This story is adapted from Can’t Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation, by Anne Helen Petersen.
The first thing I hear in the morning is my SleepCycle app, which is supposedly monitoring my movements in order to “gently” wake me as I emerge from sleep. I swipe it off and see the first alerts from the various news apps on my phone: bad things, getting worse. I check the Covid numbers in my county, then in my mom’s county. As I lie in bed, my thumb goes to Instagram for truly unknown reasons, but I’m less interested in seeing what others have posted than how many people have liked whatever photo I posted the night before. I check my personal email. I check my work email. I deleted the Twitter app off my phone, but don’t worry: You can always just open Chrome and go to Twitter.com.
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I get out of bed and yell at Alexa a few times to turn on NPR. I turn on the shower. As it warms up, I check Slack to see if there’s anything I need to attend to as the East Coast wakes up. When I get out of the shower, the radio’s playing something interesting, so while I’m standing there in my towel, I look it up online and tweet it. I get dressed and get my coffee and sit down at the computer, where I spend a solid hour and a half reading things, tweeting things, and waiting for them to get fav’ed. I post one of the stories I read to the Facebook page of 43,000 followers that I’ve been running for a decade. I check back in five minutes to see if anyone’s commented on it. I tell myself I should try to get to work while forgetting this is kind of my work.
I think, I should really start writing. I go to the Google Doc draft open in my browser. Oops, I mean I go to the clothing website to see if the thing I put in my cart last week is on sale. Oops, I actually mean I go back to Slack to drop in a link to make sure everyone knows I’m online and working. I write 200 words in my draft before deciding I should sign that contract for a speaking engagement that’s been sitting in my Inbox of Shame. I don’t have a printer or scanner, and I can’t remember the password for the online document signer. I try to reset the password but it says, quite nicely, that I can’t use any of my last three passwords. Someone is calling with a Seattle area code; they don’t leave a message because my voicemail is full and has been for six months.
I’m in my email and the “Promotions” tab has somehow grown from two to 42 over the course of three hours. The unsubscribe widget I installed a few months ago stopped working when the tech people at work made everyone change their passwords, and now I spend a lot of time deleting emails from West Elm. But wait there’s a Facebook notification: A new post in the group page for the dog rescue where I adopted my puppy! Someone I haven’t spoken to directly since high school has posted something new!
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Over on LinkedIn, my book agent is celebrating her fifth work anniversary; so is a former student whose face I vaguely remember. I have lunch and hate-skim a blog I’ve been hate-skimming for years. Trump does a bad tweet. Someone else wrote a bad take. I eke out some more writing between very important-seeming Slack conversations about Joe Jonas’ musculature.
I go on a walk. I get interrupted once, twice, 15 times by one of my group texts. I get home and go to the bathroom, where I have just enough time to look at my phone again. I drive to the grocery store and get stuck at a long stoplight. I pick up my phone, which says, “It looks like you are driving.” I lie to my phone.
I’m checking out at the grocery store and I’m checking email. I’m getting into the car to drive home and I’m texting my friend an inside joke. I’m five minutes from home and I’m checking in with my boyfriend. I’m back at home with a beer and sitting in the backyard and “relaxing” by reading the internet and tweeting and finalizing edits on a piece. I’m texting my mom instead of calling her. I’m posting a dog walk photo to Instagram and wondering if I’ve posted too many dog photos lately. I’m making dinner while asking Alexa to play a podcast where people talk about the news I didn’t really internalize.
I get into bed with the best intention of reading the book on my nightstand but wow, that’s a really funny TikTok. I check my Instagram likes on the dog photo I did indeed post. I check my email and my other email and Facebook. There’s nothing else to check, so somehow I decide it’s a good time to open my Delta app and check on my frequent flyer mile count. Oops, I ran out of book time; better set SleepCycle.
I’m equally ashamed and exhausted writing that description of a pretty standard day in my digital life—and it doesn’t even include all of the additional times I looked at my phone, or checked social media, or went back and forth between a draft and the internet, as I did twice just while writing this sentence. In the United States, one 2013 study found that millennials check their phone 150 times a day; a different 2016 study claimed we log an average of six hours and 19 minutes of scrolling and texting and stressing out over emails per week. No one I know likes their phone. Most people I know even realize that whatever benefits the phone allows—Google Maps, Emergency Calling—are far outweighed by the distraction that accompanies it.
We know this. We know our phones suck. We even know the apps on them were engineered to be addictive. We know that the utopian promises of technology—to make work more efficient, to make connections stronger, to make photos better and more shareable, to make the news more accessible, to make communication easier—have in fact created more work, more responsibility, more opportunities to feel like a failure.
Part of the problem is that these digital technologies, from cell phones to Apple Watches, from Instagram to Slack, encourage our worst habits. They stymie our best-laid plans for self-preservation. They ransack our free time. They make it increasingly impossible to do the things that actually ground us. They turn a run in the woods into an opportunity for self-optimization. They are the neediest and most selfish entity in every interaction I have with others. They compel us to frame experiences, as we are experiencing them, with future captions, and to conceive of travel as worthwhile only when documented for public consumption. They steal joy and solitude and leave only exhaustion and regret. I hate them and resent them and find it increasingly difficult to live without them.
Digital detoxes don’t fix the problem. Moving to the woods and going full Thoreau, for most of us, is simply not an option. The only long-term fix is making the background into foreground: calling out the exact ways digital technologies have colonized our lives, aggravating and expanding our burnout in the name of efficiency.
What these technologies do best is remind us of what we’re not doing: who’s hanging out without us, who’s working more than us, what news we’re not reading. They refuse to allow our consciousness off the hook, in order to do the essential, protective, regenerative work of sublimating and repressing. Instead, they provide the opposite: a nonstop barrage of notifications and reminders and interactions. They bring life to the forefront, constantly, so that we can’t ignore it. They’re not a respite from work—or, as promised, a way to optimize your work. They’re just more work. And six months into a society-throttling pandemic, they’re more inescapable than ever.
A year into my job as a writer at BuzzFeed, Slack arrived. We’d had a group chat system, but Slack was different: It promised a revolution. Its goal was to “kill email” by switching workplace communication to direct messages and group discussion channels. It promised easier collaboration (true) and less clogged inboxes (maybe). And most importantly, it had a sophisticated mobile app. Like email, Slack allowed work to spread into the crevices of life where until that point it couldn’t fit. In a more efficient, instantaneous manner than email, it brings the entire office into your phone, which is to say, into your bed, when you land on the plane, when you walk down the street, as you stand in line at the grocery store, or as you wait, half naked, on the exam table for your doctor.
Granted, work has long been able to follow people home. Doctors would review their “dictation,” or notes on a patient visit, after hours, and you could always whip out some memos on the Apple IIe at home. But none of those processes were “live”: Whatever work you accomplished on your own wouldn’t be known to others, or force others to respond in kind, until the next workday. Workaholism could be a personal problem.
But the spread of email—on the desktop, then on the Wi-Fi enabled laptop, then the BlackBerry, and now all manner of smartphones, smart watches, and “smart appliances,” including your exercise bike—changed all that. It didn’t just accelerate communication; it standardized a new, far more addictive form of communication, with a casualness that cloaked its destructiveness. When you “shoot off a few emails” on a Sunday afternoon, for example, you might convince yourself you’re just getting on top of things for the week ahead—which might feel true. But what you’re really doing is giving work access to be everywhere you are. And once allowed in, it spreads without your permission: to the dinner table, the couch, the kid’s soccer game, the grocery store, the car, the family vacation.
Sites of digital leisure increasingly double as sites of digital labor: If you help run your company’s social media, every time you log into Facebook or Twitter or Instagram you face bombardment from your work accounts. If someone emails you and you don’t immediately respond, they’ll move straight to your social media accounts—even when you have an auto responder indicating that you’re not available. Fewer and fewer employers supply work phones (either on the actual desk or in the form of work cell phones); calls and texts to your “work phone” (from sources, from clients, from employers) are just calls and texts to your phone. “Back in the day, AIM was the thing,” one Silicon Valley CEO explained. “You had an away message. You were literally away from your device. Now you can’t. You’re 100 percent on at all times.”
It’s the emails, but it’s more: It’s the Google Docs, and the conference calls you listen to on mute while making your kids’ breakfast, and the databases you can log in to from home, and your manager texting on Sunday night with “the plan for tomorrow.” Some of these developments are heralded as time-saving schedule optimizers: fewer meetings, more conference calls! Less rigid workplace hours, more flexibility! You can start your workday at home, spend an extra day at the cabin, even take off early to pick up your kid from school and wrap up loose ends later. But all that digitally enabled flexibility really means digitally enabling more work—with fewer boundaries. And Slack, like work email, makes workplace communication feel casual, even as participants internalize it as compulsory.
Granted, only a fraction of the workforce currently uses Slack—as of April 2019, around 95,000 companies paid for its services. But many other workplaces use similar programs, especially since the pandemic sent millions of workers home and left companies scrambling for some way to re-approximate the workplace. These days, Slack’s influence feels inescapable: there were remote workers before Slack, but unlike email, or phone calls, or Gchat, Slack is able to digitally re-create the workplace, complete with standards of decorum, and participation, and “presentism,” however unspoken. It was intended to make work easier, or at least more streamlined, but like so many work optimization tactics, it just makes those who use it work more, and with more anxiety.
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Slack thus becomes a way to LARP—Live Action Role Play—your job. “LARPing your job” was coined by the technology writer John Herrman, who, all the way back in 2015, predicted the ways in which Slack would screw with our conception of work: “Slack is where people make jokes and register their presence; it is where stories and editing and administrating are discussed as much for self-justification as for the completion of actual goals. Working in an active Slack … is a productivity nightmare, especially if you don’t hate your coworkers. Anyone who suggests otherwise is either rationalizing or delusional.”
As more work becomes remote, it’s something so many of us think about: How do we demonstrate that we’re “in the office” when we’re in our sweatpants on the couch? I do it by dropping links to articles (to show that I’m reading), by commenting on other people’s links (to show that I’m reading Slack), and by participating in conversations (to show that I’m engaged). I work very hard to produce evidence that I’m constantly doing work instead of, well, actually doing work.
My editors would say that there’s no need to compulsively perform on Slack. But what would they say if I just didn’t use Slack at all? People who do “knowledge work”—those whose products are often intangible, like ideas on a page—often struggle with the feeling that there’s little to show for the hours we spend sitting in front of our computers. And the compulsion is heightened for those of us who worked, job searched, or were laid off during the post-2008 recession: We’re desperate to show we’re worthy of a salaried job, and eager to demonstrate, especially in this economy, how much labor and engagement we’re willing to give in exchange for full-time employment and health insurance.
This mindset may be delusional: Yes, of course, managers do think about how much work we’re producing, but only the worst of them are clocking how many hours the green “active” dot is showing up next to your name on Slack. And most of our coworkers are too worried about LARPing their own jobs to worry about how much you’re LARPing yours.
We’re performing, in other words, largely for ourselves. Justifying to ourselves that we deserve our job. At heart, this is a manifestation of a general undervaluing of our own work: Many of us still navigate the workplace as if getting paid to produce knowledge means we’re getting away with something, and have to do everything possible to make sure no one realizes they’ve made a massive mistake. No wonder we spend so much time trying to communicate how hard we work.
I’ll be honest: As I attempted to write those past three paragraphs, I was paying my credit card bill, reading a breaking news story, and figuring out how to transfer my new puppy’s microchip registration to my name. Everything—especially writing this—was taking far longer than it should have. And none of it felt good, or fulfilling, or cathartic.
But that’s the reality of the internet-ridden life: I need to be an insanely productive writer and be funny on Slack and post good links on Twitter and keep the house clean and cook a fun new recipe from Pinterest and track my exercise on MapMyRun and text my friends to ask questions about their growing children and check in with my mom and grow tomatoes in the backyard and enjoy Montana and Instagram myself enjoying Montana and shower and put on cute clothes for that 30-minute video call with my coworkers and and and and.
The internet isn’t the root cause of our burnout. But its promise to “make our lives easier” is a profoundly broken one, responsible for the illusion that “doing it all” isn’t just possible, but mandatory. When we fail to do so, we don’t blame the broken tools. We blame ourselves. Deep down, we know the primary exacerbator of burnout isn’t really email, or Instagram, or a constant stream of news alerts. It’s the continuous failure to reach the impossible expectations we’ve set for ourselves.
Adapted from CAN’T EVEN: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation by Anne Helen Petersen.
Copyright © 2020 by Anne Helen Peterson. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved.
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