“I think you’re dealing with some burnout,” my editor at BuzzFeed very kindly suggested over Skype. “You could use a few days off.”
It was November 2018, and frankly, I was insulted by the idea. “I’m not burnt out,” I replied. “I’m just trying to figure out what I want to write about next.”
For as long as I could remember, I’d been working pretty much nonstop: first as a grad student, then as a professor, now as a journalist. Throughout 2016 and 2017, I had been following political candidates around the country, chasing stories, often writing thousands of words a day. One week in November, I went straight from interviewing the survivors of a mass shooting in Texas to spending a week in a tiny Utah town, hearing the stories of dozens of women who’d fled a polygamous sect. The work was vital and exhilarating—which was exactly why it felt so hard to stop. Plus, I’d had rest after the election. I was supposed to be refreshed. The fact that I’d found myself fighting tears every time I talked to my editors? Totally unrelated.
Still, I agreed to take a few days off, right before Thanksgiving. And do you know what I did with them? Tried to write a book proposal. Not for this book, but a far worse, more forced one. Obviously, that didn’t make me feel better, because I was just working even more. But by that point, I wasn’t really feeling anything at all. Sleep didn’t help; neither did exercise. I got a massage and a facial and they were nice, but the effects were incredibly temporary. Reading sort of helped, but the reading that interested me most was politics-related, which just circled me back to the issues that had exhausted me.
What I was feeling in November wasn’t anything new, either. For months, whenever I thought about going to bed, I felt overwhelmed by the steps I’d have to take to responsibly get from the couch to the bed. I felt underwhelmed by vacations—or, more precisely, like vacation was just another thing to get through on my to-do list. I at once resented and craved time with friends, but after I relocated from New York to Montana, I refused to devote time to actually make new ones. I felt numb, impervious, just totally . . . flat.
In hindsight, I was absolutely, ridiculously, 100 percent burnt out—but I didn’t recognize it as such, because the way I felt didn’t match the way burnout had ever been depicted or described to me. There was no dramatic flameout, no collapse, no recovery on a beach or in an isolated cabin. I thought burnout was like a cold you catch and recover from—which is why I missed the diagnosis altogether. I had been a pile of embers, smoldering for months.
When my editor suggested I was burning out, I balked: Like other type-A overachievers, I didn’t hit walls, I worked around them. Burning out ran counter to everything that I had thus far understood about my ability to work, and my identity as a journalist. Yet even as I refused to call it burnout, there was evidence that something inside me was, well, broken: My to-do list, specifically the bottom half of it, just kept recycling itself from one week to the next, a neat little stack of shame.
None of these tasks was essential, not really. They were just the humdrum maintenance of everyday life. But no matter what I did, I couldn’t bring myself to take the knives to get sharpened, or drop off my favorite boots to get resoled, or complete the paperwork and make the phone call and find the stamp so that my dog could be properly registered. There was a box in the corner of my room with a gift for a friend I’d been meaning to send for months, and a contact lens rebate for a not-insignificant amount of money sitting on my counter. All of these high-effort, low-gratification tasks seemed equally impossible.
And I knew I wasn’t the only one with this sort of to-do list resistance: The internet overflowed with stories of people who couldn’t bring themselves to figure out how to register to vote, or submit insurance claims, or return an online clothes order. If I couldn’t figure out what I wanted to write for my job, at least I could write about what I jokingly termed “errand paralysis.” I started by sorting through a vast array of articles, mostly written by millennials, and mostly published on millennial-oriented websites, on the everyday stresses of “adulting”—a word adopted to describe the fear of doing or pride in completing tasks associated with our parents. As one piece put it, “The modern Millennial, for the most part, views adulthood as a series of actions, as opposed to a state of being. Adulting therefore becomes a verb.” And part of adulting is getting the things done on the bottom half of your to-do list, even if they’re hard.
As I read, it became clear that there are actually three types of adulting tasks: 1) the kind that are annoying because you’ve never done them before (taxes, making friends outside the framework of school); 2) the kind that are annoying because they underline that being an adult means spending money on things that are no fun at all (vacuums, lawnmowers, razors); 3) the kind that are more than just annoying—they’re time-consuming and unnecessarily labyrinthian (finding a therapist, submitting medical reimbursement bills, canceling cable service, quitting your gym, consolidating your student loans, figuring out if and how to access state support programs).
Adulting—and, by extension, completing your to-do list—is hard, then, because living in the modern world is somehow both easier than it’s ever been and yet unfathomably complicated. Within this framework, it was clear why I was avoiding each task loitering on my to-do list. Every day, we all have a list of things that need to get done, places where our mental energy must be allocated first. But that energy is finite, and when you keep trying to pretend that it isn’t—that’s when burnout arrives.
But my burnout was more than the accumulation of undone errands. If I was honest with myself—actually honest, in the sort of way that makes you feel uncomfortable—the errands were just the most tangible indication of a much larger affliction. Something wasn’t just wrong in my day-to-day. Something had been increasingly wrong for most of my adult life.
The truth was, all of those tasks would take away from what had become my ultimate task, and the task of so many other millennials: working all the time. Where had I learned to work all the time? School. Why did I work all the time? Because I was terrified of not getting a job. Why have I worked all the time since actually finding one? Because I’m terrified of losing it, and because my value as a worker and my value as a person have become intractably intertwined. I couldn’t shake the feeling of precariousness—that all that I’d worked for could just disappear—or reconcile it with an idea that had surrounded me since I was a child: that if I just worked hard enough, everything would pan out.
So I made a reading list. I read about how poverty and economic instability affects our decision-making abilities. I explored specific trends ...