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Anne Helen Petersen: Rethinking Productivity Culture

About this talk

Anne Helen Petersen’s thoughtful examination of our relationship to work has never felt more relevant, as we are struggling to reevaluate boundaries and navigating burnout in unexpected circumstances. Ahead of the publication of her new book, Can’t Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation, the author and BuzzFeed News senior culture writer shares her no-nonsense perspective on the pressures of productivity, why we undervalue rest, and how our always-on work approach comes at the expense of our whole selves.

This talk was recorded remotely on May 21, 2020.

Anne Helen Petersen, Senior Culture Reporter, BuzzFeed News

Anne Helen Petersen is a senior culture writer at BuzzFeed News, where she writes about everything from celebrities to socialist Baptists. Her third book, Can’t Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation, will be released in 2020.

Full Transcript

I want to be very honest with you, I really didn’t want to give this talk. Usually, I love writing talks. I was a teacher and a professor for almost a decade, so it usually feels like giving a lecture, only with a fancy Britney Spears mic. But something has happened over the last three months in my life, something that almost everyone watching this right now will find familiar.

Working is really, really hard. The very notion of pandemic isolation unlocking some deep well of creativity and productivity, that feels bonkers to me. I am usually a voracious reader of fiction, but I have read one, one book since the hit the fan in mid March, and the only way I was able to do so was isolating myself entirely from the news for 72 hours. I somehow managed to actually perform the essential functions of my job every day, but it is with great effort amidst near constant distraction, from Twitter, from the never ending drip of Coronavirus news, from the house plants I spend an unreasonable amount of time just staring at.

I’ve worked from home for years, so that part’s not new to me, but the start and end of the work day feels porous. Work still expands to fill all the open spaces in my life, and my life often feels like nothing but open space these days. I feel like I’m simultaneously working way too hard, could not possibly work harder, but still falling short again and again on the goals I’ve set for myself. I try and remind myself that we’re undergoing seismic, society-throttling change. I repeat, “There is no need for productivity during a crisis” as if it’s a mantra. I remember that I’m worried for my own health and my partner’s health and my parents’ health and my friends’ healths, that our nation is at war with itself about how to handle the virus, that so many of us are either already experiencing economic precarity, or waking up every morning waiting for it to arrive.

The day before I started writing this, my company announced plans for massive furloughs that we all know are layoffs. Everyone keeps talking about the end of my industry as we know it. Work, right now, is trauma. I can remind myself of that but it only helps so much. My brain, like a whole lot of other millennial brains, has been broken. I don’t know how to remove myself from the compulsion for productivity, even though I resent it.

This talk is just another thing for me to struggle against, another thing to resent, especially since it requires all of these new skills, like I don’t know, filming myself at a dining room table, or making a PowerPoint to accompany a talk about not wanting to make a talk. And, as you might have noticed, I’ve given up on the idea of making a PowerPoint entirely. But I wanted to be honest with you, because if you’re watching this, you’ve convinced yourself that this is a good thing to do during a pandemic, a good use of your time, something that might make you feel better or smarter about the world or yourself. But you might also feel distracted, like there’s something else you should be doing that’s actually more productive, or like you just wanna go take a nap. And I get it, I really, really do.

That’s because all of us are experiencing some variation of pandemic burnout. Pandemic burnout is like regular burnout, in so much as it’s hard to distinguish from depression and just general feelings of all-encompassing sadness and fear mixed with apathy. And regular burnout, at least the way that I’ve been thinking about it for the past year and a half, is the condition of working with such vigilance for so long, but somehow never getting close to a feeling of stability and never feeling any form of catharsis. You work until the point of exhaustion, but instead of stopping and recovering, you just keep working more because what other option do you have?

All of the things in your life, even ones that you once enjoyed, flatten into one, an endless to-do list that seems to keep refreshing itself. A long vacation provides some sort of a fix, but only temporarily, because the real problem isn’t your specific job or your personal habits with your phone. It’s the way we’ve been trained to think of ourselves and others as productivity robots. It’s the fact that everything, even our so-called leisure, has come to feel like a form of work. It’s the normalization of instability.

So how does this change during a pandemic? It doesn’t matter whether you have kids at home or not, whether your country or state is gradually reopening or not, whether you or a close member of your family has actually had COVID, whether you’ve been laid off or still working, everything is hard. There’s a constant feeling that you’re doing something wrong or aren’t doing enough. Survival feels like it has fallen entirely on the individual and the social safety net continues to disintegrate. You’re trying to do your best with educating your kids, with tasks at your current job, with showing compassion as a manager or a friend or a father or as a daughter, while also grappling with incredible uncertainty about what the next few years of our lives will bring.

And it’s not just “Will my coffee shop ever reopen?”, it’s “Will the United States remain a democracy?”. It’s not just “Will I ever have childcare again?”, it’s “Will I ever see my mom again?”. And all of that is exhausting, especially when there’s no finish line. You’re just running a marathon with no finish line for the foreseeable future. Before the pandemic, most people I know rarely found weekends restful. They were packed with activities, games, obligations and for a lot of us, more work. But they at least marked some sort of break, however blurry, from the rest of the work week. A mode shift, an activity shift, an attitude shift.

Now there’s no weekend, there’s just the end of the week. There’s no real leisure, there’s just time. Time in which we might momentarily, blissfully forget that everything has changed before we’re boomeranged back into reality. There’s no restaurant night, there’s no play date, there’s no movies with friends. Or, if you live in a place where some of these things are now possible, they’re just not the same. All of them are shadowed with fear and suspicion of others. The other day, a friend of mine posted a photo of a hike with her two friends to Instagram. This friend of mine is white, educated and middle class, she works for a non-profit, although between paying for daycare for two kids in a major city, she and her husband are barely scraping by every month. And now she, like a lot of people, spends her days trying to figure out how her life can and will change in the months to come. “Pictured:,” the Instagram says, “Saturday respite, “family hike in the woods. “Not pictured: working late nights, “juggling childcare with deadlines, “indecision about what to do “about childcare and our apartment, “where we will even live for the next year, “lots of tears, feeling worn down “by endless decisions and grief, “even though by all measures, we are the lucky ones.”

We are grieving our lives as they once were. We are grieving the lives that we had planned for ourselves. In many fields, from journalism to academia, from event planning to zoo keeping, getting laid off right now doesn’t just mean struggling for a few months to find a job or reconciling yourself to less pay, it means the end of a career, and with it, the end of a particular conception of self. Because for so many of us, bourgeois millennials in particular, our careers have become deeply intertwined with our understandings of self. We work so much and have worked for so long to get even a tenuous hold in our industries, and if you take away what I do, what’s left? Sure, we’re still partners and mothers, friends and members of the community, but we’ve spent so long concentrating our efforts on work that the prospect of losing it feels like an existential crisis.

I find this especially true of millennials, many of whom have graduated from high school or college or grad school, right into the Great Recession of the late 2000s. Some of us were forced to move back home and endure the shame directed our way because of it. Others lost jobs, cobbled together part time work or went back to undergrad or grad school in hopes that a degree would offer some semblance of security that we’d never found. Reports of a robust and growing economy didn’t square with the way we were experiencing the world. Drowning in student debt, struggling to reach or maintain middle class status, feeling like we’ll never be able to afford homes or even children, saving very little at all and convinced that we’ll work until we die. Even if we’d achieved some semblance of security, we were just waiting for the other shoe to drop.

If there’s one thing millennials have internalized, it’s that everything you’ve worked for can go to hell very quickly and through no fault of your own. Whatever you were told as a child about what you deserved, about what hard work would bring you, those myths have been thoroughly punctured. Part of the sadness of thinking about whether you’ll need to move back home with your parents is that, for some of us, we’ve only been out of our parents’ home for less than a decade.

As Annie Lowry put it in The Atlantic, the economic cataclysm ushered in by the pandemic near guarantees that millennials will, quote, “Be the first generation in modern history “to end up poorer than their parents.” Millennials, in other words, don’t stand a chance. All of this is very bleak. You just wanted to watch a clever Ted Talk with a fun PowerPoint slide. I am a total downer. But all of this is really weird right now. This is like a sci-fi movie. This is one long, unfurling trauma. Any attempt to pretend otherwise is a lie, and it behooves none of us to pretend that nothing has changed, that no one is suffering and despairing in ways large and small every day.

Or, let me modify that, it only behooves those in power who stand to profit off the fiction that life can and has returned to normal. If you feel less productive, it’s because you are. The hard thing for us, as workers, as creatives, as managers, to understand then, is that there is nothing wrong with that. We are doing the best we can. But everything, at least for the time being, has changed, and so too should our understandings of what’s possible and what we should expect from ourselves and others. If you can extend that grace to others, you can give yourself permission to do something that might actually help your productivity in the end.

You can do nothing. You can go on a long walk without your phone. You can lay on the ground, playing trucks or ponies or just talking with your kid, without thinking about what activity you should be doing with that kid instead. You can, like me, spend a lot of time contemplating your house plants. You can make something to eat, if that feels right, and zone out in the preparation, or you can eat popcorn and stare at the ceiling. You’ve all read the studies about how actual rest from work, in the end, ultimately makes you a better, clearer, more creative thinker, which in turn makes you a better worker. So now is the time, not just to read those studies, not just to read that, but to live that.

If your manager is surveilling your work, that’s BS and I’m sorry. If they’re not, or if they’re a human with an ounce of empathy, have a very real conversation with them about how the rhythms of your life need to change. Maybe you’ve already had that conversation at the beginning of the pandemic, but maybe you need to have it again. I feel very differently about everything right now, months into the schedule, than I did at the beginning of March. If you’re your own manager, which is to say if you’re a freelancer or self employed or the person who makes you feel the worst about what work you do, is it possible to look at your own behaviors and diagnose them for what they are? In most cases, being far harder on yourself than you would ever be on anyone else.

You can recognize that your fear is warranted but the best way to assuage it, a.k.a. by completing more work, might actually be to work fewer hours. Since writing about millennial burnout last year and then spending the last year expanding that article into a book, people often ask me if I’ve figured out the cure for it. Absolutely not. But the one thing I did figure out is how to recognize the behaviors that led to it and call them what they were. That didn’t mean I was always able to stop them but I could see them instead of just lumping everything into a big bag of “this is just the way my life is”, one never-ending map of work. I’m trying to do the same right now with this particular form of pandemic burnout.

When I suddenly find myself exhausted or deeply sad or incredibly angry, I remind myself, “Ah yes, it’s because we’re battling “a society-throttling pandemic “and tens of thousands of people have died.” When our company announced its layoffs and I stared at a Google Doc for three days, unable to write a single sentence, I say, “A fifth of the country is out of work “and I’m terrified that I will be too.” When I can’t seem to reply to the simplest emails in my inbox, or clean the stove top, or even open a book, I try and remember, “You are very sad and scared.” And when I dread writing a talk in a way that I never have before, it’s because nothing, nothing feels right.

I’m so scared for what the next months will bring but so uncertain about basically everything. But the one thing I know is that even before this pandemic, hearing from literally thousands of people, millennial and otherwise, from across the world, said the way things were, it wasn’t working. The way we’ve organized work, the way we interact with technology, the way we conceive of parenting, the way we’ve turned all corners of our lives into an opportunity for productivity, it wasn’t working. We’re sad and exhausted and anxious. We don’t have time for each other or for our communities. Everything we say that we care about, including ourselves and our relationships, are things that we give ourselves the least to.

The pandemic has clarified so much. It’s made it impossible to ignore the dilapidated state of so many American systems. It’s highlighted whose work is actually essential, which leaders actually care about people who aren’t like them, and whose lives are considered expendable. The supply chain is broken, the social safety net is in shambles and a whole lot of things we thought of as needs, including the need to work all the time, have revealed themselves as unnecessary.

So ask yourself, over the last four months, amidst all of this confusion, what has become clear? What is truly invaluable? And what have you already proven you can live without? What do you miss and mourn the most about the life you had before? What do you want the world to look like moving forward? What changes in your life will you actually dedicate yourself to preserving? We are living through a period of global upheaval, but if we build the world back again exactly as it was before, what a disappointment, what a loss upon loss that will be. Life doesn’t have to be the way that it was.

Work does not have to be trauma. We can have selves, real and vibrant selves, outside of jobs. But we have to see that and act on it decisively. People say that the pandemic will be a life-defining event for entire generations. But what if the changes that happen afterwards, on every level of society, were too?

Thank you, now go do nothing.

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