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Question #180: How do I stop being a cubicle zombie?

Franz Kafka

Kafka had a day job. This explains a lot about his work.

Dear Captain Awkward,

I’m currently in a very cushy but very boring job with a strange workflow: I’m either completely slammed or have absolutely nothing to do. As much as I don’t enjoy the work, I’d rather be busy than bored, but I seem to have fallen into a complete malaise and can’t figure out what to do with all that spare time.  

I have made my supervisors aware of how lopsided my schedule is, but I don’t want to call too much attention to the lack of work or end up taking on responsibilities that are inappropriate for my position and then get overloaded and burnt out (something that happens a lot in this company). I have to at least appear to be busy, so it’s not like I can pull out a book and read. The thing is, I feel like I’ve reached the end of the internet and that I’m wasting all this time and energy that could used to cure cancer or whatever.

Back in high school I would use any free time I had to write, and while I still go through periods of creativity, more often than not I feel like I’ve become a cubicle zombie. In order to stay sane while in this very un-stimulating job, I want to make sure I stay engaged in things I care about (and ideally someday soon-ish be able to save up enough money to leave this job for more fulfilling, if less lucrative, pursuits). As things are, between boredom from my job and boredom from killing time, I’m becoming really unhappy with my work situation and it just exacerbates any other not-so-great feelings I’ve been having about other parts of my life. I’m not engaged when I do have something to work on, and I often feel really isolated from my coworkers. My question is: how do I get myself out of this rut, short of finding another job? Any suggestions on how I can get myself to use this time productively and/or creatively? How does one survive a soul-sucking work environment?

Feeling Like Peter from Office Space

Being bored is a good problem. My uneducated theory is that it means that your brain has the luxury of too many options and can’t pick one, like when you’re cranky-hungry (Commander Logic correctly calls this state “crungry“) and you end up in a restaurant with a giant 20 page menu and can’t pick out anything to eat.

I’ve got some obvious solutions for you:

1) Look for a new job you think you’d like more. Since you have a job already, you have the luxury of hanging out and picking the *right* opportunity and plenty of time to write and send cover letters.

2) Become a badass at something.

For example, you say you want to be a writer…I’m  a writer. How did I become a writer? I wrote stuff. A lot of stuff. Hi, I’m writing stuff right now, because I’m a writer. Free time? A computer and a quiet space? Write stuff. You don’t have to leave that job to “become a writer,” or even be paid (at first) to be a writer, you just have to write stuff. I’ve started getting adorable emails from very young bloggers who ask “how did you become a blogger?” like there is some secret to it? The secret is: Make a blog and write stuff in it.

You could become a badass at something else, though. Here are a couple of badass training resources you could access from your cube:

If you’re really smart, you can figure out a skill that both gets you more prepared for the work you’d rather be doing and that your current company might pay for you to acquire to use now.

3) Make your free time awesome. 

Start volunteering and/or trying out things you think you might want to do with your life now, while you have a sinecure and see if you actually like them. Build your skills and your network, and then leap when you are ready.

Here’s how I learned I wanted to make movies instead of working in management consulting:

  • During a depressive episode, began telling colleagues I had off-site client meetings. Sat in theaters watching 3-4 movies in a row.
  • Quit my soulsucking job and moved to a city where I didn’t know anyone. Did a string of temp and odd jobs to pay the bills while I figured stuff out and stitched my mental health back together.
  • Read everything I could about making movies. Joined a club of people who watched and talked about movies.
  • Met a few local filmmakers, started helping out on their projects as a producer.
  • Realized that I had strong opinions about some of their creative decisions, as in “Production design is not optional, it’s actually super-important in delivering character information.”
  • Began speaking up about those opinions to the filmmakers.
  • My input was not appreciated? There was an argument that ended with “WHY DON’T YOU GO AND MAKE YOUR OWN MOVIES, THEN?” “OKAY, FINE, I WILL.” Yes, I became a filmmaker partly out of spite.
  • And then I did (via applying and getting into grad school somehow with a half scholarship?) and it was good.
  • I need to change the bio where I say am a screenwriter who likes advice columns. I’m more of a director and editor, but I screenwrite so as to have material to direct and edit.

I could have not gone to grad school and done the DIY thing – I’d have less debt, for sure – I really wanted the structure and the ability to focus on nothing but making movies for a few years and build my skills up more quickly. Also, the teaching credential pays my bills (sort of). We’ll see if the trade-off was worth it if the student loans get paid off before I enter a nursing home.

My point is, you don’t have to quit your job in a blaze of glory to start getting closer to what you want. Start small. It will make your boring days go by faster if your brain is occupied by the stuff you want to be doing instead.

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24 comments
  1. FarmerStina said:

    One point – don’t do job searching on your work computer if there is a possibility at all of them looking at your internet logs. This could get you fired.
    When I was job searching while at another job, I downloaded Google Chrome and used their Incognito Window to search for jobs. I also did all my cover letters at home.

  2. sara-bi said:

    Hello. Great advice as always (or, “GAAA!”) – have been in a similar situation. Seasonal work, all or nothing. Super draining, physically and mentally. Got really jealous of friends who seemed to have all this time for writing, succeeding, breezing. Spent, actually, lots of time moping and being jealous and wondering where they got all this *time* from.

    Met some amazing ladies through in-job women-only training (off site, which was lovely), doing Action Learning and problem solving. Aaanyway, the best advice I got was in an informal chat, over tea: always keep the revenue stream open. I always remind myself that the people I admire through history for their expression, art, thoughts etc *lived through it*. Larkin was a Librarian, I tell myself. And Lowry was a Tax Collector. Pepys had dinner during the Great Fire, and lived to write it up. Live through it and make.

    I go to Gestalt therapy, which recognises the ‘void’ – fallow periods between stages in life, between processes, states of mind. The choice, in Gestalt at least, is between a Fertile Void and a Futile Void. I’ve found the distinction really helpful. I wish you luck on you

    • Lauren O. said:

      “GAAA!”

      Perfect. And so true.

      • sara-bi said:

        Alternatively, ‘Great Advice as Always, Awkward!’ / ‘GAAAA!’ works, if you want a longer exclamation.

        Also wanted to drop in and apologise for misspelling ‘luck’ below, twas niggling me.

  3. sara-bi said:

    “I wish you good look on your journey” was the cheesy final thought wot fell off the back of the comment.

  4. Stephanie said:

    I have a similar job – it’s not probably as feast or famine as yours is, but it’s definitely defined by the date on the calendar.

    One thing I have is a second, part-time job that I do because I love. It’s ultimately what I would love to do full-time. Another is that I’m pursuing some school work and certification in something related to that, which I’m hoping to parlay into an OMG Awesomesauce Mid-Life Career Change. I don’t have it all figured out by any means, but being able to leave work and go to a class, or spend time with people who do what I want to do, makes that 8 hours of meh seem more bearable. It makes it seem like there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, the possibility that I may not have to do it forever.

    Once I’m certified, I’m hoping question #181 is more along the lines of “How do I make the jump from this cubicle zombie job that pays my bills super well to the OMG Awesomesauce Mid-Life Career Change that has little monetary compensation.” I don’t profess to have the answer there. But I feel like I’m at least moving in a better direction.

    Perhaps any of that is an option to keep the day job feeling less…Office Space.

  5. patricia said:

    I used to have a job like that years ago…during my downtime I proofread Project Gutenberg books (http://www.pgdp.net/c/). It helped me feel productive, and I became quite good at proofreading – I think all the reading helped my writing skills.

    • Nomie said:

      Along similar lines, the National Archives have a pilot program for transcribing documents, which will be super helpful both for research and for accessiblity. Over here: http://transcribe.archives.gov/

  6. Rinna2412 said:

    LW, are you me? Because I totally get this, and my job…well, it’s paying the bills (including getting a credit card paid off, huzzah!), and it’s letting my spouse go back to school. And the “you have to pretend to be busy even when you’re not” bullshit? Yep, got that too.

    I don’t know what to tell you about how far you can push things when you’re not busy–only you can tell if writing a poem or taking an online class would get you fired. I do know that the absolute essential thing that has saved my sanity has been earphones and internet radio. When I’m doing the crap busywork because I’ve run out of everything else to do, it lets me focus on something else. In a funk? I’ve got a Pandora station for that. I don’t generally sit at my desk in long enough chunks to make podcasts an appealing option, but they could work, too.

    And second, my real life happens outside of work. I love singing in my choir, and the thing that feels like my real “job” is my responsibilities as the president of the Board of Directors for the choir–yep, we’re a 501(c)3 organization. And I play tabletop role-playing games. And I love to read.

    Third, when I’m feeling really bummed about my job, I do two things: I take a look around for another one, and then I also remember what having a stable, good paying job has enabled me to do–basics like having money in a savings account to repair our car when it breaks down, paying off bills, paying rent every month without having to worry about overdraft fees, the aforementioned paying off of a credit card. It doesn’t make me love my job, but remembering that stuff helps me dig out of the brooding that comes with bored.

    Good luck on finding a new job, and good luck on finding a way to make your current one more bearable.

  7. Ensign Perception said:

    Ooh! I worked part-time for a year and a half, and though I didn’t have the “must look busy” issues as I only came in 20 hours a week, I sympathize with not knowing what to do with free time.

    I ended up founding a food co-op with friends in my neighborhood as my major project for 2011, and it was really fun! Obviously networking, planning meetings, phone calls etc. on that kind of community project would have to be done outside the cubicle, but LW, if I were you I would’ve been able to use all kinds of resources at work for research, graphic design, spreadsheet making, and suchlike during down time. Maybe try kicking off a multi-faceted project like that? It was fulfilling as hell and I cried tears of joy at the one-year anniversary potluck in mid-December :)

  8. SeeAmyRun said:

    I do not have any further advice for the LW. But, I would like to contribute that the term I like for cranky-hungry is actually “Hangry.” You know, like when you get so hungry that you are irrationally angry. One of my favorite terms for sure. :)

    • Kristy said:

      It also calls to mind the Captain’s favorite comic character’s alter ego. Remember the TV version? When my boss tries to add “just one more thing before lunch,” I like to pretend I’m Bruce Banner.

      “Don’t make me late for a meal. You wouldn’t like me when I’m hangry.”

    • Shaenon said:

      My husband and I use that term to refer to our cat. As in, “Tesla just punched me in the face. I think she’s hangry.” Or, “Oh no, we left her out in the rain. She’s going to be so whangry at us.”

      “Whangry” is of course a portmanteau of angry, hungry, and wet.

  9. Awkward Niece said:

    Also, LW, do you know about the khanacademy.org ? Have you ever wanted to understand how black holes work? Would you like to find out, for free, from the charmingly dorky and passionate Salman Khan?

    Seriously, that site is amazing.

    • Ensign Perception said:

      Ooh I can’t believe I didn’t mention Open Yale: http://oyc.yale.edu/

      AMAZING audio and video of really cool courses! I recommend David Blight’s “The Civil War and Reconstruction Era” but then again I have… weirdly become a CW junkie lately due to reading Frederick Douglass? So I may be biased here.

      • LSG said:

        Seconded! Everyone should immediately go watch David Blight’s course! Then go read all Ta-Nehisi Coates blog posts on the Civil War.

        If, you know, everyone is at all interested in the Civil War.

  10. xenu01 said:

    As someone who has always worked lower-level admin jobs, I am a freaking PRO at staying busy, since yeah- if you don’t find something to occupy yourself with, someone will. One of my tricks is to leave my desk a lot- do you interact with coworkers over email quite a bit? Walk over and talk to them in person every now and then- it takes up time. Is the fax machine in your office/do you have one? When you are in a slow period, check faxes and redistribute them. Get some antiseptic wipes and lift things off your desk to clean them/wipe down your phone. Also a time-waster, and if you get asked about it, just tell people you read that germs tend to be all over your desk area (http://articles.cnn.com/2004-12-13/health/cold.flu.desk_1_desks-flu-season-germs?_s=PM:HEALTH) and since you just got sick and wish to not get sick again/don’t wish to get sick, you’re being extra-careful about things you touch a lot.

    Another thing that might help you is to be proactive about the general office load- if you have a friendly co-worker or two who are overloaded when you are not, see if they need help on their stuff. This last thing will not only help you to stay busy, but it will help you to build relationships and to give you leave to ask for help when you yourself are overloaded.

  11. Does your company offer any kind of not-quite-work-related things, like classes, off-site events, or training sequences? I know that might sound a little boring in theory, but sometimes companies that pay you well to do tedious things also allow you to do non-tedious things as part of a work-life-enrichment thingy. When I worked at A Major Online Retailer, for instance, I saw many guest speakers who were sort of half-relevant to my job but interesting, and I took an intensive CPR/first-aid course in the guise of being the fire monitor for my area of the cube farm. It didn’t change what my actual job was like, but it did shake up the routine in an enjoyable and not “oh god is someone going to catch me reading about Kris Kross on Wikipedia” way.

    • xenu01 said:

      This is excellent advice! If I ever manage to net myself a job that doesn’t require me to be always at my desk/podium/station, I will totally look into this. Also on my list: being able to listen to music at work which isn’t the same cd cycled over and over on the sound system.

  12. Have you talked to your boss or any member of the company about long term projects you could help out with? I’m talking about things that don’t really need to get done but stuff that would be really “nice to have.” Documenting processes is a great one, sometimes things need to be written down. Cleaning up old documentation? Making a wiki? Making a training program? Vetting new potential vendors?

    Depending on the size of your company some times there are long term things that need to get done, but no one does them because it isn’t really their job. But man it would be great if that stuff got done. This is also the reason that companies need to have people who aren’t busy all the time. They need people to be able to think about complex problems that have nothing to do with their day to day tasks. When everyone is drowning in work there is no one looking forward to how to make the company better.

    If you really don’t want to look for another job, talk to your supervisor about some long term nice to have projects they might have on the back burner. You’re looking for stuff that has no deadline, or a really long timeline so that when you do get busy you can sideline it. You can even look for writing specific projects.

    I’ve been on a bunch of long term projects and committees. These are always the projects that have given me the most fulfillment at my job, stuff that makes a difference and isn’t a day to day task.

    That said, if you are really unhappy the best time to look for a new job is when you have one. And being unhappy in your job can really negatively affect your performance. So I would also keep your options open. LinkedIn has been a great resource for me in that respect.

  13. secretrebel said:

    Just a quick comment to say you can learn a foreign language on the internet. If I had the time (my job is slammed all the time right now after a year of thumb twiddling) that’s what I’d do.

    • Where can one go to do this?

  14. Lucy Looseleaf said:

    Do you like to bake? I had some Dark Times at work a few years ago and I started bringing in homemade baked goods every other week or so. But, instead of leaving them in the break room I brought them around to everyone’s office. It got me away from my desk for an hour or more, I had entertaining small talk and made people happy, and who’s going to get mad at me for leaving my desk when OMG HOMEMADE COOKIES!!!

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