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.
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.
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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Categories: we retired early