Social Enterprise optimize

10 ways to stay sane in your cubicle

If you're stuck in a cube 40 hours a week, you may need a few coping strategies to keep from going crazy. Jack Wallen offers some survival tips to help make your workdays more bearable - and maybe even enjoyable.

So you work in a cube farm, and every day you spend there sucks more and more of your sanity away. You're pretty sure that any day now you will be taken off in a straightjacket to work in your new padded cell. How can you avoid this? How can you hang onto a semblance of sanity when day in and day out, you spend eight hours sitting in the center of three industrial walls? It's not as hard as you might think. Here are some suggestions to help you preserve your sanity.

Note: This article originally published in 2009, but certain cube-fevered colleagues asked to see it again. It's also available as a PDF download.

1: Change it up

When your surroundings do not change, the best way to keep your cool is to change them yourself. A friend of mine has been in the same cube farm for nearly 10 years. During that time, she has made a point to randomly change the decorations in her cubicle. But she doesn't just add a photo here and a knickknack there. My chum is a serious Trekkie and makes a point to focus on one character (or race of characters) at a time. So one month will be Cardassian month and the next will be all about Dr. Bashir or Jean-Luc Picard. Not only has this helped her sanity, it has given her quite the reputation around the company and provided plenty to chat about.

2: Take breaklets

Most people work like this:

  • Work four hours
  • Take a lunch break
  • Work four hours

This works for a while, but eventually it will catch up with you. Instead of sticking only to this schedule, you should mix it up. If your company allows it, split your break up into smaller breaks throughout the day. Or better yet, just randomly get up and take a stroll around the company. If you have to, grab a folder or a handful of papers and make like you're heading for the printer. Just get up and get out of that cubicle throughout the day. Taking strolls around the company won't just get you out of your cubicle; it will give you a bit of exercise you desperately need. If you're feeling really daring, skip the elevator and hit the stairs!

3: Crank up the tunes

Music is the food of life. But you will be best served (as will your fellow employees) if you keep that music to yourself. Back when I had an office at TechRepublic, I was notorious for cranking up techno very loud. It didn't dawn on me that maybe it would have been better if I'd left the volume at a respectable level. And that was with an office -- not a cubicle. When you are working in a cubicle, your best bet is headphones. I also recommend that you don't just bring in your favorite CDs and listen to them over and over. You might as well stare at the same gray-brown walls and listen to the voices developing in your head. Instead, point your PC to a nice Internet radio station. If you use Linux, you may want to open up Streamtuner, as I do, and take in a whole world of music.

4: Turn to Facebook/Youtube/Twitter

I know, it sounds horrible -- but I am advocating the use of social networking sites at work. However, I suggest you use them with moderation. Do not plant yourself on Facebook and stay there at the expense of your work. Instead, give yourself social breaks between tasks. Complete a task, update your status. Reconfigure that router, tweet! Or create a social networking site for your fellow workers. With this in place, your social networking will be work related. If you can't create the site yourself, propose this to your IT staff.

5: Move your office

I don't mean literally. But if you use a laptop, take it away from your cubicle and move to the break room or a meeting room. Do this once a week or so, and you'll find that cubicle not nearly as life-stealing. Just make sure you are not breaking any company policies by doing so. And if the weather is nice enough (and your signal strength will reach) take that laptop outside for an al fresco workday. Just remember to have a full battery or an outlet nearby.

6: Socialize

We've all done it before -- worked in places where we just... couldn't... stand... the... people... we... worked... with. You can't get along with everyone, but there should be someone you can at least form some sort of social bond with. Find someone who shares similar interests (like Star Trek, Linux, or mountain biking) so you will at least have SOMETHING to talk about (other than complaining about how you hate your fellow workers).

7: Do an anonymous act of kindness every day

This is all about karma. Do something good for a coworker every day. It doesn't have to be big. You could pick up someone's print job for them and deliver it to their cubicle (see number 2) or clean up an area around the office. Just make sure the act is random and anonymous. The anonymity will give you a certain pleasure as you watch others trying to figure out who did the deed.

8: Play hooky

Remember how good it made you feel back in college to skip a day of class? That feeling can be enough to get you through until the next vacation day. Find a special event or just a perfect day outdoors and call in sick. Yes, it can backfire on you if your boss takes a break and catches you playing Frisbee golf in the park. But then, if your boss catches you in the park, what exactly is he doing there?

9: Employ the Les Nessman cubicle strategy

Who can forget Les Nessman, the award-winning news director from WKRP? One of his many quirks was his belief that a news director should have his own office. Well, he didn't -- so he made do. Les lay down masking tape on the floor to create the outline of the walls of his "office." He even included a "door" that he mimed opening and closing every time he entered or exited. So what is keeping you from going "Les" on your cubicle? Tape down that fourth wall, include a door, and insist that people "knock" and use the "door" when they need to meet with you.

10: Have a sense of humor

Humor will get you through just about every situation -- including cube life. Become a practical jokester, laugh at silly mistakes, let everyone see that you can take just about anything that life throws at you. But as you're laughing it up and plotting the demise-by-joke of your next victim, always remember your company policies. Make sure your master plan does not go against any company rules, or the HR department will have the last laugh. Above all, have fun, enjoy your workday, and make it more pleasant for everyone around you.

What works for you?

These simple tips will get many people through the tedium of cube life. For others, however, it's simply not enough. Do you have a tip for getting through the day, week, month, or year while confined to the three walls of hate? If so, share them with your fellow TechRepublic readers.


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About

Jack Wallen is an award-winning writer for TechRepublic and Linux.com. He’s an avid promoter of open source and the voice of The Android Expert. For more news about Jack Wallen, visit his website getjackd.net.

165 comments
tmriddle73
tmriddle73

I think decoration and visual order are super important to staying sane in the cubicle. I don't have much money for renovations, but I just found out about Pimp My Cube, its an online contest where if you have the ugliest cubicle you can win a $1200 dollar renovation. All you do is make a video and get your friends to vote on it. Google Pimp My Cube to check it out, not many entries yet so might be a steal (for me, at least.)

captainrrl
captainrrl

Crop dust the annoying persons cube. You'll be long gone b4 they catch the smell.

maagero
maagero

I guess my work ethic is different. I don't condone playing hooky and I am not a "boss", but I do not "call in" unless I am actually sick. Your advice to "play hooky" is ill-founded, because doing that can put extra work onto a fellow employees. I'd love to sometimes, but I've found I'm the employee who ends up with more work to do. Karma's not instant, but it'll getcha! -Ron

Orodreth
Orodreth

We were allowed to bring breakfast and some groups or teams had breakfast clubs. Rotating each member to provide breakfast for all members one day of the week. My selections made it very competitive for others, even the time I did a wholesome breakfast. One or 2 client sites had internal cafeterias so the group/team sometimes had breakfast team meetings in the cafeteria. Music always on with one earbud in the ear facing away from approachers. Although you can hear people while wearing, visitors and supervisors are usually offended when you're talking while wearing earbuds. Occasional short break to socialize with co-worker, friend or friendly support person off your floor or at least further than away than the elevator.

dele1jim
dele1jim

My mini breaks during the day are spent reading Tech Republic blog posts that I find in my email.

pdodson
pdodson

put a box of peppermints or butterscotch or other hard candy out on your desk cube people will stop by and grab a peppermint and they almost always say a few words - also hard candy is cheap and for $1.00 a week you can have friendly co-workers stop and say hi throughout the day

Kevin Robinson
Kevin Robinson

I download various audio boox for my mp3 player, including tons of music as well. I know my job fairly well, and can listen to books and pay attention to them. Always, I'm listening to the Bible, and for the next few weeks, the Sherlock H. cannon.

oldbaritone
oldbaritone

Download cartoon sounds to replace the default beeps - "If I only had a brain"... "Danger! Danger! Danger, Will Robinson!" (Addams family) Whoop! Whoop! Whoop! "Mail's here." There are hundreds of great Looney Toons sounds too... ah-ba-dee-yah-ba-de-yah-That's All Folks! (shutdown sound) And just WHAT do you think you're doing? (Bugs Bunny) "Where's the Kaboom? There's supposed to be a Kaboom?" (Marvin the martian) :-)

John Fantel
John Fantel

USB Missle Rockets! Even better if your not the only one in the office with them, or a webcam attached to be a ninja rocket launcher! (we IT people are not immature!)

ajeskin
ajeskin

I take web browser breaks -- look for interesting sites & articles. You can never be too informed.

VytautasB
VytautasB

This won't work for everybody but my kids school is just across the street from where I work. I asked and the schools piano teacher agreed to give me a 45 minute piano lesson once a week. What a thrill to learn piano. To top it off I even get a hug from my 6 year old daughter who runs down to my "class" to briefly see me. After my "lunch" I go back to work refreshed and ready to face the rest of the work day.

jrtech
jrtech

You can actually fit the annoy-a-tron in the a spare RAM slot of some laptops. Great to do before the weekend and then the sound follows them home.

nekos_paw
nekos_paw

all i'll say is "eletrified sweet jar"

tbmay
tbmay

Honestly I hope you're joking about most of this. If people took most of this advise seriously a lot of folks would get fired.

reisen55
reisen55

You do not have to smoke, nor should that be encouraged but if you really need a quick break, carry an unlit cigarette outside and just ... enjoy. Your company policy will mandate that you walk outside to smoke. Well, don't smoke but otherwise enjoy the 5 minutes. There is the real policy by the way. Short breaks during the day - get up, walk the floor - give your mind a short rest!!! Work is at least a bit easier. Eyestrain on computer terminals too is greatly relieved by letting your eyes see something different.

chasAFD
chasAFD

Works for me. And the days in the office are filled with meetings so I don't spend much time in the box.

mikifinaz1
mikifinaz1

I found another way. I first became a contractor so that I had control over my environment, then I started my own business.

Lazarus439
Lazarus439

Music is fine; streaming it over the company network is not. That (or those, if you're lucky) T-1 lines are to enable the staff to get work done, not stream music or video for entertainment. Put a CD in the computer's cup holder or bring in a real radio with a headset jack.

Fregeus
Fregeus

..was probably my favorite way to relieve stress. Of course, no one else was in the office at the time except my colleagues. No boss around made for a lot of fun. TCB

rexiib
rexiib

chear up your coworkers every day. smile, they wonder what you have been doing.

elephanted
elephanted

I tied my neighbors chair to his desk.

Oz_Media
Oz_Media

I managed a call centre where all the staff used cubes, obviously. One Friday, after a few beers in teh downstairs bar,we went upstairs and cranked up Pink Floyd the Wall. As it finished, we recreated the Pink Floyd Berlin wall toppling by knocking down the cube walls. On the Monday when the rest of the agents came in, they were pleasantly surprised to see the new open layout. It created such a positive energy that we left it that way for the next year, no walls just people working together. It was a BLAST to see sales go way up, especially as I was paid my bonuses based on the agent's performance! A great year for everyone, just a complete party scene after tearing down the walls.

kdavis
kdavis

My fishy buddy is intensely interested in everything I do. Everytime I move, he hovers against the glass watching like he expects my next key stroke to produce showers of betta food. Whenever I reach a good stopping point, I give him a pellet. Because of his attentiveness and a bit of practice, he's learned to jump up and grab the pellet off my finger! Ta-Da! Fish Trick! Breaks up my day!

FortBragg_Surfgoddess
FortBragg_Surfgoddess

Hey here is a thought, Work. Twitter/Facebook/Streaming media is a draw on band width and slows everything down. You will most likely get in trouble where I work if you did that.

g01d4
g01d4

Fluorescents are harsh. A desklamp can be used for tasks that require more illumination. Works for me in (incl. shared) walled offices and cubicles.

Ballpoint Penguin
Ballpoint Penguin

Internet radio is an excellent idea. It provides a more random outlet of music, and the fact that Streamtuner, Winamp, Pandora, and other tools let you select a station by genre helps prevent the "same ol' same ol'" problem. I just wish our company's internet monitor software didn't block it on the justification of it being a bandwidth hog.

LdyontheNet
LdyontheNet

I love that idea of changing things up, having screen shots of places you've been or pictures of places you would like to visting in your cubicle is really helpful. Music to drown out noisy neighbors works great as well.

Igor Mihevc-22398131359440214971417977487429
Igor Mihevc-22398131359440214971417977487429

...and I'm happy! I don't know how can anybody work in a place such this... In my company (Europe), we use large, open-space rooms, you can talk with your colleaguse face to face, exchange ideas, making laughs... Work in cubicles!? No way here... like slaves. :(

Woggs
Woggs

"Bring a Gecko (back) to Work" Day! About a year or so ago I caught a gecko climbing the wall (evidently this place even drives the local fauna insane... :P ) in a hallway here at work. I have no clue where he came from or how he got into an internal hallway without SOMEONE seeing him. Even though he was only about two inches long it was hard to miss his dark brown, light brown and dark grey coloring on a beige wall... Now, about every month or so, I bring him in and set his tank on the corner of my desk for the day. This cuts WAY down the number of people that ask me as to his health, size, etc. throughout the month. Now I get asked about when I'll bring him back... Also you can't imagine the number of computer related questions his presence is able to deflect... As for my boss approving? Heck, he asks MORE questions about him than any THREE others! :D

joeller
joeller

The only thing I can do is get up and walk around, but since the bldg is so limited that is not really satisfying. Can't look out of a window because government regulations state blinds must be closed. So I never even know what the weather is. Can't listen to streaming internet radio as this is in violation of government regs. Can't socialize as the other contractors seem to feel that talking in a contract violation and the government people don't want to talk to contractors. Can't go to twitter as it is forbidden and actually I found it very boring ("I am in my car."; "My dogs are sick."; "I am listening to Jimi Hendrix.") So I work straight through each lunch at my desk and leave as soon as I possibly can. Previously I've worked in open office environments where everyone can see everyone and there are at least 90 degrees of windows. These cube farms make me claustrophobic. I need to get out of here.

Dilberter
Dilberter

Realize that other people have to work in what used to be glorified Broom-Closets ( for the Janitors ). I worked in them for the US Navy and the DOT. When I finally got a cubicle again on another project; I broke down! HA!

ckelley2
ckelley2

I have no windows in my office so I bought one of those hydroponic gardens. I have peppers and lettuce growing under the growlights which are full-spectrum. My colleagues do kid me about what I am growing - a plant that would get anyone fired! The lights really do make me happier, especially in the summer since I am missing all of the real sunshine.

HLecter
HLecter

I keep weights in my cube (2 - 20lb dumbells). Pumping iron + stretches = feel better faster.

wjrumpf
wjrumpf

3. Point your PC to an internet radio station ? Earlier this year, our LAN virtually died on Inauguration Day because everyone wanted to watch it on their PCs. Granted, audio is lower bandwidth than video, but it's still data that must be transported through your LAN. 4. Use social networking sited at work ? The Dept of Defense is blocking access to these sites for good reason. Not only is it a waste of valuable work time, it's also a security violation.

Neon Samurai
Neon Samurai

now that would be some creative fun. I do like my RC model chopper too. The four rotar chinook style with gyro sensor is very stable for indoor flight.

joeller
joeller

Working from home would be lovely. Unfortunately Mostly the company makes out contracts that require us to work on the client site, which means the government pays the company less. This means that the company and the government frown on working off site. Only in an emergency (like my surgery next week,) and only for small amount of non-classified and non-FOUO work carried out.

bmaryott
bmaryott

That's probably the best answer. Sadly, not everyone is geared to make that work. (And you really wouldn't want the competition...)

hampson
hampson

Watch for any electrical equipment or dry-clean only clothing. I think Nerf (R) is less likely to cause dampage.

maecuff
maecuff

the point of going to work is to work. But..anyone who claims to be productive for 8 hours is either lying or insane. We're human. We have limitations. There isn't anything wrong with taking a few minutes doing something NOT work related to transistion to a different task.

bmaryott
bmaryott

Sadly, the programs they use for eRadio are poorly written. Open up a network monitor and then start your favorite radio program/site. Multiply that effect by the number of people that work there. Not pretty.

Navyman
Navyman

We have about 40 computers just in my office alone, and then there are the sales people, the product support people with there lap tops. Then the training room. If we had the internet open to radio (which is band anyway, no other radios) the bandwidth would be bogged down.

jdallaire
jdallaire

Now THAT's a really cool idea! I can just hear the ribbing now.... I think I'll have to stop by the greenhouse and see what they have that I can setup in the office. Many co-workers have potted plants in their cubicles, but leave it to me to just want to be different. :-D

FortBragg_Surfgoddess
FortBragg_Surfgoddess

However, you shouldn't use the IT resources for streaming media and or Twitter/Facebook... That is company money you are using... Yep like I am now...

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

[i]There isn't anything wrong with taking a few minutes doing something NOT work related to transistion to a different task. [/i] Relieving a bit of stress before returning to the current task.

joeller
joeller

I assume you are aware why it was considered bad for the pot to call the kettle "black"? (And I am not just referring to the fact that they both are.)

maecuff
maecuff

As long as you're good with the whole pot and kettle thing. :)

maecuff
maecuff

Not so much. Although, I suspect your behavior is fairly normal. Most people just won't admit to being ass scratching nose pickers.

santeewelding
santeewelding

I'm known to break and reach back down deep to scratch my ass, making sure ain't nobody looking. Then, there's nose picking. Wanna know more?

maecuff
maecuff

And people who don't..again, are either lying or are freakish machines who aren't really human. We have a few of those here.