Nothing to Do
I promised way back when I started the Job Experience series that there would be boredom in my future.
Well, it’s arrived.
Up until now, I’d worked at what could best be described as a breakneck pace. I went in to work early, frequently stayed late, went to meetings during lunch hours, cranked on stretch goals in the evenings, responded to after-hours calls, and contributed to projects that could only be implemented on weekends.
But once StartupVille lays off most of the sales division and begins to focus exclusively on the sale of the company, my work slows to a trickle.
To be fair to myself, I should report that there’s still work to do in the form of tickets and problems that our current customer base opens. StartupVille’s software product remained fundamentally sound, and our users continued to bang away at it, occasionally requiring help when they run into bugs or wanted to do some outside-of-the-box style configuration under the explicit guidance of their vendor.
Still, this work only takes perhaps fifteen or twenty hours a week on average. And averages being what they are, this means that some weeks are completely full — forty hours a week of support work — while others are dead. D-E-A-D, I tell you.
This means, for the first time in my life, I have weeks where I go into the office, sit at my desk, check my email, realize I have nothing to do, and then dazedly walk around the building wondering why I bothered to come in that day.
In Year 9, I fought against this idleness. On the slower days, I’d go talk to my manager and ask for extra tasks. Sometimes he’d ask me to help the QA team look into an issue, or talk to an engineer about some enhancement they were working on. I even set up my own development environment and made some additions of my own to the product.
But over time, I stopped coming up with my own stretch goals. It wasn’t because I was bored working on them — there was more to it than that. Instead, I had a pervasive sense that any and all work I make up to do on my own is purposeless and utterly without meaning. I felt something along the lines of: Why bother trying to improve the product at this point? Either our executive team is going to manage to sell StartupVille or they’re not. There’s no real impact or value to anything I do outside of taking care of the current customer base.
I started to notice something, too. When I walked around the office, most people had browser windows open on their computers. And the sites they were viewing were not work related at all. It was a mixture of mainstream news sites, sports reporting, fark, reddit, and youtube. A few people were watching full movies — netflix had recently started their streaming service. To further waste time, lunches were expanded to fill two hours.
By Year 10, I had joined them in learning how to waste time at work.
It might be the quickest thing to pick up I’ve ever learned. Within a week, I was a pro.
Like I said, by the middle of that year, I’d been doing very little at the office for months. In the process, I learned something important about myself.
I don’t need work at all to make me happy.
I’d always suspected it, but here was the proof: I was happier during the weeks when I had nothing to do as compared to the weeks that I had a reasonable thirty or thirty five hours of work. Hell, I was happier doing nothing than I was even working for just an hour a day.
Some people are going to read that and think that I’m lazy, or I just didn’t sufficiently believe in The Cause of StartupVille to derive satisfaction from my work. Satisfaction would result in happiness, these types of folks are sure to argue. I should have looked for a place I believed in, so I could support their mission, which would make my drive return.
Or maybe I hate what I do. (I don’t, but it’d be reasonable for folks to conclude this, given much of the content of this blog.) If you hate what you do, then of course you want to avoid it at all costs. But if you like it, then it stands to reason that you should want to do some of that function every day. (Wrong again. I don’t find computer related tasks inherently unpleasant. Sometimes they’re even interesting, and they certainly make time go by faster. Still, I felt no particular drive to do work if I didn’t have to.)
Look, I know that for a lot of people, finding a cause you believe in is sufficient motivation to work. This is how things work internally for a lot of people, but for better or worse, it doesn’t appear to be how I’m wired. I’m not sure I believe in any so-called causes other than personal freedom and being loving and respectful of others and the environment. Personally, I found plenty of satisfaction to be had in life from spending time with my girlfriend, working on my house, cooking a good dinner, exercising hard, and being social with coworkers/family/friends. Work just seemed to complicate my pursuit of genuine life satisfaction.
On a related note, not having any real work to do not only didn’t negatively impact me but also resulted in an increase in energy outside of work.
During the day, I’d think about what cool stuff I could do when I got home, and looked forward to it. Prior to this period of office malaise, my evening dreams were simpler: dinner, an hour of television, a video game, maybe some reading.
But now, I’d step into my house every night at five twenty or so, practically bouncing off walls from the amount of juice left — and it wasn’t just physical energy, it was mental. I wanted to start big projects and go out to see shows or people watch or hit a local museum, whatever. During this period of time I started to practice guitar in earnest, consistently building up speed and accuracy while simultaneously learning music theory.
I also started bringing books into the office. There were a few unused offices toward the back of our facility and I could sneak into one of them and read for twenty minutes, a couple of times a day.
Occasionally I felt like I was stealing from the company by not giving it my all, but on the other hand I realized that I was doing a reasonably good job by simply not quitting, showing up for work every day, and staying optimistic i.e. buttressing team morale.
To this day, it’s a little difficult for me to understand people who say that they need more to do at work because they can’t stand being bored. Be creative. Find new ways to deploy your time in ways that work to your advantage. Learn a new skill or do some reading or go chat it up with someone you haven’t talked to in a while and see what they’re up to, or heck, do nothing at all. (Doing nothing is criminally underrated, IMO.)
This train of thought leads me to ask an honest question to folks: Is boredom really so bad that you’d prefer to work instead?
I feel almost ashamed to admit these sorts of things about myself because, like all good office-workers, I’ve been conditioned to reflexively tell people that I like working hard and challenges and commitment.
But those reflexive answers don’t change my personal truth. Privately, I’ll take boredom over work every single time.
Getting a taste of a significantly reduced workload is whetting my appetite for never having to work again.
I know that all I need to do is a) keep my spending rate down b) continue to sock away money in the market c) stay the course in terms of asset allocations and index investments and d) be patient, i.e. wait the years out.
But the years are taking forever. There are days when I go into the office thinking: Really? I have to do this shit again? And again the next day? And then the next one after that, to close out the week, followed by another week of the same, and another year, followed by another year, and so on?
I know this is whiny, and a total first world problem. And I know that I have it (life) so very good at this point. I mean, I don’t work that hard, I’m paid a good salary, and I have virtually no conflict in the office. It’s a cupcake job — the sort of thing people dream about. And still, on a day to day basis, I found myself hoping to be rid of employment altogether.
The only solution for this I found was to distract myself — to intentionally find something else to do so that I didn’t focus consciously on the boredom.
Because after all, boredom at StartupVille was infinitely better than the alternatives. I had recent examples at Software+FinancialCompanies which served as constant reminders.
Still, there were days when I considered just walking out of the office and saying goodbye to everything. Not surprisingly, these urges increased when the weather was nice and I caught myself thinking about laying on the grass and losing track of time altogether as the hours washed over me.