The article How Millennials Became The Burnout Generation has certainly made the rounds lately and boy oh boy did Anne Helen Petersen strike a chord.
“When it came to the mundane, the medium priority, the stuff that wouldn’t make my job easier or my work better, I avoided it. I realized that the vast majority of these tasks shares a common denominator: Their primary beneficiary is me, but not in a way that would actually drastically improve my life. They are seemingly high-effort, low-reward tasks, and they paralyze me.”
Petersen goes on with an astute observation of the current state of employment:
“Yet the more work we do, the more efficient we’ve proven ourselves to be, the worse our jobs become: lower pay, worse benefits, less job security. Our efficiency hasn’t bucked wage stagnation; our steadfastness hasn’t made us more valuable. If anything, our commitment to work, no matter how exploitative, has simply encouraged and facilitated our exploitation. We put up with companies treating us poorly because we don’t see another option. We don’t quit. We internalize that we’re not striving hard enough. And we get a second gig.”
It’s not hard to identify with the ennui-inducing busywork that accompanies most adulting-related tasks, but as Shannon Palus points out at Slate:
“Ultimately, burnout isn’t a “millennial condition,” as Petersen argues. It’s the condition of being human in a capitalist society.”
Palus goes on to argue that the heart of Petersen’s article is a sort of a young + white bias blind spot that makes ennui a viable consequence as opposed to life-threatening chaos (which is the more likely outcome for folks both older + not white).
Palus’ point is closely tied in with Meagan Day’s “You Don’t Want Hygge. You Want Social Democracy” in which she argues:
“People all over the world value time, company, and security. What Scandinavians have is a political-economic arrangement that better facilitates the regular expression of those values.” She continues, “Many working-class Americans don’t have much time for activities in the happy category, because they work multiple jobs or long hours and also have to keep a household in order without much assistance. Many more are afraid that if they take time away from their stressful responsibilities, they will overlook something important and fall behind, and there will be no social safety net to catch them.”
Let’s trace that back, in plain English: you’re burnt out because capitalism sucks, and it sucks more for a wide demographic of people, and we’re increasingly witnessing that the ends a lot of hard work (on our part and others’) don’t always have the ends we hope.
Palus, Day, and Petersen are all correct in their assertions, but I’d like to point out a more insidious (but solvable) source of burnout: attention abuse.
What is attention abuse?
I recently watched a friend jump through 15 procedural hoops just to save one Word document in a place where they’d be able to edit it again (before you ask, this person is tech savvy).
15 steps. To save a Word document.
15 steps because of bad user experience design.
At least 8 were added by the OS + Word.
Maybe 3 because of good IT policy, and to be clear – it wasn’t bad IT policy that caused this particular problem, although that is certainly the case elsewhere.
The actual work of creating and saving the doc was only about 3-4 steps in total.
If you’re wondering why you drag your feet so hard on seemingly mundane tasks, this is why. 11 steps of overhead on top of a 3-4 step task.
Attention abuse is bound to get worse if we continue to ignore user experience design.
Technology is screwing us.
Each step in the process demands your attention, whether it’s 2-step authentication, logging in incognito, telling the browser 2x not to save password or stay logged in, telling the OS not to update right at that very moment, giving Word your name and initials because this copy on this particular machine on this particular login hadn’t been utilized before…
The consequences of answering incorrectly mean you must devote even more attention to overhead tasks before you can accomplish the thing you actually set out to do.
These demands are often random, high-urgency, unplannable, and chained together because one system stacks on another and the tools are interconnected. It’s total chaos and we’re all paying the price.
Every device demands attention. I love our Roomba but damned if it doesn’t
try to trip/murder me get under my feet at every opportunity or get stuck and then loudly call for help if I forget to barricade the bathroom door.
Tech insiders say passwords are broken – sure, but that’s not all: the entire UX/UI ecosystem is broken. The ENTIRETY of user experience with almost any system is just so screwy.
The OS is no longer doing its job to streamline requests for your attention and keep you working. It’s become, primarily, an interruption mechanism to ensure its own survival (by way of updates). This is the sand most knowledge work is built on.
Stacked on top of this is browser-based cloud work. The browser is quickly becoming the central hub for almost everything knowledge workers do. They’re quickly becoming overrun with these same requests; every site now has multiple interjections (TURN ON NOTIFICATIONS? CAN I FIND YOUR LOCATION? WE HAVE COOKIES, OK?) that fire off before you even get to the content.
In terms of the OS, similar requests should be grouped, e.g. all updates and IT should be grouped away from the task you’re trying to focus on. Vital OS updates should be timed to occur at the END of your workday, not the start/middle. The user should always and forever have the ability to mute interruptions – notice that we have to do this on an individual level for most websites and even most applications, still.
It’s 2019. Our phones can talk back to us. Our location can be tracked down to a 3-meter circle. A pair of shoes I Google once follows me around the Internet like a lost puppy. You’re telling me that the OS can’t figure out my work patterns and time updates appropriately?
From bad to worse: organizations are screwing us, too.
Logistical hoops suck. Whenever they appear, I drag my feet HARD, and I bet you do too.
In particular: signing up for health insurance, where no matter what I send them to verify my income, including my tax returns, they don’t believe me, screw it up, and it takes MONTHS to sort out.
Anything having to do with paying bills, contacting customer service for large organizations, tech support, you name it. The highly useful but difficult feature that’s expensive to include in your product? Hide any mention of it from the help docs. People will either give up because they can’t find it or they’ll ping support somehow, have to answer multiple questions about irrelevant details, reject bad assumptions by the support agent, maybe escalate the issue up the chain, and only then find out that the thing they want to do isn’t possible.
That is, if you can even GET someone from customer service on the phone. I recently discovered – and I’m only mildly ashamed to admit this – that some companies’ automated phone systems will actively disconnect you if you start swearing at the computer. Those automated phone systems, whose menu options have perpetually recently changed (so you’d better listen carefully), are typically built to be as inefficient as possible. If your call was really that important, it would have been answered by a human on the first ring. Chances are, if you’re needing help or complaining, your money is worth a lot less than the customer who doesn’t ask so many damn questions.
Adding unnecessary red tape is a common delaying tactic for large and mid-size businesses so they can buy more time or filter out high-cost users. Insurance companies and banks do this ALL. THE. TIME.
Just to log in to her bank’s mobile application, my wife had to find and reset four different authentication tokens – with the mandatory assistance of a customer service rep who was required to offer credit cards and loans throughout the process. Four authentication mechanisms and each one had to be reset during a sales pitch. The only thing more draconian would have been a retina scan and biological sample requirement where they pitch you an HSA and life insurance – I hear they’re working on it.
From worse to (un)intentionally evil: lazy people are screwing us the most.
Here’s where it gets dark.
How often have you experienced someone making your life just slightly harder than they needed to?
Maybe they cancel on you last-second. Maybe they ask you about something they could easily Google. Maybe they ask you to do something you know they could easily learn if they just expended a little extra effort. Maybe it’s someone who picks your brain about anything and everything and doesn’t even buy you coffee. Maybe it’s someone who insists on hour-long in-person meetings when a 5-second phone call would do just as well. Maybe it’s somebody who doesn’t tackle the project they’re assigned and then punts that extra work to you.
I’d also add to this: if someone reads your email and then ignores some or all of the questions inside, causing you to re-iterate the questions again and again until they’re answered.
I’m frequently irritated at myself that I’ve “rented out my brain” to someone who should know better, but in reality, it’s yet another form of attention abuse. As a result, I often hem and haw when it comes to working with people who are making my life difficult in some way. I often delay, defer, or hedge wherever possible to artificially increase the cost of “renting out my brain”.
To make matters worse, there’s a LOT more of this kind of interpersonal attention abuse happening on a daily basis (not just to millennials) because gatekeepers no longer exist and you can’t shut off. You become the defacto Google for many people if you have even a slight bit of knowledge. Where that used to be a differentiator for people who’d gladly pay for your knowledge, it’s now expected that you do certain things for free and on a 24/7 schedule, so the “Burden of Knowledge” now has so many more externalities than it did even five years ago.
I’m not talking about folks whom you voluntarily help – they’re not abusers in this sense because honest intent is the reason you’re rendering assistance (in the way you don’t feel burdened by donating to the food bank or a charity – they need the help, you’re willing to give it). Even so, you can’t give indefinitely and – especially when starting out and paying your dues – it’s ridiculously easy to abuse yourself by undervaluing your skills and time.
I look at my time teaching Digital Gunslingers as a prime example. I LOVED teaching what would become social media/tech literacy and each 1-hour meetup would extend hours longer than scheduled. I simply answered questions until there were no more questions left to answer because it was both fun and rewarding (I often learned as much as I taught).
When I left, I was so brain-drained that I couldn’t do anything else but eat and zone out. While I loved sharing my knowledge and to this day am thrilled that so many of my students went on to start their own businesses, it was ultimately unsustainable to be that generous for so long. My fledgling marriage was incompatible with that kind of weekly unscheduled chaos.
That kind of unscheduled chaos has taken over everything, everywhere, anywhere someone has any bit of specialized knowledge that is hard to document or replicate.
So what’s the fix?
First, you have to value yourself, your skills, and your time even if you are paying your dues. This is necessary to establish healthy boundaries and identify attention abuse from the start.
Second, experienced, established fellows in every field must “send the elevator back down” (something I regularly try to do because it was done for me). To avoid the sort of blindspot bias Palus argues against, we have to hold the elevator doors open for as long as possible. Everybody should have a fair shot at a mentor; we should work to improve representation and visibility anywhere we can.
Third, there’s no shortage of Q+A platforms and Wiki documentation tools. Companies (and managers, in lieu of official support) must dedicate resources to documenting relentlessly. Slack is great, but only if you take the time to categorize properly to optimize search and export knowledge to a more durable medium when appropriate. It’s odd to say that technology is a solution to a problem that is largely caused by technology, but the ratchet of progress moves ever upward.
Fourth, make things suck less for other people whenever and wherever possible. Go to the extra work of linking to the resource you’re referring to or attaching the file your counterpart will need next. Answer every question in-depth. If something can be resolved with a call, don’t demand a meeting. In short: be the most helpful version of yourself you can be while still respecting your personal boundaries.
Fifth, experience design is a necessity for any process, product, or service.
Ultimately, the real winners – or at least, those who won’t burn out – will be those who can figure out scale: systemization, documentation, searchability, and wikification. Knowledge workers in the cloud era must figure out how to scale their knowledge or face a perpetually rising tide of ennui and burnout.