Day Job Basics #3: Slacking vs. Productivity

Right now you must be thinking, “So Ian, if a Day Job is just a way to fuel my creative endeavors, that means I should do the absolute minimum of work I possibly can while I’m there as long as I get paid, right?”

Sorry bro, that shit don’t fly.

Remember in Part 2 where I compared working a Day Job to doing your dishes?  If I have a sink full of dirty pots and pans but only rinse down the bowl and spoon I need to eat a bowl of Frosted Flakes, I’m still going to have a sink full of dirty pots and pans when I’m finished.  Worse yet, the food on those pots and pans is probably going to get all crusty and hard, so it’ll be tougher to scrub off when I need them for something else.  Also, that cereal bowl I rinsed down earlier might still have some stale grains of rice sticking to it, so I’ll get that gross feeling of scraping my spoon against last night’s meal (ugh….).

Day Jobs work the same way: if you slack off too much, it’s going to bite you in the ass later. To put it another way: it’s going to make your life more difficult later when the slacking catches up with you, up to and including your getting fired and having to find a new Day Job, which takes time and energy away from your creative endeavors.

My most recent Day Job was in a research greenhouse taking care of the plants.  Sometimes it was busy, and sometimes it wasn’t.  When it wasn’t busy, you didn’t have to work as hard, but there was still always something you could do to get ahead of the game.  If you didn’t, when the busy time came and the plants needed to be thrown out and replanted all over again, there was suddenly a lot of work all at once, and if you hadn’t done the work that you could have done the week before, you were screwed.  This meant more stress and more overtime, which made me more tired and less likely to work on my novel in the evenings when I got home.  Most of these weeks I didn’t do much writing at all, which made it harder to find my place the next week when things slowed down and I had the time to write again.

That’s just one example, though—different Day Jobs have different expectations.  In college I used to work summers checking boats at a lake, and the best part of the job was that when there weren’t any boats I could sit under a tree and read a book completely guilt-free, which made my days more productive.  This was different than shirking: my boss said it was fine to read during down time, and the job’s actual training manual recommended bringing a book!  As long as I was ready when the next boat pulled up, I was doing my job to the fullest extent.  It was by far the best Day Job I’ve ever had in terms of low stress and getting done what I wanted (since I like reading books a lot), so if you’re lucky enough to have a Day Job that doesn’t ask much of you, you’re probably in a good position to keep it.

Yep, this was a pretty great place to work.

Yep, this was a pretty great place to work.

The difference comes when your Day Job has a lot of expectations that you don’t (or can’t) meet, and you become that guy (or that girl).  We’ve all worked with that guy (or girl): the one who leaves before the work is done, the one who tricks you into doing their work for them, the one who spends a lot of time staring at their phone, or the one who screws something up that you then have to fix.  Unless you work in an environment where this is specifically allowed for some reason, it’s pretty unclassy to act that way, and it tends to make people not like you, because nobody likes that guy (or that girl).

I’ve also found that slacking off when there’s actual Day Job work to be done leads to lethargy, and lethargy leads to the shameful listless feeling that comes from not getting anything done (and I hate not getting anything done).  These negative feelings can easily carry over into your creative work if you let them, and that’s not good.

The boat-checking job was great because I got to read during it, but other jobs where I couldn’t read or occupy my mind in some way left me feeling like I’d worked a full day hauling tree logs—all I wanted to do was curl up and sleep when I got home.

On the flip side, I liked my greenhouse job a lot because most of the work was pretty basic (dump pots, fill pots, water pots, repeat) and I could organize it at my own pace, which suits my goal-motivated nature and love of (or, mild obsession with) organizing things.  I could also listen to podcasts while I worked (a close runner-up to reading books) and see the results of my labor: all of the pots got dumped and filled today.  This left me feeling accomplished in a simple but incredibly positive way, and the majority of the time I carried this momentum of productivity with me when I went home to work on the novel.  As an added bonus, having a set place to go and set things to do every weekday warded off the demons of laziness, isolation, and feeling overwhelmed by having too much open time during the week.  In my case, having a limited amount of free time for creative work made me take that time more seriously.

I was able to be creatively productive during this time because the energy from my Day Job carried over into my creative work.  How you feel at your Day Job can have a big impact on how you feel about the rest of your life, and on the up side, feeling good at work usually equates to feeling good outside of work too.  (On the down side, though, a bad day at work usually means there’s a bad evening waiting for you after work too…)

This is where you have to be careful, because grasping on to the energy that comes with being productive at your Day Job can often lead to a problem that’s the opposite of slacking, where you do more Day Job work than you have to beyond the Day Job’s expectations (i.e., overwork yourself).  Sometimes this happens because of workplace pressures or frequent deadlines or your Day Job not having enough people, but going above and beyond the call of duty on a regular basis rarely yields good results.

I ran into this a lot when I worked in a busy office—there was waaaaaaaay more work than a reasonable person could finish in a 40-hour week, which meant both a lot of stress and a lot of unpaid overtime (d’oh!).  This happened for a lot of the reasons I listed above, but it also happened because I was trying to be the best office worker I could be and finish the incredible amount of work I’d been given, naively thinking I’d also still have time to finish my first novel—which I eventually did, but it took a lot longer than I would have liked.  I didn’t have my Day Job mentality yet, but if I had, I probably would have left that job and found a less stressful one.

To sum up: there are equal hazards that come with slacking too much and with overworking yourself, so you’ve got to figure out the best balance for you personally.  I’ve found my happy medium by harnessing productive Day Job energy without pushing myself too hard, but everyone has different work habits, goals, and strengths, just as every Day Job has different expectations.  There’s a lot to consider when choosing a Day Job, and I’ll talk more about this in Part 4.