The life-draining tedium of errands is even worse in this age of digital convenience

It’s tough out there.
It’s tough out there.
Image: AP Photo / Alastair Grant
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If you are like pretty much everyone, you probably have a to-do list filled with seemingly simple tasks that somehow never get done. Instead of tackling the list, items linger and fill you with guilt.

Technology promised to simplify our lives—but errands seem to overwhelm us now. Automation, “smart technologies,” and “virtual assistants” haven’t magically made tedious tasks easier, but rather replaced old steps with new ones. You don’t necessarily have to go places to get things done, but you do have to recall old passwords or reset new ones, deal with infuriating bots that take your calls but can’t answer questions, and manage a slew of accounts. And because we change jobs more often and lead increasingly hectic lives, we experience a kind of “errand paralysis,” as Anne Helen Petersen writes in BuzzFeed.

Petersen posits that the inability to deal with life’s mundane tasks is a symptom of burnout, something she diagnoses as “the millennial condition.” She argues that millennials—loosely defined as those born between 1981 and 1996—face unique challenges. And while she’s right that many people today feel paralyzed in the face of simple tasks, she’s wrong to imagine that this burnout is unique to her generation.

The disease that Petersen correctly and eloquently diagnoses is not limited to a set of arbitrarily constructed and often meaningless generational lines. What she describes is true of anyone who participates in the global, digital economy. After all, 45-year-olds also have to go to the dentist, and do their taxes, and sign up for health insurance.

Burnout is a ubiquitous symptom of living in these times. No generation is immune to the effects of a transforming global economy and ever-changing technologies. If anything, millennials should be best-equipped to manage postmodern life, given that they were born into it. But we’re all struggling to adjust to existence in a world that’s more connected, and yet more alienating, than ever before.

Has technology made us more efficient?

As Judy Shapiro wrote in Ad Age in 2009, already expressing skepticism about the iPhone 3G, “The seduction of new technology belies the reality that technology is often neither a time saver nor even more efficient.”

All this technology was supposed to help people “hack” life. Apple’s 2009 iPhone ad campaign centered around the idea that “there’s an app for that”—namely, that smartphones would help humans do everything they needed to do faster, better, and with the tips of their fingers.

Instead, for many people, omnipresent technology turned life into an endless, and insurmountable, to-do list. And a lot of technology actually makes accomplishing a task less, not more, efficient. Take customer service lines. To set up or cancel most services today, you have to call a customer service number that is often understaffed and overwhelmed. Marchex, an advertising analytics company, found in 2016 that Americans wasted more than 900 million hours waiting on hold. An older survey, conducted in 2013 by the texting app TalkTo, found that over half of US respondents reported spending between 10 to 20 minutes a week on hold, or about 13 hours a year.

Technology, when it works, can help save a lot of time. But it doesn’t always work. Passport scanners at airports, for example, are meant to cut down waiting times at customs and make traveling more seamless. But when the machines are broken, lines get longer. And there are no immigration agents there to help; they’ve been sent to do other tasks because the machines were meant to replace them.

And then there are ways in which technology enables us to actively waste our time. A study conducted by the marketing agency Mediakix found that the average American will spend five years and four months of their lives on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Snapchat and Instagram.

Learning to Deal

It was once taken as a given that people act rationally—we do what we should because we know it’s good for us. Or at least that’s what economists thought when they built their models. The Nobel Prize-winning economist Richard Thaler introduced the notion that this isn’t true. Thaler pointed to a slew of cognitive biases and strange behaviors to prove that humans often avoid choices that would serve them well—like opting into a 401K, say—because they just don’t want to deal with decisions. He proposed that governments and institutions nudge people in the right direction, making it easier to choose wisely, incentivizing rational choices by forcing workers to opt out of a pension plan rather than opt-in, for example.

In Thaler’s view, each of us is two people. We encompass a present self and a planning self. The planning self wants to pay taxes on time, tick things off of our to-do lists, and manage our lives wisely. The present self isn’t always inclined to follow through on those plans. One reason for that is because the present self and the planning self can feel disconnected. If you can’t see the “you” of the future, the one who will benefit from dealing with today’s tedium, then it’s difficult to get the present “you” motivated.

These theories apply to all aspects of our lives, not just retirement planning. Admittedly, it’s difficult to see the future in a turbulent world where your circumstances keep changing. But you can impose some controls. To tackle your to-do list you have to be able to see beyond the present, which can feel overwhelming when you’re already checking all your social media feeds and responding to emails and are steeped in the needs of the moment.

So, one approach to becoming more efficient about what must be done is to simplify your life by having fewer demands on your time. We’re not as busy as we think—we spend a lot of time gratifying the present self with activities that don’t advance our future self. We would benefit from heeding Nobel Prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman’s advice: “The easiest way to increase happiness is to control your use of time.”

In practical terms this might mean taking measures to break our screen addictions; developing systems that help us prioritize our commitments such as the Bullet Journal or Eisenhower Box; or on a more fundamental level by understanding time better by reading up on chronemics, the study of time.

Another option is to accept the current condition. This isn’t exactly giving up, more like adjusting mentally. In the beginning of her Buzzfeed feature, Petersen beats herself up for not taking her shoes to the cobbler, for example, all the while noting that she is writing books and exercising regularly and managing a cross-country move at the same time. She ends up in a place of self-acceptance: “I don’t have a plan of action, other than to be more honest with myself about what I am and am not doing and why,” she writes. “This isn’t a task to complete or a line on a to-do list, or even a New Year’s resolution. It’s a way of thinking about life, and what joy and meaning we can derive not just from optimizing it, but living it. Which is another way of saying: It’s life’s actual work.”

If we learn to accept that, in order for us to keep our sanity and fully participate in society and our lives, some things will have to slip through the cracks, we can stop feeling guilty when they do. Less time spent lamenting would free up the energy to get this tedious task done—or just to have more fun.

One reason so many of us feel burnt out is because we put excessive pressure on ourselves. We imagine success involves doing it all—while looking good, too. Some of this pressure is real, and some of it is invented. As Thaler points out, no one is perfect. And we don’t have to be. It’s liberating to learn to distinguish between the idealized lives presented on Instagram and the reality that existence is messy and complicated and that we have limits.

Your to-do list could fill you with pleasure if you connect to your future self, knowing that tackling certain tasks will make you happier later (or zapping them like you’re playing Space Invaders). But part of that process is simultaneously letting go of the bits that don’t matter as much.

Perhaps what we are missing most now is a sense of perspective. There’s no app for that, but it is worth your time.