Lifelong Learning: Tips for building your “cognitive” retirement fund

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Image by John Hain from Pixabay

While there is no guaranteed way to prevent age-related cognitive decline, there are things we can do to try to sustain our mental fitness as we age. We all know we need to invest in ourselves, not just in stocks and bonds. But simply saying you are going to invest in yourself by doing such and such a thing is not the same as having a detailed plan. Why not be just as intentional about your cognitive investments as you are about your financial ones?

Now, I am not suggesting that you overplan your free time. I am the first to acknowledge that self improvement, like anything, can be taken to the extreme. I firmly agree with those who say that time spent doing absolutely nothing is vital for good mental health. What I am recommending is that you place the exact same value on learning for yourself as you would on learning a skill required by your employer. I have known and heard about too many people who worked their butts off for decades, while putting off their own personal learning goals until they no longer had the time or the energy to pursue them.

I think of cognitive investments as structured or unstructured activities done on a regular basis that build your thinking muscles and enhance your mental well being. The benefits of these investments accumulate over time, as you create mental connections between old and newly gained knowledge and continually acquire new skills.

Think about what your personal list of cognitive investments might look like. Get specific about what subjects you want to learn or what skills you want to master in your lifetime. Think about how frequently you want to engage in your learning pursuits. Daily? Monthly? Once every six months? Put your cognitive investment plan “in writing” and refer to it periodically to make sure you’re on track.

Be creative about how you incorporate your cognitive investments into your day-to-day life, too. For instance, instead of trying to find extra time to learn something, consider replacing a current, unrewarding activity with a new cognitive investment.

If you are interested in cognitive investment planning, you have a slew of options from which to choose. Here are four wise cognitive investments made by happily retired people I have met or observed over the years.

Taking classes and workshops

Every upbeat, independent retired person I have ever known enjoys being a student. They all credit learning with keeping their brains young and their minds alert.

Rather than getting a degree once and saying “I’m so glad to be done with that,” think about recreating that school experience on your own terms at regular intervals throughout your life. Formal degree programs and online course providers (like Coursera) are wonderful, but so are free online course modules offered by universities on YouTube (such as Yale Open Courses) or workshops hosted by libraries and cultural centers.

Stretch yourself. If you love numbers, consider taking literature courses. If you swim in words most of the time, explore classes in math or the sciences. The farther you move out of your comfort zone, the better the mental workout.

Teaching people and making presentations

After decades of teaching at MIT, 91-year old linguist, activist, and retired professor Noam Chomsky is as astute as ever and a popular guest speaker. Even if you never attain Chomsky’s status, teaching skills can serve you well in retirement, either in a community service or a paid consulting role.

If you are good at something, have patience, and enjoy helping others, consider doing periodic teaching or tutoring stints in the years leading up to retirement. You can teach at a school, a community center, or in your own living room.

If teaching is not your thing, volunteer to do presentations or serve on panels. The planning and preparation required to teach and present will give your brain a workout, as will the on-the-spot thinking required to answer unscripted questions from an audience. Presenting on a regular basis can also build confidence.

Learning and practicing a foreign language

Wordle with the word "hello" in multiple languages, including German, French, Spanish, and Hawaiian
Image by Mary Pahlke from Pixabay

Travel is a common retirement goal. Retirees who speak the languages of their destination countries can navigate diverse cultural landscapes more effectively than they could without that ability.  It can take years to get comfortable with expressing yourself in a foreign tongue, so it pays to start learning as early as you can.

Learning a foreign language – especially one that is extremely difficult for you – is an exceptional brain workout. Once you master a few basics, keep pushing yourself by practicing what you have learned in the real world, such as in shops, restaurants, and other cultural venues where the language is spoken. Practicing languages as a novice learner forces you to face your fears of not being “perfect.” If you “mess up” or feel embarrassed, just remind yourself that that is all part of the learning process. The more comfortable you get with failing and making mistakes, the more comfortable you will be pushing yourself to try even more new things.

Writing about and discussing books

Daily reading is good exercise for the mind. Why not take things a step further, though, by writing a short essay about how a particular book affected you or sharing your reflections in front of a group? This does not have to be a big public affair. You can keep your writing private or share your reflections with just one other person. The important thing here is the cognitive exertion, the acts of analyzing the text, interpreting it, and synthesizing your thoughts. (For an extra boost, write about and discuss the book in a foreign language.)

Finding a purpose beyond your job and devoting regular time to it

Successfully retired people often stress the importance of having a purpose in your later years. One comment made by many a retired person is that you can’t just retire – you have to retire into something. Find what elevates you and start devoting time to that pursuit regularly long before you retire. For one thing, you will have the satisfaction of enjoying your passion now rather than putting it off to some distant point in the future. If COVID-19 has taught us anything, it is that longevity is not a given. Don’t wait until you are a certain age to begin doing what you love – grab that joy now!  Another benefit of starting early is that once you are retired, you can just ease right into that passion full time, rather than trying to figure out what to do with your time at the last minute.

Planning for retirement is about more than just amassing savings. You have to build up the cognitive reserves you need to remain sharp, engaged, content, and focused in the years beyond a nine-to-five job routine. The time you invest in cognitive goal-setting is time well spent.

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