we retired early

Adapting to New Baselines in Early Retirement

We all have a set of expectations going into anything we anticipate, but particularly when we’re going into a big THING that we’ve been planning for and looking forward to for years, it’s natural that we’re going to build out a whole set of ideas of what that thing will be like.

In some ways, our expectations for this year have borne out. In other ways they haven’t. But what’s been especially interesting is the way that forming new baselines for things like stress and sleep have made the experience entirely different than it was before.

OurNextLife.com, Adapting to New Baselines in Early Retirement, Financial Independence

When Mark and I were working, we carried with us, pretty much at all times, a low level of work stress. During some busy periods — election years, for example, that low level of stress became a high level of background stress, a hum you could virtually hear. Perhaps the thing we were looking forward to more than anything was to be free of that stress, and to learn what it actually feels like to have minimal stress. So how’s that working out?

And likewise, we were in a constant state of sleep deprivation for years, possibly for the entire 14 years we’d known each other before pulling the plug on our careers. What would it feel like to be well-rested and to experience the blissful day-to-day rush of energy we’d no doubt discover?

So, yeah, about both of those. We’re less stressed and less sleep deprived, but that doesn’t mean that expectations and reality have merged.

The Odd Experience of New Baselines

One of the things that we were most excited about in early retirement was the ability to lose track of what day it is. It’s why we still say “Happy Saturday” to each other every morning. And like clockwork, we quickly forgot what day it was. I think it happened on day 3 of our early retirement and has continued most days since then.

So we must be enjoying it, no? We got exactly what we wished for after all.

Turns out not knowing what day it is can be pretty stressful. Not pants-on-fire stressful, but just a low level of concern that maybe I’m missing something or should be doing something. Or maybe just the way that sensory deprivation is stressful, because our minds want to feel solidly anchored to something fixed. When we unfix ourselves, as fun and intentional as that may be, on some level we’re also adrift. I feel that sometimes.

But that’s really just one illustration of how the reality of something is not always like our expectation of it leading up to the thing, and sometimes for entirely hard-to-anticipate reasons.

The New Stress Baseline

When I was low-level stressed all the time, I did not walk around in life thinking, “I’m stressed!” It just felt normal, because that’s what I was used to. And then when things happened — mostly work things — to raise my stress level, the difference was only marginal, and so even that didn’t feel like a big increase. I might have thought, “Huh, there’s a little stress. Interesting.” But then my attention went elsewhere.

Now, however, because my overall stress level is so much lower, the difference between my basic state and a little bit of stress feels huge by comparison. The baseline is healthier, but my perception of stress is perhaps greater. Which means that, ironically and quite shocking to me, I actually feel more aware of stress now than I was when working. I know objectively that I’m not actually more stressed, and am in fact far less stressed. But I perceive stress more. It’s an odd feeling.

The best way I can describe it is to think about rain. If you live in Seattle in the winter, where it rains much of the time, the difference between a steady downpour and a slightly heavier downpour is barely perceptible. But if you live in the desert where rain is rare, a tiny drizzle will feel like a big event. I’m certainly glad to have moved from the metaphoric rain forest to the metaphoric desert, but it’s a surprise to see how much more aware of stress I’ve become in the process.

The New Sleep Baseline

Sleep is another area where there’s been a big surprise, but this one is backed up by science. (*Note: I am confident that I have read this research in multiple places, but I have not successfully located it yet. If you know of it, please let me know in the comments. But otherwise I’ll update the post and link it here once I’ve found it.)

Research shows that if you take decently rested people and you rob them of some sleep for a night, the next day they will report feeling tired and foggy, and their cognitive skills will be worse than there were when they were well rested. If you deprive them of a bit more sleep, the next day they’ll feel more tired still, and will also judge their cognitive skills as being slow. But by the third day of sleep deprivation, they believe they have now adjusted to this new level of less sleep though — importantly — their cognitive skills continue to decline.

That’s the state I’m convinced Mark and I were living in. Constantly sleep deprived and slow in our cognition, but convinced that we had adjusted to it all and were just fine. Sharp minds even through the yawns. Of course science tells us that can’t possibly have been true. But during those years of sleep deprivation, we generally felt a little tired, but we didn’t walk around thinking, “Wow, I’m years behind on sleep and I feel exhausted!” Again, we just felt normal, because that was our normal.

But now, having had most of a year to catch up on sleep, the odd thing is how much having a new, healthier baseline of sleep mimics the awareness I have of stress. I know I’m better rested now, but losing even a little sleep makes me feel much more sleepy than I used to feel when working, even though I was vastly more behind on sleep then. Logically, I know that this is a good thing, and that it means I’ve returned to a normal baseline, in which I perceive my tiredness and cognitive slowness when I lose a little sleep, but on a visceral level, I’m so much more aware of that sleepiness than I was before. And once again, it’s an odd sensation.

The Big Takeaway

The point of this post isn’t to say: I retired early and I feel more stressed and tired than ever! Because I don’t. Not even a little bit. But I do feel more conscious of stress when it arises and more aware of sleepiness when I experience it. That’s not what I went into early retirement expecting to feel, but it’s interesting to note. And a good reminder that we never escape stress or tiredness, but only recalibrate our baselines from time to time.

Your Turn!

Have you ever had an experience like this, of shifting your baseline but then ending up more aware of the unhealthy thing even if you know you’re healthier? Any other expectations for early retirement that haven’t borne out for you exactly as you thought, or that you suspect might not in the future? Let’s chat in the comments!

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60 replies »

  1. I’ve definitely had experiences where the reality was different than my expectation.

    Traveling is one of those that happens constantly – you are super excited to go to a new place, you get there and it’s not as awesome as you thought it would be. Not in a way that ruins the trip, but that the city everyone has made seem awesome really is just normal.

    There are places that were the opposite though – Santorini in Greece was a place I had high expectations, and even still, it blew them out of the water!

  2. Great post, I feel some of these things too and I’ve only gone part time.

    The sleep research can be found in the Matthew Walker’s book “Why We Sleep” which came out last year. It’s an alarming book to say the least. Sleep is one of the bigger mysteries of medical science and the results of many long-term clinical studies have been coming in recently. They’re not good, that is, if you skimp on sleep. You should definitely read the book, and I guarantee it will change your perception on sleep and health.

  3. As someone who prioritizes sleep even while still working, I wholly agree. I sleep from ~11pm-7/8am, and I definitely notice when I don’t get enough sleep. Some late work nights, it’s a bummer to get home and go right to bed, but I would rather be well rested the next day. The other piece of sleep is that those who suffer clinical depression really need to maintain a regular sleep schedule, or it can really mess up ability to stay level. While this is obviously the extreme side, it has to affect everyone on some level.

    Sweet dreams! :-)

  4. This is so true!! I’ve been retired only a few months and have noticed both the stress phenomenon (a little) and the sleep phenomenon (a lot). I get so irritable now when I get, say, only 6 hours of sleep ONE NIGHT – which used to be my norm. It makes me a little sad to think that I spent decades in that sleep-deprived state.

  5. Ha. I love the Seattle rain metaphor. Seriously though, that first winter back after living in South Carolina was SO dark and rainy. Or at least it felt that way to me.

    And post kiddo’s birth, I remember sleeping for 3 consecutive hours and feeling so rested like I could take on the world. Now if I don’t get a full 8 hours at night I’m a super grouch.

  6. The sleep thing is definitely interesting! When I was in grad school I was constantly a bit sleep-deprived, and after graduating ~4 years ago, I promised myself I would commit to getting *at least* 7 hours a night, aiming for 8. I’ve actually done really well at this, and I think it’s helped my well-being overall, but what I observed is that I started to get way more stressed out about the *idea* of missing sleep. I actually do OK with an occasional late night / early morning, but I get super grumpy beforehand if I realize I’m not going to get my full night’s sleep! However, in a meta-analytical win, since realizing that the worst part of missing sleep for me is worrying about missing sleep, I’ve been better able to just accept it from time to time and not stress so much :).

    • That is super interesting, and that’s totally the kind of thing I’d do, too. ;-) Similar to setting the goal for myself of blogging twice a week — if I don’t achieve that, I get stressed about it, but it’s MY goal that I set for myself. Hahaha. Good for you for getting so much sleep consistently! That’s quite an achievement, and I’m glad you’re no longer stressing too much about it.

  7. Losing track of days is not a good thing. You end up missing the concert you wanted to attend or the dental appointment. I start my day checking the weather and I have my computer set so it displays the day, date and time. That way I start each day knowing what day it is.

  8. Thank you for putting into words what I’m going through on stress! The same goes for busy-ness for me. I was constantly rushing around, doing “things” in my non-work hours. Now I do those things during the day, bit there’s no real rush to get anything done (I RE’d about 5 months ago). On the other hand, my husband is still working (probably for another year) and he only has evenings and weekends available to do things. He keeps trying to cram a million things into weekend days and I’m all, “Hakuna matata, dude” – let me do that for you on a weekday instead of starting it at 7:30 Sunday night. I’ve learned doing things all day + all night = way more stress/busy-ness than I want anymore. My busy-ness baseline has dramatically changed.

    Thank you for this post! I appreciate your insights into the recently retired mind. :)

    • I’m so glad this spoke to you! And yeah, same for us on busyness. The normal amount of errand-running feels like a LOT sometimes, even though we juggled WAY MORE than that for years and somehow made it all fit. But yeah, “hakuna matata, dude” is a perfect way to put it. ;-)

  9. I can relate. During my 37 year career I only got 5 hours of sleep a night. Being retired for 5 months I have been working hard at trying to get more sleep. It is a process as I still wake up after 5 hours and often fight for a couple of hours to get back to sleep but I routinely get 6 hours of sleep now. What wakes me up? In the past it was thinking about the day ahead and things that I had to get done. What wakes me up now – thinking about the day ahead and things that I want to get done. I have also noticed something weird and I would be interested if anyone else has this. Every day when I wake up I have a song in my head. It is always a different song – sometimes country, sometimes classic rock and other times church songs. Never ever the same one. Maybe what is really waking me up is that damn radio in my head and the song I really want to hear.

    Stress is now at an all time low – and I’m loving it. I used to be “on” pretty much 24/7 but now have significantly less things that stress me. I’m staying pretty busy but I haven’t felt even low level stress as of yet…that is probably why I haven’t missed work for one minute since retiring.

  10. Yes! I’ve been retired for over a year now and you have put into words perfectly some of my experiences related to stress. Especially this: “not knowing what day it is can be pretty stressful…just a low level of concern that maybe I’m missing something or should be doing something…our minds want to feel solidly anchored to something fixed. When we unfix ourselves, as fun and intentional as that may be, on some level we’re also adrift.”

    I love having less structure to my days and weeks, but I also need structure, so it becomes a balancing act between having a to do list so that I feel like I’m accomplishing something and my to do list creating unwanted stress. I’m surprised that I’m still struggling with this 20 months into retirement, and I think the new baseline explanation is a good one.

    • It’s comforting to know that you’re experiencing something similar, Cindy! :-) I totally feel the contradiction, too, of not wanting structure but also needing some structure. Still working on finding the right balance, but I think it helps to know that this will be a learning process, and not something that just clicks. Either way, nice to know we’re not weirdos on this. ;-)

  11. I definitely find this to be true with my diet. I used to eat carbs and sugars and I’d feel great. Now if I even eat one whole Costco pizza I feel bloated and groggy. I think I just always felt bloated before and didn’t realize what feeling not bloated could be like

    • I’m with you on the diet basline! I used to eat carbs and sugars too and thought not being awake until 11am and feeling the afternoon slump was normal. Now that I don’t, if I feel sluggish after having something as delicious as “one whole Costco pizza” it’s super weird and disorienting.

      • Welcome to getting older. ;-) Hahaha. For sure diet is important, and eating better will always help us see what we were missing before. But it’s also true that some things don’t make us feel bad when we’re young, but that changes as we age. Womp womp. ;-)

  12. Sorry to ruin your baseline sleep at Camp FI the last night! 😉

    I do find it interesting how the body adjusts after a long period doing something similar for so long. The closest thing I can relate to is when I try to adjust my bedtime after staying up later during long vacations, or when you change time zones. Sometimes those first few nights are tough to adjust to!

    • Yeah, dude! It’s all your fault! ;-) And yeah, I think time zone adjustments give a little taste of it, but I’d never really experienced the new sleep baseline until after we’d been off work for several months. So you have a new experience in store! ;-)

  13. One of the truly unfair things about aging that we are discovering is that after decades of lusting after the time to sleep 8+ a night, now that we are winding down work obligations and have more time it ain’t so easy. We are in our 50s and menopause/hot flashes has wreaked havoc and I too am more and more often experiencing the waking at 4 am and not being able to get back to sleep. We are learning that it is a very common issue in our age range and beyond. Yet another reason to retire at 40. Enjoy while you can.

  14. This might be the study you’re talking about: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12683469 and this one is a review on some of the sleep deprivation studies done in humans: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1978335/

    I used to do some circadian rhythm and stress-related studies (in rodents). In general, lack of sleep and stress feed on each other, for a very not-fun feedback loop. On the subject of stress, though-chronic high stress (like you talked about having while working) is really bad. However, mild stress that’s a byproduct of caring about whether something goes well, when not a daily occurrence, is probably beneficial. If you had no stress at all, you’re likely to be bored or have too much hedonia without enough eudemonia.

    • Thank you thank you! And totally with you on the downside of no stress. And that’s not at all what we’re craving, because I agree with the value of *some* stress. It’s just interesting to observe how much more noticeable a little stress feels now, comparatively, even though we were basically drowning in stress at all times before and would assume that little stress now would barely register. Not in fact true!

  15. I have a similar situation currently with work. I work in a non-profit where 35 hour work weeks are standard and they really push work/life balance. The past 6 weeks, I’ve been working “overtime” of 40-45 hours/week, which in previous jobs was just a normal week. And it feels awful! I hate it and can’t wait to get back to my 35 hour weeks at the end of this month. I don’t know how people work 65 hour weeks.

    I also made a point to start getting 8 hours of sleep a night a few years back. It’s been great, but yeah, when I have a bout of insomnia, I feel so exhausted only getting 5 or 6 hours of sleep that having to work like that is a real challenge.

    • Great example! To most people, 35 hours of work sounds like a dream (the average is currently north of 50 hours a week, per Gallup polling data), but when that’s what you’re used to, it just feels normal, and more than that feels like a big imposition.

  16. I am a fairly heavy drinker, so I periodically do “cleanses” where I go 30 days without any alcohol. A primary goal of these exercises is to reset my baseline for alcohol consumption. It’s always surprising to me how I feel after just 1-2 glasses of wine the first few times I drink after a detox period. Normally it takes me 3 drinks if not 4 (assuming it’s wine and not anything stronger) before I can feel any effects. But after a longer period of sobriety, I’m much more aware of the mild euphoria, the sleepiness, and the ever so slight blur of my perceptions after just a small serving or two. Of course, scientifically speaking I am being impacted by the effects of alcohol regardless. But when you get used to drinking and the buzz that goes with it, it can become the new normal.

  17. I like the stress-weather analogy.

    I think I’d use 60 degrees as my example. When it’s February (at least in New England), my baseline for the weather outside is close to 35 degrees. If it’s 60, I’m wearing shorts and a T-shirt. However, if it’s July, my baseline is closer to 85. If it’s 60, I’m going to need a coat.

    It’s still the same 60, but what you are used to matters a great deal.

  18. It’s not just sleep and stress.

    You know what it’s like to work 80 hours a week. The tradeoff we make with ourselves during those years of nonstop work is to desensitize ourselves to to the non-essential. We go through our days and our lives amidst a frenzy of constant inputs, operating just below the threshold of overload. We sense something isn’t quite right. We’re not living our best lives but it’s easier to bear down and clean out our inbox than to slow down and reevaluate.

    We are right to sense that we are missing something. There is a physiological explanation for it. Our brains can’t process all the incoming stimuli so some of them have to be ignored. What gets ignored are the things we suspect are missing in our lives…the small things, simple pleasures. The smell of desert rain. Slowly savoring a good cup of coffee. Striking up a conversation with a stranger. All these things are just as possible when we are working 80 hours a week but we don’t notice them. They don’t rise to the level of intensity that breaks through our sleep-deprived stressed-out filter.
    Conversely, when we get off the all-work treadmill, the desert rain is actually sweeter. The coffee does taste better. We are more apt to allow new people into our lives because our brains are receptive to new stimuli, however small. Of course, the tradeoff is that stress and sleep deprivation, when they happen, can feel more intense too. Learn to recognize this newfound awareness in everything you experience. It is a reminder of all that is possible.

    • Well said. :-) Though I do think there’s also a novelty effect that the coffee will taste better AT FIRST and the rain will smell sweeter FOR A WHILE, and it requires deliberate effort not to adjust to that new normal and start taking that stuff for granted. But it’s like any mindfulness practice: reminding ourselves to appreciate the small things and to slow down and be grateful always pays off.

  19. The point is you don’t escape who you are just because you retire, get married, have children, etc. You are who you are so enjoy you!

  20. Interesting post! Not experienced these things myself, however the baseline stress section explains why my in-laws get so stressed about tiny things! Like someone tracking a bit of dirt in the house, or a car that drove 1 inch onto the lawn!! lol

    • I think that might be a different phenomenon. ;-) Some people truly do look for things to be stressed about, and fortunately, that’s not what’s happening for us. It’s more that the little, unavoidable sources of stress (example: internet goes out and we have to wait a whole day for the cable guy to show up, even though they said he’d be there first thing in the morning) are more *noticeable as stress.* It’s just interesting to observe!

    • Ha! True. It helped us a ton that we left LA, and while I’m sure the effect will wear off at some point, after many years of commuting in LA, I have an extremely high baseline for traffic and mostly laugh at what lots of cities call “rush hour.” ;-) But I’m sure I’ll be the old grumpy person shaking my fist at three cars on the road someday soon. Hahahaha.

  21. It is incredible what humans can get used to in a short amount of time. Sometimes that is more or less maladaptive than we realize. It would be very interesting to revisit this post every year and see what your awareness on these issues is up to.

  22. There’s a lot of generally accepted habits which are also deadly to sleep. From the to of my head (but there might be more!): watching a screen close to going to bed (the closer to your face, the worse it is… mobile phone anyone?), eating an evening snack (chips, but also lighter snacks), alcohol, lying down on the couch (yes, lying down without going to sleep is bad for sleep), staying up later than normal, worrying, having a warm bedroom, and there’s plenty more.

    Getting some healthy sleep might be your new fulltime job ;)

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