Dealing with brain-numbing boredom
February 17, 2005 8:29 AM   Subscribe

How to deal with sitting in a small cubicle during assigned (non-flexible) hours, with extremely boring work to do (or no work to do), with no web access?

Like many technology workers, I got laid off when the bubble burst and spent a couple of years free-lancing and underemployed. Got a long-term contract with a semiconductor company. Need the money. But the job is very different from the usual software company job: no flex time, extremely boring work (no kidding), big emphasis on "being there looking busy" as opposed to "getting a lot of cool stuff done," lots of time with no stimulation, and web surfing seriously frowned on. I would like to work this job for six months or so just to stabilize my finances. Any tips on standing the excruciating boredom, conformity, and enforced sitting-in-cubicle-doing-boring-stuff? Surely someone must have solved this problem. Thanks.
posted by lustra to Work & Money (32 answers total)
Could you listen to books on tape/cd?
posted by Hillman Cobs at 8:36 AM on February 17, 2005

Can you write? Or would they frown on you not staring aimlessly at the computer? Because really you could just pick up a paper and pencil and write away, dreams, stories, journalling, the conversations going on around you. It's what I do when I'm stuck in meetings. It looks like I'm taking notes, but really I'm just writing down all the totally and utterly inane things they say.
posted by jodic at 8:37 AM on February 17, 2005

A useful skill I once learned in a similar job was how to sleep while looking busy. The trick is to sleep while sitting upright, looking at papers held in your hand -- if you start to fall into a deep sleep the papers will fall & snap you back awake. I could zone out for hours that way, which had the side-effect of leaving me nice and wakeful after work.
posted by aramaic at 8:49 AM on February 17, 2005

Working at a hardware store in high school (which was actually a pretty sweet job) I'd be loading bricks in someone's car and I'd do the math in my head $5.50 an much a second...$0.02 per brick. I'm bad enough at math that that was somewhat distracting.

Buy an iPod, tell them working in the cube is too distracting and it helps you to focus on your work.

Exercise and B vitamins will help you deal with stress.
posted by deanj at 8:52 AM on February 17, 2005

I second the writing. Use this time to express yourself on paper; figure out what really goes on in that head of yours and run with it. Try to use your imagination to the fullest. Most people I talk to never have time to themselves because work, family, and life just gets so busy. Take advantage of the time; you might land a spectacular job in six months and never have time off again.
posted by BlueTrain at 8:56 AM on February 17, 2005

One word: Gameboy.
posted by adampsyche at 9:03 AM on February 17, 2005

I third the writing idea.

The less busy you are, and the more you think about how your life is just draining away as you sit in that cube under fluorescent bulbs, the worse it gets. Speaking from experience there. Break your day into chunks of productivity. Stay busy with your work when you have to do it and try to really focus on it however mind numbing(music may help you there), and when you are not working on work stuff, stay busy too. Clock watching is excruciating - work towards some goals with your diversion and you might come out in 6 months having gained something beyond financial stability.
posted by brheavy at 9:05 AM on February 17, 2005

I am not joking: Andrew Weil's cd on breathing is awesome. Learn those yoga/meditative breaths. Read "everyday zen". Also, start learning from one of those "rapid math tricks" books and turn yourself into a freakish math savant, or some other related skill. Just a few ideas. The yoga breathing is great while driving too, btw.
posted by mecran01 at 9:13 AM on February 17, 2005

I fourth the writing idea, but with a modification. Depending on your temperment, you might find that free writing or journal keeping is hard to sustain day after day. (I know it would be for me.) If so, consider giving yourself a very specific goal--EG, writing a novel or a screenplay or your memoirs. Give yourself a very specific target of how many words or pages you will write a day. Your initial goal might be unrealistic, but after a few days, you will get a sense of how much you can expect to turn out, and soon you will probably find your output increasing. Don't worry about producing something publishable (or producable, if it's a screenplay)--just look at this as a way of increasing your appreciation of literature/film/pornographic prose/whatever. If you happen to produce something you can publish, that's a bonus.

Another possibility is to find a coworker who is similarly bored and figure out games you can play with them without people noticing.

Also, if websurfing is frowned upon, you can think about things you can do in short burst. EG, start blogging, but compose your entries offline, and just cut-and-paste them into your browser.
posted by yankeefog at 9:43 AM on February 17, 2005

one idea
posted by amtho at 9:57 AM on February 17, 2005

I used to convert things I wanted to read to raw text files the night before. Surfing the web looks lazy, but reading a raw text file looks important. Though I guess it depends on the kind of work you do.

I also IM with Trillian using the transparency option - so it just looks like part of my desktop.
posted by monkeystronghold at 10:35 AM on February 17, 2005

I also agree on the writing idea.

I've also been known to do the crossword puzzle in the newspaper. You can cut it out and put it on top of a stack of papers or whatever so you don't look like you're blatantly reading the paper.
posted by SisterHavana at 10:42 AM on February 17, 2005

or no work to do

If there are any promotional (or even transfer) opportunities (and yes, you're not interested in staying with the company, in all probability), you could legitimately be studying whatever would help make you a better candidate for a promotion (or transfer). You might read manuals, or get training materials from someone already in such a position, or just find stuff on the web of relevance.

Also - is there any chance that the work that you do could be more automated (as in, less boring, and requiring less human intervention)? If there is (and usually boring work means good automation possibilities), is that something you would have the skills to help with? If so, perhaps you could interest a supervisor (or manager) in your working on that possibility (pilot project), perhaps with IS support?
posted by WestCoaster at 10:45 AM on February 17, 2005

Or if you're not interested in self-improvement, may I recommend Nethack?
posted by neckro23 at 10:58 AM on February 17, 2005

I have the same type of job as you, and man, if I didn't have internet access.... As a last resort I'd install games that I liked and could play in silence, but if that failed.. I'd seriously have to think about quitting.
posted by eas98 at 11:44 AM on February 17, 2005

You could take up a hobby that thrives with extended periods of thinking about it. Philosophy might be one example - though you'll need to be of the right temperament to fully engage with the material, or else it might drive you just as insane as the job already does. Also, I understand that many famous poets had fairly prosaic day jobs - I wonder if they were in a similar situation? I know that the current poet laureate was an insurance executive.
posted by advil at 11:52 AM on February 17, 2005

Similar to monkeystronghold's idea, can you get some ebooks to read? There are lots of ebooks in the public domain or check out Baen Books for newer (but still copyrighted) stuff.

Also, how much do they frown on web surfing? If they're concerned enough that they're monitoring your net traffic, then IM or such is probably a bad idea--nevermind how the programs on your screen look.
posted by Jim Jones at 12:11 PM on February 17, 2005

To help fill the slow days, I've burned the entire This American Life archives.
posted by glibhamdreck at 12:18 PM on February 17, 2005

This wouldn't work for everyone, but programming used to work for me. This was back when I still knew Pascal, but I would think of a problem to solve and then try to code it. If the problem is complex enough, it could solve your boredom problems for a long time. That is, if you really enjoy programming.

Also, if you're trying to solve a work related problem, you could even do it openly.
posted by Penks at 12:36 PM on February 17, 2005

I know that the emphasis is on looking busy rather than on "getting a lot of cool stuff done," but maybe you can look for ways to get stuff done anyway. Surely they can't be upset if you say, "Well I got done with my paperwork early, so I decided to reorganize the library, start a mailing-list about the Motorola chip, and write this program to make us 30% more productive." You can even throw the word "proactive" in there.
posted by callmejay at 12:50 PM on February 17, 2005

callmejay: I used to do stuff like that when I had a student job answering phone calls for an admissions office. I understand the other students just did their homework.
posted by grouse at 1:36 PM on February 17, 2005

Get up every hour and take a quick 2 minute walk. They shouldn't have a problem with that on health grounds.
posted by goethean at 2:16 PM on February 17, 2005

I wrote significant portions of my late-20th-century Web output while working office-lady jobs. (It helped to have an old Macintosh that could read Windows floppy discs. Remember those?) I distinctly recall the veal-fattening pen and cheap-arse IBM PS/2 on which I deconstructed "You've Got Blog."

I was always more efficient than everyone else in the building and I typed 90 wpm, so I could do X units of work and 3X units of writing and still finish before they expected me to.

The kink in that plan today is the lack of removable-rewritable storage on typical computers. In theory you could save your work on the computer's hard drive, which, in practice, few people would ever find. Or just handwrite, archaic as it seems.
posted by joeclark at 2:33 PM on February 17, 2005

aramaic's idea worked well for me in a job like this. I personally did it without the papers. My chair had a short back and I would lean back in it. When I fell asleep, my head would fall back and I'd wake up.

The only problem I found was that if you get yourself this tired you'll be waking up and falling asleep like 20 times an hour, so you look really, really, really odd.

joeclark, might I reccomend a USB key? :-)
posted by shepd at 2:40 PM on February 17, 2005

I get books from IRC and keep them on a USB key (though they'd fit on a floppy easily). Text files look like work. This year I've read a stack of Heinlein, everything Bill Bryson and Douglas Adams ever wrote and a heap of classics (everything from 1984 to The Magic Pudding). I knew a guy who printed chapters of books and slipped them in the two-ring binders used to store his work manuals - a quick flick and you've gone from Starship Troopers to your TPS report.

I also like Sudoku puzzles and play Nethack occasionally.

My desk sleeping technique is to push my keyboard slightly forward, put a stack of papers in front of me, overlap my fingers in the centre of my forehead with my thumbs along the side of my head, then rest my head on my elbows. It looks like I'm seriously studying whatever's in front of me. My hands cover my eyes like a tennis visor, and it's very comfortable - even if you fall asleep, you won't fall. When somebody comes over, and I look a bit groggy, I simply stretch, yawn, rub my eyes, comment that I've been looking at this stuff for too long and need some fresh air.

Bring brownies to work. Nobody minds if everybody's standing around chatting for 15 minutes if they're all eating brownies.

Teach yourself origami using office stationery. Write depressing haiku about your situation on each page before folding.

Learn a foreign language with a book or audio.

Get a heap of pen friends. Write them long, depressing letters.

Write applications for another job!
posted by obiwanwasabi at 4:02 PM on February 17, 2005

My wife (who has had plenty of jobs like this) suggest clambaking in your car during breaks.
posted by Emanuel at 4:06 PM on February 17, 2005

Surprised no one's mentioned the idea of - gasp! - talking to your boss about the situation. Is s/he a complete moron? If not, then you might want to spend your downtime working out a thoughtful way to raise the subject of wasteful work rules with the folks above you in the company.
posted by mediareport at 6:47 PM on February 17, 2005

That's crazy talk.
posted by NortonDC at 6:54 PM on February 17, 2005

Since you are at a semiconductor company, they would probably not mind you educating yourself on semiconductors in general. You would (possibly) get better at your job and learn concepts that could (possibly) be useful elsewhere. Or, you could discover the fascinating world of semiconductors, get a more interesting job in the field and be happy every after.

May I suggest Robert Pierret's Semiconductor Device Fundamentals to begin with...

Well, if you are not into becoming a self-taught semiconductors geek, then I second the talking to you boss idea. Good luck!
posted by copperbleu at 7:11 PM on February 17, 2005

I was in a very similar situation when I was an unpaid trainee/intern a few months ago. I accomplished tasks asked of me far faster than my bosses could think up new ones. They were VERY lax with me since I was a student and not a regular employee but the computer they assigned to me was hooked up to a faulty Internet port - so, though it wasn't forbidden, I didn't have 'net access a lot of the time. As if that wasn't hellish enough, I couldn't listen to music either! I loved the training when I was actively being trained, but idle time without tools for idling is hell. :)

On my downtime I:
- worked on my resume
- wrote journal-like entries and letters I never planned to send
- brushed up on homework and other academic projects
- read books (real ones, fiction) and work-related magazines
- frequented the water cooler
- (probably as a direct result) took a lot of trips to the bathroom
- poked around the office, exploring stuff
- rearranged/organized things, just for the heck of it
- talked shop with some senior supervisors I wanted to learn things from, if they didn't look too busy
- asked testers/tech people if I could watch them work (they usually let me, and made awkward small talk in between)
- pestered my bosses for more stuff to do
I don't know how much of this you can apply to your situation, lustra, but good luck - and my sympathies!
posted by Lush at 8:13 PM on February 17, 2005

That's crazy talk.

Only if lustra's boss is a complete moron, and lustra her/himself is completely unimaginative.

Goddamn, the passivity of some people in the workplace is amazing.
posted by mediareport at 10:04 PM on February 17, 2005

Response by poster: I doubt that anyone is still following this link, but thanks to everyone who chimed in. Your comments really did help. But I decided to quit the job, and announced my resignation today. Life is short, just couldn't stand the boredom and sense of extreme uselessness the job involved. Am now moving on to do something really fun, I hope, as my question today indicates.
posted by lustra at 12:18 PM on March 1, 2005

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