The Perils Of Office Jobs


Joshua Mitchell / September 02, 2020

7 min read

typical office

Photo by Christopher Gower on Unsplash

I had a serious case of the Mondays today (08/31/2020), so I figured I’d write about why I dislike 9-5 office jobs, how I’m coping with it, and what a better future might look like.

Why I Dislike Working a Regular Job#

Five reasons: calendar entropy, the on-call nature of the work day, separation from the real world, incentive for dishonesty, and lack of freedom.

  1. Calendar entropy

I prefer long blocks of time to concentrate. Unfortunately, there are only two ways for that to happen on a work day: having all your meetings in the morning, or all in the afternoon. Most of the time, it doesn’t work that way (see: entropy).

This is bad (for me) for 2 reasons:

  • Like Paul Graham said in Maker's Schedule, Manager's Schedule, it takes time to get in the zone. The shorter each block of time to work, the larger percentage of time getting started, and the less total time spent moving the needle.
  • Getting into the zone is less enjoyable than being in the zone. If most of the time is spent getting in the zone, then the activity is overall less enjoyable. If it’s less enjoyable, then that also makes it harder to get started later.
  1. On-call nature

You can get away with ignoring some emails and set up sophisticated filters for others but, at the end of the day, your inbox is a to-do list you don’t control. It’s also dynamic, which means you have to keep an eye on it.

In that sense, I am on-call. Thus, I have a baseline level of anxiety that I'll be pulled out of the zone (or miss an email and irritate someone). That anxiety is heightened by that stupid red dot on the chat icon that never goes away, no matter how many times you check it.

  1. Separation from the real world

Businesses, in order to make a profit, have to be efficient. Hence, each part of the business (particularly each employee) tends towards specialization. The chaos of reality is subdued by categories and protocols. Unless you're at the front lines (e.g. as a sales person or customer service), only a few nitty-gritty pieces of “the real world” make it down the pipeline to you. It’s easy to forget that the customers even exist. Working like this feels sterile - like filling out a form at the DMV.

This is, selfishly, why I don't like donating money to charities. I'm too detached from the process and outcome. It feels like I'm just tossing money into a black hole.

  1. General lack of ability to be honest

If I'm asked how I'm doing during a meeting, I can't just say

Not bad. Just waiting for this workday to be over so I can go back to enjoying my freedom and waiting for the day when I'm financially independent so I don't have to be here. Yourself?

I have to say

Not bad. Yourself?

That is what I think about literally every time I'm at work, but I can't say that because it will eventually lead to me getting fired for "lack of culture fit".

  1. General lack of freedom

This is probably an area where I will get no sympathy, which I accept gracefully since I'm not asking for it - just ranting.

That being said: it sucks that, at any given time during the work day, I'm usually doing something I don't want to do.

Obviously I'm being paid, provided health insurance, etc, in exchange for doing this set of things I don't want to do - that's definitely nice. It just sucks that I have to spend 40 hours a week in a state where I have to make myself do things.

It wouldn't be so bad if it weren't compounded by the fact that I get so little vacation days. I could totally make myself do things for a few weeks if I got a week break afterward. But, employers don't like that kind of inconsistency. They want you showing up every day, as much as possible, to do their bidding - like a good little drone.

How I’m Coping#

The company environment and processes are difficult for a person at the bottom of the totem pole (i.e. me) to influence, but it's important to note that they're not the problem per se. There is really one core problem: getting past the emotional friction (from the reasons earlier) in order to actually start.

I've found that a workaround solution is simply removing AS MUCH ambiguity as possible. For any task that I am assigned, I try to make sure I don't walk away without knowing two things:

  1. What is brain-dead step 1? When I say brain-dead, I want to be able to accomplish the task absolutely wasted drunk. For example, "start reading ABC documentation" is not specific enough. I need something like

    • open up the Chrome browser
    • go to X URL
    • press Y menu button
    • click Z option

If I'm fighting lots of psychological resistance, compliance is so much easier if the next step is blatantly obvious and only takes seconds.

  1. Where is the light at the end of the tunnel? The only thing worse than having trouble getting started is having trouble staying started. I might be able to accomplish the herculean task of getting started, but if I have to keep sustaining that same effort to stay there, I'm basically done for. I need to achieve some degree of flow, and that involves culling ambiguity that could roadblock me.

A Long Term Solution#

Here is an attempt to enumerate my wish list:

  • Long periods of uninterrupted time to think.
  • Communication with other people (e.g. stakeholders) is predictable and batched.
  • A visceral intimacy with my domain (i.e. proximity to “the real world”).

By that last bullet, I mean a deep and comprehensive understanding that comes from close attunement and having skin in the game.

The archetype I'm imagining is a scientist who studies volcanoes. Every once in a while, they take a trip to a volcano to observe it first hand - literally feeling it beneath their feet. However, they don't actually set up their office there, where the scientist is subject to eruptions and other agents of disorder. They go back to their lab, shut the door, and go heads-down examining samples, running simulations, doing math, etc.

An obvious question: Why not become a scientist?

I've thought about it, but my biggest problem is that, based on past experience, I don't think it's a good idea for me to commit to spending 4-6 years thinking about 1 thing (i.e. a PhD). I have lots of unfinished projects that I abandoned. Interest was high at first, but waned. Simultaneously, my interest in something else increased, so I jumped ship. Rinse-and-repeat.

I've tried making myself stay on one path, but it never stuck long term. I've found that it's far more productive for me to do lots of successive short-term projects - for example, blog posts like this one or JIRA tickets as an engineer.

In any case, my hypothesis right now is that I’d be most happy providing value to the world by creating content based on whatever has my attention at that time. For example, if I’m currently entransed by Chapter 13 of some math textbook, then maybe I could whip up a blog post explaining it. I could make it more attractive by adding interactive dials for user experimentation and/or some copy pertaining to why it’s important. I’m not sure I could make a living off that, though. Plus, I’m happy that I’m at least doing work that’s meaningful, even if it doesn't feel that way.

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