It’s sometimes known as “millennial burnout”—even though the inability to complete seemingly uncomplicated tasks is by no means limited to one generation. In a viral tour-de-force for Buzzfeed, Anne Helen Petersen lays out the steps: paralysis, shame, and a failure to separate out medium-priority tasks from more pressing professional concerns. It’s all fed by overwork-fueled burnout that stultifies any effort to get things done, from completing paperwork for reimbursement to mailing a package.
I’m familiar with the condition—and I have a solution of sorts, and it’s actually kind of fun. Over the past few years, I’ve developed a system that means that I never have a personal to-do list with items that are more than a few days old. It’s not especially hard, though it does requires a bit of discipline.
Here goes: When I need to do small errands like buying a replacement light-bulb, calling my bank, or booking a trip to the dentist, I imagine that I’m playing Space Invaders on an old Nokia phone. It has utterly changed my life.
If you’ve never come across Space Invaders before (you can play an arcade version here), the premise is quite simple. You’re a pixelated spaceship, traveling in a linear direction through the loneliness of outer space. Along the way, you encounter small enemy crafts, which you must fire at before they hit you. (They aren’t very good at it, so it’s easy enough.) The real challenge comes at the end of each level, where you encounter a huge alien, which fires a steady stream of bullets at you. Defeating it requires focus: You must have your wits about you, or you’re certain to be scuppered.
Personal admin is sort of similar. Along the way, you’ll encounter plenty of tiny things that you don’t really want to do: your laundry, selecting options for your retirement fund, paying an old phone bill, visiting the dentist. Most of them actually aren’t very hard. They’ll take up minutes of your time and don’t require much problem-solving to actually finish. These are the small enemy crafts, and they need to be zapped—and fast.
If you don’t bypass these tiny hurdles, they risk flooring you absolutely—an unpaid bill that wrecks your credit score, an aching tooth that turns into a very expensive and painful abscess. The trick is thinking of them as enemy crafts to shoot down. They’re not trivial: Instead, they’re high-stakes, ticking time-bombs, and they must be dealt with almost as soon as they arise. Mail? Open it! A bill? Pay it! An email from your granny? Reply to it! Zap them before they can get to you.
You might think you don’t have time for this, but by cutting out the time I spend feeling guilty about the things I haven’t done, or paralyzed by how quickly it all mounts up, I’ve found that it actually doesn’t make much of an impact. Moreover, entering a now-or-never mindset means I’m much more likely to pay bills on my phone while waiting for a train, or to reply to a friendly text while eating my breakfast, instead of thinking of them as sacrosanct tasks that require me to carve out space in my timetable.
Of course, if you have major challenges in life that are taking up your bandwidth, getting into a fighting mentality can be much harder. I should caveat that I’m able-bodied, employed, lucky enough to have quite good mental health, and have no dependents (other than a part-time dog).
That said, this doesn’t come easy to me. I’m not naturally tidy or organized—my natural status is, and always has been, chaos—and I’m prone to losing things or forgetting what I have or haven’t done. My mental Space Invaders game has done wonders for my peace of mind.
There are many upsides to this—a slimmer to-do list, a general feeling of competence, and being able to use your vacation time to actually relax, instead of catch up on dross. But the best one is that you’re free to tackle genuine problems or challenges that do come your way. These are the scary aliens at the end of the level, and they’re inevitable.
Whether it’s an unexpected medical problem, a legal issue, a major unforeseen expense, or a personal problem that leaves you out of sorts for weeks, it’s much easier to handle if you’re not also grappling with an overwhelming tangle of smaller problems that have been lingering at the edges of your consciousness.
Then, like the brave little Space Invaders craft, you’re free to zap away at the big problem, until it’s all gone. Now, you’re back to braving wide open space—with an empty to-do list—all over again.