I don’t know about you, but there are a thousand places I’d rather be than sitting in a cubicle all day, staring at a computer screen. It sucks the life out of you.
I’ve spent the better part of 22 years working cubicle jobs. I wouldn’t recommend one. BUT, if you’re serious about achieving an early retirement lifestyle, there are lots of ways you can get through your cube years without it feeling like a prison sentence. Stick with me here. We’ll cover some useful tips.
Funny that college doesn’t prepare you for this cubicle ordeal in any way, shape, or form. You sit in a classroom or lecture hall, and imagine your first job after graduation…
I bet it looked like those spiffy ads that public universities put on teevee during college football games. You know, where a group of colleagues in lab coats stands around a test tube looking intently at their cure for baldness. “Come to the University of Alaska, where the only thing stopping you from greatness is our student loan debt recovery program.”
Or, the shots of the highly successful architect looking over skyscraper blueprints with a shiny hard hat on. Some big U’s even get you to believing you’ll be an astronaut. Sweet!
Reality hits when you start your first job and have settled into this odd, new “cubicle” work space made up of tweed covered hollow walls, cords spilling out from every direction, and an office chair that squeaks every time you swivel to the left. “How the hell did I end up here?!?” you wonder, but after a few happy hours with other “inmates”, you begin to settle in for the long haul.
Eventually, your body begins to conform to that squeaky office chair. You can’t run like you used to. Your back hurts. You start accepting the fact that your underwear will bunch up before lunchtime. And you’re okay with that.
Oh yes, lunchtime. The mid-day escape to the prison grounds for fresh air and sunlight. The evolution of my lunchtime has been this:
- Early career: Lunch nearly every day at the campus cafe. Go out to Taco Bell, McD’s, or some other similarly awful fast food $hit-hole once or twice a week. Want me to run the long-term numbers on that dumbness?
- Mid career: Working downtown. That means access to all sorts of restaurants! Go out to lunch three times a week? Why not! So convenient with the sky-way system. I hope those sliders are still on happy hour special after I clock out…
- Late career: Big improvements. Instead of spending a wad on dining out, I bring leftovers to enjoy… in the lovely confines of my cubicle. That way, I can stay productive by working through lunch while turning my keyboard into a Petri dish of petrified food particles. Who needs fresh air, right?
What about those survival tips?
Let’s get to the punch line. The very best survival tip is to have a long-term plan for your retirement. Give yourself a goal to strive for. Things got a lot easier for me when I buckled down and created my savings plan and set a target date for early retirement. Turn on your light at the end of whatever dark tunnel you’re meandering down.
I met up with a new blogger friend of mine, Daryl Gerke over at JumptoConsulting.com for coffee a few days ago. Daryl has spent the better part of the last 30 years as a consultant. It’s a gig he credits for giving him the means to financial independence.
For Daryl, getting the hell out of the cubicle was a singular focus. “Freedom” was the word he used often. We laughed about his description of the 80s office life. He and his eventual consulting firm partner felt like prisoners in adjacent cells, scratching on the wall in code to communicate with each other, to plot their escape.
Think about this, readers: Daryl and his “cell mates” didn’t have the Internet or smart phones to keep them distracted like we do. Not even Microsoft Solitaire, until the mid-90s. Scary, huh?
Thanks to Daryl’s advice and a dose of my own experience, tip 2 is to jump to side gigs. Side gigs are the seeds to finding your real passion. Sometimes all you need is a dreaded cubicle to spark your fire.
What about surviving the mundane stuff?
Oh yeah, what about getting through the monotony of day-after-day cubicle life? You might be thinking, “Weekends and vacation are nice, but sh*t, I’ve got 15 more years of this!?!” Deep breaths…
- Keep your job as interesting as possible. Let’s be honest. There are some interesting aspects of your job, or at least your career. Explore new skills and get trained-up in the latest process or methodology. Maybe it’s directly related to your job, maybe not. But it’ll keep your mind sharp and open you up to possible new job opportunities.
- Move around in your company. Or, move around among companies. Daryl offered this up as a tonic he used before founding his consulting firm. Every three years is about right. Keep your network strong and find mentors outside of your department.
- Just plain move! Avoid planting your butt in that chair for long spans of time. Get up and walk around every hour or so. Get outside for a five-minute walk. Stack up some boxes and crates to make a standing work station. Sitting kills.
- Try really hard to find and keep a good boss. Part of this requires you to be a dang good worker bee. Make your boss look good. Do what he or she asks in a timely manner, and honestly, just show that you give a sh*t. Too often, the employees on the chopping block are the ones who lack a sense of urgency and can’t be relied on to get the job done. Be reliable, and be a results-getter who makes friends in the process.
- Use ALL of your vacation days. Don’t sacrifice your time off because your work is “too important.” Sustainable success requires you to get away regularly and as often as possible. Avoid taking work with you on vacation. Save it for the absolute crunch time situations, not to show off how dedicated you are just catching up on emails on a Saturday night. Paid time off is part of your COMPENSATION. Use it.
Warning: cliché alert
I remind myself every weekend after terrible work weeks: “Life is happening now. Your problems are first world problems. Slow down. Enjoy this phase of the ride before retirement.” And you know what? That typically gets me through at least the following Tuesday.
Slow down. Play pranks with your cube neighbors. Slow down. Ride your bike to work and recall the joys of childhood freedom. Slow down. Watch the “Office” on Netflix to commiserate with the millions stuck in the same situation. Slow down. Try to have fun. Time goes a lot quicker than you’d like it to, even in those cubicle years.
Slow down. Enjoy the ride. Pushpin THAT on your cube wall today. Need further validation? Read this excellent post from Mr. 1500 about his personal regrets pushing to that magic “finish line”, here.