I used to stress out about work, but then I stopped.
Way, way back before I’d come up with the Day Job Philosophy, at my previous jobs I was always trying to support my employer by doing my best, since that was the way I’d been raised. I worked hard, tackled all the assignments I was given, tried to impress my superiors, and focused a lot on making other people happy—and it almost destroyed me.
Back then, I believed that if I did a job well I’d naturally be recognized for it, which would then lead me to more success and material rewards like more money, promotions, good references, and better opportunities. I believed that the people who worked the hardest would always be rewarded in the end, and that this process naturally happened on its own.
As a result, I put a lot of my personal energy into the work I did. I worried about work problems when things weren’t going well. I worked unpaid overtime if I thought it would help me out of a jam. I spent a lot of time and energy trying to develop strong relationships with my coworkers and bosses even when it was clear that it was never going to happen.
In short, I cared too much.
Devoting a Lot of Energy to Your Day Job Won’t Always Get You Ahead
All jobs are different, and some offer better working conditions than others. Some offer more incentives for people who do well, while others will trap you doing the same thing forever or bury you under an unending workload. At the same time, some bosses will recognize your achievements and reward you, while others are too busy holding meetings and leaving early to notice much of anything.
At the same time, all of us are different and have different goals that start from the moment we clock in every day. Some people are genuinely devoted to jobs they consider meaningful and want to make into a career, while others just need to make it through the day without getting fired so they can bring home a paycheck.
All of this complicates the work environment since we’re constantly balancing what we want to get out of our jobs with what we actually can get out of them. It also raises a difficult question: How should we feel about our jobs, especially since we have to spend a hell of a lot of time there?
Caring is Different From Doing Your Job Well
When I was a kid, I used to do 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzles I put together on a sheet of plywood I kept under my bed. I had this methodical process of putting together the side pieces, flipping the remaining pieces picture-side up, then sorting them one section at a time until the puzzle was finished and I could start a new one.
When I worked on a puzzle, I’d fall into this ultra-focused state where my physical energy was devoted to finding the right pieces but the rest of my mind was free to wander elsewhere, so that the result was incredibly freeing. I still assembled the puzzles, but I didn’t think about them as I was doing them—I just disconnected and let my hands do the work, and afterwards I was left with the satisfaction that comes from finishing something.
The best Day Jobs are like my old puzzles in that they allow me to focus on something without expending a lot of my mental energy or worry about getting in trouble if something bad happens.
The engagement that comes from expending mental energy is what causes you to care—and when you care about something that isn’t going well, it causes worry and stress because you’re invested in it. (It’s the same mindset that causes us to get angrier at our loved ones than at acquaintances!)
On the opposite end of the spectrum, the Day Job philosophy is more akin to doing puzzles: every day when I go into work I tackle challenges and work to solve them. If they go well, I feel good in a small but significant way because I accomplished something. If they go badly, I don’t worry, but I find a solution.
I do this without becoming emotionally invested and so can you—just think of your job as a series of tasks needing to be done. Like doing laundry, washing dishes, or pouring a bowl of cereal, it’s a process you can work at without getting excited, upset, worried, or angry about.
This philosophy is different from slacking off at your job because even though you’re not personally invested in your work, you’re still doing it, still getting it done, and still plugging away, rather than shirking it or doing it half-assed.
You don’t have to care to do good Day Job work—you do the work you’re assigned to do for the time you’re assigned to do it, and then you clock out and go home. That’s it.
I Save My Energy for Things That Matter
If the mindset I just described was your entire life, then you’d live a pretty miserable existence with zero sense of fulfillment, and that’s not cool either.
For me, the whole point of not caring about a Day Job is that it lets me save my energy for my creative work, which I do care about, a lot. When my writing isn’t going well, I get upset; when I solve a tricky problem with my novel, I get excited; and when a project I’m working on is going well, I’ll stay up late or work all weekend on it and carry that energy with me until it’s time to crash. These things are important to me, and they’re where my sense of satisfaction comes from.
Most importantly, though, in my personal work I set higher goals and push myself to new challenges so I can get where I really want to go.
I put more of myself into my creative projects because they matter, and though I work at them with the same diligence that I devote to my Day Job, I push that diligence to the next level that can only come from emotional investment. That’s when you get results that are more real—and that aren’t (always) related to money or material gain.
If you’re having trouble at work or feeling stressed, try keeping this difference in mind and shifting your focus away from caring. If you can be a master of doing your Day Job well without any personal devotion, you’ll feel more focused, more relaxed, and still get the same Day Job results—trust me on that one ;-)