously, she didn’t stop working at 67, but her phase one plan surprised me.

“After all these years of reporting and writing about how to prepare for retirement, I’m trying it myself…My husband retired last year and, just as I’ve advised in my columns, we’ve had many, many conversations about what to do with our time. To start, we’re going to follow a dream and live in Rome for a year. Art. Music. Gelato!”

I believe I am in unretirement (not a term I coined). That is when you have ended your full-time career but continue to work: a) when you want to work b) only at things you enjoy doing  c) either paid or unpaid.

For me, the key phrase in her article is “After Rome, my calendar is blank.” That’s a brave thing to say about retirement – especially for someone who has spent a good part of her life advising people about how to plan their future.

My friend Pat decided after retirement to sell her house and car and move to Florence for a year. I’ll confess that I was far more apprehensive/frightened about her going to Italy to live than she was about this adventure. I know that it’s not something I can do – both because of circumstances and because it scares me too much.

What will Pat do when she comes back to the U.S.? (I’m assuming she will come back.) That’s not determined.  Maybe she should go to Rome and visit Jane. It’s not that Quinn doesn’t have any plans:  “I’ll have to invent a life for myself. It’s challenging and not a little unnerving. I’ll spend more time with family and friends, do more reading and more jigsaw puzzles. Then I’ll see what comes my way.”

Quinn made a lot of money telling us how to manage our money in bestsellers like Making the Most of Your Money, Everyone’s Money Book and How to Make Your Money Last.  Notice a theme there? Money, money, money.

I know that having money in retirement is a major concern for people, but I don’t think it should be the number one concern.

I know people who have retired, have adequate money and are unhappy. Why? The most common reason seems to be because “I don’t know what to do with myself.”

Looking at retire in Merriam-Webster online I found lots of definitions. Most of them bring no joy. The etymology goes back to Middle French retirer, from re- + tirer meaning “to draw.” (My French-speaking wife tells me that nowadays the word used is retraiter, meaning both to retire as from a job or as in an army retreating.)

From the mid-1500s the meaning had nothing to do with retirement as we think of it today because no one got to retire from their work. You worked until you either couldn’t work anymore or until you died.

The word doesn’t have very positive connotations: reserved, shy, secluded (as in a retired village), to withdraw, to retreat (from action or danger, or for privacy or to sleep, as in she retired to her bedroom), to move back, to recede, to withdraw from circulation or from the market (as with a product).

That latter meaning is the one that bothers me.  The idea of retiring a product or a service from use because it is no longer relevant or saleable is one thing, but to retire a person from use depresses me.

Perhaps, my transitional meaning comes from baseball. You can retire a batter (3 strikes) or even retire the side (3 outs).  In those cases, the batter or team is done – but it’s not permanent. You’ll get up to bat again – perhaps in just a few minutes; perhaps tomorrow.

Leaving one’s job or ceasing to work after reaching a certain age – retirement –  has been around since around the 18th century, though it was something only the upper classes with some wealth could consider. (Prior to the 18th century, humans had an average life expectancy between 26 and 40 years, so only a small percentage of the population reached an age where physical impairments would force them to stop working.)

Countries began to adopt government policies on retirement (beginning in Germany) during the late 19th century and the 20th century. The kind of retirement that Americans think of today didn’t come into usage here until around the 1920s.

Currently in the United States, early retirement is considered age 62 and the normal retirement age is 67. That’s up from the earlier standard of 65 and it has a lot to do with when you collect your full Social Security benefits. Of the 55-59 age group,  66% are still working. That drops to 43% for the 60-64 group. The big drop is for 65-69 who have only 20% still working. At 70+ you only have 5% still working.

I still hear people say that they’ll keep working until they die – either because they believe (sadly, perhaps mistakenly) that they’ll need the income, or because (happily) they love what they do.

I talked with a friend about this post when I started writing it and he reminded me that none of this may be relevant to most people. He said that the situation I’m in and Pat and Jane are in is not the norm for a lot of Americans. We have pensions, Social Security, some investments, a home and enough that if we’re not overly extravagant we should be okay financially in retirement. That’s not true for lots of people.

Of course, none of us can predict the future whether it be about the economy or our own health and circumstances. But you do need to plan ahead. At least, that’s my approach and it’s a cautious one I have taken my entire life. I bet I missed out on some adventures and fun along the way. Is retirement my second chance?




retirement calendarunretirementBack in 2016, I was preparing a conference keynote presentation to give at the  Rutgers University Online that I titled “The Disconnected.” That is my name for a segment of the population. These people are not disconnected in a detached or unengaged sense but are instead disconnecting from traditional modes and sources of information and learning.

In doing my research, I found a podcast that is called Unretirement and realized that in my own process of learning to retire I was probably entering unretirement.

Chris Farrell, who wrote the book Unretirement and hosted the podcast, defines unretirement as a “grassroots movement rethinking and reimagining the second half of life.”

At that point in my life, I was pretty sure that I was done with my full-time work in education which has been my career for 40 years. But I wasn’t sure that I wanted to completely stop working. I knew there were things I wanted to do that wouldn’t count as “work” because there was no remuneration involved. I wanted to get serious about my poetry and painting I wanted to see friends more often. I also wanted to do more travel and things that would cost money. Spending money but not making money could be a problem.

Farrell’s book is subtitled “How Baby Boomers are Changing the Way We Think About Work, Community, and the Good Life” and as a Boomer, I could identify.

I began, almost accidentally, retiring into consulting. I was asked by two colleges if I would be willing to work on projects part-time. No contract. No benefits. Very flexible hours, including working virtually from home for a good part of it.  I agreed.

Both jobs required me to formalize this path and I created an LLC so that I could be paid as a business rather than an individual. That was required by the colleges as I was now a vendor or independent contractor.

I was also doing web design work for clients who I knew beforehand. My own definition of unretirement meant that I worked when I wanted to work and at things that I wanted to do for people or organizations I liked.

I also did volunteer, no-pay work. I was teaching about filmmaking and enjoying it. That was also part of my unretirement plan.

After a year of being unretired, another college asked me to do a six-month project. This project involved open education resources (OER). Like the previous projects, this was an area I had worked in previously.

My wife wasn’t thrilled in me taking on a project that was longer term. Web jobs and volunteer work took a few weeks. She didn’t want me to do anything that would close out our ability to pick up and travel. But the college team was very willing to let me adjust my time on campus.

Then in September 2018, I was offered another gig at a different college. This was a different commitment. It would be a one-year contract to help create online courses for a new project. “Contract” was not a word I or my wife wanted to hear.

Gig, as in “gig economy,” is certainly a part of my unretirement and the unretirement of others.  A gig economy is usually defined as an environment in which temporary positions are common and organizations contract with independent workers for short-term engagements.

I took on that one-year gig because the pay was good, the hours were totally flexible and the work would be about 90% virtual. Billable hours.

I finished that gig this past September and agreed with my wife that “contract” would not be a part of my future unretirement. I’m still doing my web design work. I’ll be making less income, but I’ll have more time for the non-paying gigs that I really enjoy.

This might really about the differences in having a job, a career or a vocation.


Financial Independence, Retire Early

Financial Independence, Retire Early is a lifestyle movement (FIRE) with a goal that I would think the vast majority of us can get behind: achieving the financial independence to retire early.

I am no millennial, but I was working toward that goal long before millennials started online communities using blogs, podcasts, and online discussion forums to try to figure out a path to FIRE.

This had to be the goal for many people going back decades (maybe centuries). But I know that even for my parents’ generation the idea of retiring before 65 with any kind of financial independence was unrealistic. For the post-WWII generations, working for 20, 30, 40, maybe 50 years for the same company and getting a pension and Social Security was about as good as it was going to get.

Attaining FIRE requires very intentional efforts to maximize your savings rate by finding ways to increase income and decrease expenses. You need to accumulate assets to the point that they return passive income that provides enough money for living expenses in perpetuity.

If you read about the FIRE movement, you will find the suggestion of using the 4 percent rule as a guide. The four percent rule is a rule of thumb used to determine how much a retiree should withdraw from a retirement account each year. This rule seeks to provide a steady income stream to the retiree while also maintaining an account balance that keeps income flowing through retirement. This means that you set your goal at getting at least 25 times your estimated annual living expenses. That’s a lot of money.

Of course, many people couldn’t even give you an accurate account of what their annual living expenses are, so there is a lot of calculating to be done.

Many people point to the FIRE movement originating in the 1992 best-seller with a great title, Your Money or Your Life, and the 2010 book Early Retirement Extreme. The books encourage simple living and income from investments to achieve financial independence.

You need to look at the relationship between your savings rate and the time to retirement which allowed individuals to quickly project their retirement date given an assumed level of income and expenses.

That relationship will show you that FIRE is achieved through some very aggressive saving on your part.

Many financial planners and guides will suggest a “standard” 10-15% savings rate. That would work if you start young and stick to it – and you don’t plan to retire until you are at least at Social Security age.

Assuming constant income and expenses – a heck of an assumption – and neglecting investment returns (I wish I could), if you had a savings rate of 10%, it would take you (1-0.1)/0.1 or 9 years of work to save for 1 year of retirement. That means if you want to retire at age 50 and want to plan to live to age 90, you would need to save at that rate for 360 years. I guess if you can become a young YouTube star or hit the lottery in fifth grade, you might have a chance.

Increase that savings rate to 25% and it takes (1-0.25)/0.25 or 3 years of work to save for 1 year of retirement. That means those 40 years you want of FIRE only require 120 years of savings.

Okay, you can follow the older rule of having 25 times your annual expense and then you only need to save for 75 years.

The time to retirement decreases significantly as savings rate is increased. A savings rate of 50%, takes (1-0.5)/0.5 or “only” 1 year of work to save for 1 year of retirement. You would have to start at age 10.

Finally with a savings rate of 75%, it takes (1-0.75)/0.75 or just 0.33 years of work to save for 1 year of retirement. At that rate, it would take less than 10 years of work to accumulate the 25 years of living expenses suggested by the 4% rule.

So, if can can start saving 75% of your income starting at age 40, you are on track to retire at your desired age 50.

If you achieve FIRE, then paid work becomes optional. This is what I call “unretirement.” You work if you want to work, doing things you want to do, for pay or as a volunteer. My Boomer generation is poised to live longer in better health than any earlier generation and also seem to be extending our working lives, often with new careers, entrepreneurial ventures, and volunteer service. The formula for unretirement is not the 4% rule.

If you have made it this far, you are likely to think that this is an unlikely life/work plan. FIRE has its critics who will say that it only works for the already rich who can achieve that high savings rates. You also need to start young. Starting at age 25 gives you a better chance, but takes away most of your income during the years when you are likely to need it for home and family.

And real advocates of FIRE talk about retiring at much lower ages than 50. The 4% rule, which was recommended to me for my investment withdrawals when I went into unretirement in my late 50s, was developed for a traditional retirement time frame of 30 years and retiring in your 60s.

FIRE advocates will say that this can only happen with more than just aggressive savings. Add into the plan cutting back on lifestyle choices, wise investments, retirement plans like pensions, tax shelters and 401K plans, and a plan to continue working in that unretirement mode or part-time in the later years.

My parents generation would have laughed at FIRE. My generation would like to at least achieve a portion of it. My children believe it is a real possibility.

That Afternoon Slump

Maybe it is because I taught in a public school for many years, but I still find myself feeling really tired and ready for a nap around 3 pm. What is going on with my body clock?

Sleepiness generally hits all of us 7-9 hours after we wake up from a night’s sleep. That’s not very convenient for anyone who works a normal day. If you wake up at 7 am, it will hit you somewhere from 2-4 pm.

Generally, we fight off the urge to sleep, but our alertness drops. Now that i am in unretired mode, I don’t fight off the feeling much. I take a nap, but for most of you that is not an option.

The fatigue can also be attributed to adenosine, a chemical that accumulates during the day and causes sleepiness. But don’t go out trying to find some adenosine to help you sleep at night. It is used for treating certain types of irregular heartbeat and during a stress test of the heart.

When this sleepiness hits, your internal body temperature also drops starts dipping, I do like a blanket for nap time and a drop in body temperature signals your brain to conserve energy and prepare for sleep.

So what can you do when a nap is not an option? Many people chug down some caffeine or crave a sugary snack. These are not very healthy relief. I love my morning coffee kick, but I can’t do caffeine in the afternoon without wrecking my sleep that night. My wife can have a strong cup of caffeine before she goes to sleep.

What are alternatives?

Dehydration can cause sleepiness, so a glass or two of water can also help. I try to log 64 ounces every day on my Fitbit app.

Get outside and get some sunlight. Twenty minutes of sunlight (through clouds counts too) sends a signal to that brain clock to turn on some energy to wake up and be more alert.

I love to walk and there is evidence that even a 10-minute walk that is brisk can energize you again. You can do it inside, but a walk outdoors adds that sunlight boost.

Want to add more to that walk? Make it social. Some research shows that talking with someone and social interaction can help give your mind a break and gets you to focus outside yourself. Get a walk buddy. Have a walking meeting. Even a phone call (not a text!) might help.

Lots of websites, like the Fitbit blog, will tell you that nap time isn’t just for pre-schoolers. Tell your boss that data shows that a brief, 20-minute nap can be enough to boost mental and physical performance.

Backing Away From the Cutting Edge


An important realization for me on my path to retirement was recognizing that I had much less interest in being on the cutting edge of my work areas. I have spent forty years in education and all of those years not only teaching (grades 7 through graduate school), but also teaching and being involved with technology. That latter area has included film, video, computers, instructional technologies, web design and social media. These are the areas that required staying on the cutting or leading or bleeding edge of what was new and relevant.

I always tried to stay current with literature and writing (where I did most of my teaching) and pedagogy. But technology is harder to keep up with as it changes every day. It’s even harder in the education world because in education it is harder to cause change than in industry – and education has far less money for tools and technology.

If you look at the origin of those terms – cutting, leading and bleeding edges – they are closely tied to technology. They are also rather dangerous-sounding. Cutting and bleeding certainly call to mind their knife and sword blade origins. The leading edge may be aeronautical in origin, but seems to me a bit like wing-walking or standing at the edge of a cliff – both things I have no desire to do.

And that’s where I am now – backing away from the edge. I still have an eye to topics about literature (especially poetry) and writing. I pay more attention to articles about education than the average person, but far less than I did in the past.  With technology, my interest in knowing what is the latest tool or trend has very little appeal to me.

I think this must be true of anyone considering retirement from a career. No longer having an interest in staying at the forefront of that field is definitely an indicator that it is time to leave. Of course, it doesn’t always mean retirement. It could happen to you mid-career and mean it’s time to find a new way of making a living.

The view is still very interesting when you step back from the edge. Actually, we tend to view “stepping back” to view something as a good thing to do. It’s certainly a less stressful and dangerous viewing position.