Day Job Basics #4: Your Ideal Day Job

So like I talked about in Part 3, there are all different kinds of Day Jobs, and they all place different demands on your time, energy, and sanity levels.  You might still be on the hunt for a bill-paying Day Job, you might have what you thought was a Real Job until you decided to make that mental switch to the dishwashing philosophy I talked about in Part 2, or you might be considering how your current Day Job measures up to other options.  The trick is to find the Day Job that suits your own, individual needs, which will then help you do better creative work.

I’ll come right out and say that the Ideal Day Job for creative people probably doesn’t exist—and if it does, somebody else definitely has it already and isn’t going to let you hustle in on their game.  Not all Day Jobs are created equal, though, so here’s some factors to consider balancing (and compromising on) when thinking about what kind of job is best for picking up that rent money.  (I plan on blogging about all these in more detail later, so as I do I’ll go back and add some links to help you out!)



Money ($$$)

This is the big one.  Like Mookie in Do the Right Thing, we all gotta get paid, and the question is how much.  Numbers make it easy to compare things that are less vs. things that are more (in this case, more money’s better than less), but a bigger direct deposit doesn’t automatically mean a better Day Job, since all the factors below have an impact on your life too, and sometimes this impact is a lot bigger than just the money factor.  Since most people use the equation More $$ = Better Job when choosing a Real Job, though, this seems like a logical place to start.

If you’re thinking about downsizing your salary in exchange for more creative time and/or energy, think about how much money you really need to keep up your current lifestyle.  (This is where making a budget comes in handy!)  Are you making more than you really need?  Is it worth making a few sacrifices if it means you’ll be happier doing the creative work you want to be doing?  Or is it worth making less money now if it means devoting more time to creative work that could eventually supplement or even replace your Day Job income?  Be careful, though: as George Orwell points out in The Road to Wigan Pier, it’s hard to focus on your creative goals if you don’t know where your next meal is coming from, so how much can you really compromise?   (Especially if you’re a coal miner in the north of England.)

I’m also a big fan of saving money at a higher-paying job so you can take time off or downsize your number of working hours later—it’s how I was able to take four weeks off to build this website, and how I’m able to work less than 40 hours a week at my Secret Work-From-Home Day Job and have more time for writing (!).


Number of Hours

This brings us to a Day Job’s (or multiple Day Jobs’) demands on your time.  Some people need to work full time to gain benefits or because their Day Job requires it, but other jobs offer more flexibility.  Are you working four-hour morning shifts at a bakery, slogging through 40 hour weeks at the office, or packing in crazy overtime hours on the factory floor?  More hours worked leads to more money, but also less time for creative projects, so you have to ask yourself how many hours you need to work at your Day Job to meet both your financial and your creative goals.  One person’s 10-hour workweek might be too much of a commitment, while someone else might cruise through a 60 hours of Day Job work and still find time to finish that novel they’ve been working on.

Of course, not everyone can make a part-time Day Job work for them, but if you really can’t find the out-of-work time you need, it might be worthwhile trying to organize your life around fewer working hours.



Time of Day

What time of day do you work best?  If you’ve got a strong answer to this question (like, if you’d rather work in your studio until dawn or start your day at 5am like Ben Franklin did), consider a Day Job that leaves you open at that time, so you’re more focused to do the work that matters most at the time you work best.

I personally do my best writing if I start first thing in the morning (which is when I’m writing this), and I’m able to pull this off pretty well with my Secret Work-From-Home Day Job.  I was also able to (mostly) pull this off as a grad student, since most of my classes met in the afternoon or evening.  For a lot of my other jobs, though, I chose a close second of writing after work but before dinner, and was especially productive during this time if I could take an after-work shower too (since taking showers is totally conducive to problem-solving and creativity).



Aaaaaaaargh—I hate long commutes with the fiery passion of a thousand suns, but I know people who don’t mind driving a long way to a job they really enjoy.  Commuting involves using two of your biggest resources, Time and Money, which means that time spent commuting is time you’re not spending on creative projects and that the money you spend on gas, parking, tolls, car maintenance, and/or public transportation can make a real dent in your cash flow.

Think on this: How much does a longer commute take away from other advantages that your Day Job might have?  Is it worth it to pay more in gas money driving to a job where you earn more?  Does commuting exhaust you, or is it no big deal?  And how valuable is your time, anyway?

As a final thought, you can always cut down on your commuting time by working fewer days per week if your job allows it: when my greenhouse job got slow, I rearranged my schedule to have Tuesdays and Thursdays off while working the same number of hours, which meant less time driving and more time saved for writing.


Mental Stress

No bones about it—work can bum you out and make you crazy.  The thing to remember is that not all Day Jobs create equal stress, since some are easygoing to the point of being paid to stand around while others involve frantic scrambling to meet deadlines while also answering phones and cleaning vomit off carpets (both of which I’ve done at work, sometimes at the same time).

I stand pretty firmly behind my belief that your Ideal Day Job should involve the least amount of mental stress possible, since feeling worried, exhausted, or angry after work (or—egad—on weekends!) makes it harder to focus on other things I need to do, especially if these things take creative energy—it’s always easier to lay in bed and stew than to start that new project you’ve been putting off.


Physical Stress

I like physical work because it keeps my mind free to think about other things, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you should quit your job to work in road construction like in Office Space.  Physical stress, even more than mental stress, has a drastic effect on how tired I’ll feel at the end of the day: my summer landscaping job involved long days carrying heavy loads and bending over to pull weeds, while my job working in a greenhouse became a job working in the fields for most of the summer where I got my ass kicked by the hot as fuck, drain-every-ounce-of-moisture-from-your-body midwestern sun, with narry a shady tree in sight.

Both of these jobs got a lot easier after I got used to them, though (and after I re-discovered Gatorade…), and I actually got some of my best work done during these times.  As my strength and endurance increased, I also found new energy that I carried into my creative work and got into the best shape I’ve ever been in, all without having to pay for a gym membership or use workout machines that had other people’s sweat on them.


Type of Work

This one’s pretty important too: all of us are better suited for some jobs than for others.  It took a long time for me to learn that as an introvert, I work best and retain more energy if I have a Day Job where I can work alone, at my own pace, preferably with a fair amount of problem solving (which is why I also edit manuscripts on the side).  Still, I also enjoy teaching and performing because they provide that rush of adrenaline that comes from being in front of people and keeps me feeling sharp, so balancing this rush with getting my other projects done is always a priority.

You might work differently than me, though: maybe being around people energizes you, and you can then bring that energy to your after-work projects.  Maybe a certain amount of stress keeps you focused, or maybe you prefer a physical labor job (see above), or maybe you function best at a job that requires an absolute minimum of work even if it means lower pay—in any case, the point is to figure out which scenario is best, then search for it.


The People

Every job involves working with people in some form (even if it’s by e-mail), and the people we work with have a big impact on our level of stress (or enjoyment).  Some of my fondest work memories come from stocking grocery store shelves in high school, when my co-workers and I would have ridiculous conversations in the aisles all day, which made an otherwise boring job a lot more fun.  On the other hand, I’ve had jobs where I was afraid to walk down certain hallways out of fear of meeting certain coworkers, which gave me a lot more to worry about and made these jobs a lot more stressful.

Don’t forget about bosses too—having a strict boss can make all the difference between a comfortable Day Job and a hellish one.



This one’s especially important if you’re looking to move to a new place, or have to live somewhere specific to fulfill your creative goals (for example, to collaborate with a partner, or because there’s more acting work in New York than in Peoria, Illinois).  If you want to live in one place badly enough, then all the other factors might not matter.


I didn't use microscopes when I worked in the lab, but I did do other cool stuff (Heidelberger Life Science Lab, CC)

I didn’t use microscopes when I worked in the lab, but that would have been pretty cool too.

Cool Stuff You Do at Work

Does your Day Job let you do cool stuff at work?  I’ve gotten to freeze samples in liquid nitrogen, go scuba diving, join in a Japanese tea ceremony, and emcee a dance contest, none of which were included in my job descriptions, but were awesome anyway.

A more common factor, though, is whether your Day Job involves sharpening other skills that might come in useful later—I learned how to use WordPress (and thus made this site possible) by updating the website at the school where I used to work, and learned about the Japanese cultural conflicts that led to my first novel by actually teaching in Japan.  A big and often unsung advantage of work is that it forces us out into the world to learn cool things and develop skills that help us in all sorts of ways.  It’s how we grow up, become more worldly, and get better at life in general, and the best jobs help you through this process rather than hindering it.

I’ll also put reading, watching movies, and listening to podcasts at work in this category, since those things can make your day go a lot better too.


Status/Perceived Status

This topic really needs an entire post to do it justice, but for now, consider that for a lot of people, having a job automatically equates you with a certain social status, whether it’s high or low.  Since all of us are far more complex than just the paid work we do, though, it doesn’t make sense to judge people this way, and as I mentioned in Part 2, it especially doesn’t make sense to judge people with Day Jobs in this way, since Day Jobs are just a means to a very different end.

Still, this judging happens a lot, and it bothers a lot of people.  If you’re one of the people it bothers, you might want to secure a Day Job that gives you some easy street cred when you have to tell someone at a party what you do for work or when your great-aunt asks you what kind of job you got after college.


What Kind of Day Job Can You Actually Get?

I save this for last because all the other factors don’t mean shit if you can’t find a Day Job that matches them, or if you find the perfect Day Job and aren’t qualified for it.  In the real world of going out and getting stuff done, we often have to take the opportunities we can get rather than holding out for the ideal, since this can lead to a lot of wasted time and energy.

This doesn’t mean that you should hang your head and resign yourself to the situation you’re in, though—if that’s your attitude, then you’re missing the entire point of this blog.  On the contrary, sizing up your opportunities means considering your options every step of the way and acting accordingly, whether that means taking risks or staying still until you can make your big move later.  You have to be alert and aware every step of the way as you move forward—the key note being to move forward, and to actually take those real steps.  The Ideal Day Job is the one that best suits your creative goals, but it’s also the one that’s actually available to help you take the steps you need to.

There’s one other really, REALLY important aspect of this whole Day Job thing, though, that I’ll finish with in Part 5.

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