Burnout as small task paralysis

If you’re an Online Person of a certain age, you probably have seen Anne Helen Petersen’s article in Buzzfeed “How Millennials Became The Burnout Generation“. And maybe you’re like me and said “yeah, I really identify with this.” Or maybe you’re not like me and you said “this doesn’t capture my experience.” But however you connect with this article, one part stood out to me.

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.

A little over a year ago, when I was overwhelmed in a new job and dealing with anxiety of an intensity I’d never felt before, I noticed that I was unable to do some thing. But it wasn’t the big and important tasks that I couldn’t do. It was the small, often trivial tasks that I couldn’t bring myself to do. Especially if it was not immediately rewarding or involved doing something I hadn’t done before.

My job had the possibility of occasional foreign travel, but to do that, I’d need a passport. I’d never bothered getting one before because I didn’t need it. Now I had some incentive. But the paperwork sat on my desk for months because I couldn’t bring myself to go to the post office and submit it.

There were so many emails that I put off sending as long as I could because I was worried that they’d get a negative reply. Nevermind that they were often just telling people about something else that happened. Or that the most likely outcome would be that my recipients wouldn’t even read it.

Redesigned pitch decks? No problem. New content for the website? Easy. Planning a major conference presence? Stressful, but manageable. But the easy stuff? Couldn’t do it.

When I first started experiencing this, I was really surprised. Why isn’t the easy stuff easy for me to do? Why can I do the hard stuff without too much worry?

For all the criticisms of it’s general applicability, Petersen’s article gave me a framework to understand this. And I felt seen.

Say “no” to advance your career

A few months ago, Bridget Gelms shared the worst professional advice she has heard:

Early-career people in particular are encouraged to take on all tasks in order to prove themselves and — to a lesser extent — discover what they do and don’t like to do. I suspect this is more true for women. I understand why people give that advice, and I understand even more why people take it. But it turns out, saying “no” can do more to advance your career than saying yes.

One thing I’ve observed is that over time, people who say “yes” to every request get a bunch of requests dropped on them. Some of them are good, but many are a waste of their talents. Being able to say “no” when the situation warrants can establish that your time — and thus you — are valuable.

Consider this: you’re asked at the last minute to fly to another continent to be in a meeting with a potential customer for a couple of hours. The potential customer is pretty unlikely to actually sign up, or they represent a small and not-strategic gain. You could go. Or you could find another way for the customer to get the 5 minutes worth of information that you’d end up providing. By not going, you save your company a few thousand dollars in airfare and you don’t lose two days to travel. What else more valuable can you do in that time?

The example above isn’t contrived. I’ve seen it play out, and the person who said no established themselves as someone of value in the company. Of course, you can’t say “no” to everything. Sometimes a task has to be done and you’re the one that will do it, whether you like it or not. But knowing when to say “no” is a valuable skill for improving your career.

Bonding with local TV personalities

Growing up, we were a WHAS house. I’m not sure why, and maybe my parents didn’t know either, but when it came to local coverage, that’s where we tuned. The pull of WHAS was so strong that when it swapped network affiliations with WLKY in 1990, we said goodbye to Dan Rather and hello to Peter Jennings for our network news.

For most of my childhood, we had one television with only over-the-air service, so I spent a lot of time watching the news with my parents. The newscasters became familiar parts of my life. When meteorologist Chuck Taylor died in 1997, I sat in the bathtub and cried. When Gary Roedemeier ran in the same road race I did, I fanboyed a little bit. Melissa Swan’s hats are still the first thing that comes to mind when I think of the Kentucky Derby.

It’s been fifteen years since I last lived in the Falls Cities, but I can still rattle off the names of people who I never met but they appeared in my living room every night: Fred Wiche, Chuck Olmstead, Doug Proffitt. Rachel Platt, Ken Schulz, Gary Rizzo. When severe weather threatened, as often happens in the Ohio Valley, we trusted Taylor, Schulz, and Rizzo to keep us safe. And on Christmas Eve, I always wanted to watch the 5:00 news because I knew they’d catch Santa on the radar as he headed out to start his deliveries.

As I was driving back to the Falls Cities area over Thanksgiving, I thought about all of those TV personalities. It occurred to me that my kids will never have that experience. Watching the evening news is not a thing that happens in this house. I can get the same news and so much more on-demand. And we don’t need the local TV meteorologist to give us severe weather information because I have RadarScope and a meteorology degree.

I often think about how much of a different world my kids inhabit. Even seemingly trivial things might not be as trivial as I think. How much did my one-way relationship with the folks at WHAS shape my upbringing? How will not having that relationship affect my kids? What will the media landscape look like when they’re my age?

Thought Leaders™ versus thought leaders

My friend Tom wrote a Twitter thread last week about how thought leaders are often derided in the tech industry.

I agree with Tom’s point that people — both in an out of the tech sector — value doing over thinking. It’s why we differentiate “talking the talk” and “walking the walk”. But I think it’s important to distinguish between people who are advancing the state of the field by visionary work and people who are trying to draw attention to their expertise. “Thought leaders” versus “Thought Leaders™”.

I’m of the mind that there’s a list of attributes where if you have to tell people you are that, then you aren’t. Someone who is always talking about how honest they are? Probably not trustworthy. Similarly, someone who describes themselves as a thought leader is probably not as influential as they’d like to think. (Full disclosure: I sometimes refer to myself as a thought leader, but I do it ironically.)

James Cuff gave me a certificate for being a “total thought leader” when he was still an Assistant Dean at Harvard.

I would argue that true thought leadership is an act of doing in itself. It’s taking experience gained from being a practitioner in the field and using that to inform a vision of the future. Thought leaders lead not by saying what the future is, but by showing what the future is. They don’t have to tell people that they’re thought leaders because the evidence is plain to see.

Most people can probably name at least a handful of people in their field that they think are always on the cutting edge. And they probably think highly of those people. It’s not being a thought leader they object to, just the self-applied label.

Why subscribe to a newsletter you don’t read?

Why would you subscribe to a newsletter that you don’t read? I mean, maybe you intend to. Maybe it’s sitting there in your inbox unread just waiting for you to get around to it Real Soon Now. Or maybe you filter it off to some folder where email does to die. I get that. I do that all the time.

No, what I’m thinking about is the case where an obvious spam account signs up for a newsletter. As of this writing, my newsletter has 283 subscribers — a number that has grown 27% in the past month. But only 40 people at most have ever opened it. The number of opens has stayed relatively constant even as the subscriber count has gone up.

So why do I think the accounts are spam? For one, there’s the fact that most of them haven’t opened any newsletters. Sure, maybe there’s a reason for that. But also they look…spammy. The addresses are often yahoo or other domains that have fallen out of favor. The names represented by the addresses don’t look like the names of people I know. I can’t imagine why people I do know read my newsletter, nevermind why strangers would. Taken all together, I feel safe calling many of these accounts spam.

But to what end? I understand spam accounts on Twitter liking random posts in the hopes that someone will look at the profile and click a link to whatever thing someone’s trying to peddle. Or maybe follow the account and get clicks that way. That makes sense to me. But what can a spammer do with a newsletter subscription? Is it a really crappy denial of service attack? Do they hope that after a few years my subscriber list will exceed Mailchimp’s free tier? Maybe it’s done to hide nefarious activity in a flood of confirmation emails. That seems like the most likely answer, but it doesn’t seem very efficient. Then again, I’m not a spammer, so what do I know?

What if we never used the phrase “common sense” again?

On Tuesday night, I heard my local NPR station interviewing a newly-elected representative. At one point, he made some reference to “common sense” policies. I don’t even remember what they were talking about, but it doesn’t matter. When someone says “common sense”, what I hear is “I don’t have any substantive arguments in favor of my position.”

This is not unique to one political party, or even to politics as a whole. In any field, “common sense” is a shorthand for “this is the only reasonable position and you’re unreasonable if you disagree with it because I said so.”  In most situations where “common sense” is deployed, reasonable people can disagree on what the sensible approach is.

In addition to silencing dissent, the phrase “common sense” also oversimplifies most issues. What seems like an obvious solution on the surface may not fit the underlying complexity. Life is rarely as simple as it seems.

If it’s really common sense, it should be easy for you to explain why. So let’s all agree to never use “common sense” again.

The future is browseable

Browsing and searching are not the same thing. Anyone who has sat on the couch trying to figure out what to watch on Netflix knows this. With so many choices available, there’s bound to be something

Seth Godin wrote a blog post about this recently. How do we find what we didn’t know we wanted to find? We’re pretty bad at this in the digital world, but truth be told, we’re not that great at it in the offline world, either. At least, I don’t think we are.

I love going to my local library. Books smell amazing and even though I have this annoying tendency to buy a book that I know I’ll only read once, the public library’s collection dwarfs my own. But when I don’t really know what I want to read, I just sort of wander the shelves and judge books by their covers. Or their spines, in most cases.

Amazon is one of the few sites that seems to tackle this really well. Their recommendations aren’t always on the ball, but I’d rate them well overall. Having enough data to tell me what people who bought one item also bought is a huge part of making good recommendations.

I would have loved a similar recommendation engine was when I was putting together my plan of study for graduate school. I essentially had the entire University course catalog at my disposal. If I could make the case to my committee that it was a good course for me to take, it was all mine. But with so many courses to choose from, how would I know what to pick? I was forced to browse manually, but a recommendation engine would have really helped.

That’s one reason I like traditional radio stations and services like Pandora: I don’t have to search. I can start with a general genre of music I want to listen to and then I get to browse. I credit Pandora with the tremendous broadening of my musical tastes that happened in the late ‘aughts.

I look forward to a time when browsing is easier. Just think of the undiscovered gems we’ll find.

Amazon should not be the library

Edit (7/24/2018): Quartz reports that Forbes has pulled the article.

If you haven’t seen it yet, Forbes ran an article suggesting Amazon should replace the public library as a way to save taxpayer money. This is a bad take from anyone, but particularly from the Chair of the Economics Department at LIU Post. Apparently the good professor does not realize that Amazon exists to make money, so there’s a good chance that savings would be funded in part by a loss of service and local accountability.

Or maybe he doesn’t realize poor people exist. Or even that the well off sometimes like to have public spaces where they are allowed to exist without having to buy something. When I was a kid our house wasn’t air conditioned. On hot summer days, my mom would take us to the county library. We could sit and read in comfort for a few hours and no one cared.

I’d check out a dozen or more books. A few weeks later, I’d bring them back and get abkther armful. Imagine how much my parents would have had to spend on Amazon. And libraries don’t just provide books. Ours had music and movies and paintings available for checkout. It had genealogy records and newspapers. It had meeting spaces and community programs. If the Internet had been widespread then, it would have had that, too.

My current local library has digital subscriptions in both text and audio format. It has state park passes available for checkout. It has a mobile library to visit the elderly, infirm, and others who can’t make it to one of the three branches in the county. If there was profit to be made in doing all of this on a broad scale, Jeff Bezos would be doing it already.

A library is more than just the books. It’s a part of the community. Removing it from the commons in favor of a private corporation is a terrible idea. My friend Doug explained it well a year ago.

Everyone, just by the act of existing, gets aceess to this valuable resource at the cost of a fraction of a percent of the assessed value of local property. A few years ago, I looked at the detail of my property tax bill and realized I was getting way more value out of my library than I paid for. So I started donating to the library foundation. If Professor Mourdourkoutas can’t get more value from his library than he puts in, that’s on him.

Reinforcing unintended consequences

I heard a story on NPR last week about how the oil industry is changing in Alaska. Specifically, it is adapting to climate change. You see, as air temperatures warm, the permafrost becomes less perma- and less -frost. This presents challenges for energy extraction operations.

Of course, entrepreneurs have stepped in with solutions to help. Not to mitigate the effects of climate change, but to allow the industry to better cope with it. For example, one company deploys sensors to determine when construction of ice roads can begin. These roads made out of literal frozen water are an important part of getting materiel to and from drill sites.

But what really struck me was the company that’s helping oil sites keep buildings cold. Thawing permafrost means the buildings shift. This leads to cracks in walls and ceiling, stuck doors, etc. So what is their solution? Pipes filled with coolant extract heat from the ground and release it into the air. This, of course, requires the input of additional energy (probably derived from fossil fuels).

I get it. Energy is a complicated problem with no easy solutions. A sudden stop to petroleum usage, while good for carbon dioxide levels, is ruinous to Alaska’s economy. But it’s an important reminder that we sometimes deal with unintended consequences by reinforcing them. And that is not sustainable.

International House of Brand mistakes

Last week, restaurant chain IHOP (fully known as “International House of Pancakes”) teased a name change. They’re going to flip the “P” and become IHOb. But what does the “b” stand for? Breakfast? Biscuits? Blockchain? Belly aches?

On Monday we learned it stands for “burgers”. It’s a temporary name change to promote their new Ultimate Steakburgers. And I think it’s pretty dumb.

IHOP has a well-known brand. They’ve sold non-breakfast-food for as long as I’ve been aware of them, but — as the name suggests — breakfast food is their bread and butter. They got a lot of free publicity out of this stunt, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it was beneficial. The reaction I’ve seen has mostly been negative, including this scathing take:

You can get a burger in just about any restaurant in America. Even a temporary abuse of the brand to go after a crowded space seems cruel to a brand that has served so well. As The 22 Immutable Laws of Branding points out, products aren’t sold anymore, they’re bought. And they’re bought because of branding. A brand can be a company’s most valued asset.

Maybe this works out for them, but I expect that it doesn’t give IHO* any long-term benefit. What would be more interesting to me is dropping the non-breakfast menu entirely. There’s something to be said for simple food menus. The more items on the menu, the less often they get made. This means less skill in that recipe for the cooks and more ingredients that need to be stocked (and potentially sit for a while). With a simple menu, you can do a few things really well.

McDonald’s has learned this lesson over and over again over the years. Every time they expand their menu, quality and customer satisfaction seem to go down. So they simplify the menu a bit for a little while, until it’s time to chase a new customer segment. In comparison, Chick-Fil-A has a relatively small menu that they execute well. Restaurants don’t need to be everything to everyone, and I think there’s space for a “we only serve breakfast, you’ll just have to like it” chain. Let’s face it: few things are as popular as breakfast foods at not-breakfast times.

But if IHO* is really serious about competing in a crowded burger space, there are better ways to go about it. “Burgers are like pancakes made of meat!” is a slogan that just came to mind. It’s not great, but it could be worked on. Sure, it might get less attention than changing the name to “IHOb”, but attention doesn’t necessarily mean increased sales. Sometimes it’s not how many people you reach, but which people you reach and what message you reach them with.

But at least other brands are having fun: