The value of life lies not in the length of days, but in the use we make of them.

Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592)


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Are you meaningfully active or merely busy?

Do you know how the scrub wolf spider gets her dinner?

She digs a funnel hole in the loose dirt and sits quietly at the bottom of her hole. Some insect minding its own business walking towards its own dinner makes the mistake of stepping into the funnel, and then slides step by step down the slope to the bottom where it gets stuck in the web, unable to climb out again.

Many newly retired people walk inadvertently into a similar bad retirement spiral, sliding down the slope and getting trapped. This happens quickly: sometimes even on the first day of their retirement but more often after the retirement honeymoon.

What happens then?

Most people 'know' that :

Having lot of things to do is the secret of a good retirement.

You'll find this advice almost everywhere, in particular in many news magazines. And many people follow this advice.

But should they really follow the advice - “Be busy and you'll have a great retirement life” ? 

Definitively NO, they shouldn't follow blindly this advice.

First, it's important to understand the distinction between just being busy and being meaningfully active.

In Webster's dictionary the definition of being busy is : 

“ engaged in action/ full of activity / foolishly active. Busy stresses activity as opposed to idleness or leisure.” 

So the retirement secret would be not to be idle, to be engaged in action. This sounds good and relatively easy but the “foolishly active “ part is less attractive. 

How can you tell the difference?

What is it to be be meaningfully active? 

The same dictionary tells us that the word “active” comes from the ancient French “agere”, which meant to drive, lead, act, do. From the same root you also have “agent” which means some or something that actually produces or is capable of producing an effect. 

Active : characterized by action rather than contemplation or speculation. Productive of action movement. Having practical results. Expressing action as distinct from mere existence or state. ;

To summarize : Being meaningfully “Active” implies doing something with a purpose, producing some result, while being busy simply means to occupy oneself in contrast to being idle. 

In real life is there really a difference? 

In fact yes. You can probably remember some time in your life when you worked really hard all day and although you felt somewhat tired at the end of the day you also felt fulfilled, satisfied, happy, and looking forward to another day just like it. 

And you also probably remember some other days when you worked all day but only half as hard, yet when evening arrived you were absolutely exhausted, unable to face another day like that one.

Were you getting sick, were you exhausted even before you got started on those absolutely exhausting days? What happened? How could you be more exhausted when you worked only half as hard ?

In second scenario, you were merely busy all day, while in the first you were focused and active. 

When people are busy, they are coming from a place of lack. They need something and they use action to get it. But since in many of these cases they are are not consciously aware of what they need, what they they end up doing is not very likely to bring them what they really need. It's like buying a lottery ticket, they MIGHT win something sometimes, but the odds are really against winning regularly. 

On the other hand when you are intentionally and meaningfully active, you act from a place of knowledge and fulfillment. You know what you need and you plan a course of focused actions which leads towards your goal. 

Let's take a classical example : 

Mary just retired. She is delighted to have all that free time in front of her. But soon her days are full: she is sorting and filing all the papers she had no time to deal with over the past months, and she's started clearing her house because she wants to re-decorate. And she's also decided to garden. She enrolled herself in a gym center, plus some weekly cultural visits plus some weekly conferences, plus...... 

She thinks it is good that she has some outside activities to take her out of the house because the paperwork and all the clearing is really time consuming. She spends days working hard and still doesn't see the end of it. More and more often she feels exhausted, discouraged and slightly depressed.

What has happened? 

Mary followed the classical retirement recommendation: she is doing a lot of things, wisely including activities outside her home so she gets out regularly and does have a sort of social network. So why isn't this working? 

Mary had important resources of free, open time when she retired. She may have had only the time to glance around her a little bit before the paperwork started sending her signals - “Take care of me please”, and then the room she was in was practically pleading “Please repaint me”, while the garden garden easily got in its request with “I need more flowers”, and then followed up with “And what about growing tomatoes, salads, and strawberries?” 

Her days became full almost by default. She did not have a focused direction in which she wanted to go and soon enough had no more time to even think about it. She had to finish all these tasks first before she would have the time to sit and think.

The problem is that empty busy actions generate more empty busy actions.

The business never stops piling up unless an overdose of it leads Mary to depression or sickness and she feels that she is drowning, needs help, and asks for it.

Everybody says “you need to be active /busy so it must be true. There is not really a difference. It just depends whether you like what you are doing or not.”

Well, not exactly. Because just doing things that you like, things that come immediately to mind, after a while you're likely to end up turning in circles which become hard to get out of. Nobody has an unlimited number of things they'd like to do to keep busy. 

The result is that, if you just do and repeat what you like, little by little your pleasure starts getting eroded. Having a variety of activities and variation in the intensity of their results is one of the things which allows you to deeply enjoy life.

Maybe you liked doing crosswords before you retired, and now you choose to do it because it keeps your brain working and you do like the activity. But you will quickly notice that after setting up regular hours of doing crosswords, you don't enjoy it as much anymore and it's starting to feel more and more like a chore. 

On the other hand, if you decide to enter into crosswords competitions for example and aim for a national title, you will have a purpose : getting recognized as the best cruxiverbist (crossworder) of the country (or maybe even the city!). Your need for recognition might or might not end up being satisfied (there's a lot of competition out there) but at least you will have a focus, goals, and direction and enjoy the competition (most of the time). 

Are you sliding down the slope of busy actions? 

To discover if you are, think back on the last week (if it is an average week of your life). What did your days mostly feel like? 

Choose somewhere on the following scale the response that best represents your feeling most accurately

1   2   3   4   5   6   7   8   9   10 

1 = You felt exhausted at the end of the day and maybe even when you got up in the morning 

10 = You felt deeply fulfilled at the end of the day and were looking forward to the next day.


1- 4 You might be really going down the slope. Time to stop and ask for help to change direction. First and urgently get physically away from your daily tasks and ask for help. 

5-7 You're wobbling on the edge, watch out : you could slide down the slope. Be aware of your risks and take the time to review, identify the days when are you getting trapped by busy actions and when you are not. Adjust your course to give priority to your most meaningful actions. 

8-10 you are doing very well. Congratulations. 

It is a good idea to periodically do the above one minute self-test to see if you've started sliding down the slope of the 'busy trap'. 

Where are the 'busy traps'?

They lay generally in your immediate environment - your home is a fertile ground for busy traps. Your spouse, your family, friends with the best of intentions, can lead you straight into the traps of over-engagement in cultural, social, and artistic activities, sports, volunteering in ways which are 'merely busy' rather than having a personally fulfilling 'active' focus. 

So how do you get on the track of fulfilling activities?

The first step is to take the time to really find out what is missing in your life right now. Find a quiet spot away from distractions and work out the answers to the following questions:

1.If your life could be perfect, what would it have in it ? 

Make an actual list as complete as possible. Keep asking yourself : “and what else?” ... until nothing else comes. 

2.If you could have only ONE of these elements, which one would make you feel the most fulfilled? 

Of course, you can't just immediately leap to seeing ONE central element. But you can work on getting down to an honest short list, and eventually see in your heart which one is so key that it needs and deserves a more conscious, creative, and active focus of your energies. 

Being merely busy or meaningfully active lead to different paths:

  • the path of merely busy actions but un-satisfyingly empty results 
  • the path of meaningful actions with fulfilling results. 

Knowing and recognizing the difference can change the quality of your life. To become meaningfully active and find again happiness, the feeling of youth, energy and enthusiasm, do your self-check on a regular basis. You can know when you need to move away from the funnel trap of busyness if you regularly ask yourself : 

What did my days feel like lately?

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