Been There, Done That: How to Endure Your Crappy Day Job

M. Paramita Lin and Doretta Lau on workplace survival skills

Photo by James Pond on Unsplash

We at The Unpublishables have been through our fair share of terrible day jobs, especially when we were much younger and thus had less options. Incidentally, an older person once told M. Paramita Lin that the worst times to find jobs are when you’re in your early twenties and in your mid-forties. Basically, once you hit your forties, you’d better make sure you’re at a job that you can stay with until you retire. Frightening for so many reasons, isn’t it?

For those of us who still have to endure awful clients or colleagues or managers, we thought it would be good to drop some hard-earned knowledge on how to get through the days when you have other dreams for yourself.


Have a plan

In “Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption”, Andy Dufresne endures twenty-eight years of incarceration without succumbing to depression or worse, and a lot of that resilience is due to his plan to escape and his dream of living the rest of his life in a beautiful beach town in Mexico.

Day jobs often feel like a prison sentence too, and we endure them for our survival. But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t make plans to get out and live well eventually. This really should be an entire post in itself, but while it’s fine to start off with fantastical daydreams, at one point, you should start thinking realistically about how to escape. Dreams aren’t plans: plans are strategies that require action and most likely changes in behaviour in order to have a payoff.

Make small plans at first: learn a new skill, turn a hobby into an income-earner, just do something that can provide some kind of alternative source of income. We’ll spare you the Marxist rant, but considering that the future of work looks like we’re going to end up having to earn income from different areas in order to feed, clothe, and shelter ourselves, it’s better to cover your ass by having different skillsets.

The Wu-Tang Clan said that we should diversify our portfolios when we invest, and in a lot of ways, that applies with your own portfolio of skills. Diversify so that if one area goes through a slump, at least you’ve got something else to count on.

One of our friends left his job in the music industry almost two years ago, and since then, he’s been taking lessons in photography and financial planning while still doing consulting work for musicians. If there’s anything he says he regrets, it’s that he hadn’t started taking these lessons sooner, while he was still working. He would’ve been able to face walking into the office six days a week much more easily.

Set boundaries with people

Happy offices are all alike; every unhappy office is unhappy in its own way (apologies to Tolstoy). While this may be true, every unhappy office has one thing in common: toxic colleagues. They may be the insecure boss who needlessly berates you in order to feel like things are under control or the bitter officemate who has let their work consume their life so much that they’ve lost their identity and thus resents anyone who has a semblance of happiness and joy in their own lives.  

It doesn’t matter how sorry you feel for them: keep them at arm’s length. There’s a difference between the colleague who gives you the “I know, right?” look whenever shenanigans ensue at work and is happy to share some delicious tea, and the colleague who complains about work all the time to the exclusion of anything else.

For the sake of office politics, we’re not saying you should ignore these toxic people, but be firm about how much time and attention you can give them. Head them off before they drag you down a complain spiral: “Sounds like you’ve got a lot of problems. I’ve got to clean poop off my shoes, but here’s the number to a therapist that you might find helpful.”

If you’re on the receiving end of unjustified scoldings, don’t get defensive and pick a fight: do you really want to waste your time getting into an argument over a job that you don’t even like? Stay calm, use logic and evidence to back yourself up, learn when to walk away, and let this galvanize you to push through with your plans.

Eat a real lunch

Don’t eat at your desk. As much as possible, don’t even eat at your work kitchen or whatever designated area. Get the hell out of there, even if it means going to a mall. Basking in the fumes of late-stage capitalism is still better than taking nourishment in a place designed to sap you of every ounce of humanity.

Food is one of the few pleasures that is common to every living creature–so use it to add joy to your life. By this, we’re not encouraging you to eat unhealthily or to suddenly change your diet (unless you want to), but rather, eat with care and appreciation. Savour every bite and sensation. Small things like this make a difference, and appreciating the little joys you have will give you the resilience not to throw a monitor at someone’s face.

You are not your work

Ever hear the phrase work to live, don’t live to work? You work in order to live. It is important that you don’t mistake work for your own identity. For the best advice on this topic, read this essay “The Work You Do, the Person You Are” by Toni Morrison. Her key points:

  1. Whatever the work is, do it well—not for the boss but for yourself.

  2. You make the job; it doesn’t make you.

  3. Your real life is with us, your family.

  4. You are not the work you do; you are the person you are.

Stick to the schedule

If your office is disorganized and toxic, you may be tempted to roll in late and stay late because you feel owed and this is a small way to take control. While this is a tempting route to take (sleeping in, yay), it can only end with more justifications for your own poor behaviour and indignation for injustices real and perceived. This then has an impact on your working relationships and in the long run on your own morale.

If you’re not a morning person, try to negotiate a later start time. This way, no one can hold tardiness against you in a performance review. If you find that you arrive on time and have to consistently stay late, you may need to have a conversation with your supervisor about the workload or you need to ask yourself whether you must to reassess your approach to work. Many perfectionists spend too much time on tasks that do not contribute directly to the big picture. No one is going to thank you for going above and beyond and working extra hours unless there are measurable and very visible results. Arrive on time and leave on time. Go and enjoy your life and remember: whatever happens at the office, stays at the office. Don’t take your work home with you.

Manage your energy, not your time

We’ve all heard about the magic of countries like Denmark, where there are offices with five-hour workdays and many weeks of vacation. People are able to get home to cook dinner and eat with loved ones. Somehow, everyone in these jobs still manage to deliver quality work. So the lesson is this: it’s not about how much time you put into your work, it’s about the attention you’re able to devote. In order to do this, you have to manage your energy, not your time. You want to bring your best self, not your sleep deprived malnourished self, to each moment of your day. Don’t let old ideas of assembly line factory production dictate how you approach work today; to succeed right now, you’ll need to embrace contemporary ideas and technologies to solve your present-day problems.

Once you’ve mastered this, you can start to arrange your day so that you give yourself time in the morning or during breaks at the office to engage with something you love, whether this be reading, writing, drawing, making music, exercising. You are a person, not a cog in the machine of industrial production. As we like to say here at The Unpublishables, wtf love yourself.

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