Skip to content

Drowning in the Daily Grind

Like a lot of people, I just read ‘How Millennials Became The Burnout Generation’, an article by Anne Helen Petersen. If you haven’t read it yet I urge you to do so. It’s excellent and touches on a web of issues facing today’s workforce. While ostensibly about the conditions that make millennial burnout so likely and prevalent, I suspect many people (of all ages) will see some aspects of their lives reflected in Petersen’s words.

The article intersected with a few other things this week. One was a Twitter conversation I got into this weekend about Shadow Work. In her article, Petersen names the feeling of profound inertia she has about some of the mundane maintenance tasks of living “errand paralysis’.

“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.”

“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?”

She briefly mentions the notion that these errands aren’t quite the same ones that our parents’ generation did, but the scope of her article doesn’t extend itself further into this discussion.

“Many of the tasks millennials find paralyzing are ones that are impossible to optimize for efficiency, either because they remain stubbornly analog (the post office) or because companies have optimized themselves, and their labor, so as to make the experience as arduous as possible for the user (anything to do with insurance, or bills, or filing a complaint). Sometimes, the inefficiencies are part of the point: The harder it is to submit a request for a reimbursement, the less likely you are to do it. The same goes for returns.” (emphasis mine)

What Petersen doesn’t dig into in this paragraph is ‘Shadow Work”: the labour that corporations are increasingly off-loading to consumers under the guise of convenience. I see the growth of shadow work being a critical part of understanding why people across generations might experience more distraction, overwhelm, and perhaps even “errand paralysis”. I quoted Dan Levitin’s book The Organized Mind in my post on Shadow Work:

“The promise of a computerized society, we were told, was that it would relegate to machines all of the repetitive drudgery of work allowing humans to pursue loftier purposes and to have more leisure time. It didn’t work this way. Instead of more time, most of us have less. Companies large and small have off-loaded work onto the backs of consumers. Things that used to be done for us, as part of the value-added service of working with a company, we are now expected to do ourselves.”

In a given day you might use self-checkout at the grocery store, bag your purchases, pay your bills online, book air travel and accommodations for an upcoming trip, and file your own taxes.

“Collectively, this is known as shadow work – it represents a kind of parallel, shadow economy in which a lot of the service we expect from companies has been transferred to the customer. Each of us is doing the work of others and not getting paid for it.”

Think about how much more of this work we do every year. And about who it benefits.

You might say, “Yeah, but we can do this stuff anytime we want, 24/7”. Yes. It’s true that we can now book our travel or do our banking anytime day or night, but that convenience masks the fact that we’re performing a lot of the services that we would have expected these companies to do for us in the past in exchange for the fees we pay them.

Is this work optional? Sometimes. But only if you have the money to pay someone else to do it for you. For the rest of us, this “self-service” shadow work is part of our everyday workload, along with our actual jobs. On top of this, many of us perform a type of work through the production of content and data that popular social media platforms require as part of their business models.

Tweets, Snaps, photos for the ‘Gram: these have been positioned as leisure activities, and sometimes they are, but just as often they’re in service of our ‘personal brand’, something we’ve been told (correctly or not) is a smart way to increase our employability (and thus our financial security). Petersen says:

“For many millennials, a social media presence — on LinkedIn, Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter — has also become an integral part of obtaining and maintaining a job.”

My post about shadow work was prompted by Dan Levitin’s writing on how this invisible workload might impact the individual cognitive load employees are contending with, and thus their ability to focus on the knowledge work that most modern day orgs are built around. Jocelyn Glei’s podcast interview this week with Cal Newport (of ‘deep work’ fame) touches on an even bigger question. Newport discusses the term ‘attention capital’ (coined by economist Tom Nixon) in which human attention is treated as a scarce commodity, necessary to produce value. This is especially true for many tech platform business models, which are built on attracting our attention and views. Nixon wonders whether this mass-scale distraction is a factor in slowing economic productivity:

“The intuition is simple enough: our minds comprise the bulk of our human capital and what we direct our attention towards is integral to the ‘output’ of our mental activity. You would therefore expect the ability to pay attention to be a key input into productivity.”

Nixon suggests two channels by which individual distraction might contribute to lower productivity overall: 1. Directly, in which distractions limit the amount of time we’re working overall, and 2. By creating a workforce made up of habitually distracted minds, whose capacity for productive work is chronically reduced.

Of course it’s not just social media. Our workplaces themselves have become increasingly and relentlessly connected and networked, all in an effort to increase collaboration and reduce the friction associated with more traditional forms of communication. Has it succeeded? Newport, writing about Nixon’s research says it hasn’t:

And yet, even though we’ve pushed connectivity to daring new levels — a technological miracle built on numerous ingenious innovations — we haven’t become more productive. In fact, the better these tools get, the less productive we become!”

So, this mélange of everyday distraction might not only contribute to our own burnout, but also to slowing national and global productivity? #blamemillenials. It’s tempting to jump to a simple answer: just limit one’s exposure to these distractions and one’s use of these social platforms, set boundaries. Indeed, Newport’s latest book Digital Minimalism apparently advocates just that (I haven’t read the book and am not suggesting that Newport is overly simplistic). Yet, on its own this feels like a solution that ignores the full scope and complexity of the problem. Petersen agrees:

“But individual action isn’t enough. Personal choices alone won’t keep the planet from dying, or get Facebook to quit violating our privacy. To do that, you need paradigm-shifting change. Which helps explain why so many millennials increasingly identify with democratic socialism and are embracing unions: We are beginning to understand what ails us, and it’s not something an oxygen facial or a treadmill desk can fix.”

Just like fast food companies that have spent millions on engineering addictive flavours to exploit the human weakness for salt, fat, and sugar that evolved in times of food scarcity, social platforms have been designed to exploit human appetites for social approval and belonging with concentrated, virtual equivalents of those things. One of the best (and scariest) books I read last year was Adam Alter’s Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked, a look at how tech companies create behaviourally addictive apps, games, and interfaces. This is simply not a fair fight. These companies very existence depends on their ability to make personal technology both ubiquitous and essential to our everyday lives. Petersen notes:

“We’ve never recognized social media and smartphones as more toxic and more necessary.”

This deliberate engineering of addictive tech, on top of the involuntary shadow work most of us do (virtually all mediated by technology), and the lack of effective optimization in workplaces for attention capital that Newport discusses (like open offices, always-on instant messaging platforms, and extreme expectations for responsiveness) all mix together into a potent toxic soup. No wonder so many people feel burnt out. Petersen’s article provides an insightful first-person account from that soup bowl, and the cost it has to individuals. We should be mindful of the cost to organizations as well.

Recommended Reading:

Companies Have No Excuse For Diversity Fatigue – Miki Tsusaka, World Economic Forum

A very worthwhile look at recent BCG research that points to a significant gap in perceptions about the primary challenges and solutions of corporate diversity between leaders and members of underrepresented groups. Plus helpful data at the end of the article on what under-represented groups do see as helpful to move the needle.

“Most of the people who make up the leadership ranks – primarily heterosexual men age 45 and older – underestimate the challenges diverse employees face. Their perception of the obstacles to gender diversity is similar to that of women, but there is a large gap between what they think hinders the LGBTQ community and people of color at work and the perception of people representing those groups. Without understanding the extent of the problem, leaders cannot be part of the solution, and will lack the necessary commitment.

In addition, research shows that older heterosexual men tend to mis-identify the main problem. The traditional thinking among many leadership teams is that recruiting is the biggest obstacle – particularly for women and racial and ethnic minorities. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. Hiring people from diverse groups is relatively easy compared with addressing the deep-rooted cultural and organizational issues that those groups then face in their work environment.”

Atomic Habits – James Clear

I just finished listening to this on Audible, and I am recommending it to everyone. It significantly exceeded my expectations in terms of the depth with which Clear explores habit formation and the related science. Also, I am super picky about listening to audio books; I only like author-narrated books, but the author has to be reasonably decent at narration. Clear is excellent and the opening chapter had me feeling super emotional as he relayed the story of a high-school injury and family challenges.

How to Help People With Disabilities Feel Welcome – Joshua Wilder, Psychology Today

A practical and informative article on making people with disabilities feel included.

“I can’t tell you how many events I have attended in spaces that were like labyrinths to navigate. Networking events tend to be the worst for some reason. If you see someone in the room using a wheelchair or assistive walking device, then try to discreetly get people to keep some paths clear for them.

There’s a trick for when the room is too congested to discreetly keep a path clear. Simply go to the person and talk to them. Then pick someone in the room that you want to introduce them to and ask them if they want to go over to meet them. That gives you an excuse to say clear the way folks without it being weird, and then the folks know to be more aware.”

Photo by nikko macaspac on Unsplash





2 Comments Post a comment
  1. A great post to start 2019! Have you come across “The Privatisation of Risk”?- which discussed some of these trends way back in 2006 (i.e. pre financial crash):

    And we even pass dealing with the effects of the burnout all this causes to individuals – something I wrote a post about a while back:

    January 7, 2019
  2. Thanks Simon, I have not read the Privatization of Risk but will check it out. And you’re absolutely right about passing on the obligation to deal with burnout to employees as well, great post!

    January 7, 2019

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: