In Search of Downshifting, or How to Be More Like My Dogs

My first two posts in this series on living a long and healthy life focused on moving naturally throughout the day and holding a strong sense of purpose. This week and for Part 3 of this series, I am focusing on downshifting. The Blue Zones research suggests that people in the longest living societies find serenity on a daily basis. The Nicoyans of Costa Rica, like people in many societies where the weather is extremely hot, rest each afternoon. The Seventh Day Adventists in Southern California’s Inland Empire create a “sanctuary in time,” halting activities from sunset on Friday to sunset on Saturday. The lesson is that this downshifting, resting, and stepping back from the craziness of life helps us to live longer and better.

There’s more and more science about the restorative and regenerative powers of sleep and rest. Most of the world’s best athletes are outstanding downshifters, making extraordinary time for recovery, especially when they need to be at their best. Researchers say that rest tamps down inflammation that impact all of us, and getting enough of it promotes the health and longevity of our muscles, joints, and even our brains.

My dogs are amazing downshifters. I mean, they spend 80% to 98% of their day in a fully downshifted mode. We adopted our two Scottish Terriers (Duffy and Maggie Mae) almost two years ago (raise your hand if you too have a COVID dog/cat/something), and they have been a great presence in our life. They look like toppled over Monopoly dog pieces when they are downshifting, which I still find hilarious. And they need that energy to gobble up their food faster than contestants at a hot dog eating contest, so they can lose their minds with a barking bonanza whenever the mail carrier or Amazon person approaches our door, or to give futile chase to the squirrel that torments them daily in the backyard. If downshifting is the key to a longer life, they are going to live to be 30,000 years old.

I’m not even close to being as good as my dogs at this downshifting stuff. My idea of a fun vacation is to wake up early, do tons of new and exciting things, wear myself out, and do it all again the very next day. The only reason I’m not a total zero is because I love a 20-minute nap. If I can sneak in a short power nap, I am way better in the afternoon, and I might even stay awake past 9:00 at night. Crazy! But 24 hours of downtime? Sleeping more than six hours? Meditating or just being?  While I’m not giving up, it has not happened for me yet.

My job as a teacher, principal, and superintendent took as many hours as I would give it. Ask any teacher or administrator – no matter how many hours you work in a week, it’s not enough to do everything that needs to be done. To stay somewhat healthy, you have to make a conscious decision to stop working at some point and pivot to the equally important job of taking care of you.

But downshifting is critical. Most of the time, my version of downshifting was just not doing work. When I came home at night – it might be 6:00, 7:00 or 10:00, I tried to be off email for the rest of the evening. There were emergency exceptions, but I worked to be present at home and not to have my head back at work for those few hours, or minutes, before going to bed. And on the weekends, I always tried to make Saturday a non-working day. By Sunday afternoon, I had to get ready for the week, but my goal was to enjoy a good 24-36 hours without working.

But, I wonder if I was actually downshifting in that time. Unlike my dogs, I spend most of my non-working time being active – cooking, golfing, doing something with the family, cleaning or organizing the house, exercising, and maybe watching a movie or sports event on TV. Do those count as downshifting? Are those activities fighting inflammation and making me healthier?  

Robbie Shell from the Wall Street Journal wrote an article that hit home when he said, “One of the major joys of retirement has been the luxury of spending more time on those things I look forward to doing, with no deadlines to rein me in, no obligations that require me to make those hard choices about how to spend each day.” I’m not sure if this counts as downshifting, but it is an improvement.

One area where I may have made a little progress is my purposeful effort not to rush from one activity to the next. Athletes sit on the bench between quarters. My dogs sleep for about four hours between their activities. Over the last few months, I have learned to take a moment, relax, and actually get ready for whatever is next. I wish I would have done that more at work. Too often, I went from meeting to meeting to meeting, never pausing to think about next steps, to recover from a challenging conversation, or to just step away from the mania. I thought I could do all of that when the day was over. But now, I am allowing myself more transition time instead of rushing like a transitioning triathlete between the swimming and biking segments.  And I can honestly say it definitely makes life a lot more sane.

I’m also working to follow Shell’s advice and give myself permission to take more time while I’m engaged in what I will call a downshifting activity. Again, I’m not sure if this meets the Blue Zones definition of downshifting, but would be progress for me. My friend Karen made a spectacular dinner for us a few weeks ago, and told us she had spent the entire day cooking and she had loved every minute of it! That has to count as downshifting, right? If I have the time, I want to give myself the luxury of not rushing to cook dinner. After a wonderful night at a restaurant with friends recently, my friend Kevin lamented that he wished we would have ordered dessert and coffee. He didn’t really want dessert (I always want dessert), but he enjoyed the conversation so much that he wished he had used that excuse to prolong and luxuriate in the experience. That has to be a downshifting mentality too. Right? For now, I am declaring it to be so.  

Ultimately, I seek to be more like Duffy and Maggie Mae in my mastery of downshifting, but I have a long way to go. Wish me luck.

Mike

To get updates on when my next post comes out, please click here!

We adopted Duffy and Maggie Mae on Mother’s Day in 2020.

Sources:

Fast Company: Why Pro Athletes Sleep 12 Hours a Day

Shell, Robbie. “Taking My Time is One of the Pleasures of Retirement.” Wall Street Journal. April 17, 2022.

Buettner, Dan. The Blue Zones: Nine Lessons for living Longer from the People Who’ve Lived the Longest. National Geographic Society. Washington, DC. (2008).

Other Notes: Sections I Cut Out to make this post just a little too long instead of way too long.

Is Retirement the Life for Me? (Part 2)

First of all, thank to all of you who read and commented on my last post via Facebook, Twitter, and the Blog Site. I love the conversation and I appreciate the wisdom even more. This is Post #2 of Evaluating my Quasi-Retired Life using Dan Buettner’s Blue Zones research. As a reminder, the nine Blue Zones recommendations for a longer, healthier, and happier life are:

  1. Move naturally throughout the day
  2. Know your sense of purpose
  3. Downshift every day to relieve stress
  4. 80% Rule: stop eating when you are 80% full
  5. Plant Slant: Make beans, whole grains, veggies, and fruit the center of your diet
  6. Red Wine in Moderation: Enjoy wine and alcohol moderately with friends and/or food
  7. Belong: Be part of a faith-based community or organization
  8. Loved Ones First: Have close friends and strong family connections
  9. Right Tribe: Cultivate close friends and strong social networks

Just a little recap on #1 – Move Naturally, which I addressed in my last post. My friend Ben reminded me that part of moving can be pushing yourself to extremes. Ben retired the same time I did, and has just put out a new podcast series called Fear of Retirement.  In the second episode, Ben goes into his version of movement, which is super intense and maybe not for everyone. He reminds me that it’s always good to have BHAGs (Big Hairy Audacious Goals). I agree with this – so, while I’m getting more steps in by walking and golfing, I’m also working on some BHAGs. For me, one of them is swimming in my sixties as fast as I swam in high school – or maybe just fast enough to beat a former student who is challenging me to a 50-yard sprint. (Whenever you’re ready, Brad.) For Ben, it was benching over 300 pounds (mission accomplished). It’s a great listen, and I bring it up just because there are so many ways to move, and we can all find our way to meet this goal. And not to brag about being semi-famous, but Ben gave me a shoutout in the 2nd episode. While not mentioning my name, he referred to me as a “psycho.” Thanks, Ben. I love you too.

Let’s move on to Blue Zone recommendation #2 – Know Your Sense of Purpose. After identifying the six longest living societies in the world and describing how they live their lives, Buettner writes that two of these societies, Okinawans and Costa Rica’s Nicoyans, have cultures in which individuals know “why I wake up in the morning” (Okinawans call it ikigai and Nicoyans refer to their plan de vida.) Let’s face it, we need to have some sense of purpose that we look forward to when we start each day. I love that, because one of my many annoying habits over the course of my life is that on top of being a poor sleeper (side note, this has not gotten better since leaving work), when I wake up in the morning, I am AWAKE and I am ready to go. There is no grogginess, and I am ready to carpe that diem.

As I think back, purpose was easy to come by in my life before this retirement phase. I was fortunate during my 30 years of raising children in our home and my 38-year career in education to have a life that was filled with a massive sense of purpose. Between all that it involved in parenting beginning in 1990, and providing our youth with a high-quality education starting back in 1984, I jumped out of bed every morning knowing that I was making a difference. Yes, every day held its challenges and triumphs, interspersed with many great moments, but I always knew that what I was doing was important, and potentially life-changing.

But, there is a danger in that too. I have watched people retire and come back looking ten years younger and smiling bigger than ever. They have cultivated more reasons for getting out of bed than just work. They have hobbies, passions, friendships, and many other reasons to look forward to each day. On the other hand, I have seen people whose whole sense of purpose was linked to their job. They might have been outstanding at work, but they did not fare well in retirement. So my strong advice is to find a sense of purpose outside of your professional world.

Dan Buettner writes that purpose can come when you can find flow on most days of your life. I love the research on flow. I wrote about it in a post back in April of 2020. If you have moments throughout your day where you experience flow, when you are so immersed in whatever you are doing that time ceases to have meaning, that alone is worth waking up for. Some of my best flow-producing activities are problem-solving, teaching, swimming, golf, playing music, and yes, even my morning ritual of making the kitchen look perfect for the day. It’s amazing how many times this concept keeps popping up into my life. Flow does make life worth living, and according to the research, it gives us improved odds for living longer and better.

And before I go any further, this is not a “check all of the boxes” list. That’s crazy and unrealistic. This is a “there are so many different reasons people have for waking up with purpose, what’s yours?” list.

Other reasons for waking up each day include knowing that you are making a difference. My friend and blogger mentor Chris Erskine is finding purpose being a grandfather. Learning something new provides outstanding, interesting, and brain-building motivation for life. And as my friend Pam wrote in the comments of my last blog post, it’s never too late to learn how to live better. Engaging in new and complex activities requires immersion and can also lead to flow. Even gratitude for what you have provides more purpose than any of us actually realize. (Note – this paragraph could have been dramatically expanded, but most of my blogs are too long already, so just know there’s a lot that could be delved into for each the bolded topics.)

As my friend Dawnalyn pointed out after reading my last blog, a lot of this comes back to Stillman’s research on how to survive…. or even thrive during the quarantine phase of the pandemic.

This is a good time for me to ponder this critical question of having a strong sense of purpose in retirement, as I am taking a pause from all of this retirement bliss and working for two months helping out a local school district. More on that in a future post, but for now, I am asking myself whether immersing in more flow-inducing activities and the increased opportunities for thinking, writing, and learning are sufficient to replace the overwhelming sense of purpose I had while working in public education. So far, the answer is strongly affirmative, but there are many ballots still to count, and I’m not making any projections yet.

My next blog post will be on flow’s less purposeful yet equally important counterpart – downshifting.

Thanks for reading!

Mike

Note: The picture at the top of the post is of the mighty Kings River in Central California at sunrise. Between getting up early and loving to cook, one of my jobs at a four-day river floating/camping/game-playing trip that we took every year with 100 of our closest friends was to wake up each morning to cook breakfast for everybody. I always took a pause at the river before I headed up to the outdoor kitchen to make the coffee and start working through frying 40 pounds of bacon. As I said, waking up has always been easy for me, and witnessing beauty like this makes it even better.

To get updates on when my next post comes out, please click here!

Is Retirement the Life for Me?

If you started singing the theme song from Green Acres when you saw that title, you may (1) way too impacted by afternoon tv in the 1970s, and (2) also be considering this question.

August 31 was my last official day at work in my job as a school superintendent. For almost eight months, I have had no official job. Like I wrote a while back, the last time I had this kind of free time was back when I dropped out of college to be a street musician. But even then, I “had to” go to work in the evenings to make enough money to eat and pay rent. (Also, as the picture above proves, my street musician life provided me with critical skills for my teaching and high school principal jobs – like performing for Sixties Week.) Still, it was a lot of free time, and it was an outstanding period in my life. Now, for just the second time in my life, I have that kind of free time again.

I am devoting this blog post to reflecting on and evaluating my level of happiness with my newly-found free time in this new phase of my life.

A big motivator behind my decision to retire was to do what was best for a long and healthy life with my friends and loved ones. While I loved my job as a school superintendent, it could be crazy at times. A big part of my job was to get yelled at. That yelling could come from angry residents, dissatisfied union leaders, or any number of constituents. And though it was not constant, it was increasing in frequency. Public schools are bearing the brunt of the same anger that is plaguing (and harming) national politics. When I encountered that yelling, my job was to imitate Kevin Bacon in Animal House, responding with the equivalent of “Thank you sir, may I have another,” and to do so with a smile. I did that quite well for a long time, but it took its toll.

But there were other reasons. I commuted 41 miles each way for eleven years. My work week, including commute time, ranged from 65 to 80 hours a week. I was away from home at least two evenings every week, and often up to four. (High school principals are out even more!) My weight had gone up a little, and for the first time in my life, my doctor had some concerns about what the stress was doing to me. And, eleven years is a long time to be in one job. I was also a successful high school principal for eleven years, and at the end of both of those tenures, I just felt it was time to go, even though I loved the job.

All of that being said, I loved my job as superintendent. I worked with a fantastic board, and benefitted from their wisdom, care for students and employees, and humor. My colleagues were an amazing team of leaders with whom I was proud to work side by side. I was inspired by the employees and students that I served, and I was overwhelmed by the generosity and support of the vast majority of parents and community leaders. In spite of being ready to leave, it was hard to leave all of those positives.

So, it’s time for me to reflect on how it’s going, and whether or not it feels right and whether what I’m doing now is going to help me achieve my goals of happiness and a long life with friends and loved ones.

The bottom line: Not working has been awesome. I am busy, Jill is happy with the changes she’s seen, and I know I’m healthier. My newly-found free time, just like it did back in my street musician days, truly helps me to center myself and find balance.

My only concern is that I do miss the human interaction. When I worked, I was rarely by myself. As I often said about my job, I made a living running or being in meetings. I was always talking with people, and most of the time, I loved it. Now, there is down time and quiet time. There’s a lot of good in that, and yet, I am still thinking about how to achieve that balance of the right amount of human interaction.

In order to further investigate whether this new lifestyle of mine is going to help me live longer, I will break it down using the Blue Zones research of Dan Buettner. Blue Zones looks at the lifestyles of communities where people live longer, healthier, and happier lives than other areas of the world. Based on their research, Buettner makes nine recommendations for all of us to strive for in our lives:

  1. Move naturally throughout the day
  2. Know your sense of purpose
  3. Downshift every day to relieve stress
  4. 80% Rule: stop eating when you are 80% full
  5. Plant Slant: Make beans, whole grains, veggies, and fruit the center of your diet
  6. Red Wine in Moderation: Enjoy wine and alcohol moderately with friends and/or food
  7. Belong: Be part of a faith-based community or organization
  8. Loved Ones First: Have close friends and strong family connections
  9. Right Tribe: Cultivate close friends and strong social networks

It’s good stuff, right? Very commonsensical, and not at all extreme or crazy. Over the next few months, I’ll break this down into two or three blog posts that discuss how I’m doing in each of those areas, and how it compared to when I was working full time. For this post, I’ll just hit the first one – move naturally throughout the day.

Blue Zones Lesson #1: Move Naturally Throughout the Day: GIANT CHANGE! And all of it good. I’m driving (and sitting) way less. I’m walking a golf course twice a week. I’m walking in my own neighborhood. I’m moving around the house. Whenever I’m home at lunch while Jill is working, I’m busy in the kitchen making her lunch. My steps per day on weekdays have gone from 4,000 to a range of 9,000 to 20,000. When you meet for a living, you sit and sit and sit. It’s a killer. Between walking around the house, swimming several times a week, playing golf, and Pelotoning/biking, I’m moving so much more than I have in a long, long time, and it feels right. So I’m 1/1 in the Blue Zones research so far.

For those of you who say you hate me when I discuss how good this has been, one of the questions I am asking myself is whether I could have done a better job of this while I was working. I’ll address that in these future posts. There’s more to come, and I look forward to this process.

To get updates on when my next post comes out, please click here!

Sing It With Me! Don’t Let the Old Man In

I was talking to my friend Kevin last week. Kevin and I have ventured through our public education careers with similar jobs as teachers, high school principals, and finally as superintendents. He has been a mentor and a friend for over 30 years, and I truly appreciate our bond and understanding of one another. Kevin has been asking me about my experiences in this new retirement phase, and he has recently decided to retire from his superintendent position. Last week, we were talking about what not working 60 to 70 hours a week is like. He said, “Don’t let the old man in, right?” I got what he was saying, but did not know the context. Now that I know, it’s worth sharing.

In a golf pairing I wish I could have joined, country music star Toby Keith was playing with multiple-Academy Award-winning actor/director Clint Eastwood. Keith marveled at Eastwood’s persistence, as Eastwood had just filmed yet another movie, The Mule, at the age of 88. Eighty-eight! He asked Eastwood how he does it, and Eastwood remarked, “I just get up every morning and go out. And I don’t let the old man in.” That inspired Keith to write and sing Don’t Let the Old Man In, a song which is featured in The Mule.

Can’t leave it up to him
He’s knocking on my door

I’ve written before about my appreciation for Younger Next Year, which encourages all of us over a certain age (it starts at 40!) to push ourselves hard physically to keep our bodies from aging so quickly. Chris Crowley, the author, is not talking about our graying hair or our wrinkles, which is good because I have both! He’s talking about taking care of ourselves and fighting off the old man as long as possible. Through hard exercise and good nutrition, we can swim against the relentless tide of decay and “change decay back into growth.”

Get up and go outside,
Don’t let the old man in.

Having children has helped me to stay young. Without question, my sons have kept me on my toes for the last 31 years. I have listened hard to learn their interests, joys, and fears, read the books and watched the movies they wanted to read and see, competed with them in the games they want to play (side note: my children have beaten me at many games, but I never once let them win. They knew they earned it when they won), and ate the food they wanted to eat. I did not see an In-n-Out 4×4 or a gazillion milk shakes on the Younger Next Year or Noom nutrition list, but sometimes you just have to say, “What the heck?”

When Ryan was 16 and I was 44, we celebrated all of those fours by each eating an In-n-Out 4×4!

And just because I’m an empty nester, don’t think that my children are still not a huge part of my life. My older son told me many years ago, “Dad, you act a lot younger than you are. I like it, but it’s different.” My sons will be keeping me young for a long time and I’m grateful.

Ask yourself how old you would be,
If you didn’t know the day you were born

In the meantime, I’m focusing on learning and improving. I’ve already sat down and learned how to play and sing this song.  I’m loving writing, helping out at home, and I’m doing my best to keep up with the craziness in public education. My wife joked (kind of) about how nice it is to have so much help at the house – and that she loves this new role in my life. I’m taking that as a compliment, and I’m staying on it.  It’s all part of the never-ending effort to live life fully and stay young.

Try to love on your wife
And stay close to your friends
Toast each sunset with wine
Don’t let the old man in

And I know that all of this can be sideswiped by something awful, and that life holds no guarantees. But I plan to enjoy the journey as much as possible, and to see what life brings. I’m loving today, and looking forward to tomorrow.

So thanks to Toby Keith and Clint Eastwood for their artistry and inspiration, and thanks to my friend Kevin for sharing this song with me – Kevin is young at heart and I know his wife and family will keep him that way for years and years. May you all do the same.

Mike

To get updates on when my next post comes out, please click here!

Notes:

  • The background for this article came from a Billboard Magazine article by Cathy Applefeld Olson and the photo by Eric Charbonneau. You can find the article here.
  • If you want to hear and see the music video for the song, with a whole lot of Clint Eastwood, check it out here.