I’ve returned to the office after being off of work for three straight weeks.
It seemed important to test the waters of joblessness. Unlike most of my RE counterparts, I don’t have children to occupy my time and give me an automatic sense of purpose. It’s just me, my wife, and our extended families to keep us busy. The thought process goes like this: If I had any trouble whatsoever filling three weeks, how could I possibly expect to happily live out the rest of my life without (formal) work?
The one sentence summary: It went fine, and I don’t expect to have any issues living a life without a real job, given the data I’ve just collected.
Honestly, I’m surprised that I had any doubts to begin with. Still, the full story isn’t quite that simple. Let’s get into the details a little bit, shall we?
Unplugging from the Matrix
I didn’t once check email. I wasn’t called at all, even though I’m in an IT job which requires on-call and off-hours work. (I’m sure this was at least partially due to negotiating a full day of compensation time in the case that they did have to call me.) I went completely off network for twenty three straight days, from April 5th through April 27th. I also made no attempt to check in the night before returning to the office.
Many bloggers and corporate websites recommend silly things like reading all of your emails prior to returning to the office, showing up early the day you return, and, in short, being an insufferable workaholic that can’t exist without re-affirming ties to your job every several minutes no matter what.
Counter-suggestion: Unplug completely. It feels fantastic. If they really need to reach you, make them call. This is much more efficient than continually checking to see if you’re needed and you’ll be happier for it. Your job can live without you.
And you can live without your job.
Anatomy of a Day
My activities varied. If you’ve read the previous posts in this series, you have a good idea of where my time went. My only real concerns going into this experiment were that I might start sleeping too much or start sucking down too much media.
Answers: No and no. I woke up around seven most days and went to bed around 11. My average consumption of media any given day was about two hours, which is about where I want to be. I exercised for a couple of hours every day, did some home maintenance tasks, cooked, spent time with my wife, visited some extended family, saw friends and pursued hobbies.
It surprised me how different each day could be. One day I sat around the house reading. Another I went for a really long bike ride across several towns under a sky smeared with greasy looking clouds and a gusty wind blowing last year’s half-decayed leaves all around me. The next I’d be with the ‘ol family or catching up with a buddy. And so it goes.
Over the years, I’ve become so conditioned to live out the same day over and over again — a gray day, an office-type day — that variation and possibility seem out of the ordinary.
I want this variety to become normal.
The Night Before
Prior to leaving, I wondered how I’d feel the evening before returning. Specifically, I wondered if I’d be dreading the hell out of it like I usually do after having a week or two out of the office.
Well, it’s the night before right now, and I don’t feel great. Not scared. Not anxious. Not worried or fearful.
What I feel isn’t even the dread I anticipated.
Instead I’m simply disappointed. Everything has been just fine without work, thank-you very much, to the point that I’ve almost forgotten how shitty the relentless 5-day cycles of sameness are. Once I make it through the initial week back, I expect to regain full awareness of the pain.
Next Sunday, the dread will return. Of this, I’m certain.
The First Day Back
Woke up, did the office-prep routine: grooming and packing a lunch. I dropped my sweetie off at her public transit location so she could get into work, then drove myself to my own employer.
I don’t have a ridiculous commute. Quite the opposite — I’ve never lived further than 18 miles from work because having a long commute costs too much in both time and money. My current job is about 9 miles away.** Usually this takes me about 15 minutes, but today the roads were messier than usual and it took double that.
The slow pace of the drive gave me time to ponder the scene. All of these people were going somewhere — to a job, a school, a store — because they had to. Their schedule demanded it.
I looked at faces through windows. Expressions of utter blankness were fixed on most, making people look as though they were in a state of automobile-induced hibernation. Others appeared irritated, and a few were chatting away on cell phones. I counted just two smiles over the half-hour of ogling perhaps a hundred people. Apparently commuting isn’t something people enjoy much.
In the office I said hi to a few people and chatted with my manager. He welcomed me back and promptly scheduled a one on one for 2PM so we could catch up.
The remainder of the morning I sorted email, clearing out about 600 over three hours. By the time this was done, I had a decent stack of work to start into.
I went running over the lunch hour, scarfed down the food I brought into work, and then got caught in the hallway with one of The Undesirables. This is the label I give to small-minded co-workers that exist in every corporate prison I’ve ever been held captive.
Undesirable: Hey there, haven't seen you in a while, how goes it? Self: I'm good - how about you? Undesirable: Great, great. You following the Bruins? (Our local hockey team is in the playoffs, apparently.) Self: Not really - they doing well? Undesirable: Yeah, they made it to the second round. They're playing the Montreal Canadiens now. We better beat their asses. I hate those fucking Frenchies.
It’s at this point that I duck into a printer room as a pretense for ending our conversation. He clearly didn’t attend the company diversity meeting last quarter. Fucking undesirable, I muttered to myself while pretending to make a copy and kill a minute while he sauntered down the hallway.
In the afternoon, I got back to a few people for the most urgent stuff and decided everything else can wait until tomorrow. When I was a young livingafi, I sometimes worked later than normal on my first day back after a vacation because I felt so behind.
No more. The current version of me is much more reasonable about these things. I’m putting in my eight and hitting the gate. There’s nothing so urgent that it can’t wait.
Boredom and The Beast
So I mentioned I had a one on one with management. This wasn’t entirely unexpected. Management always wants to have a long talk with any employee who returns from a long absence. Control must be reasserted, the relationship of subordinate biped to dominant biped affirmed in our corporate animal kingdom.
A few things came out of it.
One: We have a new way to report our time against projects in our effort tracking system. KMN.
Two: We’re changing the structure of our team meetings to be more project-oriented and hold folks accountable for meeting goals and objectives.
Three: I have a new project.
My eyes are glazing over as he’s going on about this shit and I realize dimly that he’s actually excited about it, that the crap coming out of his mouth is making him frothy and lathered up. He’s either excited or stressed. Maybe both. The same shit that makes me feel bored and hopeless about work is getting my beast of a manager freaking tweaked.
I consider briefly telling him that I’m leaving the company just to see how he’d react. Then I’d retract it. Just kidding pal, you know I’m just having a laugh, I want to work here forever, just like you. The only thing that holds me back is that I don’t want to be a jerk like Undesirable. And I’m not ready to quit just yet — I haven’t yet downsized my house or filled in all of the gaps in my RE plan.
But sweet god it’s tempting.
To Infinity and Beyond
Looking toward the future, I’m imagining a countless number of weeks spent off of work. Given the 3-week off experiment, it looks pretty good.
I have the structure of good daily habits to provide a ground floor of activity, and I’m fortunate to have a loving wife and plenty of friends and family to keep me engaged socially. I’m interested in the world around me, enjoy learning new skills, and am sure that I’ll use the time available to do more than sit on a lawn chair drinking Bud Lite.
But I’m also aware that the three weeks off is not the same thing as taking off for good. To paraphrase Alice Cooper, it’s one thing for work to be out for summer, and another thing for work to be out forever.
So I’ve started to research why exactly some people mentally fail in retirement. (I don’t much care about reasons behind financial failure — I’ve got that pretty much covered and will be posting my strategy in the future.)
The common themes are:
- Lack of structure, interests, and hobbies
- Retiring with the intent of living a life of luxurious leisure 24/7 and quickly becoming bored and disappointed. The man who retires to play golf will fall into this category.
- Unrealistic expectations of how perfect a life without work will be
- Poor or declining health
- Loss of identity and purpose. This is most typical for careerists who devote themselves utterly to their profession for two decades or more. They retire and, after a brief period of happiness from having a lengthy vacation, get depressed because they no longer know what to do with themselves.
Just as important are people who are successful in early retirement. Guys like Mr. Money Mustache and jlcollinsnh do just fine because they have great families and social circles, hobbies — even major jobs once in a while.
I’ve come to the conclusion that most or all of the pitfalls don’t apply to me.
Heck, worst-case scenario, if I end up being bored after six months, that’s perfectly fine. If I discover that I suddenly need 20 or 30 hours of work, I’ll start looking into it. I could volunteer and be productive in ways that don’t tie me to a cubicle. I’ve always been adaptable and I will shift behavior to accommodate perceived needs as they arise.
Final Thoughts on the Experiment
Mentally I really am ready to quit. It doesn’t matter to me what the rest of my life is like. I feel absolutely no need to do what I’m doing. I have no drive to continue down this path.
My best male friend asked me this past weekend if I thought I was just bored at work and switching careers might help.
If the new job is tied to office life, then no. It’s true that I’m bored at work most of the time. But boredom isn’t the same as hate. I don’t hate what I do. I don’t hate the core function of programming or troubleshooting or architecting.
But I do hate everything else about it. I despise the quantity of work. I despise all of the additional business-y bullshit tied into the core function. Team meetings, effort reporting, paperwork. The tightly regulated schedules that feel like shackles on my life. I could write an entire Litany of Office Hate that captures everything I dislike about work. And there’s no escaping the office bullshit that comes along with just about every job in the modern knowledge-worker world. I’ve had five of them and it’s all the same: Intolerable. I don’t know how I’ve put up with it for as long as I have.
So yeah. I could switch careers into a different core function that excites me for a while. And it probably would be better for a short period of time. The excitement of the work would help to take the edge off of the painful crap that comes part and parcel.
But that period will be short. Ironically, it will be even shorter because of one of the things I hate about office life: specialization. I am forced to be a deep expert in a small area and repeat this core function ad nauseam. The way that office workers’ lives are inherently structured absolutely ensures that I will, in short order, be completely bored with my function again within a few tiny years. Hardly worth the time and expense of switching careers for, don’t you think?
So no — No, no, no. I will not get another office job in another career. I will not work in another office ever again. Period. The structure of office life would need to be completely revamped in order to make me consider it for even one second. Because as it stands right now, the model is overwhelmingly broken.
Being off for three weeks has done absolutely nothing to change how I feel about any of this. When you look at the same thing all day every day, the details and issues become obscured, sort of like the way that you stop noticing the discoloration on the arm of your sofa after a couple of months. So if anything, the time away has enabled me to see those problems more clearly than before.
And it’s a lot more than the arm of this particular sofa that’s discolored. It looks like a couple of pets had accidents all over it.
I no longer want to sit on it.
Part 2 <<
** I don’t bike to work. Many frugal people do, and it’s highly encouraged if you like biking and want to optimize your life and expenses as aggressively as possible. I would consider it more seriously if we had decent bike routes in the area. It sounds like I’m making excuses, and I suppose that I am, but there are only two routes into my employer and both have suicide-run style narrow streets with no bike lanes whatsoever, all packed with aggressive east coast drivers. People get hit all of the time and I don’t want to be one of them.