By: Anne Helen Petersen – buzzfeednews.com – January 5, 2019
“I tried to register for the 2016 election, but it was beyond the deadline by the time I tried to do it,” a man named Tim, age 27, explained to New York magazine last fall. “I hate mailing stuff; it gives me anxiety.” Tim was outlining the reasons why he, like 11 other millennials interviewed by the magazine, probably wouldn’t vote in the 2018 midterm election. “The amount of work logically isn’t that much,” he continued. “Fill out a form, mail it, go to the specific place on a specific day. But those kind of tasks can be hard for me to do if I’m not enthusiastic about it.”
Tim goes on to admit that some friends had helped him register to vote, and he planned to probably make it happen for the midterms. But his explanation — even though, as he noted, his struggle in this case was caused in part by his ADHD — triggered the contemporary tendency to dunk on millennials’ inability to complete seemingly basic tasks. Grow up, the overall sentiment goes. Life is not that hard. “So this is the way the world ends,” HuffPost congressional reporter Matt Fuller tweeted. “Not with a bang but with a bunch of millennials who don’t know how to mail things.”
Explanations like Tim’s are at the core of the millennial reputation: We’re spoiled, entitled, lazy, and failures at what’s come to be known as “adulting,” a word invented by millennials as a catchall for the tasks of self-sufficient existence. Expressions of “adulting” do often come off as privileged astonishment at the realities of, well, life: that you have to pay bills and go to work; that you have to buy food and cook it if you want to eat it; that actions have consequences. Adulting is hard because life is hard — or, as a Bustle article admonishes its readers, “everything is hard if you want to look at it that way.”
Millennials love to complain about other millennials giving them a bad name. But as I fumed about this 27-year-old’s post office anxiety, I was deep in a cycle of a tendency, developed over the last five years, that I’ve come to call “errand paralysis.” I’d put something on my weekly to-do list, and it’d roll over, one week to the next, haunting me for months.
None of these tasks were that hard: getting knives sharpened, taking boots to the cobbler, registering my dog for a new license, sending someone a signed copy of my book, scheduling an appointment with the dermatologist, donating books to the library, vacuuming my car. A handful of emails — one from a dear friend, one from a former student asking how my life was going — festered in my personal inbox, which I use as a sort of alternative to-do list, to the point that I started calling it the “inbox of shame.”
It’s not as if I were slacking in the rest of my life. I was publishing stories, writing two books, making meals, executing a move across the country, planning trips, paying my student loans, exercising on a regular basis. But when it came to the mundane, the medium priority, the stuff that wouldn’t make my job easier or my work better, I avoided it.
My shame about these errands expands with each day. I remind myself that my mom was pretty much always doing errands. Did she like them? No. But she got them done. So why couldn’t I get it together — especially when the tasks were all, at first glance, easily completed? I realized that the vast majority of these tasks shares a common denominator: Their primary beneficiary is me, but not in a way that would actually drastically improve my life. They are seemingly high-effort, low-reward tasks, and they paralyze me — not unlike the way registering to vote paralyzed millennial Tim.
Tim and I are not alone in this paralysis. My partner was so stymied by the multistep, incredibly (and purposefully) confusing process of submitting insurance reimbursement forms for every single week of therapy that for months he just didn’t send them — and ate over $1,000. Another woman told me she had a package sitting unmailed in the corner of her room for over a year. A friend admitted he’s absorbed hundreds of dollars in clothes that don’t fit because he couldn’t manage to return them. Errand paralysis, post office anxiety — they’re different manifestations of the same affliction.
For the past two years, I’ve refused cautions — from editors, from family, from peers — that I might be edging into burnout. To my mind, burnout was something aid workers, or high-powered lawyers, or investigative journalists dealt with. It was something that could be treated with a week on the beach. I was still working, still getting other stuff done — of course I wasn’t burned out.
But the more I tried to figure out my errand paralysis, the more the actual parameters of burnout began to reveal themselves. Burnout and the behaviors and weight that accompany it aren’t, in fact, something we can cure by going on vacation. It’s not limited to workers in acutely high-stress environments. And it’s not a temporary affliction: It’s the millennial condition. It’s our base temperature. It’s our background music. It’s the way things are. It’s our lives.
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.
So what now? Should I meditate more, negotiate for more time off, delegate tasks within my relationship, perform acts of self-care, and institute timers on my social media? How, in other words, can I optimize myself to get those mundane tasks done and theoretically cure my burnout? As millennials have aged into our thirties, that’s the question we keep asking — and keep failing to adequately answer. But maybe that’s because it’s the wrong question altogether.
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