I remember exactly where I was (in my dorm room, in college) when I realized that sending a birthday card was not a single-step task.
First, you needed a birthday card. A blank card could do in a pinch, or a thank-you card with the words “thank you” crossed out and the words “happy birthday” written instead, if you were the kind of person who could pull that off; you could even fold a piece of printer paper in quarters and draw your own card, but you’d still need an envelope to put it in.
Then you needed to write the message.
Then you needed to address the card, which — if you didn’t have the address immediately at hand — could become a step of its own. You might have to dig your address book out of the back of a desk drawer (after searching two other desk drawers first, also, I went to college in the year 2000 when people still used address books). You might have to call your mom to get the address, which meant setting aside an hour for the chat that would come afterwards.
Then you needed to put a stamp on the card. If you were the kind of think-ahead person who bought stamps in books, you might already have one; if not, you’d have to go to the post office or to a place that sold stamps (and although drugstores and grocery stores do occasionally sell stamps, they don’t advertise it; you have to go to the special customer service desk and ask).
Then you needed to find a mailbox. I don’t remember exactly where the mailboxes were in college, but when I lived in Seattle the nearest blue mailbox was a half-mile away (which meant that mailing a letter involved a 20-minute walk; also no, there wasn’t any place to leave letters in my janky dump of an apartment) and the nearest post office was two miles away. (There were a few third-party “Sip and Ship” services that were closer, but there are some things you can only do at a USPS.)
So sending a birthday card, if you were willing to pay extra to buy the card at the post office, and if you had the address close at hand so you could write it on a scrap of paper before you left for the post office, could take a single 40-minute trip. (The extra minutes are for waiting in line at the post office to buy the stamp, or book of stamps if you’re feeling flush.)
But it would more likely be three individual tasks: the procuring of the card, the writing and addressing, the stamping and mailing.
I currently have a box of 50 blank cards in assorted designs (though there are probably only 30ish cards left), and although I have three cards that need to be sent out this week, I’ve used up my most recent book of stamps. So instead of being able to write the cards and drop them off in the mail slot at my current (non-janky) apartment, I’ll need to block off 30-40 minutes to go to the post office.
I could order stamps online, but when I tried putting them in my cart and checking out, the USPS said I needed to create an account first, and I instinctively noped out of the tab even though I’m sure creating yet another account for yet another retailer would be fine, just fine.
Except it’s supposed to rain all day today, and tomorrow we’re scheduled for 40 mph winds. (I should mention that I don’t own a car; I walk, bike, bus, and take occasional rideshares.)
Which means I might need to order the stamps online after all.
I’m telling you this story because I, like most of the internet I follow, read Anne Helen Petersen’s How Millennials Became The Burnout Generation this weekend — and in my case I didn’t identify with it quite as much as everyone else on the internet seemed to.
Like, I get that something like “mailing a birthday card” is a task that your brain thinks should take five minutes, so you keep putting it off until the next day because it’ll only take five minutes, except when you finally think “I should write that birthday card” you realize you don’t even have a birthday card to write on, and then you think about the amount of steps it requires to get the card and the stamps and the rest of it and it feels overwhelming so you don’t do it.
I get that.
And part of me wants to say “well, if you implement a system like David Allen’s Getting Things Done then you can identify the birthday card task as three discrete tasks and schedule them as such, ask me how I know,” but I also know that isn’t what Petersen is really writing about here.
She’s writing about the fact that work and life both take work, and that sometimes the work of work and the work of life are so much work that there isn’t any time left over for the actual life.
I’m not capitalizing work or life in these instances because neither are THE WORK or THE LIFE as defined in last Friday’s post — that is, Petersen’s not writing about the work we’d like to be doing or the life we’d like to be living, she’s writing about the work and life we’re stuck with, partially due to economic crises and late-stage capitalism and the increase in shadow work and smartphones keeping us tethered to our jobs and so on and so forth.
I actually liked Petersen’s post on how she wrote the burnout piece a lot better than the burnout piece itself, in part because it included details like (paraphrased) “maybe the reason why we hate running errands is because they take longer than they used to, thanks to companies cutting staff and forcing us to wait in ever-longer lines, etc. etc. etc.”
But the response to the burnout piece made me want to write about the idea that THE LIFE, and this time I mean the capitalized ideal LIFE you’d like to have, where there’s time to do the work you need to do (capitalized or not) and manage your responsibilities without feeling constantly burned out, takes work to create.
In fact, you could call THE LIFE a creative project of its own.
So that's what I'm going to focus on this week: how to make active choices about THE LIFE we want, regardless of whether we're "creative people who want to make art" or not.
Because getting THE LIFE we want takes work, though unlike burnout-making work, it's generally the work of joy.*
Two things that are going to come up right away, so let's deal with them:
ONE. I don't mean this as "well, I'm not burned out, and I make active choices about my life, so if you're burned out you must not be making active choices about your life." That's your bog-standard logical fallacy, and also I got pretty bogged down in a creative project last year that took me very close to burnout, so not all of my active choices are great! (We'll discuss later, though what you need to know now is that I ended up making the difficult choice to not do projects like that in the future.)
TWO. It's going to be hard to discuss the idea of making active choices that lead you closer to THE LIFE without getting into who has the capacity (which we can also call "privilege," if you like) to make those choices.
I have a lot of freedom right now to make choices about my life, and some of that freedom derived from circumstances outside my control (getting my first entry-level job in August 2007 instead of January 2008,** for example). Some of my freedom probably comes from having built a successful freelance career (and I teach classes on how to do that if you want to learn). Some comes from my decision to embrace spinsterhood, which means I can make choices like "time to move to an affordable Midwestern city to be closer to my parents" without considering how it might affect a partner or children.***
But if you are currently thinking "I can make zero choices about my life right now, thanks Nicole," I will suggest two pieces of reading, both from Captain Awkward:
First, the Sheelzebub Principle: Originated by Captain Awkward commenter Sheelzebub, this principle acknowledges that some situations feel optionless. In that case, ask yourself:
Can I live with this for another month? Another year? Another five years? Ten years? The rest of my life?
Excerpted from Sheelzebub's comment on Captain Awkward #353 & #354: Bathrooms, Butts, and Boundaries.
Invoking the Sheelzebub Principle forces your hand, as it were. Maybe it turns out that you have to live with the terrible optionless situation for another six months (I've been there), but you can start making choices about what you want to happen afterwards. Maybe you don't know when the optionless situation will end — which might mean that if you want it to change, you're going to have to be the one that does the changing (and boundary-setting and job-hunting and relationship-ending and time-reclaiming and the rest of it).
(In fact, I suggest everyone go read that post just because it's so great.)
If you'd like some additional reading, I recommend Malcolm Harris's Kids These Days: Human Capital and the Making of Millennials, which goes into the socioeconomic reasons why many Millennials are feeling burnt out (and which Petersen references in her piece), as well as Craig Lambert's Shadow Work: The Unpaid, Unseen Jobs That Fill Your Day, which explains why everyday errands have become so time-consuming and frustrating.
We'll continue this discussion tomorrow. ❤️
*Or, at least, the work of hope.
**The Great Recession hit in December 2008.
***Either the ones that might have existed now or the ones that might have existed in the future.