What I Learned in the First Six Months of Retirement

In February 2017, I saw my last patient and left clinical medicine. Most people would say I retired. I have chosen to say I have repurposed. I no longer see patients, but I still work. I am writing the Doctors Guide series of books, keeping up a blog and working with physicians who need help with a financial makeover, usually to eliminate their debt, set themselves up for retirement or develop a reasonable spending plan. So I still put in some work hours, but those hours are now very flexible. I can also do that work while I travel.

It has been six months since I took down my shingle. These are some of the lessons I’ve learned:

1: I don’t miss medicine. This was something that concerned me as I considered ending my surgical practice. I had been a doctor for 28 years, and trained to become a doctor for 8 years. It is a big part of my identity. How would I really handle it when I was no longer practicing medicine? Would I have an identity crisis?

I think tapering off my practice, while I started a new writing, speaking, blogging, consulting business, played a big part in allowing me to let go of this major part of my life. When I left my partnership, after 20 years, I worked part time as a locums in rural Critical Access Hospitals that needed help. I spent 2 years working 2.5 weeks a month. Then cut back to 2 weeks a month for 7 months, then one week a month for 7 months. By the time I stopped, I was doing very little surgery. I was ready to quit and I have not missed it. I think if I had stopped cold turkey, I might have had some withdrawals.

2: I had chronic sleep deprivation. I had always considered myself to be a night owl. I did not like to get up in the morning. I didn’t like having a 7:30 am start time in the OR. I liked to sleep in. Now that I am sleeping every night without phone calls, pages or going into the hospital, I have caught up on my sleep. I now routinely wake up at 6:30 am without an alarm and I am ready to start the day. When I was working, my wife almost always was up before me in the morning. Now that has reversed.

I believe the reason I had trouble getting up in the morning, was because I suffered from chronic sleep deprivation. Those little interruptions every night were enough to disrupt good sleep and I wasn’t ready to get up in the morning when the alarm sounded. Many people have commented that I look more rested.

3: Vacationing feels different now. When I was working as a surgeon, I needed vacation time to get away and unwind. Now I live a much more relaxed life and I don’t need to get away to unwind. Now when I travel it is for a different purpose, to explore the world. I changed my prospective from unwinding to exploring, and that is a whole different feeling. I also write while on vacation, I guess that means I am breaking my rule of no work on vacation. As a doctor getting away from work is a necessity to unwind, but now it is fun to just get away from everything else so I can concentrate on writing. It is almost like a reversal now. When I’m home, I’m on vacation and then I go away on vacation to get some work done.

4: My weeks are six Saturdays and a Sunday. Without a work schedule to keep, everyday feels like Saturday. Except of course, Sunday, when I have Church on the schedule. Now I find I need to make my own structure or I’m at risk of getting nothing done. Having few deadlines and few appointments make it possible to waste an entire day of my short life just sitting in front of my phone or the TV and doing nothing at all. Now I need to do things on purpose to get things done. I find it fun when something comes up that needs my time and I can delve into a project. I get a great sense of accomplishment when a 25 hour project is completed. I have the time to do anything I want but I’m at risk of doing nothing at all.

5: I have more money than I thought. I was always worried about having enough money if I quit operating. No matter how much you save, you still wonder if it is enough. Did I set the finish line at the right place? I worked in a very high paying field. Giving up that income and then living on my rental income and retirement investments was a scary proposition. For several years my wife kept telling me we had enough money that I didn’t need to work anymore, but I was still unsure. Now, six months later, I’m not worried about having enough money. She was right, we do have enough. But the fear of the unknown is very powerful.

6: I’m never going to catch up. I did have some big hopes for catching up on a lot of things that were getting put off. The state of caught up doesn’t exist. I don’t get as much done as I did when I worked full time. I still can’t figure out how that works. Busy people get things done. Now that I’m not so busy, I don’t get as much done. Whatever you need to do will expand to fit the available time. When I was operating, I had a limited time to get other things done, but I got them done in that allotted time. Now I have all the time in the world to do a project, so that’s how long it takes. Be careful not to waste your precious time on things that are unimportant.

My life is very good now and much more relaxed. I’m glad I pulled the trigger on repurposing, as I feel I have a new mission in life and am enjoying its pursuit. Letting go of the old life was easier than I thought. When you are ready to make such a change yourself, you will find my book “The Doctors Guide to Smart Career Alternatives and Retirement” helpful in making your transition smoothly. Look for it to come out the end of August. I hope your transition will be as smooth as mine turned out to be. Just be sure you have something to retire to, so you don’t have boredom set in and want to go back to work.

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6 thoughts on “What I Learned in the First Six Months of Retirement”

  1. You don’t mention anything about maintaining a medical license or board certification for a period of time. I retired cold turkey at 56 from OB/GYN and moved to another state to be near family. There is some vertigo but I’m not sue I’m ready to let the board certification lapse yet. Any suggestions?

    • Nicola,
      I didn’t let my license lapse at first. I plan to have only my home state license and it will be inactive. Those are hard to get, so don’t give them up quickly. You might change your mind and want it again.

  2. I wonder how many “disruptive physicians” are simply sleep deprived. It compromises your ability to “suffer fools gladly”.

    I think it adversely affects relationships, judgement, and overall ability.

    • I think that may be true. I saw a study over 20 years ago showing personality changes due to sleep deprivation. The effect match the description of a disruptive physician. When I was dating my wife and took a rotation where I did not take call and worked 9-5, she said I was nicer when I got enough sleep. Sleep may be a lot more important than we realize.

  3. I would love a “real article” on sleep deprivation. I used to do OB….when I quit it…..I slept for months. I realized later…that I had been so severely sleep deprived that it was no wonder my personal “decision-making” skills had gone to pot.

    Might life have turned out differently if I had not been sleep deprived for a couple of decades? Maybe…..can’t re-do it. But we (as older docs) can preach the message that sleep is crucial. Our profession, at large, has ignored it…other than what we tell other professions….

    • Plan doc,
      When I was dating my wife in medical school I was chronically sleep deprived. Then I took an elective with no call and bankers hours. At the end of that she commented that I was a much nicer person when I got enough sleep. I wonder how many medical divorces are caused by chronic sleep deprivations.


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