Slow burn

So there are various reasons why I quit blogging and various reasons why I might start again, but let’s simplify and say: burnout.

I used to be the world’s most proactive person. I finished everything way ahead of schedule, sometimes to the annoyance of teachers and bosses. But after years of working and going to school at night and some constant low-level health woes, a funny thing happened. I learned to procrastinate. Need to send documentation of physical therapy to an insurance company? Maybe tomorrow. Teeny-tiny task that could be done no sooner than I could snap my fingers (if I could snap my fingers)? Eh, I’ll get to it eventually. Blog post that I could write but no one might read? Yeah, guess how that turned out.

It’s hard not to view this state of affairs as a personal failing, even though I can see how it arose out of years being busy and miserable and diligent. So it was fortuitous that I read Anne Helen Petersen’s article about millennial burnout, and I would encourage you to do the same. (Seriously; it’s way better and more comprehensive than anything I say here. I’ll wait.)

Did the article resonate with me? I can’t even count the ways. First of all, over the course of an evening I kept trying to read it and things intervened (chatting friends, knee stretches, a really urgent crossword puzzle). This inability to complete a simple task in itself is indicative of burnout. Petersen talks about the wave of articles criticizing millennials for putting off basic life tasks like mailing letters, registering to vote, doing the laundry—all while often managing larger endeavors like holding a job or going to school. Why are millennials so damn lazy?

Well, maybe that’s not the right word. Maybe our sense that we are constantly on call both professionally (got any outstanding work emails?) and personally (have you uploaded a glamorous shot to Instagram today or made a clever tweet?) is burning us out.

What is burnout exactly? Petersen discusses the common millennial belief that if we follow the right path—get good grades, work hard, get a good job—we will succeed. For a lot of structural reasons which she gets into and I will gloss over here, but which I’m sure you can imagine (student loans and financial crises are a couple), that isn’t really the case. We get caught up in a cycle of working ever harder and, rather than this increased productivity leading to more leisure time, we’re never able to take a break for fear of falling behind.

This cycle results in burnout, a psychological diagnosis Petersen explains was originally applied by psychologist Herbert Freudenberger to cases of “physical or mental collapse caused by overwork or stress.” Burnout isn’t just a brief state of exhaustion; it’s the culmination of pushing and pushing for ages, while never feeling you’ve completed anything sufficiently to take a break. Know the feeling?

I know I do. I can recognize it in what I’ve always glibly described as “learning to procrastinate.” I recognize it when I feel overwhelmed by the list of tickets and reservations in my inbox, even though they’re for fun things; when I spend weekend mornings “catching up on” the internet, as if that is an achievable goal; when I sign up to help out with a political group because I want to be involved, only to feel paralyzed by not being able to finish even a simple task while I wait for other volunteers to get back to me.

As Petersen puts it: “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. Maybe my inability to get the knives sharpened is less about being lazy and more about being too good, for too long, at being a millennial.”

I suspect that I, like Petersen, have been too good at being a millennial. Like her, I do not know how to solve burnout, or think that it’s solvable, really. But I appreciate knowing I’m not alone, and having a new way to think about the dread I feel when faced with my backlog of Times crosswords. I hope you will as well.

PS: I spent about a week trying to come up with a good inaugural topic. Once I realized I’d told about six people to read the burnout article, I decided I might have more to say about it. And I like the trick of attempting to counteract my creative burnout by writing about it. I hope something sparks.


3 thoughts on “Slow burn

  1. Wow that article. Both as it applies to me and as it applies to my hardworking, bewilderingly.anxious high-schools RS.


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