The One Thing Doctors Must Do Before Retirement


By John Murphy

What must you do before you retire? Make a sound financial plan? Yes, you’ve thought of that. Figure out an exit strategy? Yes, you’ve probably considered that, too. But, what will you do to keep yourself busy, your brain occupied, and your mood happy?

The one thing you must do before you retire? Find a new “job.”

A new “job” doesn’t have to literally mean a new job. It could mean volunteering, counseling, teaching, or even just cutting back on your work schedule in your current job. The point is, you’ll need to find something as satisfying to do in your retirement years as in your decades of employment. Why? Because many doctors who don’t have a solid plan for a fulfilling retirement often wind up bored, unsatisfied, and lonely.

Don’t take it as a loss

“[A]lthough most individuals spend in excess of 90,000 hours working and building for the immediate future, the surprising fact is that a majority of us spend less than 10 hours planning our retirements,” wrote John J. Cronan, MD, radiologist-in-chief, Rhode Island Hospital and Miriam Hospital, Providence, RI, in the Journal of the American College of Radiology.

Dr. Cronan isn’t referring to financial planning for retirement. He’s talking about less tangible goals—self-fulfillment, a sense of worth, social interaction, and intellectual stimulation.

“Beyond survival, we all yearn to live for purpose and meaning,” he explains. For most doctors, work often provides these things. But retirement, he says, “can create a void that deprives one of that sense of purpose.”

How can that be? Retirement will be fun, won’t it? Not always. It’s a major life change, with the accompanying emotional and psychological upheaval. Consequently, many doctors are reluctant to retire.

“[R]etirement can initiate as much emotional stress as a divorce or the death of a spouse,” Dr. Cronan says. “The ‘loss’ can be overwhelming.”

Working satisfies three important human needs: structure, community, and purpose. “All three must be met in retirement through our own initiatives. For highly structured individuals such as physicians, the loss of a routine can result in boredom and joyless living,” he cautions.

Some good news

The good news for “highly structured individuals” like physicians: You’re better prepared than most workers to keep your brain functioning at full steam in retirement.

In a recent study, researchers found that workers who retired from jobs with a high degree of cognitive complexity (eg, physicians) maintained a level of cognitive function that was just as good as their peers who had not retired. And, they retained cognitive function regardless of which retirement path they chose.

In fact, those who retired from jobs with high cognitive complexity and then returned to work experienced slightly improved cognitive function than workers with low-cognitive-complexity jobs.

“This result might mean that when these individuals started a new position after leaving their career jobs, they were able to learn new things and challenge their brains in beneficial ways,” said the study’s lead author Dawn C. Carr, PhD, associate professor, Department of Sociology, Florida State University, Tallahassee, FL.

What a successful retirement looks like

Now, you can forge ahead and make a plan for a satisfying future. Begin developing a plan for a fulfilling retirement at least 5 years beforehand, Dr. Cronan advises.

“You should spend as much time on these issues as you do on those involving finances,” he says. “Success in retirement has less to do with your nest egg and everything to do with finding emotionally fulfilling efforts that match your personality.”

Consider how you’ll satisfy those three important human needs: structure, community, and purpose.

Structure. Be sure to develop activities and hobbies outside of work. “Varied areas of attention should be developed. Focusing on one single activity, golf for example, will not be enough to fill your day and provide adequate satisfaction,” Dr. Cronan explains.

Community. Make friends and build personal relationships outside of your professional life. “‘Work friends’ are more often acquaintances, and one’s linkages to them, many times, fade after retirement. Happy and interesting friends are key,” he says.

Purpose: The two basic necessities for retirement are having enough money and having enough things to do. “However, to achieve a successful retirement, one requires more than money and activities; one needs an overriding purpose,” Dr. Cronan says. Only you can find that purpose—whether it’s volunteering, philanthropy, part-time work, caring for grandchildren, or something else that you’ve never even considered.

In summary, Dr. Cronan says: “One does not simply retire from something; one must have something to retire to.”


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