I don’t know about you, but there are a thousand places I’d rather be than working in a cubicle all day, staring at a computer screen.
It sucks the life out of you. Want to waste a few of the company’s minutes learning how to survive (and maybe thrive in) an insufferable cubicle life? Read on…
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 cubicle 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. It does NOT involve a cubicle.
Remember those spiffy ad spots from public universities? A gaggle of coeds in lab coats hovers 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.”
Some TV spots depicted smartly dressed architects, complete with shiny new hardhats, pouring over skyscraper blueprints. Some ads pimp State U’s NASA alumni. I want to be an astronaut too!
Humans Are Not Designed for Cubicles
Reality hits when you start your first job and have settled into this odd, new cubicle workspace 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 café. Go out to Taco Bell, McDonald’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?
Surviving a Boring, Draining Cubicle Life
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 Jump to Consulting 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 “cellmates” didn’t have the Internet or smartphones to keep them distracted as 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 of finding your real passion. Sometimes all you need is a dreaded cubicle job to spark your fire.
All that aside, maybe you could strive to build strong teams, founded on trust. Or, you could push yourself and your leadership hard for a well-deserved promotion! These are two key things I’ve done in the last handful of years that have allowed me to survive my cubicle job.
5 Ways to Make Working in a Cubicle Tolerable
Oh yeah, what about getting through the monotony of day-after-day cubicle life? You might be thinking, “Weekends and vacations are nice, but $h*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 periods. 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 workstation. Ride your Peloton if you’re working from a cubicle at home. Sitting kills.
- Try hard to find and keep a good boss. Part of this requires you to be a good worker bee. Make your boss look good. Do what he or she asks promptly, and honestly, just show that you give a rat’s a$$. 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.
Bonus tip: Embrace Sunday evening fun. Get social with family and friends. Maybe join a bowling league! Whatever you do, don’t succumb to the Monday Scaries. Life is too short!
I remind myself every weekend after stressful, anxiety-ridden workweeks: Life is happening now. Your problems are first-world problems.
Enjoy this phase of the ride before retirement. And you know what? That typically gets me through at least the following Tuesday, and voila: I’ve found I can survive my cubicle job a little longer.
Ride your bike to work and recall the joys of childhood freedom.
Watch the “Office” on Netflix to commiserate with the millions stuck in the same situation.
Try to have fun.
Time goes a lot quicker than you’d like it to, especially during those draining, cubicle dog years.
Enjoy the ride. Pushpin THAT on your cubicle wall today.
That Mythical Unicorn: Work-Life Balance
In a quixotic attempt to survive my cubicle life, I’ve come to learn the importance of a sustainable work-life balance.
Since the big promotion a few months back, work has been sheer chaos. Time spent hacking and slashing through business administration minutiae has soared to well over 50 hours a week of cubicle time.
And on weekends, I’m reading (training) books for work, or responding to “important” emails. If I threw in a bad boss story, you’d probably break out with hives.
After reading It Doesn’t Have to Be Crazy at Work, I have some newfound knowledge and methods to apply to my situation. I don’t think I’ll take a sabbatical though. That option doesn’t exist at my company. (Pandemic update 2022: Now it does – but it sure isn’t advertised.)
It probably wouldn’t go over well to go AWOL during this period of crazy-busy nonsense, topped with a hiring freeze.
What am I to do? To start, I’ll purchase an extra week of PTO during our October benefits enrollment period. Then, I’ll double-down on getting the expected work done during normal business hours (8AM to 5PM).
That’s how the Europeans get away with so much time off and very little overtime. They show up to WORK, not gab!
Escape From Eternal Cubicle Life Damnation
Can I start to daydream about early retirement again? I was supposed to be wrapping things up this July. Well, it took a little longer than expected to pay off the mortgage. (Our 2018 tax bill had something to do with that.)
Recalibrating the FIRE Time Machine, my new early retirement target is March of 2020. I’m still within a year of being able/ready to walk away. Time to find a new landing.
(Update October 2022: Still working. Albeit, I have abandoned my cubicle and am now a full time telecommuter. Suh-weet!)
Curious: What if I achieve a work-life balance that’s just right, Goldilocks? Well, for that miracle to happen, I’ve got to keep my telecommute gig, 5 weeks of vacation, and a boss who gives me the space to own my work.
Light a candle, and by all means, go ahead and stick your cubicle neighbor’s headset in a Jell-O mold.
Are you working in a cubicle and hoping to escape? Please share your experience in the comments below.
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