When Helen Anne Peterson coined the phrase errand paralysis in her now-infamous article How Millennials Became The Burnout Generation, Stylist’s Chloe Gray felt seen. So she set out to find if there’s anything that can be done to save her from drowning in ASOS returns.
The first step to fixing your problem is admitting you have one, so here it goes. I have 1,988 unread emails on my Gmail account. I have £55 of ASOS returns, a £45 Bershka dress and £60 worth of Topshop shoes bagged up next to my door, but I won’t post them. It took me a year to fill out and send off my application for my Canadian passport, despite how much I was panicking about Brexit. My name is Chloe Gray and I can’t get anything done; I officially have errand paralysis.
The amount of conversations I’ve had with parents and friends who are baffled at my inability to deal with admin is embarrassing, but it’s not just because I can’t be arsed. Errand paralysis is a mental block, a wall that we constantly run into whenever we look at our to-do list. It feels like I’m in a cartoon movie where the words on the page and in my head swirl until I feel sick. Helen Anne Peterson perfectly summarised what it looks like in her article How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation: “I’d put something on my to-do list and it’d roll over, one week to the next, haunting me for months.”
Let’s note that it’s only specific tasks that I’m battling with. It’s not filing copy on time or preparing for meetings. In fact, I very rarely fail to finish professional tasks, perhaps because completing work is non-negotiable if I want to remain employed, but also because I love my job. In contrast, it’s the minutiae of life that I simply can’t do. It’s the parcel returns and the dishwasher unloading and the cheque depositing. It is, in the words of Peterson, “the stuff that wouldn’t make my job easier or my work better” that errand paralysis sufferers like me struggle with.
It’s a symptom of burnout which, while new, isn’t a rare phenomenon. In the UK, 74% of people have suffered stress so badly they’ve felt overwhelmed or unable to cope. It’s got so bad that the World Health Organisation announced that burnout will be officially recognised as a disease from 2022. Burning out has officially become the millennial normal.
But errand paralysis is a more specific problem than stress and depression. There are no stats to say how many suffer or where it’s come from, but a quick poll of friends and colleagues expresses a similar feeling: we just can’t handle our personal admin.
I know that my failure to complete certain tasks isn’t down to how boring they are because it’s not always been like this for me. Going back a decade or so to my teenage years, my friends would pass me their Blackberry phones to organise and streamline apps and chats. Even at university, my weekly shop was always done and I regularly felt the accomplishment that comes with a full petrol tank. I can’t quite work out when that spark for completing jobs died out.
Millennials, those aged 22-37, are often classed as the lazy generation. The milestone of ‘adulthood’ is ever aging: whereas previously people were assumed to be fully-formed adults at 18, a recent study suggested we weren’t getting there until we 24, while some scientists suggest it’s more like 30. One assumption is that, because our phones do everything for us, we don’t need to learn adult skills. We don’t go shopping, we order clothes from our phone. We don’t cook, we get Deliveroo. We don’t ponder the universe, we Google it. In a world where ‘there’s an app for that’ we’ve managed to outsource almost everything.
But Dr Zeena Feldman, digital culture expert from King’s College London, tells me that time-saving technology isn’t giving us a free pass to relax. “I don’t think laziness necessarily exists,” she explains. “One of the side effects of [these apps] is this feeling like you can get so much more done.” She’s right. For most of us, this saved time isn’t spent at the pub (there’s a reason they’re on the decline, after all). Rather, we end up filling it with work, brand-building and personal development.
Practical after-work time, in which we shop or visit the dentist, isn’t really a thing anymore. For some it’s because their day jobs spill into the night. For me, evenings are booked up with my very millennial side hustle of podcasting, plus attempting to stay on top of and be part of cultural conversations. Reading the news and hunting down ideas may not seem pressing, but in an over saturated job market (especially in my media world), “millennials needed to optimise ourselves to be the very best workers possible” as Peterson says.
“Where the cost of living is incredibly high, we’re all under a lot of pressure to maintain whatever work we have going. And often it’s the personal that gets sacrificed,” says Dr. Feldman.
The answer then is surely to stop prioritising our professional lives over our personal ones? If only it were that simple. “I suppose if you want to be cynical, you might say that our friendships aren’t going to pay our rent,” says Dr Feldman. Amid a housing crisis, freelance culture and, frankly, crap income, we can’t risk not working at 200% capacity.
Maybe this is a first world problem, but I also feel paralysed by our consumer based world. An example? I got so excited about the thought of shopping for a dress for my birthday, but when it came to searching the 6,000 options online I got agitated, overwhelmed and bought nothing, leaving me running around Oxford Street with T-3 hours until the party.
Even with the more menial tasks like ordering light bulbs or a laptop case, I panic and leave the purchase on my to-do list. “We’re told that the internet is the ultimate tool that will find the truth, the best answer and the right thing. Often, that’s just an illusion,” Dr Feldman tells me.
So how do we solve it?
Unfortunately ditching our jobs, our phones and capitalism isn’t really a viable solution for most of us. “Cut yourself a bit of slack, because everybody suffers from this at some point in their life,” explains psychotherapist and counsellor Beverley Hills when I reach out for some help. “If you’ve got errand paralysis you are caught up in the cycle of anxiety.”
This, she explains to me, is when we don’t do a task, and then feel guilt at doing something wrong, which then builds into shame that we are bad people. “Then that makes us even more paralysed. The key is to break out of that cycle.”
Writing lists to distinguish between what’s urgent (as in, needs to be done now) and what is important (meaning it can’t be skipped, but can be put off until tomorrow or next week), treating yourself to an ice cream or pedicure or movie marathon when you complete a task (“it sounds terribly indulgent, but sometimes you need to motivate yourself”) and setting a timer to “activate” yourself are all practical steps she shares with me.
But the most interesting step is to delegate. It seems counter-productive: how do we break free of feeling incapable of doing things by getting other people to do them? And doesn’t it just feed into the idea of millennial optimisation, simply freeing up more time to work? No, because Hills’ approach is about engaging with other people, rather than technology.
She tells me that we can realistically only complete about 80% of tasks ourselves - the other 20% we need help for. “Talk to somebody about it,” encourages Hills. “See if anybody else is suffering from the same thing. Maybe you can help each other.” That also means taking your paralysis seriously, too: “If you’re really anxious about it, and you’re waking up sweating in the middle of the night, it’s time to call a counsellor.”
She tells me how she got her husband to book their holiday because apartment hunting was too admin heavy with too many decisions. To him, booking a holiday was joyous. What is one woman’s trash is another woman’s treasure. And while you probably won’t find many willing to go out of their way to drag your sack of returns to the post office, there’s no shame in asking your housemate to add your parcel to the pile if she’s already planning a trip. We shouldn’t be too embarrassed to get our friends to book the table for dinner when we feel incapable of deciding whether we want pad Thai or pizza. Ridding yourself of this shame is the only way to break the cycle.
I know I also need to rid myself of the idea that I have to be the best version of my professional self. Rid myself of the shame I feel when I opt to do the washing up instead of reading a viral feature, or when I spend the evening on hold to my bank instead of creating a podcast. I’ve realised that those tasks, and even being able to simply do nothing, are just as important to becoming a fully-functioning adult. And I’m sure I can focus better when my inbox is empty.
Images: Getty and Unsplash