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.

Feeling stupid at work

This post is inspired in large part by my friend Ed Finkler’s Open Sourcing Mental Illness campaign.

In my new job, I’m faced with a lot of deep, technical challenges. Sometimes they’re of a nature I haven’t seen before. When they come quickly, it gets pretty easy to feel down. When I’m physically sick, it gets even worse. And it compounds. There are days that I feel downright stupid and completely unqualified for my job.

Then there are days when I solve a problem well, master a new skill, or otherwise validate my professional existence. Those days feel pretty awesome. I like having those days.

In the past few months I’ve had many of both of those days. Lately, they’ve trended toward the good instead of the bad, but I don’t take that to be a sign of a permanent state. I’ve said before — and I honestly mean — that if you never feel stupid in your job then you’re not in the right job. The important thing is to try to minimize and recover quickly from the stupid days.

It helps to know that it’s okay to feel stupid. That’s part of the reason why I’m writing this. I’ve found that sharing my frustration with a trusted coworker who can provide meaningful encouragement helps the recovery process. It also helps to remind yourself of why you’re awesome. Reading Chris Hadfield’s book helped me a lot, too. Sure, I’ll never be an astronaut, but I still know how to work through a problem. I can solve smaller pieces until the larger problem is fixed, and I can bring myself to ask for help when needed. That’s enough to make me as successful as I need to be.