On the bench? Coping with being ‘Open’ after 50

I’m seeing quite a few friends and colleagues over 50 back on the jobs market after long stints with the same company, after being displaced as their business consolidates and outsources their support functions like IT, finance and procurement. Most of them are skilled and experienced managers or specialists in their field.

I’ve written about the untapped value of this workforce in my post https://consultnt.org/2017/11/09/jurassic-perk-time-to-leverage-those-dinosaurs/

But what if you’re a member of this group? How do you adjust to the new reality after all those years in a corporate bubble, as you emerge blinking into the sunlight clutching your severance cheque?

In this post I share my top ten thoughts on what I’ve learned from being in this situation, and how I’ve responded to it. I don’t claim to be an expert, and some of this may fall into the ‘blindingly obvious’ category, but if you are in the same boat, I hope some of it strikes a chord and might even be of some help.

Of course, everyone in this position has a different experience depending on finances, outlook on life and loads of other factors. You may be financially, emotionally and psychologically ready just to kick back and hit the golf course, which is great, or you may be frantically seeking a job to make ends meet, which I know is cruel.

These thoughts are mainly aimed at the guys in the middle, the ones like me who need to adjust to this new reality and are fortunate to have some time and space to plan and make those adjustments.

One – We’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto

Your world has changed dramatically. You can either let it drown you, or you can do what you would have done as a manager; step back, assess the situation objectively, work out your objectives and the tasks and levers to help you get there. Stick ‘Oz’ in the satnav and follow the Yellow Brick Road.

In assessing my position, I found two key levers I felt I needed to manage – time and stimulus. In the work environment, despite having a good deal of autonomy as a manager, my time, activities and priorities were still largely set by external drivers. My stimulus to get out of bed in the morning came from a myriad of work opportunities to succeed or fail, challenges to relish or fear, events and actions to look forward to or dread.

The external drivers didn’t disappear when I left the office for the last time – I still have demands on my time and things I can’t avoid that I look forward to or dread. But their number and scale has dropped dramatically.

So my options are to stay in bed or find some new drivers to get me up in the morning . I chose the latter, and a lot of what follows is about the strategies I adopted. You may find other levers, drivers and strategies, and that’s fine as long as you’re managing your situation rather than letting it manage you.

Two – Inactivity is Public Enemy #1, pointless activity is #2

You’ve earned some rest and relaxation, but try not to overdo it.
Shakespeare nailed it again in Henry IV with ‘If all the year were playing holidays, To sport would be as tedious as to work’. Staying in bed until noon, or even nine, soon gets old, believe me, and once you’ve lost the momentum in your day, it’s hard to get it back.

And doing something just to fill time is hardly any better. Whatever you’re doing, ask yourself honestly what you’re getting out of it. If your straight answer is ‘nothing’, find something constructive to do instead.

So for example, watching ‘Pointless’ is pointless for me (‘Pointless’ is a UK TV quiz show). I have nothing against the programme, but it’s on at 5.15pm during the week, which means that if I’m watching it, it means I’ve pretty much stopped for the day, which in turn means I’ve created for myself roughly a two-hour trough of pointlessness before dinner – what Douglas Adams once eloquently called ‘the long dark teatime of the soul.’

Three – Seize the day…

You’re probably getting the drift by now, but, yes, I’ve found that packing your day with genuinely constructive activity is a good thing.

It doesn’t matter what it is – five job applications, a four mile run, three training modules, two flatpack bedside tables or a partridge in a pear tree, as long as you can look back at the end of the day and feel satisfied you’ve achieved a decent amount.

I suggest aiming high and setting yourself more daily goals than you think you can achieve. We tend to be conditioned by a work environment which is driven by interruptions, where you might be lucky to tick off two of the items on the daily to do list you started with. Away from that environment you’ll probably find you get through your list much more quickly.

Four – … but remember tomorrow is another one

One of the joys of escaping the work environment is getting away from externally imposed deadlines.

I don’t advocate a full-blown defection to a ‘manana’ approach, which can rapidly stray into pointless activity territory, but in a lot of cases, letting it go for another day isn’t a disaster.

Five – Mix it up

Have a variety of priorities each day. Even if you’re full on job hunting, make time to mix it up with learning a new skill, personal projects (clearing that garage?), domestic chores, getting out and about, keeping fit or spending time with your partner.

Six – Think Agile

Try to structure your projects in a way that gives you regular and frequent tangible results and helps feed your daily achievements.

Major undertakings that need lots of planning, preparation and work before they show any results can encourage procrastination, staring into space or other pointless activity.

My garage needs a major clear out which will take days, so I started with a minor clear out that took a couple of hours. It’s still a tip, but now it’s a relatively tidy tip, and I can break the remaining work into manageable chunks, each of which delivers a tangible benefit. And because each chunk is a couple of hours, it can be fitted into my ‘mix it up’ day.

Seven – Listen to your body

One of the perks of your new situation is that, generally, you don’t have anyone else setting your agenda. That means you have more scope to fit your schedule to your body’s circadian rhythms, or, if you prefer it without the psychobabble, to do stuff when you feel like it.

Think about the times of day or week when you feel mentally at your sharpest, when you feel most creative, when you’re most ready for physical exercise, and try and match the appropriate activities to these times. If you’re not sure, try the same activity at different times and see when it works best.

At the moment I clean the house on a Monday afternoon, because that seems to fit well with my own circadian rhythm. It has to be done, it gives me a sense of achievement without needing much planning or thought, and it lets me set my mind loose on the more intellectual challenges of the rest of the week. It’s a little luxury that I can easily forgo when other work demands, but for now I do it because I can.

Eight – Accentuate the positive

Keep focused on what you have achieved rather than on what you haven’t.

This is why mixing it up is important – if you have several activities on the go, some will inevitably be more successful than others, and you can focus on these.

For a while after I left my job I was trying to get a similar appointment, and all my applications disappeared into a black hole. Having a bunch of other stuff on the go, like studying for PRINCE2 certification and doing some film extras work, meant I had positives to focus on.

Nine – Don’t forget to reward yourself

No-one is going to give you a performance bonus or invite you to corporate shindigs any more, and you might feel that you can’t afford or justify frivolous spending now.

But you’re still working, you still deserve rewards for what you achieve, and even small rewards can make a big difference to your morale. It’s really important to retain those positive stimuli. A takeaway and a few beers because you’ve made it to the end of the month, a night out because you got some contract work, a packet of chocolate Hobnobs because it’s a tough week – it’s important to keep these in the mix.

And give yourself days off. It’s good to keep the weekend as a time when you relax and do different things if that works for you. Just bear in mind you no longer have to do everything at the weekend – you are allowed to shift the weekly shop and the bracing walks to a weekday when there are fewer people about. That may seem blindingly obvious, but it can be hard to break a habit.

Ten – Have a room with a view

Spend as much time as you can in an environment you enjoy.

When I worked in an office, I’d often do conference calls with people in other countries. They would invariably ask how the weather was in England, and I would invariably either have to guess, or lamely tell them how it was the previous weekend. Like many in my position, I didn’t get to see much of the outside world during the working week.

You no longer have that constraint, so make the most of it. Mixing it up by getting out and about is part of that, and it’s also worth finding a place to work where you can enjoy your surroundings. It’s up to you whether that’s a room in the house with an interesting view, or a coffee shop where everyone knows your name – the important thing is that you feel positive about your environment, because that’s allowed now.

None of the above is going to get you a dream job, but I’ve found these strategies have helped me keep a positive outlook through a period of big change. I hope they are of some help to you too.

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