Retirement and activity addiction – not me?

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For most of the over forty years I was working, I had no plan to retire. I was “mission-driven.” I worked for nonprofits that were committed to changing something; I embraced and lived for that mission. First, was a community organization in Baltimore working to stabilize the northeast part of the city where there was racial blockbusting and instability due to the racist practices of realtors and investors. Next, I worked in neighborhoods revitalizing aging and deteriorated housing. That led to working on neighborhood development nationally which required travel. And then, I assisted non-profit executives with their career transitions.

I eased into retirement by working half-time for two years before retiring completely. I continued to do a little consulting for a year or so. When I fully retired, I was amazed at the freedom I felt. I couldn’t imagine why I didn’t race to get to this happy place. Geraldine and I enjoyed more travel and family time. I had plenty of time to write and get involved in our local community, as well as other volunteer projects. Then the day arrived that I have heard other retired folks talk about. I felt over-committed and wondered how I ever worked and got anything else done. Today’s post is about activity addiction, why it is hard to spot, and harder to stop.

I never thought about retirement because my identity and self-esteem were highly connected to making a difference. It was a challenge to value myself independent of my work. Thus, retirement wasn’t on the radar, because I couldn’t imagine my identity without work.  

Ceasing paid work became important to me in allowing me to shift my time to writing. I actually had begun writing while working – newspaper articles on self-help topics, articles and papers on nonprofit leadership transition, occasional pieces on spirituality or recovery topics, and the beginning of my as yet nearly completed book about Bill and Lois Wilson and the power of their marriage.  I knew I couldn’t be an entrepreneur and have much time or energy for writing. So, I began looking for ways to exit the consulting company I had co-founded, “retire” and have more time to write.

Among the many books I had read about time management and work/life balance was a small essay by Og Mandino.  He was a best-selling American author from the late 60’s to the 90’s. His first and best-known book is The Greatest Salesman in the World, a mystical story or parable about his encounters with a rag picker who taught him to change his thinking and his life. One of the points Mandino made often was that success came from persistence. He would always stay a little later at work in order to make that one additional call or write one more letter.  I embraced that approach for a long time.

Many years later a friend informed me about a Twelve Step program for workaholics – people who work too much. Like with many of my addictions, I didn’t think it applied to me. My friend also told me about an attorney who got so burnt out she had to take a year off from work in order to restore her mind and body before she could work again.

A few years later, I was leading my consultant company and had just finished writing a book on leadership transitions. I traveled for work and took extra trips to promote the book. One day I didn’t want to get out of bed. I feared I was experiencing what I heard described as burnout. I began to look into Workaholics Anonymous.  I was shocked to learn about addiction to work and activity in their publication The Workaholics Anonymous Book of Recovery.

In describing characteristics of workaholism, the first in a long list state: “It is very difficult for us to relax. We often, if not always, perceive the need to get just one more task done before we can allow ourselves to feel good and take a break. When we complete our list, however, we just seem to find more to do” (p. 3).

What I read and learned there helped me begin to prioritize relationships before work and activity. I began to feel good about myself independent of what I did. This was progress. And then after five years or so of retirement, I was back to having a hard time saying no to one more activity. I realized I had more work to do. It turns out Og Mandino’s advice might be helpful for some people. But for people like me who are easily addicted to one more thing, doing one more thing is not the answer.

Whether retired or working, it does not matter. If you find yourself too busy too many days, it may be more than a scheduling problem. Some reading about workaholism and Workaholics Anonymous might be helpful.


  1. Mary O'Herron

    THANK YOU!! I’m most GRATEFUL for this essay which I believe is crucial in helping our society to a kinder, more peaceful, more joyful, more just ways of operating. I believe workaholism is an international pandemic that is killing more folks than COVID. (You certainly have struck a raw nerve with me). Thanks again!!

    • Tom Adams

      Thnaks Mary for connecting our need for more of everything to our societal challenges. Less is indeed more, even though hard to believe some times.

    • tuck grinnell

      tom, I like this article. my own situation seems different though. I find I want to do as much to reach out to people as is possible. this, at times, leads to a lot of activity, but if it also leads to encounters with people that are helpful then it is worth the busyness.

      • Tom Adams

        Thanks Tuck, indeed we are all different. The Twelve Step folks have an indicator they use – does something you do a lot make your life unmanageable. Sounds like you are in the flow! Peace, Tom

  2. Greg Cantori

    I feel we can delve deeper into retired life – Being mindful of the importance of good leadership transitions as so well taught by you Tom, I decided I had to leave Maryland Nonprofits after less than 3 years in what I considered my ultimate dream position in helping those who are helping others. My mom had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and I knew her odds were slim in living much longer. I had a choice of juggling caretaking our kids, my mom, and my career, and decided I was lucky enough at that stage to have a choice in the first place. So many have no choice but to struggle on. So I gave the surprise notice that I needed to step down, a decision that saddened me greatly and shocked my board and staff, but was absolutely the right one as the months of spending time nearly full-time with my mom were something I cherish. I was also lucky to have reinvented my career – having started two businesses, led and served on boards of nonprofits, worked in the defense department, and even as a bicycle mechanic for several years. Funny story: As I would ride my bike the 25 miles home from my white collar job at the foundation or Mayland Nonprofits, sometimes I stopped at Light Street Cycles in South Baltimore, ask Penny the owner, what needed fixing and she’d wave at some bikes and off I’d go to wrench for an hour or two, fixing wheels, chains and gears and interacting with customers as ‘just a mechanic’ before finishing my journey home. I’ve always needed to use my hands as well as my brain and loved that opportunity she gave me. Speaking of good ‘retirement ‘books I loved the humorous “Independence Day” by journalist Steve Lopez

    • Tom Adams

      Thanks Greg, I appreciate your contining to share your journey and your openness to new possibiliites. I find it easy to get locked into this reality and miss new graces and opportunities. Thanks for reminder. I owe you a note about your next guest post – be in touch. Any other readers got an idea for a guest post. Always welcome.

  3. Syd Stewart

    Thanks Tom – right on target for me. I’m still recovering from working and attempting to really relax and enjoy the moment..

    • Tom Adams

      Thanks Syd, always great to connect with you. Easy does it!

  4. sally mac

    It’s a cliche’, yet stopping to ponder, smell the roses, take a breath: it’s what makes life worth living. I never consider myself, “caught up.” And that’s okay 🙂

    • Tom Adams

      Thanks Sally, enjoy the rdie! Tom

  5. Katherine Morrison

    Hi Tom. I find I often have to remind myself that we are human beings and not human”doings”. In the last 10 years I have thrown myself into volunteering for nonprofits as I once worked for them (thanks in part to excellent preparation by you and Don Tebbe). I often have to remind myself that my worth is not determined, especially by me, by how busy I am.

    • Tom Adams

      Thanks Katherine, that is a great reminder. Indeed we have perfect value in our being. What we do is full of choices. Be well and thanks for your life of service to others. Tom