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Here’s How to Overcome “Errand Paralysis” So You Can Feel Less Stressed and Get More Done

A viral Buzzfeed essay described the feeling of being too burned out to finish mundane tasks. A stress expert has help.

Photo credit: Jennifer A Smith / Getty Images
Photo credit: Jennifer A Smith / Getty Images

A viral essay on Buzzfeed, called “How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation” welcomed a new phrase into the American lexicon: “errand paralysis.” Writer Anne Helen Petersen used the phrase to describe the inability to cope with simple, boring tasks — like mailing a letter or organizing one’s messy desk — because of mounting anxiety. “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 writes. She attributes her struggle to get on top of dull but necessary tasks that would improve her life to perpetual exhaustion and the need to be perpetually productive: “Why can’t I get this mundane stuff done? Because I’m burned out. Why am I burned out? Because I’ve internalized the idea that I should be working all the time. Why have I internalized that idea? Because everything and everyone in my life has reinforced it — explicitly and implicitly — since I was young.”

It’s debatable whether millennials (those born between 1981 and 1996) can stake a greater claim on burnout than other generations, but when you consider the confluence of cultural and historical events they’ve grown up with — intense digital connectivity that keeps them tethered to their devices and jobs 24/7, the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, 9/11 and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, record-high student loan debt, an upswing in natural disasters due to global warming, a tenuous and corrupt presidency — it’s no surprise that they’re thoroughly spent and unmotivated to tackle their more prosaic responsibilities.  

B. Janet Hibbs, Ph.D., a family psychologist who co-authored The Stressed Years of Their Lives: Helping Your Kid Survive and Thrive During Their College Years, agrees with Petersen’s assessment that millennials — “and Gen Z,” Hibbs tells Thrive — have been so thoroughly hijacked by their overstimulating digital lives they’re less able to gather up the motivation to pursue more pedestrian activities like cleaning out the fridge. “Errand paralysis most often strikes when we’re faced with important, but not urgent tasks,” she says, suggesting advice for how we can get over it and simultaneously reduce our stress levels.

Learn to distinguish between urgency and importance

We live in a world of false urgency where the loudest attention grabbers (news notifications, texts, friend updates) masquerade as time-sensitive. “Texts and emails feel urgent,” Hibbs says, “but they’re mostly unimportant.” Stop draining your brainpower with faux urgency, Hibbs  advises, by getting clear about the quieter, but no less important responsibilities (like filling out forms and making appointments). Then, schedule them: “Decide when in your day or week you will complete these tasks and enter them onto your calendar,” she suggests.

Just start

One way to manage your ballooning anxiety over incomplete tasks is to stop thinking about them — muster up all your strength, even if you are mentally and physically fatigued — and just do them. “Get started by taking 10 minutes to begin the endeavor. Once started, the progress will likely help you continue until you’re finished,” Hibbs explains. Starting is the hardest part, but breaking the errand down into small, doable goals — what we at Thrive call Microsteps — will help the task feel less daunting and more achievable.

Picture it

Draw a simple picture (a 4-second drawing is better than a written list) of what you need to do, says Hibbs, noting that a 2014 study demonstrated that sketching reinforces memory and attention. For instance, if you need to re-organize your junk drawer, draw out what you would ideally want it to look like, and what goes where. If you’re better able to recall what you need to accomplish, you’ll likely be more inclined to act on it.

Bring back boredom

Inviting moments of “doing nothing” back into your daily life, even if it means looking out the window instead of checking work emails during your commute, will teach you how to cope with less invigorating tasks like taking your car for a wash. “Summon some dead space for more head space,” Hibbs says.  

Meditate

Hibbs says her top go-to for solving problems, even ones as benign as trying to motivate to complete simple chores, is mindfulness meditation. “Do yoga, qigong or other similarly meditative activities,” she urges, “Even 10 minutes a day creates a calm state of mind that leads to productivity,” she says, recommending the Headspace app.

Parents: give your kids boring chores

Hibbs strongly urges parents to task their children with housekeeping duties, which help them in later life: “Please assist your child and teen in future ‘adulting’ by adding chores (the boring stuff of life!) to balance the overwhelming emphasis on the ‘brag sheet’ and cognitive achievement,” Hibbs advises. By overemphasizing intellectual development and allowing kids constant stimulation, we’ve neglected to teach them how to get on with the everyday business of living, which often involves a lot of necessary humdrum like cleaning your apartment, getting a car tune up, and visiting a dentist every six months. Exposing kids to chores will help ward off future stress related to these tasks, so they don’t seem so overwhelming, Hibbs says.

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