From Errand Fatigue and Self-Optimization to Finding Clarity in the Burnout Generation
I was half-asleep, groggy on a Monday morning, already battling a sense of existential fatigue, when I happened across Anne Helen Petersen’s article for BuzzFeed, “How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation.” In it, Petersen put a name to something I was already feeling that day–the inability of otherwise capable young adults to complete simple tasks like registering to vote or getting their shoes repaired. The name: errand fatigue. The cause: millennial burnout.
Petersen posits that millennials often struggle to complete simple chores because we are burned out in every other area of our lives, from our growing student loan debts to our slow-to-rise careers. She also casts a light on a uniquely millennial problem–an obsessive self-optimization that’s turned everything from social media to our fashion choices into vehicles for obtaining and doing more work. Athleisure, for instance, allows the wearer to “transition seamlessly from an exercise class to a Skype meeting to child pickup, while Amazon Go and FreshDirect free us from the nuisance of grocery shopping so we can do more work,” she writes.
On her own errand paralysis and the discovery that it stemmed from burnout, Petersen writes:
“That realization recast my recent struggles: Why can’t I get this mundane stuff done? Because I’m burned out. Why am I burned out? Because I’ve internalized the idea that I should be working all the time. Why have I internalized that idea? Because everything and everyone in my life has reinforced it —explicitly and implicitly — since I was young. Life has always been hard, but many millennials are unequipped to deal with the particular ways in which it’s become hard for us.”
I’m intimately familiar with the concept of burnout, but I was intrigued by the prospect that it could be a generation wide phenomenon.
Personally, I’ve experienced bouts of burnout for years. My first serious episode occurred in July 2012, when I was living in Beijing and had just finished my first year of self-employment. Finding myself increasingly numb and unmotivated, I laid in bed and drank a bottle of wine in the hopes of inspiring a good drunk cry, just so I could feel something. Finally, on a friend’s suggestion, I took a couple of months off to visit Thailand, fully intending on doing nothing but eating delicious, inexpensive street food, basking in the sunshine, and resting. But instead, I arrived in beautiful Chiang Mai and promptly resumed working. At least I was doing it from paradise!
In the five and a half years since, I’ve had countless breakdowns, many more bouts of depression, and developed a panic disorder. I have sobbed with exhaustion, screamed into pillows, stared dead-eyed at my computer screen filled with loathing toward my work and myself.
I’ve known all along my burnout is a problem. I’ve been to therapy, bought calming teas, recommitted myself to doing Yoga With Adriene on a daily basis. But none of that really helped me understand the root problems, one of which is the relentless self-optimization Petersen describes. A little yoga and lavender tea can’t turn back years of mind-numbing work schedules, relentless anxiety over student loans, and worrying if I’ve achieved enough to allow myself happiness.
In 2018, my equally self-employed partner and I decided to break the cycle. We’d spend the winter in a remote part of Canada. Absurd? Maybe. But the cozy, lakefront cabin rental seemed to promise the quiet and respite we so badly needed.
Soon after arriving, I booked an appointment with a massage therapist because my burnout had begun manifesting in excruciating back and neck pain. As I lay there on her table, she told me, “You need to rest, deeply. Your body really, really needs a break. You’re burned out, there’s nothing more to give.”
Nothing more to give. That’s how I felt so much of the time, even during our first months at the cabin. Despite hoping that a change of scenery would change my ways, I fell back into the same old patterns. Working into the evenings, working on the weekends. Working to pay off debt, working so we could visit family for the holidays without going further into debt, working for a sense of validation, working, working, working. And crying. Crying because I was tired, because I couldn’t think straight, because I didn’t think anyone else would understand.
Then I read Petersen’s article and I felt like someone saw me. Someone got it. Her piece gave context, explanation, and meaning to the existential exhaustion and anxiety I had felt for years.
The one thing it didn’t give was a solution. Petersen rightly notes that a week’s vacation is no match for millennial burnout. The problem is systemic and insidious, and the path forward will be different for us all.
This is where my second transformative text comes in: Shauna Niequist’s “Present Over Perfect.” If Petersen laid plain the problem of millennial Burnout, Niequist provided the antidote, at least for me. In her words, too, I felt my own experience reflected to me; a cycle of exhaustion, resentment, people-pleasing, and yearning for something more.
I suddenly realized how much my exhaustion was taking away from my life. Petersen puts it so well when she writes, “That’s one of the most ineffable and frustrating expressions of burnout: It takes things that should be enjoyable and flattens them into a list of tasks, intermingled with other obligations that should either be easily or dutifully completed. The end result is that everything, from wedding celebrations to registering to vote, becomes tinged with resentment and anxiety and avoidance.”
I wanted to feel my life. I wanted to remember the little moments and the big ones, to feel excited about celebrations to come, and to wake up joyfully each day instead of battling the ball of anxiety and dread knotting in my stomach. Niequist’s answer to her own lack of connectedness was to do some serious soul-searching about why achievement had mattered so much to her and why she had sacrificed everything she held sacred for outward appearances of success. I began asking myself the same questions, and I’m still trying to find the answers.
But to start, I needed to give myself time to think. When you’re tired into your bones, one good night’s rest isn’t going to bring you back to your full self. That’ll take a while—and I’m not there yet.
However, my partner and I sat down a few days after reading the BuzzFeed article and set some new house rules: no working past 5 p.m. and absolutely no working on the weekends. If something doesn’t get done, it stays undone until the next workday and we must learn how to be OK with that. We must learn to let go of work so we can start living again.
The other rule is no more optimization, at least not for now. That doesn’t mean we don’t have goals and dreams. But it does mean we aren’t scheduling every second of our days for maximal productivity, whether related to work, hobbies, or working out.
We don’t even schedule plans with each other because when you’ve been burned out for the past five and a half years, even fun things feel like chores when they’re scheduled. We’re relearning how to be spontaneous and how to be OK with spending our downtime according to our whims. That may sound silly, but it’s been profound so far. Giving myself unstructured time—even when there are 20 items left on today’s to-do list— has allowed for moments of clarity I haven’t had in a long while.
As I write this, my back hurts again. I’m mentally drained after spending the morning on a grueling round of edits. I’m a little worried about money, and probably more than a little worried about whether I’m adequately keeping up with my peers career-and life-wise. The factors that contribute to burnout run deep, and they are not easily eradicated.
But it’s 4:46 p.m. and I’m signing off for the day. I won’t check my email again until 11 a.m., even if I wake up panicked over an assignment in the middle of the night. And that’s a start.
A month ago, I would have worked until 7 or 8 p.m., then sulked around the kitchen until my partner made dinner because I was too tired to cook. I would have woken up depressed the next day about the endless monotony of it all, the never-ending stream of To Dos, and the feeling that my life is slipping by and that I’m too tired to stop it from happening.
But thanks to the sage writings of Anne Helen Petersen and Shauna Niequist, I’ve found the strength to care a little bit less about the To Dos. I’m not as concerned about the dishes that need done or that I still need to find a new tax preparer or emails I was supposed to respond to and haven’t yet. The things that matter will get done, and the rest … just won’t. Being OK with that—celebrating it, even—is my first act of rebellion against my own millennial burnout.