If you’ve had a long and successful career, you probably can’t remember a time when you were completely stress free. You think you remember, but trust me, you don’t.
Vacations don’t count. With a week off you get four, maybe five days max of relaxation before you start to drift back into work mode. So you may have to go way back to find that low-stress-time. College can be super stressful, so maybe that last Summer before your senior year in high school was the last time you were stress-free for months. Maybe you worked that Summer so you have to go all with way back to a Summer break in middle school!
The point is, it’s been too long. You really can’t remember – so you don’t know what it feels like to not carry around decades of stress.
Of course, no one is every completely stress-free. Just being a human being alive on this planet results in some amount of stress. But this is a normal, and reasonable amount – what I refer to as your baseline stress level. Getting back to baseline is possible, but it takes a while. Longer than you might think.
For me, it has taken over a year. I think I’m just now getting close to that point. I know because I can now take a really deep breath and get that catch-your-breath feeling at any time. This ability goes away when I’m stressed and I lived with it for decades. I even went to the doctor once about eight years ago because I just couldn’t catch my breath and thought I was having a heart attack. Nope, no heart attack – just stress from work.
Some lucky people report that they felt the years of stress just evaporate as they walked to their car after their last work day. If only! That’s not how it worked for me. I had to get my head around a few ideas:
- I don’t have a boss anymore – This is so nice! It’s great to know you no longer have a boss that at any moment could wander over and fuck up your life for days or weeks. “You need to prepare a presentation for a cranky executive,” “you need to fire so-and-so,” “you need to re-write that 60-page report, management has decided that we are no longer using the word “problem” in reports.” It really is nice, but it takes a while to sink in.
- I don’t have to be productive – That’s a hard one for me. Right after I retired I was dealing with my Mom’s estate, that was a full-time job, so I felt productive. Then I started university and between tests and papers, I once again felt productive. Now I’m trying to just do nothing and travel. That little voice is always there telling me that I should be more productive – it’s hard to shake that feeling that I should be earning money to prove my value and show my competence. That’s why I’ve not started volunteering, for me that would be just trading one job for another. I need to get used to having nothing to do, and that’s ok!
- Nobody cares what I do – For three decades I not only managed my career(s) but I managed the optics of my careers. I was always worried about how things look and putting whatever I was doing in the best light. Man is that all gone! No one cares if I get up before noon or even shower. That’s also taking some getting used to.
“It’s a wonderful feeling to have total ownership over your life for the first time in years.”
The bottom line is that no one knows how they are going to react to retirement until they are actually retired. We think retirement is going be one thing and it often turns out to be another.
My best advice is to push through whatever period of post-retirement discomfort you have. Don’t give in to the urge to “do something,” right away. Just put some distance between yourself and your career. Learn to relax, learn to co-exist with boredom. Do nothing for a while and see if you can come to terms with it.