On errand paralysis

I have a new pair of jeans that need to be hemmed. I actually bought the jeans a few months ago, and marked where they needed to be hemmed. I put them in the dry-cleaning pile, which my husband takes on weekends to the dry cleaner we’ve used for years, the business that also does our alterations. Alas, the dry cleaner is under new ownership, and the new people (quite reasonably) didn’t understand the old system we had for marking clothes that needed alterations. So my jeans returned at the same length, but dry cleaned.

However — you might be happy to note — this boomeranged errand has not resulted in my needing to write an angst-ridden essay about how difficult it is to accomplish errands in this difficult world, or even an essay on patriarchal assumptions of mental load (did my husband not have a conversation with the dry cleaners about what I wished done with my pants because he’s trying to make a point that cleaning and altering our clothes should be my job?? Given that he’s been bringing our stuff to the dry cleaners for the 15 years I have lived with him, this would be a rather delayed move in this battle.)

Instead, I put it back on my list. I figured out a spot of time I might deal with the problem. I devised a new method of indicating I needed my pants hemmed (clearly marking the hems with multiple pins and then safety-pinning a note describing the alterations to the pants). I put the jeans in the pile on a week in which my husband is also getting a pair of pants hemmed, with him also adopting my pin-and-note system, thus increasing the likelihood that the dry cleaners will notice and that my husband will mention it when he goes in. It would have been nice if it happened the first time, but life seldom goes perfectly. When it goes wrong, you figure out what happened, and you try again. In the grand scheme of things, this is not exactly a big deal.

People who read a lot of online essays might have already guessed that I just made it through the “How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation” essay BuzzFeed published about two weeks ago. Author Anne Helen Petersen, who seems to be in her late 30s, writes that Millennials are gripped in the throes of “errand paralysis.” But it’s not because people are lazy. It’s because life is overwhelming. “‘To adult’ is to complete your to-do list — but everything goes on the list, and the list never ends,” she notes. She writes that young people have spent their lives being told if they just worked harder and made the right decisions, life would go swimmingly. But in an uncertain economy where jobs-for-life are rare, it turns out there are no certain decisions. You have to keep figuring things out, trying things that sometimes don’t work. Which, apparently, is a really hard thing to get your head around. “The end result is that everything, from wedding celebrations to registering to vote, becomes tinged with resentment and anxiety and avoidance.” Her conclusion is that “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.”

It was a long essay. It roped in everything from Marie Kondo to being worried about war with North Korea. It was also perfectly designed to be shared, with people who felt it described them wanting to share it to say “hey, I’m not lazy! Larger forces are keeping me down!” and other people sharing it with the sentiment “you have got to be kidding.” There’s a lot to pull out of here if your sentiments tend toward the latter. Petersen wants us to know that “While writing this piece, I was orchestrating a move, planning travel, picking up prescriptions, walking my dog, trying to exercise, making dinner, attempting to participate in work conversations on Slack, posting photos to social media, and reading the news. I was waking up at 6 a.m. to write, packing boxes over lunch, moving piles of wood at dinner, falling into bed at 9. I was on the treadmill of the to-do list: one damn thing after another.” Many readers of this blog might note the absence of caregiving responsibilities on this list. Waking up at 6 a.m. to write sounds like a day at the spa when you’re in a world where your baby wakes you up at 5 a.m. to eat, after having fought sleep the night before. Falling into bed at 9 and staying there? Wow!

But I don’t think it’s tremendously helpful to get into a game of whose life is harder. The life of anyone with the ability to read this essay and the internet connection to find it is a walk in the park compared with a lot of the world, so parsing gradations of victimhood is not the best use of anyone’s time.

Instead, I think there’s a certain helpful mindset for getting through life. I feel that being “productive” means spending time on things that are meaningful or enjoyable to ourselves or the people we care about. Of course, there are also plenty of things in life that don’t fit in any of these categories. They also still need to get done. Does this mean that not all time is spent productively? Yes! We can try to minimize these things, or do them efficiently, or outsource them if possible, and all of these are great ideas, but the idea that all of life will be perfectly optimized is just ridiculous. We acknowledge this tacitly by spending, say, 45 pointless minutes on Twitter. But the idea that one might need to go to the post office and wait in line? Cue the angst.

But this angst is a choice. You can also decide that there are some good moments in life and some not-so-fun moments. Such is the human condition. Oh well. My approach to errands is just to put those I can’t delegate on the list, choose a time to do them, and do them. While it would be nice to get a trophy for these errands, sadly, the trophy is not forthcoming. Instead, we can give ourselves a little internal pat on the back and move on.

While writing this essay, I took a break to go put gas in my car, since there wasn’t going to be a great time to do this later. This was fairly thankless and not fun, as I had to scrape the snow off my car and maneuver around the trash cans at the end of my driveway (as the snow is delaying pick-up — which is actually a tough job on a day like today, as opposed to waking up at 6 a.m. to write, but I digress). Then, when I showed up at the gas station, the pumps that I can easily access that match the side my gas tank is on were all in use. I had to turn around and enter the gas station from a different side!

So I did. Perhaps there is a metaphor for life in this. Or maybe it just is life sometimes. I’ll probably go with the latter.

In other news: Last week I posted an essay warning people to be careful with the word “crazy.” I mentioned the anecdote from The Ambition Decisions where a woman’s Rethinking of Everything was sparked by being in 3 countries in 24 hours. In a conversation with my husband yesterday, I realized that he had pulled that hat trick again this week. He flew Sunday night from PHL to London. He had meetings in London on Monday. Early Tuesday, he flew to Geneva (Switzerland) for meetings. Geneva apparently had a lot going on, because he couldn’t get a hotel room and wound up staying over the border in France, which sounds exotic, but is actually only a few miles away. So not only was he in the UK, Switzerland, and France in the course of 16 hours, he had hit 4 countries in less than 48 hours.  All this while I spent much of the first half of the week in Texas! Yet as far as I can tell, this has not inspired a Rethinking of Anything, let alone of everything. I’m now home and he’s now home and going to the dry cleaner in his usual fashion. We can choose how to tell our stories.


28 thoughts on “On errand paralysis

    1. I’m 61, and realised 6 years ago that I was burnt out so I gave up work, hoping that I had enough to get me through to my various small pensions, and enough books and records to listen to. It just worries me that these are the good old days of our children, and they are going to get used to things the way they are.

  1. Thank you for posting this. I read the article and could definitely relate to sometimes having the “errand paralysis” feeling, but I don’t think its got anything to do with my age or background (I’m 30, so definitely a millennial), it just happens sometimes when I lose focus or motivation. I agree that its not some kind of generational phenomenon that we’re victims to.

    The thing that this article really *did* made me think about is how much pressure we put on ourselves to “optimize” our lives, how multitasking has become the norm, and we often can feel guilty for “not doing enough” to make ourselves successful (whatever that looks like). I don’t know that this feeling is unique to millennials, but it definitely made me more conscious of the self-improvement media we constantly consume.

    I am just a few weeks away form the birth of my first child, and up until now, I’ve been focused on ways to “optimize” my maternity leave – I mean, after all, I need to “make good use” of those 12 weeks off of work, right? Reading the burnout article helped me re-frame this time as an opportunity to, for once, focus on the truly important thing, and extend myself some grace in not “optimizing” at a ridiculous, unsustainable level.

    I am a big fan of you, Sarah, and your podcast, and its helped me to sift through a lot of the noise around doing “all the things” and focusing on what is important. It really helps to hear your experiences, as well as those of your guests. Thank you both 🙂

  2. I wondered if you’d have a take on this! I’m also not surprised at what your take is!
    And this, Laura, is because you’re not ‘adulting’, you’ve grown up. You’ve figured it out. You have optimised the errands because you’ve a system for getting them done. You have a list. Your husband makes regular visits to the dry cleaner. You learned how to pin your trouser hems.
    That’s actually one of the reasons why I follow your blog and your podcast. No one ever taught me or most of my peers how to organise our lives so that running errands isn’t stressful! I’m just hanging out here hoping that if I practise adulting long enough I might eventually figure it all out and grow up…

  3. You know what I wonder? I wonder if the internet existed during the time baby boomers or gen Xs were young, and one of them wrote an intentionally click baity article about the issues of their generation, would it be all about how they have it totally together? Would people from an older generation says “gosh these young people are great” or would they be criticizing them for struggling with things they see as easy?

    I would say every generation thinks the next one has it easy and all issues are the result of being spoiled and nothing else.

  4. Haha, your take definitely made me laugh. I haven’t read the article, but I do have that “errand paralysis” feeling, sometimes, and usually when I’m overwhelmed or stressed about something unrelated. So every other little “life maintenance” thing I have to do just seems like…too much. I realize its a phase, and eventually I will have the bandwidth for it and get the things done. Speaking of which, I do need to go to the dry cleaner and pick up a package this weekend!
    I will say that the constant focus these days (coming from some corners)to “optimize” and “hack” every second of life can get to your head, if you let it. The less and I read/listen/think about it and just go about my life, the better!

  5. I’m a big fan of your work, Laura, and enjoy Best of Both Worlds so much. But I find your response to this essay to be uncharacteristically ungenerous and snarky. While I do think the response to “tell a different story” about days or events or moments that are challenging can often be very helpful, it’s not a band-aid or universal strategy. There are structural reasons why many folks are struggling that are not solved by telling a different story; they need different material circumstances, and their ability to achieve more beneficial circumstances is not always in their control.

  6. Thank you for this! The errand paralysis she mentioned in the piece got me frustrated because _sometimes you just have to do the thing_. Letting it cause you angst makes it much bigger than it is or should be. Get it done and move on. I thought the piece was dripping millennial entitlement and a lack of ability to know the difference between things that need to get done and things that should get done.

  7. That BuzzFeed burnout essay is EVERYWHERE. I suspect we’ll hear soon that Anne Helen Peterson has scored a six figure publishing advance to write all about how burned out we are.

    Some of what she described is systemic. Student debt and the changing jobs/career landscape HAVE altered the trajectory of people in their 20s and 30s from previous generations.

    What I don’t like is her conclusion. If everything is rigged against the millennial, no one should be expected to do things like vote. It’s too darn hard to figure out those forms!

    There is a way to fight for systemic change without surrendering to despair, angst or malaise. Action really is the antidote to anxiety. Student debt is an institutional issues largely out of one individual’s control, and the way to change it is via legislation. We can and should make our voices heard through action–calling our legislators, donating money to campaigns if we can and volunteering. That is the only clear path to real institutional change.

    I write a lot about stoicism, because it’s the only approach I know that helps people to face reality and still be functional in their lives. Some people are a lot less privileged than others, the world has a lot of problems and we’re all going to die. The only sane course of action is to control what we CAN control in our life. This can and should include voting, being proactive in the way we manage our physical and mental health and doing errands that make our lives better. /endrant

  8. I actually think the “errand paralysis” is all about specific errands that are not especially smartphone-esque. I.e. things that cannot be done from the comfort of the couch. Things she mentions like getting knives sharpened, planning a wedding or registering to vote all involve leaving the house, interacting with strangers, etc. I’m willing to bet she doesn’t have any issues ordering a Lyft or packages from Amazon. I just can’t subscribe to the burnout theory. I think since the advent of the smartphone, people expect everything to be able to be done super quickly and that just is not always the case. I suspect there is a connection to why many parents today lament that their kids are so much work. Raising kids is hard work and the rewards are not always instant.

  9. I am just on the edge of being a millennial (1983) and a lot of what I read in this article screamed “Obliger” (from Gretchen Rubin’s 4 tendencies) to me. Her stance is that people are born with an inherent tendency but I wonder if somehow we have cultivated more millennials to be obligers than previous generations and they need more of the external accountability and encouragement to get on with their lives. I too struggle with errands (obliger!), because there is no accountability there (no one cares if I make that return except my checkbook) but I perform and do well at anything related to my job (where there is a high expectation to be a good employee!) With helicopter parenting and the dominance of social media in our lives, perhaps millenials are dependent upon that external stimulation in stronger or different ways than people who grew up with unstructured playtime or not knowing (and caring) what their classmates had for breakfast. I know Laura you are an upholder, so of course you don’t struggle with errands!

  10. Thank you Laura for writing this, I was so very interested to hear your take! When I first read the article (as a 54 year old mother of a 22 year old), I had the kneejerk reaction of “get over yourself”, this is what life is… we’re all burned out 🙂 But I read more and thought more about it, I do think that people without the traditional 8 to 5 office job, have really blurred the lines of work vs. non-work. And there are so many more people in that boat now, whether it’s because they can only find several part-time jobs to make ends meet or they are in a freelance career. In this age where your social media presence is your brand and you have to give your hot take on current issues asap, it just seems exhausting and I’m glad that it doesn’t apply to me.

    When my son was an infant, I had my own burnout period once I returned to work. I was lucky to be able to telecommute (via dialup!!) 2 days and be in the office 2 days. But I frequently did “catch up” work in a 2nd shift — sleep was scarce, I was always tired and crabby… My DH and I fought over the chores and mental load issues… But it got better over time, and I wrote down my hours (on paper) so I could see where the patterns were and make adjustments.

    I also thought that the author’s life is screaming for a Time Tracking analysis, because as you frequently say, when you know where you’re spending your time, then you can decide whether or not you want to change it and how to do it. For example, we all know about outsourcing house cleaning, but you can also outsource her knife sharpening task, dry cleaning, dropping off mail at the PO, etc. with millennial-friendly apps. Or block out time to group tasks together for a real feeling of accomplishment, which is how I like to do it.

    FYI, the author has posted a short followup with feedback from others, it’s also a good read: https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/annehelenpetersen/millennial-burnout-perspectives
    and another more personal update on her blog: https://annehelen.substack.com/ It’s that simple
    She says (similar to your line above about gradations of victimhood) that there are no Burnout Olympics – we don’t gain anything by pointing fingers about whose situation is worse, but we can learn from each other and make a difference as parents, coworkers, managers by not creating situations that lead to burnout for others.

  11. I think what things that are neither high urgency nor high importance can linger on a to-do list for some time. I’ve put off getting passports for my family because we don’t have any specific international travel plans and it requires getting everyone to one place during relatively limited business hours- feeling annoyed by how long it’s been on my “I should really do this” list isn’t sufficiently motivating in that context.
    I could accept that the process will be kind of a time suck and get it done anyway and thus bolster my self narrative of a Person Who Accomplishes Errands, or I could cut myself slack about to-do-list guilt and recognize it simply isn’t that crucial. Either approach is valid.

    We all choose what to prioritize, and optimizing along *one* parameter (such as time) is easier than optimizing along *several* parameters (such as cost, time and personal values).

    For example, if getting your jeans hemmed required that you had first bought used jeans (because otherwise you are creating a greater demand for fast fashion which exacerbates labor issues in the garment industry); second washed them yourself (because drycleaning is unnecessary for things that do not wrinkle and is quite bad for the environment as well as the personal health of people in the drycleaning business); third bought a sewing machine (because you used to love to sew and you just can’t bear to think of yourself as a person who cannot simply hem her own pants); and fourth gone to Walmart (which you hate, and which is further from your home) because for some unfathomable reason Target does not carry thread, then you might be me. Much of that isn’t logical for other people at all (indeed, some of it *I* should probably critically interrogate- I’ll add that to my self-improvement to-do list right away).

    Anyway, that brings me to what I found relatable about Peterson’s perspective: sometimes things are hard because I am *trying to optimize too many things that pull me in too many directions*. For some people, that manifests as “work life balance” constraints. For some people, that manifests as “trying to find a job that pays the bills, uses my skills, and isn’t totally out of line with my values” tension. For Peterson it appeared to be “how to I find time to sharpen knives and research an article that is at least a little thoughtful about the systemic pressures that impact how I respond to various forces in my social environment”.

    There will always be people out there that react to absolutely any mention of “millennial” at all with a desire to roll their eyes at the “angst” of young people. You’re welcome to snark at her to signal your membership in the tribe of Adults Who Accomplish Stuff Without Whining.
    But you will miss a really important motivation of people, that may actually be a draw to Best of Both Worlds, if you fail to understand the tensions inherent in trying to optimize life in many different ways simultaneously.

  12. Our (veryyy young) tech in our lab explained to me about errand paralysis and the Buzzfeed article when I said that after being told I could defend my PhD this spring (yes!), I had had a hard time feeling any sort of emotion beyond rewriting my to do list.

    I don’t think I have the same issues the Buzzfeed article discussed. I do get lazy about mailing a package or going to the drycleaner, but for me, I feel like it is just laziness, or prioritizing what I need to do when I work a long day at lab, versus what I don’t need to do RIGHT NOW. I sew and hem my own clothes, and I haven’t gotten around to fixing every pair of pants I’ve bought because I just haven’t felt like wearing them. When I did, I sat my booty down and got right down to it in 10 minutes. Maybe there are people who really struggle with these things, but I would have liked an exploration of discussing how people prioritize Need To Do Now things, versus Need To Do Soon, and Don’t Need To Do Now. Not everything needs to happen all at once.

    The advice I’ve received for dissertation writing is basically: “Make a long checklist/to do list of topics to explore and write up. Check them off. Submit.”

  13. I am a big fan of your work, Laura, and I never comment on any articles on the internet. However, I just feel compelled to say that I loved reading your take on the essay and absolutely agree with you. I appreciate your common sense and non dramatic approach to life. I am 38 years old by the way.

  14. Tried to read that essay last night but got too bored! Like the author, I am also 38, with PhD and two books. Also a kid. I just got my knives sharpened. I had been putting it off, but really, it wasn’t that hard not is it that interesting.

  15. What a great read and loved your opinion here. You’re right – sharing who had the hardest day is not productive. I also appreciated your opinion at the end – it’s how we tell our stories. Love your thoughts on this. Thanks for being so pithy and sharing your thoughts.

  16. *Shrugs*

    People like to complain, even you.

    I can’t imagine even contemplating sharpening my knives — really? People do this? — but also I’ve learned to immediately remove silly tasks like this from my to do list because they never will happen. Burnout to me comes from pushing as hard as I can at work, and feeling like I’m still barely able to stay afloat. Much of the time, I am barely able to take care of simple tasks such as buying groceries and cleaning my clothes because I spend so much time at my job. I am required to constantly plan for my professional future, but rarely have the headspace to do so. The only solution is to care less and be confident that things really will work out in the long run. Many people do not even have that luxury. I wonder if this is the feeling that the author is referring to.

  17. Gently, I think you might be reading it as an upholder, someone with a lot of control over their own schedule, a car, and the capacity to delegate certain activities. My main takeaway of the author’s piece was validation that errands are a pain to run in an urban area. It was an angsty piece but straw and camel and all that. I too have dull knives because I haven’t figured out how to get my giant chef’s knife to the sharpening place on the bus.

    There were a few bits that made me roll my eyes but then I remembered the fact that my driver’s license application got cancelled because I haven’t had a chance to have photos taken (no convenient location to my office, need to collect £6 in coins for photo machine, can’t do it with a toddler in tow) and the fact that my life improved markedly when my husband got a job that has a post office in the building so he does my online shopping returns and mails cards to my relatives overseas.

  18. The BuzzFeed article is pretty ridiculous, but your post is condescending enough to put me back on the author’s side. You say that it’s not helpful to argue about whose life is harder, but bookmark it with snarky asides about how hard the author’s life *isn’t*. You could have made all the same points in a respectful, charitable manner. As it is, this post could have been titled “Here’s why I’m better than you.”

  19. I’m thankful that you spared me reading the original– I was offline at a family camp this weekend and seem to have missed it, but if it showed up in my “pocket” feed, I would surely succumb to the click bait. I suppose it’s not fair of me to comment without reading the original, but my take is that don’t people just put too much emphasis on things being a product of their generation?? I’m a Gen X-er (50th coming up!) with a 9 year old and a good, flexible job and I’ve always had errand paralysis. I generally chalk it up to laziness, fatigue at navigating a too-big-for-me city, and probably some mild, undiagnosed ADD. It’s never occurred to me to think of it as something that could be generational. That said, commenter Stacy above, made a really interesting point about how it might be harder for a younger generation to do the out-of-home errands because they’ve grown up doing things online. I hadn’t thought of that.

  20. So glad you reacted to that one… « The idea that all of life will be perfectly
    optimized is just ridiculous » You nailed it in that sentence. Yes, there is the social pressure of the “Instagram” life making you feel that you should spending every minute of your time productively (and deciding what being productive actually is). But I also believes this is an educational issue. As the author rightly says, “they have been told that if they just worked hard and made right decisions, life would go swimmingly”. That’s just a lie. Many parents are obliterating the realities of life to their children, not involving them in chores or explaining why you need to do certain things like taking your car to the garage or getting the septic tank emptied. They pretend life is all fun to “protect” kids. But this is not preparing them for adulthood. I am not saying that you should bother your 3 year-old kid with the details of filing your tax declaration but they should at least know that those things are part of adult life. And yes, planned appropriately, it is not such a big deal. There is a great interview by a guy called Simon Sinek on Millenials in the workplace which explores this issue: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=hER0Qp6QJNU

  21. It’s so cute when people speaking from a (supposed) place of privilege offer advice akin to “change your stinkin thinkin.” Yes, I should just tell a different story about my abuse to get over it and learn to adult. (And you are a saint for dealing with that hemming issue.). It’s people with your attitude who put us in the position where we blame any structural or extant problem on the individual’s inability to optimize.

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