Are we being optimised to death?
In May 2019, burnout became an officially recognised diagnosis. Described as an ‘occupational phenomenon’ in the World Health Organisation’s 11th edition of the International Classification of Diseases, the update ends decades of debate over how to define burnout, or whether it even existed.
The new classification follows a wave of viral conversations surrounding burnout, which has been labelled a ‘Millennial condition‘. And, like most Millennials, it’s a conversation that uncomfortably resonated with me. It was like holding a mirror up to an entire generation – one that showed yes, you’re getting this wrong. What are you going to do about it?
It’s not that I personally felt burnt out. I didn’t feel like I could even begin to lay claim to that. How could I? I slept more than nine hours a day, I watched hours and hours of Netflix a week, I reorganised the fridge every time I had a deadline. What struck me was the link being drawn between being obsessively productive and complete mental paralysis. It was the idea that, in a feverish effort to improve ourselves and our lives, we were actually making things worse... like pulling at a loose thread on a jumper, and watching the whole thing unravel into spools of yarn.
Back in university – when the bullet journal was nothing more than a conversation on social media – my housemates and I rarely thought about productivity. When we did, it was in that sudden, stomach-dropping way, when you realise you’ve got to fit a month’s worth of untouched work into a single vodka-fuelled night. It was realising the lecture we’d slept through that morning cost more than any of us earned in a whole month. It was cheerfully ignoring all of the above in favour of 20 chicken nuggets (each) and eight hours of watching Jeremy Kyle.
Now, in my mid-twenties, tits deep in my so-called ‘adult’ life (as if, before, I was just a toddler walking around with a bottle of Sainsbury’s Basics rosé), I’m productivity-obsessed. I watch hour after hour of content from life coaches, entrepreneurs, and productivity experts. I have day planners, week planners and meal planners. I rotate between three different to-do list apps, with separate to-do lists scattered on post-its around my desk. I have apps that block other apps. I take inspiration walks and meditate and do all of the things that are supposed to make me a productive, successful, happy person.
Obviously, none of this stops me from frittering away time. You can regularly find me wrapped in a dressing gown, watching Gilmore Girls for the fifth time (that year) and feeling my brain leak out of my ears like soup. And it’s those days that I find myself pulling out whatever planning method I’m obsessed with at that particular point and granularly breaking down my day, week or month into tiny productive seconds. As if I can scrub myself clean of all those disappointing hours I whiled away not being the person I want to be. Tomorrow, I think. Tomorrow I’ll be a new woman.
But, over and over again, I fail. Spectacularly. Maybe it’s a week into my routine, but more often it’s a day or two. Sometimes I’ll plan everything out, look at the enormity and the rigidness of what I’m expected to do, and throw in the towel before I’ve even checked a single box. So I’ll sit or pace or drink a glass of wine and chastise myself for my ineffectiveness, my complete lack of productivity in any part of my life.
And so the cycle repeats. It’s the Millennial condition.
Because that’s the thing. We greedily consume optimisation and life hack content, obsess over other people’s routines, convince ourselves that this is the key to being better and brighter. But more often than not, it doesn’t serve to make us more effective. It often has the opposite effect, paralysing us until we’re a grey, sad shape in the corner, chewing our nails and unable to do so much as empty the dishwasher. It’s the essence of burnout.
It’s not just our working hours we try and optimise. From side hustles and lunchtime projects to reflective journaling and meal prep, we’re told to use every spare second as a tool to shape our lives. Stuck in traffic? Time to learn a new language. Five-minute coffee break? Meditation. Day off? Catch up on the life admin you ignored to do all the other things.
Even self-care – the thing should supposedly be an antidote for burnout – is fodder for optimisation. Like everything else in a Millennial's daily prescription, self-care suffers from routines that are too rigid, from conflicting advice that has us anxiously sinking into a hot bath at promptly 8:05pm, waiting for the soapy water to drown out the noise.
Maybe part of the reason time feels so different as a student – so malleable, stretched and endless – is because of the stories we’re told of studenthood. It’s depicted as a boozy, ridiculous season of life. Sure, occasionally you’ll open a book or hand in a piece of coursework, but mostly you’ll wake up at twilight and get home at dawn. It’s a brief, crepuscular window in time where nutrition, body clocks and general common sense don’t seem to apply, and that’s okay. You’re a student, and this is student life.
But even this sacred thing, the beautiful, ridiculous echo chamber that is university, seems to be slipping away. There’s too much demand to look polished – to have a gym-shaped body and an Instagram-worthy life. With pressure from all sides, it's no surprise that Generation Z consumes over 20% less alcohol per capita. They simply don't have time to waste on a hangover, which begs the question – if Millennials are the burnout generation, is gen Z going to be optimised to death?
Unlike the glory days of yore – or even a few years ago – being a teetotal student is now completely normal. Respectable, even. While this seems like a move in a healthier direction, it paints a larger, more disturbing picture of a generation riddled with anxieties and performance pressure. If burnout is an occupational phenomenon for us, Gen Z is set to have an epidemic on their hands.
In comparison, maybe Millennials had an easy time of it. We lived out our school days in a world before Instagram, before bullet journals and life hacks and influencers. The people we wanted to be – the CEOs, pop stars or writers – lived in a separate, unattainable universe. We could put our goals down for hours at a time, picking them up when it suited us and ignoring them whenever Friends was on. We didn’t have a daily feed of model-like photos depicting a dreamy, beachy, health-conscious life to live up to.
If we’re going to solve burnout, we need to confront our obsession with optimising every moment. But in a tech and Instagram-obsessed world, what does that look like? As with everything, plenty of advice can be found on the internet, but it normally comprises of throwing your phone in a like and taking to the woods. So, short of becoming Amish, how can we start to un-optimise?
It’s impractical to prescribe digital detoxes to a generation that’s been shaped by tech; it’s an important and ingrained aspect of modern culture. But, we need to give ourselves a little more room to breathe – to make mistakes and try again. That might mean cutting down on the aspirational content.
Optimisation is like any addiction – you’re going to have to start slow. Try a routine that’s more relaxed and compassionate. Make a daily to-do list with no more than three things on it. Revel in Saturday lie-ins and whole days spent in pyjamas. Have nights without apps that track your REM sleep. Watch TV without guilt.
Our lives aren’t something to ‘hack’ into shape until they look like something we’d be proud to show off to the world. They’re nuanced, uncomfortable, unpredictable. And that’s what makes them ours.
Chloé Whitmore is a freelance journalist and copywriter, writing about everything from mental health and workplace sexism, to the best way to bake a Camembert. She is @goforchloe on Twitter, and you can find out more about Chloé at her website.