A spiritual answer to solving “millennial burnout”

Focusing on the human spirit as opposed to that endless to-do list.

Photo by JOHN TOWNER on Unsplash

This article is cross-posted from my weekly newsletter, The Sunday Soother, a newsletter about modern spirituality and useful tips for creating more meaning in your life that goes out every Sunday morning. To get more content about how to infuse your life with thoughtfulness, reflection, and meaning, subscribe here.

Like everybody else and their little sister, I read the millennial burnout article last weekend, and something about it hit a deep, sinister chord within me. As perhaps one of the world’s oldest living millennials (I just turned 39 on Friday, January 11th — shout out to my fellow Capricorns [rising Leo, Scorpio moon, it’s a mess up in here]), I too saw myself in this article.

For those of you who live in your cave in the woods with only your Palm Pilot to see what the kids are up to these days and missed it, the article, written by Anne Helen Petersen (who happens to have an excellent newsletter), hypothesizes that millennials struggle to get basic errands and mundane tasks — like mailing packages, taking donations to Goodwill, cleaning their cars — because, having been optimized for productivity and work since their childhoods, they’re now on a critical point of total burnout and basically crumble in the face of additional seemingly easy items.

So what’s the answer? Petersen says she doesn’t necessarily know, and that, of course, the answer could be different depending on who you are. That’s fair — there is no one answer to this complex problem (though lol of course I did write my headline to be “A spiritual answer to millennial burnout” — plz forgive me, I did it for the clicks). And, of course, there have been one million and one hot takes about this article and what we should all be doing to remedy it (cue even more anxiety and overload as we struggle to fit in myriad items of commodified self-care, as Petersen points out, like yoga classes, face masks, therapy — all of which eventually get melded into that never-ending to-do list and hustle that’s the cause of burnout in the first place).

But as she wraps up her article, Petersen notes this: “I was waking up at 6 a.m. to write, packing boxes over lunch, moving piles of wood at dinner, falling into bed at 9. I was on the treadmill of the to-do list: one damn thing after another. But as I finish this piece, I feel something I haven’t felt in a long time: catharsis. I feel great. I feel something — which is not something I’ve really felt upon the completion of a task in some time.”

I posit that the reason Petersen feels so great in this case is because she accomplished a massive task that gave her enormous purpose, meaning, and pride. And lack of purpose, meaning and spirit in our daily lives today, to me, are the current largest actual drivers of this burnout phenomenon that resonated with so many.

If you have no purpose or meaning in your life, yeah, your entire existence and all the even basically necessary and mundane tasks associated with it are going to seem like they ARE your life, and that realization will eventually short circuit you.

Humans need more. Humans need meaning.

So what to do? How do we get more purpose, meaning, spirituality back into our lives without simply making those things feel like they’re just robotic tasks to be checked off on a never-ending to do list that caused this issue in the first place? (And for those of you uncomfortable with the term “spirituality,” I mean it in its most literal definition: “the quality of being concerned with the human spirit or soul as opposed to material or physical things.”)

Let me propose five approaches that I truly think can help below.

You can take any or all of the approaches that call to you — try them out. There’s no one formula for everybody. As I like to say with tarot readings: Take what serves you, and leave the rest.

(Let me now also acknowledge I’m writing this as a particular kind of person [white, straight, cis, economically stable, raised with financial privilege, unmarried & without kids] to a particular kind of audience from a place of even more privilege. My suggestions will not and cannot necessarily address this burnout that face women of color, people who don’t have economic privilege, our LGBTQIA family, and others — all of whom face the issues above as well as dealing with massive stress and awful problems that stem from their simple existence in this unforgiving world, and who must live within a society where the problems are structural and large and must be addressed by massive policy and societal change. Tiana Clark’s thread on black burnout is good reading on this for black women in particular.)

Approach #1: Learn to offload and download your thoughts by writing by hand: As I was reading through the article and nodding at its examples, it struck me that this generation just seems like a computer that’s basically on the verge of short-circuiting. Our minds and bodies are completely overloaded with data, information, tasks, anxieties — there’s no room in our spirits for anything else.

One answer I find useful to this is the practice of writing by hand. I like to do Morning Pages — about 20–30 minutes of freehand, stream of consciousness writing each morning — but your approach could vary. Journaling. A simple writing of things that are stressing you out before you go to bed at night. But our brains are quite clearly overloaded. Writing — and yes, it needs to be by hand — gives them someplace to “live” other than spinning in our heads, which frees up a bit of space we need to function.

Try Morning pages, or you can try a couple other writing exercises I’ve suggested: this five-minute ‘recipe’ for daily reflection, or this exercise on ‘defragging your emotional harddrive.’

Approach #2: Optimize for meaning in your daily life, not productivity: Yes, as millennials, we’ve been told that you win life by getting the most shit done, and doing it the fastest. But this is an approach that clearly is going to put us on the fast track to the short circuiting I talked about above. So how can we optimize to put more actual meaning in our daily lives — and by meaning, something that feeds our spirits, makes us feel alive — rather than thinking the way to win a day is by accomplishing the most tasks or sending the most emails?

An approach I think is really useful comes from the book Make Time: How to Focus on What Matters Every Day. Some of the book is about productivity too, so again, take what serves you, leave the rest — what I took from it was what the authors refer to as choosing a “highlight” of your day, every day. Author Jake Knapp writes, “This “Daily Highlight” is based on my friend John Zeratsky’s approach to task management. Every day, instead of trying to do lots of little things, he writes down a to-do list with just one big thing on it. (You can read more here.) Of course, he still does other things, but by committing himself to one specific most important task in the morning, he ends up prioritizing his day and doing more important work.”

Your daily highlight could be, “Go for a walk with my sister.” It could be “Make a lasagna.” It could be, “Spend all afternoon reading a book.” In fact, I recommend your daily highlight be something you know will reset and nourish you, instead of something like “Work for two hours on that PowerPoint presentation.” As Knapp writes, it pays off: “I’ve tried this approach myself and found it very helpful. In the morning, it sharpens my focus. And at the end of the day, I don’t feel quite so frazzled — instead of wondering where the time went after reacting to my inbox and to-do list all day, I can be satisfied with what I accomplished.”

Approach #3: Learn to sit with discomfort: I think this is the most important approach on this list. Part of our constant go go go attitude and massive to-do lists and obsession with social media are indeed because we’ve been told our whole lives that we must hustle to be of value.

But I think part of it also stems from trying to avoid our own internal lives, reflections, feelings, emotions. If we know we have one million tasks to do, we can think about getting those done, rather than sadness, anger, or other complicated feelings we must process to ever get past them. Social media is also a huge problem here — not that that’s news. But when you start to feel a little lonely or anxious, you dive for your phone instead of sitting with the feeling as it’s arising and simply acknowledging it and moving through it.

So how can you begin to learn to sit with discomfort? Ya girl is gonna tell you to meditate here. Sorry, but it works wonders. I consider it the single most critical thing I do for my well-being. Sit by yourself every morning or evening for 10 minutes on the couch and just breathe. It will feel hard at first. Uncomfortable stuff comes up right away. That’s not a reason to give up on it. But it gets easier over time. It’s like any physical exercise you’ve never done — it hurts at first, and you’re bad at it. But with practice it becomes totally doable.

Approach #4: Get to know yourself: How much time do you spend alone with yourself? Do you spend a lot of time with family, friends, your significant other, and know everything about all of those people? Have you considered having the kind of relationship with yourself that you have with another person dear to you, one where you know the ins and outs of your emotions, your desires, your triggers, your joys?

Please allow me a little space for woo. I genuinely believe that everybody has… well, you may call it a soul. An essence. A spirit. Whatever it is, it’s a development and expression of self unique to each individual.

That essence is up against a very large and dominating world from the moment we are born, and is often totally squashed by the realities of daily life in today’s sucky capitalist and techno-driven society. The result is a disconnect of a person’s essence with whatever they are doing day-to-day.

When the soul is squashed like this, or muted, it goes into total spiritual disconnect. It’s in shutdown mode. It can’t do much, let alone random errands. It’s in heavy rebellion.

How to get back to knowing and understanding your true spirit or essence? Well, for everybody it’s their own spiritual ~journey~ or whatever you want to call it, (and I plan on writing about mine in a future newsletter), but really it’s a rediscovery of self.

Trying new things and observing how you react to them is one approach of doing this. Meditation is also good. Being alone is too. I wrote about the benefits of solo vacationing a few years ago in Vox, if you want to read it.
Reframe alone time — it’s not lonely. It’s developing a new relationship with a person you may have been out of touch with for a minute — yourself.

Approach #5: Accept that if you want to imbue your life with more meaning and spirit, it is going to take more time: This is a hard one. As we’ve discussed, millennials have been raised from birth with the belief that you have to get as much as you can done in the quickest amount of time. When I recommended journaling or meditation to people, a large percentage of folks dismiss it with, “But it would take too much time!”

Well, yes. Worthy things take time. I wrote extensively about this in a piece I did on how we as a modern society can bring back “rituals” into our lives for more meaning: “Hopefully by now you can understand the concept of a modern, practical ritual and see how it plays out in your life, and that it doesn’t involve cutting off a chicken’s head. But there still is a sacrifice involved, even in rituals in 2018 — and that sacrifice is time. As you read this post, if you were skeptical about the concept of practical rituals, one thought that may have crossed your mind is, “I don’t have time to do ridiculous stuff like that.” Well, exactly. Time is today’s most valuable commodity. So when you make the space in your life to do a ritual of significance, you are making a sacrifice. It’s just a sacrifice of time. That’s not a negative thing; the sacrifice of your time is what gives the ritual value and meaning and significance.”

So when your first instinct to something that sounds appealing or nourishing or fun is to think, “But it would take too much time!” — take that as your permission to do your thing.

Start to reframe your thinking: taking a long time to do something lovely for yourself is great.

I’d love to hear how you are all dealing with millennial burnout. Post in the comments and let me know. Here’s to more purpose and spirit in all of our lives — more being, less doing.