I was recently hired to work in a film production office in midtown Manhattan. The job itself came through a personal connection, and despite my active disinterest in pursuing a career in the movies, it was a job, and I needed one. If you are not familiar with the world of a production office you might be as shocked as I was to learn that my boss expected 12 hour workdays, at the minimum.
In the first few weeks many days stretched beyond 14 hours: they were marathon hauls of secretarial labors in a harshly lit office, working with people accustomed, or enamored with an industry I found myself involved with only circumstantially. Bit by bit, I decided to steal back some of what I was giving them.
To be 100% percent above board, I have a long personal history of workplace theft. My first job, working for the City of Cambridge’s Mayor’s Summer Youth program – meant to help kids stay off the street – was the beginning of my career-path criminality. As a park supervisor, 14-year-old me showed up to the quaint, beautiful Hancock Street Park with a bag of balls, board games, and art supplies. I held a simple role: half park politician, and half babysitter. I resolved minor disputes between nannies, moms, and the occasional drunk homeless man who decided to enter the park completely oblivious to the thirty-five young children running around playing.
All in all it was an idyllic job. I worked from eight-thirty in the morning to three in the afternoon, unless it rained. Then I would not work at all. From mid-June to the end of August, I worked in the park, and from the first day I stole time from my employer.
What does it mean to “steal time,” you ask? In my case it meant reading from when I clocked in till around 11:00, when the first children arrived. I read voraciously that summer, as well as the next two summers that I worked that job. Chekhov, Roth, Nabokov, Tolstoy, Fitzgerald, Woolf, Zadie Smith, Hanif Kureishi – I read from the reading lists my high school English teachers gave out in June.
I couldn’t read and do my job at the same time. Reading at work really meant that I wasn’t working. But did reading affect my “work-place productivity?” To figure that out I’d have to somehow measure efficiency on a job where I made masks for three year olds. I don’t think my reading did anyone harm, and it did me a great deal of good. Still, it wasn’t what I should have been doing. I was reclaiming time back from my job, shamelessly re-gifting it to myself.
With my nose in a book, I slowly developed the habits and mores of a scofflaw. From that first job on, throughout my early employment, I read on the clock. Maybe an article on my iPhone, secreted during a bathroom break, or a magazine secreted among the paperwork on my desk. Once I started working in an office I could explore all the various corners of the Internet, during dull moments, without much trouble.
On my current job, I have become more aware of my thievery, of the fact that I am a cubicle crook. Apart from reading The New Yorker online, I’ll have Twitter open behind all the Excel spreadsheets and email drafts, or the text message group chat I share with two friends who also work in New York. We iMessage each other from our computers. At noon I may email my parents, or my sister, who works several blocks from me, and later in the day I have been known to “like” a Facebook post or two as I answer calls from my bosses.
My sister sometimes says, “Can’t chat, got to work,” reminding me that she is less distractible than I am, and correspondingly more successful.
What are the ethical implications of my crimes? What are the roots of such nefarious behaviors? Is it some particular kind of millennial entitlement that leads me to believe that some personal interest, all that content I energetically consume, is more important than my workplace duties? I don’t know, but I would argue that despite my infractions, I work pretty damn hard. I don’t ignore my job, and someone peering over my shoulder has never reprimanded me upon catching The New York Review of Books on my screen instead of an Excel document in need of substantial sorting.
The flip side of my 23-year-old self-importance may be a job that requires me to spend my day on my computer with my email open at the ready. My cellphone number has been handed out liberally to a variety of people who expect to be able to reach me at all the odd and normal hours of the day. Part of my time-theft comes from the ready availability of these distractions, the apps that glow so invitingly on my cell phone screen, the bings and blips that arrive on my computer with mechanical regularity, reminding me of an entire world outside of my job.
I don’t mean to draw a portrait of myself as some sort of passive agent bombarded by the detritus of the web. But at some level my job has asked me to open myself to communication and the result has been a healthy flow, probably more than my employer had bargained for.
Luckily, my near super-human efficiency when actually focusing has allowed my most egregious time wasting to go unnoticed. Or maybe it’s the twelve-hour daily schedule I am on that allows for such waste. In an effort to unburden my consciousness I think I’ll fill out my time card for the week with a measure of honesty new to me. I’ll subtract a few hours on Thursday for “Day Dreaming of the Existential Nature,” and several more on Friday due to “Looking at Pictures of My Crush on Instagram.”
Gordon Slater is a freelance writer from Cambridge, MA.