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You know how this should go: Start saving for retirement in your twenties and keep it up for three decades or more.

Begin transitioning your finances to the withdrawal stage in your late fifties and sixties. And -- voilà! -- stop working at age 65 and turn your nest egg into a steady series of paychecks.

Retirement planning rarely goes that smoothly, especially the "transitioning" part. A recent study by researchers Cerulli Associates found that investors are far more likely to make big moves with their retirement plans in the five years after leaving the job than before.

"Many people end up retiring sooner than they expect, and then they have to scramble to make their finances work," says Cerulli associate director Kevin Chisholm.

Early retirement is already sweeping through the baby-boomer generation. A 2012 MetLife survey of the oldest boomers as they turned 65 found that nearly 60% had at least partially retired, often earlier than planned as a result of health problems or a layoff.

Even if your retirement remains on schedule, you may not be making key moves on time. That's because many older workers are reluctant to realize that they are, in fact, pre-retirees.

One hurdle: You still feel young. A Bankers Life survey of Americans 55 and up found that most thought "old age" didn't start until 78.

"If you don't think of yourself as old, you probably don't feel any urgency about retirement," says Bankers Life senior vice president Chris Campbell. Inject your pre-retiree years with more urgency by taking these four steps.

Use the homestretch wisely. Your late fifties and early sixties offer a crucial window of opportunity when you still have time to make fixes, like taking advantage of catch-up provisions that let workers 50 and older save an extra $5,500 a year in a 401(k) and another $1,000 in an IRA.

Get the big picture. By now, you should have a sense of how much money you'll have for retirement and whether you'll hire an adviser to help manage it. Consolidating your retirement accounts at one or, at most, two fund groups will make tapping your savings easier. Pick a firm that offers low-cost investment options for all the asset classes you want to own.

Know your budget. Run the numbers for how much you'll spend in retirement and how much income you can draw from your 401(k), Social Security, and other sources. T. Rowe Price's Social Security Benefits Evaluator online tool can help you plan the best claiming strategy.

Begin downshifting. Don't wait to start moving money out of stocks. Nearly 30% of those 65 and older were caught holding more than 90% in stocks prior to the 2008-09 market crash, which meant they lost as much as 40% of their savings.

At retirement, a mix of 50% stocks and 50% fixed income is reasonable. Within a decade or so of calling it quits, you don't want to be so far from that goal that you're caught selling a big stake during a market slump.