Cubicle Job

How to Survive Your Cubicle Job Years

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!

Not a Cubicle Job
Hello from my cool job in SPACE, cubicle loser!

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.

Ideal Cubicle Job
Who needs outer space when I can have THIS?

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.

The Cubicle Job Blues
Cheer up, buddy. At least you have a smart phone!

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 shit, I’ve got 15 more years of this!?!” Deep breaths…

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. Try really hard to find and keep a good boss. Part of this requires you to be a damn 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 shit. 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.
  5. 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.

Cubicle Job Jello
Courtesy: Sarah Dressen

 

Comments 22

  1. 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.

    1. 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!

    1. 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!

  2. 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.

    1. 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…

  3. “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?”

    Oh my that literally mad me tear up a bit. SAD shit there.

  4. 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!)

    1. 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.

  5. 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.

    1. 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.

  6. 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 !!!

    Good stuff!

  7. 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)

  8. 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!

    1. 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!

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