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. If you’d like to learn a few things about how to survive an insufferable cubicle life, you’ve come to the right place.
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. It does NOT involve a cubicle.
Remember those spiffy ad spots from public universities? A gaggle of coeds in lab coats hover 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 Cubicle Life
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 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?
Surviving a Boring Cubicle Job
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 in 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.
How Can I Make My Cubicle Life Tolerable?
Oh yeah, what about getting through the monotony of day-after-day cubicle life? You might be thinking, “Weekends and vacation are nice, but shit, 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 work station. 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 ass. 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.
I remind myself every weekend after terrible workweeks: Life (not just cubicle 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, and voila: I’ve found I can survive my cubicle job a little longer.
Slow down. Play pranks on your cubicle neighbors. 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, even in those draining, cubicle life years.
Enjoy the ride. Pushpin THAT on your cubicle wall today.
That Mythical Unicorn: Work-Life Balance
Whoah, wait a minute… It’s already May? Where the bleep did April go? And March, for that matter?? It’s pretty sad when you’re so tied to your desk that weeks fly by in Rip Van Winkle-like fashion. While on a quest to figure out how to survive working in a cubicle, I’ve realized the importance of 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. And on weekends, you’d likely find me reading a book for work training, or even responding to a few “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 Basecamp-inspired sabbatical though. That option doesn’t exist at my company. It probably wouldn’t go over well during this period of crazy-busy nonsense, topped with a hiring freeze. At any rate, here is what the experiment will look like, at least at the outset…
The work-life balance experiment starts NOW. We’ll string it out through the rest of 2019 to determine if I can weather seasonal shifts in work demands. Granted, at my company, it doesn’t matter what time of year it is. There’s always time for gobs of worthless emails and questionable meetings. Still, we’ve got a solid 8 months or so to see what’s achievable.
The list of changes I’ll attempt:
- Return to blogging at the magic 5:20 AM – 6:20 AM hour, every day AND build in 20 minutes to exercise from 6:20 AM to 6:40 AM.
- No work at all on weekends. Period. Unless it’s a really good book that’s about leadership and better work cultures – I get into that stuff
- Cap my work week to a 45-hour average. No tricks – Vacations do not factor into the numerator.
- Reduce status meetings with staff and implement office hours instead.
- Create a list of top five objectives for the week on my whiteboard (rather than just reacting to emails flooding my days)
- Delegate (appropriately) work to others, including my boss!
- No more checking in on work when I’m on vacation. Call my cell phone if the volcano erupts!
- Block off time on my calendar for concentration-oriented tasks, and disallow others from viewing my meeting subjects.
- Turn all 1:1 meetings into walk-and-talks. Might as well get some steps in and double bonus: have productive discussions.
Things that won’t change (squeeze the balloon at one end, and…)
- No work in the evenings. No change here. Mrs. Cubert and I already have our hands full raising young twins. Brains turn to mush after the kiddos’ bedtime.
- Bike to work when possible. When the weather is nice and I don’t have to pick up the kids, we’ll be pedalin’!
- Taking all my allotted vacation. I’ve got to set a good example for my team. It’s a sustainability thing.
Holding Myself Accountable
For this work-life balance experiment to be successful, I need to sustain high performance at my job. I can’t just go off and do those 12 things above and hope for the best, come review time. I need to be effective.
(Notice, I did not say “I need to be productive”. There’s a big difference in that nuance. See if you can discern that for yourself.)
If I’m still able to pull the highest possible review score once again this year, then I’ll know that all that extra time spent chasing nonsense isn’t worth the energy spent. This is NOT a post about how to be a slacker with your work. On the flip side, this post is all about how to be the most effective kid on the block, and being so for the long-haul.
After my promotion, I quickly fell into the trap of believing I had to be “ON” a lot more than I had been. I had forgotten the approach to work that got me promoted in the first place.
Repeat after me: Sustainability. Sustainability. Sustainability… Okay, Dorothy, let’s go back to Kansas and start to work smarter, not harder. We need to turn our cubicle hell into something slightly less awful.
Escape From Cubicle Hell
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 target is March of 2020. I’m still within a year of being able/ready to walk away. Time to find a new landing. More and more I’m liking what Uncle Daryl and Dave at Accidental Fire are up to, with their SemiFIRE part-time work. Consulting gigs might just be the answer, and I need to do my homework to figure out what I’d like to jump into.
Another angle on this experiment: What if the experiment goes so well, that I wind up finding a work-life balance that’s just right? CNN BREAKING NEWS: Goldilocks ditches early retirement for some yum yum corporate porridge… The Detroit Lions win the Super Bowl… Atlantis discovered…
For me to survive this particular cubicle life? I’ve got to find a way to limit my work week to 40 hours (or ideally LESS) and use five or six weeks of vacation per year. Both are luxury perks in a U.S. job market where inequality continues to expand. Part-time work here I come?
Do you have tips on how to survive your cubicle job years? Please comment below!