How do I not feel like my whole life revolves around my job?
May 21, 2011 11:40 AM   Subscribe

I'm up for several jobs that have slightly longer hours than I'm used to, and I'm getting bummed out by the idea of potentially being a slave to the job. How do I get over this and not feel like my whole life revolves around my job?

I hope this question doesn’t come out too petulant. When I was right out of school, I took a job that was 9-5 and paid what was (at the time) a fine salary. I left that job several years later, and when I was on the job market I found out that I was worth quite a bit more than what I was being paid.

Nearly all the positions I’ve gotten offers for have been longer hours - 9-6 or 9-7 or something. It’s becoming increasingly apparent to me that most people in my field don’t work 40 hour weeks anymore. The problem I’m having is an internal one: that I can’t get over the feeling that I’m going to be a slave to my job. Assuming a 45 minute commute in either direction, that means that I only have a few hours after work to do my own thing before I have to go to sleep and start the whole thing over again the next day. I guess I’m setting myself up for feeling miserable about any job I take with these sorts of hours.

So I guess what I’m asking you guys is this: how do I stop myself from feeling like I’m stuck in the rat race? How do I get over the feelings of loss of self and realize that it’s really not as bad as I’m making it out to be?

(Sorry if this question is really nebulous; if clarification is needed I'll try to answer.)
posted by gchucky to Work & Money (22 answers total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
I'm in your exact opposite shoes. I took a job straight out of college that was life-sucking, arrived at my desk (after a 45 minute commute) at 6:30 am and didn't leave until well after 7pm. Got home around 7:45 or 8pm and had to be in bed by 9ish to get enough sleep. This went on for almost two years.

I quit two weeks ago. I couldn't do it anymore. That may not be an option for you, but I think you're on the right track by recognizing the possibility that you may not be happy in this position.

Is it possible to negotiate with your employers about your hours? This is not something to take lightly and there's a very good possibility that you will be a slave to the job if you don't set your limits early.
posted by brynna at 11:50 AM on May 21, 2011 [2 favorites]

Straight 9 - 5 jobs tend to be lower level, more McJob type gigs with salaries that reflect that. Generally if you want to make more money in a "better" role with a more snazzy title and arena of responsibility, that comes with longer hours. Sometimes, it's a working yourself up thing and with a few more promotions, the hours drop back down again but that really varies by company.

But you don't have to do any of that. You can decide that for your work/life balance, less money for shorter hours and fewer promotion opportunities is a perfectly good trade-off. That's totally OK. You can also stay where you are, keep looking and hold out for a better offer with both more money and the same hours.
posted by DarlingBri at 11:57 AM on May 21, 2011 [3 favorites]

You pretty much have to be willing to drastically change your standards for quality-of-life to get out of the 9-6 workday. (9-6 is pretty standard in my experience, by the way, because it includes a one-hour lunch that's not considered "work".)

I've worked 9-6, 4-day-a-week 11pm-9am, 10-7 plus 24-7 on-call that worked out to 60 hours a week salaried, 40 hours plus four days of traveling every other month, and a variety of other things. What keeps me sane are the following:

- Setting some strict boundaries around "me time," especially including time to get some exercise that I will absolutely not give up more than once or twice in a month.

- Setting boundaries around the life factors that are most important to me. For me, this means staying in my current location, having time and creative energy for personal projects, having time to continue my hobbies, and not compromising any of my personal ethics for work.

- Keeping firmly in mind that all jobs are temporary, and that if I need to quit this one for my sanity I can and will.

- Living solidly below my means, putting money away, and knowing that I can scrape by on very little for a long time if I have to. (Buying the 450 square foot condo seemed nuts when I was making a good salary and they would have given me a loan for a place three times as big, but these days it's a tremendous relief to know that I don't have to take the highest-paid, most-soul-sucking job available to cover the mortgage.)

- Being totally, 100% willing to work low-stress jobs with crappy pay instead of high-stress jobs with great pay if that's what feels right to me. (This willingness, incidentally, led me to turn down a job that smelled like disaster and another that would have eaten my life and meant that I was able to accept the totally awesome job I have now.)

Figuring all of these things out will take a while. You'll probably make some choices that, in hindsight, you wish you hadn't. But if you keep your ideals in mind and keep your finances straight you'll be able to figure out where your priorities are and what you need to do to make your life look like what you want.
posted by restless_nomad at 11:59 AM on May 21, 2011 [8 favorites]

It's hard to understand the longer hours until you've experienced that. Personally, I don't think 9-6 is so terrible -- you might feel the same way, but the only way to learn that is to try it and see.
posted by J. Wilson at 11:59 AM on May 21, 2011

There's nothing to get over here; to some extent you really will be more of a slave to your job. I don't mean to deliver bad news, that's just kind of the trade off. Jobs are paying you for your time and energy and you only have a limited amount of both. The best you can do is try to find a job that you enjoy so the time commitment doesn't seem so bad.
posted by 2bucksplus at 12:05 PM on May 21, 2011

Response by poster: I should have clarified this: I left my most recent position after a few months because the work atmosphere was really bad, and my boss was.. let's just say, not a pleasant guy. So right now I'm unemployed, and I've had four offers thus far. I turned down the first because the pay was exceedingly good, but it was a 50+ hour workweek. The second I turned down because it was also 50+ hours, but with less pay.

(I'm now deciding between two positions: both 45 hours, one that pays significantly more than the other. I'm not really sure that turning down both of these is a good idea, though.)
posted by gchucky at 12:06 PM on May 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

It sounds like you are counting your lunch hour as part of the work day, instead of part of your own time. Why not do things that you really enjoy during your lunch hour, so it feels more like your own time?
posted by Houstonian at 12:13 PM on May 21, 2011 [8 favorites]

This part jumped out at me:

I found out that I was worth quite a bit more than what I was being paid.
You don't have a pre-determined "worth" - it's all about what you can get and what you are willing to give up to get it.

So I guess what I’m asking you guys is this: how do I stop myself from feeling like I’m stuck in the rat race? How do I get over the feelings of loss of self and realize that it’s really not as bad as I’m making it out to be?

Well, it kind of is that bad. I mean it is and it isn't. It's not bad compared to people who are starving or whatever. But it is bad. The good news is you don't have to do it if you don't want to. If freedom means more to you than money, take a lower-paying job with shorter hours. Don't launch some 80-hour per week life-destroying "career" just because it feels like "everyone" does it. Trust me, everyone doesn't do it. Look at the street sometime on a weekday at 2pm. There are people there. "Everyone" does not work in an office.

I know all of this is easier said than done. I myself am currently stuck in an office job, partially because I didn't realize what I wrote above until it was too late.
posted by drjimmy11 at 12:36 PM on May 21, 2011 [2 favorites]

Make your commute work for you. My husband has a 90 minute commute -- EACH WAY -- and he maintains his sanity by counting his commute as his "me time." Twice a week, he takes the family iPad so he can plan for various creative projects, and other times, he reads for pleasure. Well, he did before our son was born; now he counts the "bus nap" as a major feature of his day. You can also listen to podcasts or knit or do other handwork, or learn a foreign language, or whatever.

Another thing I'd recommend is making part of your commute human-powered, to get some exercise in. Going back to my husband, he discovered that one leg of his commute was as fast walking as it was waiting for the connecting bus, so now he walks a total of three miles on a bus commute day. On non-bus commute days, he bikes, which takes the same amount of time as the bus commute but gives him 40 hilly miles on his bike. This means that when he IS at home, he doesn't have to take up more time with exercise.

Basically, it sucks, and you have to figure out ways to chisel out your time. But yes, this is kind of standard.
posted by KathrynT at 12:40 PM on May 21, 2011 [5 favorites]

Is it possible to move close to work? For a few years I lived literally across the street from work & it was THE BEST for my personal time - leave for work at 8:57, come home for lunch, end the work day at 6:00, be home at 6:02.

It's not for everyone or even possible for everyone, but I loved it.
posted by jenmakes at 12:46 PM on May 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

2nding the lunch hour as not counting as on the clock. So my 9-6 job I count as a 40 hour work week. I use the time to run errands or watch a TED podcast and such.

I'm six months out of a 30 hour a week job with much lower pay, and at first the ten hour loss was painful. I've slowly been documenting what I'm doing and how to arrange tasks better. Your goal should be to find one hour a day you can cut out of your personal life either by better arrangement or by outsourcing:
* Pay someone else to mow your lawn
* Grocery shop for two weeks instead of one
* Stop watching TV reruns and skip commercials
* Find a place that's only 15 minutes from work to live instead of 45.
* Cue up podcasts for the commute, instead of whatever's on the radio. No video if you drive though!

It's still a huge hit for someone not used to having to watch the clock during videogame marathons. On the value of having long stretches of work/errand free time, obviously you shift tasks away from the weekend.

The best part of all of this is that it's not a binary relationship. These are all things you could have been doing on a shorter work week, and can continue doing should you return, or the Worker's Revolution mandates 36 hour work weeks etc.
posted by pwnguin at 1:03 PM on May 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

Yeah, if you're in a professional field, a 40-hour week is a pipe dream.

But it doesn't need to be soul-sucking. Tips:

*Move closer to work, if you can. A 15-minute commute is much better than a 45-minute commute. If not, find things you can do during the commute: Listen to podcasts, read a book (if on public transit), whatever.

*Shift your wake/sleep hours or your work hours so that you load all your free time on one end or the other. I would find it MADDENING to get up at 5 a.m., get to work at 9 a.m., come home at 7 p.m., and go to bed at 10 p.m. (Some people prefer it, with a block of "me time" in the morning and a block in the evening, but I always felt rushed and chopped up.) Instead, can you sleep until the last possible minute before you HAVE to get ready, so you can stay up later in the evening? Or, lately my husband has been getting to work around 6:30 a.m. so he can leave around 4 p.m., spend a couple hours with our toddler before bedtime, then have us-time or him-time after our son goes to bed. He often does some more work from home in the evening, but he gets to have kid-time and outdoor-time while it's still light out.

*Like your job. Long hours are far less onerous if you find your job fulfilling. That doesn't mean happy-happy-joy-joy all the time, but that overall it provides you with some satisfaction, professional growth, intellectual interest, etc. I'm not delighted that I'm currently spending my Saturday grading final exams and I may bang my head on the wall if I see one more egregious grammar error, but overall I really enjoy teaching college students and I find it challenging and fulfilling, so I don't mind too much the work I bring home with me. It still feels like "my stuff" because it's work I want to be doing ... in general. Maybe not this specific paper set. :)

*Choose a job with autonomy, specifically the types of autonomy that matter to you. Study after study shows employees are happier when they have control over their work. What sorts on control make you happiest? I don't mind working long hours grading or prepping for class as long as I can do it from the comfort of my couch; so for me, seeking employers that allow me to take work home is important. Other people don't mind being confined to a desk for 8 hours a day if they can surf the internet during slow periods. I also prefer work with a defined product: I vastly preferred working in newspaper production, where once the paper was done it was DONE and I could go home (whether that was 11 p.m. or 5 a.m.) to working for billable hours where efficiency was punished because you couldn't bill enough hours if you worked fast. Is it important to you to have creative control at work? Or to have a flexible schedule? Or rigid predictability? Whatever is important to creating a psychologically comfortable worklife, look for that.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 1:07 PM on May 21, 2011 [3 favorites]

When it's financially possible (which might be now), move closer to work OR make a plan to get out of the longer-hours job when you've saved more money, gotten whatever experience you want on your resume, been there x amount of time, whatever. If you know you're working 9-6 "until I've saved $20,000" instead of "until ????", it will be a lot more bearable.

Set boundaries. Eat lunch away from your desk. Don't check work email at home or over the weekend. Leave at 6:00 on the dot every day.

Join something. When my mom went back to work after raising us young'uns, she was miserable for a few months, then joined a bowling league. She's a decent enough bowler, but she says she does it more so that when she looks over the week, it's not just, "work, eat, sleep, work, eat, sleep." She can always think, "oh, bowling, that was fun!"
posted by Snarl Furillo at 1:08 PM on May 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

I was in a 50-60 hr/wk job for 3 years, then a barely- 40 hr/wk job for a year. Now I'm in the market for a job with more responsibility (and therefore more hours). There are a couple of things that help me with these thoughts.

First, I found that the tougher job had much more interesting work. I learned so much more every month in that job than in a month of the easier job. I also learned what I was capable of and where my work/life boundaries lie. This may not gold true for all jobs, but you could look at these tough jobs as a chance to temporarily learn lots and also test your mettle. Think of the extra hours as the price you pay to learn more. After all, wouldn't you rather be improving yourself (at work or outside work) than watching reruns?

Second (and less helpful) is taking the time to be appreciative of what you have. You have options that previous generations didn't. I think of my hardworking grandfather and remember that he did it so I'd have opportunities, and that reminds me to take advantage of those opportunities. That generational outlook doesn't work for everyone, but it helps me a little.

Finally, remember that all workplaces have issues (sounds like your last one was no exception), and long hours can be am okay tradeoff for an active, functional group of coworkers. So you may find that it's worth it and you're happier. I was certainly happier in my tougher job rather than my easier one, where I was no longer surrounded by the best and the brightestand no longer learning anything important.

In summary, give it a shot. Longer hours may be worth it, and yout can always leave if the tradeoff isn't worth it. Plus, the extra money can make your life outside of work more fun that you don't notice anything missing even with les time.
posted by Tehhund at 1:16 PM on May 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

I found that the tougher job had much more interesting work. I learned so much more every month in that job than in a month of the easier job. I also learned what I was capable of and where my work/life boundaries lie.

I certainly found that to be true - the jobs I had where I worked 9-5 were soul destroying in many ways. So you could try to look forward to it as a great new experience.

Nthing what others have said about commuting - at the moment I can walk to the office in 15 mins which is brilliant. Frame commuting time as "me" time.

But really, losing 5 hrs of personal time is a non event in many ways.

What I learned by working many more hrs than you're contemplating with at least 2.5 hrs commuting by car every day on top of that was to prioritise stuff and have 'productive' personal time. What I mean by that is that I selected a couple of programmes I like to watch and that was my TV for the week. I arranged to meet friends and do stuff or to spend time with family and that was non-negotiable time and was diarised on my work computer. I did all my shopping online so I'd not waste time running round the shops. I scheduled stuff like hair cuts first thing on a Saturday morning so I'd not "waste" that day pottering about in my PJs until mid afternoon, too.

Now this was with a 60+ hr week with commute on top so not sure you'd really have to adopt any of those strategies. Just identify your equivalent to "watching repeats and infomercials on TV" and eliminate that and you've made up your 5 hr "lost time".
posted by koahiatamadl at 2:41 PM on May 21, 2011

Whether you're working eight hours a day, or nine or ten hours a day, ultimately, you're spending a really good chunk of your life at work. I think that recognizing this is the first step to accepting working more. I used to work a strict 9-5 job (government), and the idea of working say, 9-7 was just hellish to contemplate. I'm transitioning into a profession (law) where those hours will likely never, ever happen again, and that was initially a hard pill to swallow. Eventually I decided it's worth it because I already hated spending that much time at the old job, but it was a dead-end, while my future employment will hopefully be some combination of more remunerative, more interesting, and more rewarding or meaningful.

It sounds like you're being critical about what you want out of a new job, which is good because only you can decide what those extra few hours are worth to you. If you're like most people, there is some basket of advantages that a job can offer which will make the loss of those hours worthwhile. I think you just have to think about what that trade-off means to you and then find a job that offers it. If you still find yourself upset about working more hours, then maybe it means you're underselling your time. But if you feel at peace with the nature of your work and the salary you're making at it for the hours you're putting in, then everything else is really just noise.
posted by dixiecupdrinking at 3:15 PM on May 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

You discovered something very worthwhile-- that even a 9-5 job sucks if the work environment is bad. By contrast, if the work environment is good, then you're likely not going to mind staying a little later.

45-50 hours a week isn't being a "slave to your job." it's more along the lines of "staying long enough to get your work done." You can guarantee fixed hours when you have little to no independence. With more responsibility, there's going to be more stuff going on at work, and you will likely not be able to just go home at 5. As long as you don't have to work weekends, it's not really being a slave to your job.
posted by deanc at 4:25 PM on May 21, 2011 [2 favorites]

Work is a big chunk of your life. It is really not so awful and you can view it as a means to an end. Of course if you work in an abattoir, it might be awful. But for an office job, it is not the end of the world.

I had jobs where my commute was 2.5 hours. I left home at 5:30 AM and got home about 8 PM. The train commute was the best time of the day. I did what I wanted; it was very peaceful. Now I am an academic. I work between 40-60 hours per week. I can work less than 40, but I wouldn't be able to get what I want to do done. In the past I worked longer than 60 at times.

Our unionized hourly workers (those who have set work schedules) work 7:45 - 4:30, with 45 minutes for lunch and two 15-minute breaks. So it works out to 8 hours of work. When I was an hourly worker I worked 9 - 5 with a one hour lunch, so it was a 7-hour day.

I suppose what I am saying is that work schedules are pretty standard with a little leeway. But as your responsibilities increase, your work hours will increase. You are really in a normal situation and really not in a rat race. It is the way it is. Your attitude is what makes it a rat race. I hated being an hourly worker with a required set number of hours and start and stop times. I worked hard to get to a position where I have a great deal of latitude in my work schedule. But it took a while and a couple of graduate degrees.
posted by fifilaru at 5:04 PM on May 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I appreciate all these answers; they're helping quite a bit.

Since it's come up before: moving closer to work isn't an option.
posted by gchucky at 5:06 PM on May 21, 2011

If you find the job where you do what you like , enjoy or even love -- than your work hours will become your joy time . All that many hours per week .

Money might be pleasant , too . If the only thing that you really like about that job is nice money ,
than on the way to work you can think and meditate about all the money you are going to make today !
posted by Oli D. at 7:48 PM on May 21, 2011

I'm in a job at the moment where ten hour days are standard and 14 hours isn't uncommon when things are busy. What keeps me sane is my weekends. I try and keep at least one weekend day free from work. Sometimes that means I work late on a Friday night if I don't have specific social plans, but it's a great feeling to have the decks clear before I go. I love to cook, so I'll use some of my weekend time to cook some stuff that I can eat during the week when I'm too tired/busy to do something more elaborate.

Often in these sort of jobs you'll also have more flexibility with your time during the day as you have more autonomy e.g. if you need to go to the post office or a doctor's appointment you can duck out during your 'work hours', whereas strict 9-5s might look less favourably on that and/or make it count against your hours. That can free up your evenings and weekends a bit too.

The other thing that keeps me sane is knowing that I can always walk away once I've had enough. I remind myself of this by (1) saving some of the extra money I'm earning into a separate savings account as my escape fund (2) keeping in touch with industry contacts so that I have some networks ready and (3) reminding myself on the bad days that I could quit if I wanted to.

The whole thing is a trade-off. When I leave this job I plan to find a 9-5 for a while to get some balance back, but I know that to get the professional fulfilment that I value I will eventually go back to a more intense job.
posted by une_heure_pleine at 8:41 PM on May 21, 2011

Also, I think it matters what your colleagues are working. Long hours are much easier if everyone else is doing the same.
posted by plonkee at 2:28 AM on May 22, 2011

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