To solve a problem, it’s often said, one must first admit one has the problem. And admitting to a problem requires giving the problem a name.
That’s why the phrase “errand paralysis,” coined by Anne Helen Petersen in her viral piece about “millennial burnout” published in December, was such a gift.
The burnout she described was debated extensively. But the symptom she described—a mental block that makes tedious tasks feel impossible to do—seems to be a universal affliction. At least it is in the Quartz newsroom, where our office chat, Slack, was flooded in the wake of this piece. Many of us copped to the fact that we too put off seemingly manageable tasks (rolling over retirement plans, canceling subscriptions, mailing anything) until they coalesce into one giant, stressful ball of life admin that paralyzes us.
With our condition properly labeled, many of us vowed to cure it. We made dentist’s appointments, dropped off bags of clothing to donation centers, marched to the post office to finally submit those reimbursement claims (where we found friends on similar errands). A group of parents at Quartz made pacts with each other to write power-of-attorney and will documents.
Of course, it was all so easy in the immediate aftermath, but now, six weeks into 2019, with late winter downtime threatening giving way to the busy-ness of early spring, have we changed our ways? Here are some takeaways from our attempts to banish our errand paralysis.
Of course, most people have a physical to-do list. But to-do lists are only effective at minimizing stress if they contain absolutely everything you must do in the short, medium, and long term on them.
Our growth editor (and low-key productivity hacker) Phoebe Gavin uses an app called Todoist to track her progress on tasks: “My theory is that the more your to do list lives in your head, the more stressed you’ll be,” she explained. “So I get it out of my head and into the app immediately. Then when my admin time comes, everything is just there.”
When you think about it, it’s clearly unreasonable to expect yourself to effortlessly maintain full-time employment in a late capitalist economy while also keeping on top of full-time life. Using weekends, evenings, and lunch breaks to complete admin tasks may allow you to scrape by, but an evening spent filing paperwork cheats you out of what should otherwise be rest or play time.
Using vacation time (if you have it) to complete some of these tasks can help you get them done sooner, and not feel as burned out by life in the process. And there’s some value to raising the stakes for yourself: Knowing you have used holiday time to get things done means you really need to get those things done.
Quartz’s managing editor, Kira Bindrim, is taking this tact with a staycation where she intends to complete one—”just one!”—errand each day. Similarly, I took a day off recently to talk to accountants and start my taxes (I have to do them in two countries; pray for me).
It can be helpful to separate your various to-do lists by category or how long it will take to get them done, and attack them accordingly. The day-to-day things you must do each week (buy groceries, work out, pay bills) don’t belong alongside the once-a-year things, like paying taxes, choosing a retirement plan, or finally setting up that password manager. By grouping those latter things and, say, committing to doing one to two per month, you can make progress and keep track of what you still need to complete amidst the weekly grind.
Gavin takes this strategy on a weekly basis as a way to systematize her time: She takes an hour on Tuesdays and Thursdays for “computer admin-y things,” she says. Saturday mornings are for out-of-the-house errands, and two long lunch breaks a month gives her time to do non-timely, business hours things. “It’s not enough time to do everything,” Gavin says, “but it’s plenty of time to do enough to feel good about my productivity and not let the most important things fall away.”
Many of the errands we put off and off could be actually done in minutes. The mere thought of doing them is so much more daunting than the act of actually doing it. So instate a policy: If it takes less than four minutes to accomplish, do it the moment you think of it. Canceling a magazine subscription; dropping by the ATM to deposit a check on your way to the station; sending a save the date email for a birthday dinner; switching your bank statements to electronic: These things do not need to cause you stress—so don’t let them.
Quartz reporter Natasha Frost turns life admin into a mental game. Her tactic is inspired by the classic video game Space Invaders, and like the four-minute rule, the point is to zap admin tasks the moment they arise: “The trick is thinking of them as enemy crafts to shoot down,” she writes. “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.”
The reality is nearly everyone struggles with life admin; it doesn’t make us bad or ineffective people. But there’s a lot of shame involved in errand paralysis. “I’d put something on my weekly to-do list, and it’d roll over, one week to the next, haunting me for months,” Petersen wrote in the BuzzFeed piece.
When we endlessly put off a piece of admin, perhaps what we actually fear is a being exposed as an irresponsible or ineffective adult, sitting at home amid piles of unopened mail. Our lifestyle and culture editor, Indrani Sen, has replaced that mental image with something else: “I have started imagining a shiny avatar of myself in about three weeks who has done all her errands and is just beaming back, beatifically but not mockingly.”