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.
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, 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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Susan B says
Great advice! I wish I had known this much sooner…..
Thanks! Never too late to enjoy the here and now!
Mrs. Picky Pincher says
Ohhh I needed this today. My annoying cubicle job had people texting me all weekend about work. I hate being the only one at my job to set firm boundaries on when I will and won’t work (hint: not during the weekend unless the company is on fire!).
Fortunately I do have the ability to work at home 90% of the time, and that’s been awesome. I’m able to move around a lot more and I got a standing desk for myself. That’s been great just for my back and leg pain.
As far as not throwing my computer out the window, I’ve learned that a daily lunchtime nap will do wonders. I’ll eat lunch at my desk while I’m working, then nod off for a mid-day siesta.
Oh man. Good for you though – putting your foot down is important. No calls, don’t break glass unless…
The WFH thing is a blessing and a curse for me. I kind of enjoy getting out of the house to separate the job from home life. Gives me an excuse to shower as well. Ha!
I hope your standing desk is helping out with the pain. I had some back issues that standing really helped alleviate.
I guess with the kids now in school, a nap might be possible with WFH – something to consider!
Amy @ Life Zemplified says
Great advice, Cubert! All these things help me deal with my day job. I’m fortunate to get outside a few times a day for a brisk walk which always recenters me.
I hope you live in a part of the country that allows those outdoors walks in winter. Here in MN, we have to get a little creative and blaze walking trails indoors. Thanks for stopping by, Amy!
Mr Defined Sight says
Hahahahaha, “cheer up buddy, at least you have a smart phone!” I’m rolling over here. Good stuff my man and so very true. I’ve done the cubicle thing for a few years and it does indeed suck. There is a reason why Office Space is a cult classic. Thanks for the good laugh today.
I’m glad you got a rise out that, good sir! I remember viewing Office Space when it debuted in theaters. I think me and my cubicle-bound friends were the only ones laughing. Most everyone else there must’ve been teenagers expecting Beavis and Butthead. Now I bet they can relate…
The way I see it, I have to be at my job for now until I save up enough for early retirement. So, I may as well work my butt off and get as many promotions and pay raises as I can to accelerate that plan. Even if the work is somewhat boring, working hard at it beats sitting around the cubicle miserable all day. (And, definitely, like you mention, using all your vacation days keeps you sane!)
You have the right attitude, Melissa! Work hard, and work SMART. It’s possible to turn your boredom into promotions — look for more interesting and challenging work in your company and make sure your managers know. As good as we are (wink), we can’t read minds.
Ha! All kinds of fun reactions today. Glad you stopped by, Scott.
Nice tips. The coffee shop near my old job is where I used to hide-away during lunch. Most of the early parts of my blog started there!
Ahh, the coffee shop… I’m a big fan of those now. Especially on my days off when I can focus on the blog and not projects from hell. 🙂
Dylan | Trail to FI says
Great article. I can attest to work life not being as heroic as employers want it to seem to college students…I never thought I would sit for so long. And 3 years per job sounds about right. I’m getting the itch to look around just 3 years out of college.
Thanks, Dylan! It’s not uncommon to get the itch that soon. My first job out of college lasted about a year and a half before I switched companies. And yes, the sitting thing is for the birds. Thank goodness for all the stand-up options out there these days.
I dont own or want a cube, but my one friend was sick of it in about 4 months after graduating. Aside from my ADD I think the health concerns are what scare me the most and why I stick to teaching even though the salary is not ideal.
This post should be read to every college student !!!
Thanks, Josh! Appreciate the notion of adding posts like this to collegiate curriculum. I’d even argue this stuff should be taught beginning in Junior High!
Paige @ Fixing My Finances says
Love this post! My cubical sometimes feels consuming but I definitely agree with the getting up to walk. We have multiple buildings on my campus and sometimes I find myself walking to another building mid afternoon to get me refocused (even in the middle of Minnesota winter)
Oohhh … makes me wonder where you work if it’s in the Twin Cities… If you can manage a walk in the brutal stretches of winter, you’re a bona-fide Mustachian!
James McSherry says
Fantastic post! The point around side hustles is well made. I think some people are able to iron-clad-focus on their main job, make a ton of money, and then retire early. I know I’d go demented if I actually did that, I need those side hustles, interests. I’ve never found full-time work that is my ‘passion’, although I do like my current job. If we don’t have the side interests, what happens when we do retire? I’ve seen those results and it’s not always good!
You know, you hit on something I should probably write about soon. I’ve observed this all too often where you meet retired folks who simply are bored off their rockers. They sit all day or just putz around. No clue what to do after decades in a traditional job, with no side interests or hobbies to ramp up after retirement. THAT is toxic to one’s health!
Cal @ FI Me Outta Here says
One good thing about the cubicles where I work is there are those fancy hydraulic standing desks. Those things are godsends.
I agree that moving around throughout the day is extremely important!
Here here, Cal! We have those too, finally. The only drawback is our lower cube walls. You feel like you’re spying on your neighbor when your desk is up and hers/his is not. 🙂
Dang, I was chortling so much at this post, I woke my husband up. Thanks, Cubert! I imagined my life to be like a high power editor or something, that had enough money to go to space whenever I wanted. My life was going to be sooo Devil Wears Prada.
But nah, my life is more Office Space, gray cubes, and endless hours of mindless paperwork. I need to implement some of these tips to handle it better. 🙂 Day drinking is not as socially acceptable as your ideas!
Hey Steph! That’s why people need to read my blog!!! Hahaha… Apologies to your husband. He can get back at you tonight by reading my “fraud” post.
I wonder, can you combine a Devil Wears Prada look with Office Space? That’s maybe Jan?
And no, day drinking is NOT advised! Scary – I sat next to a long-timer in a team meeting a few weeks back. He definitely had something strong on his breath. Wasn’t even lunch time for Pete’s Sake!
Melinda K Shaw says
OMGosh! You just saved my life, at least for this Monday! Thanks!
I’m happy this post helped you in such a timely way! Hope your Monday this week was better??