Every so often, a story gets published that’s so fascinating, so thought-provoking, and most importantly, so of-the-moment, that it immediately cuts through the digital clutter and goes viral. This occurred most recently with Anne Helen Petersen’s feature in Buzzfeed about “How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation.” Published on January 5, the piece instantly entered the zeitgeist as other news outlets began reiterating Petersen, interviewing her, and debating her points, while social media sites exploded in response. In what would turn out to be a very apt reaction to the subject matter, I added the piece to my to-do list and continually put it off before finally sitting down to read it.
Like many readers, I was struck by how much of myself I recognized in the defining generational behaviors Petersen describes. She likens burnout to a sort of “errand paralysis,” noting that while she has no problem tackling big projects and work assignments, “when it came to the mundane, the medium priority, the stuff that wouldn’t make my job easier or my work better, I avoided it.” Answering emails, scheduling dentist’s appointments, going grocery shopping — all of these basic tasks that take effort while offering little immediate reward are the sorts of things that petrify millennials. Onto the to-do list they go, only to get pushed back — and back — until they hover over us in a cloud of menial shame. As an explanation for what caused this mental state (and I’m aware I’m oversimplifying her 8,000-word piece), Petersen points to the financial climate and a generation of parents who raised us intensively. Growing up in these conditions, millennials were encouraged to optimize their career path, a direction that trained them to internalize the idea that they should be working all the time if they want to succeed.
It was this idea that got me thinking about the way millennials travel, and what role burnout can play in that. The traditional view of travel is one of leisurely escape, of leaving your worries at home to explore somewhere new and reset. Once you’re relaxed and refreshed, you can return to the to-do list that’s waiting at home.
But that’s simply not how millennials travel. We take our work with us, not in an unhealthy way, but as subscribers to the belief that exploration doesn’t have to be rigidly separate from production. We’re the generation of digital nomads, committed not only to saving money on the road, but to making it. We prioritize world travel as our number-one bucket-list goal, placing it above traditional milestones like getting married and having kids. Instead of waiting and saving up for retirement, we want to take advantage of the moment and travel now. So, rarely is a millennial journey a stress-free beachfront escape — we bring the to-do lists with us. As Petersen says, burnout is “not a temporary affliction: It’s the millennial condition. It’s our base temperature. It’s our background music. It’s the way things are. It’s our lives.”
And while we may prefer to travel this way, to stay engaged while abroad, there are certainly some concerns with hauling our burnout with us on the road. After all, it’s that very refusal to turn off that Petersen points to as a main cause of burnout and, in turn, an inability to complete mundane tasks. And as anyone who’s traveled seriously knows, if you look behind the curtain of pristine Instagram photos and ecstatic blog posts, you’ll find a hellscape of mundane, logistical tasks: booking airfare and hotel rooms, designing and coordinating itineraries, learning public transportation schedules, deciding what to put in your day pack, setting up international data plans, securing visas. . . There’s a whole lot of planning involved, a whole lot of doing things that are necessary but won’t benefit you immediately. An ill-prepared millennial might shut down in the face of it all.
So, what can we do about it? Unfortunately, Petersen is firm in noting that “the problem with holistic, all-encompassing burnout is that there’s no solution to it.” She points to popular anxiety soothers and mindfulness fads — such as adult coloring books, meal-prepping, and oxygen facials — as examples of individual actions that aren’t going to fix the societal issue of burnout. Only through “paradigm-shifting change,” she says, will we be able to cure our constant affliction.
On the other hand, when you’re on the road, you shouldn’t have to concern yourself with finding solutions to the complex issues of your generation. And while Petersen is right in saying that something like “using a meditation app for five minutes in the morning” won’t cure us completely, it’s important not to forget that burnout is still a mental condition, one created by the way that we think. So, if we adopt practices that allow us to develop a better relationship with our thoughts, we might be able to push through those personal moments of errand paralysis and accomplish what needs to be done in order to enjoy a well-planned adventure. In other words, when you’re traveling, individual action is the immediate fix you’re looking for.
When doing this, a good place to start is to simply reframe the way you think about the tasks at hand and your reaction to them. At the end of her article, Petersen explains that recognizing and understanding her burnout is, in itself, a sort of remedy. It provides her with the context she needs to make sense of her behavior, a “paradigm through which I can understand my actions.” In the same way that writing your thoughts down in a journal can help you to distance yourself from them and see them more clearly, this sort of recognition can make it easier to face the wall standing between you and a certain task.
Let’s say you’ve just gotten back to your hostel after a long day of exploring a new city. You have an unthinkably early train to catch in the morning, so even though you’d planned on packing tonight, you’re considering pushing that agenda item to tomorrow morning. You’ll just have to get up 10 minutes earlier and throw your stuff into your suitcase. What could go wrong? Cut to — one too many snooze buttons, a frantic packing session, and a sprint to the train, followed by the realization that you left your laptop charger plugged in back at the room.
Let’s rewind. Before falling into bed, take a moment to identify what’s compelling you to push off packing. Because of our generation’s tendency toward self-optimization, we have this feeling, this expectation, that we should always be accomplishing things, and thus, we crave the instant gratification that comes with completing certain tasks. But because packing the night before is a way of planning ahead, we’re not going to see the immediate benefit from it. Rather, while doing it, we’ll feel anxious about the other, more important things we might be able to accomplish instead (in this case, resting up for the big day in front of us). But if we recognize that thought as a symptom of burnout, we can look at it more analytically: by doing this ahead of time, I might avoid a rushed morning that could negatively impact the future of the trip. It might not completely erase that anxiety, but it can certainly help you push through this one important chore.
While reframing your thinking isn’t an easy skill, by any means, you can prepare for it through meditation. Again, Petersen is right in saying that meditating won’t solve burnout on a macrocosmic scale. But we shouldn’t totally write off its day-to-day benefits either. Meditation is a way of practicing mindfulness, a state of being in which you’re present and conscious of what’s going on around you. It’s your internal thoughts that generally block you from experiencing this sort of headspace, and by meditating, you can work toward tuning out all of that mental noise. It’s not about controlling your thoughts; rather, it’s about learning to let them pass without getting caught up in them. Because our burnout is fueled by the way we think about things, there’s no better way to address it than by exercising our mind.
There are certainly programs and apps you can download that will guide you through this daily meditation practice — Headspace and Calm are great ones to check out — but the key to successful meditation is making it a part of your daily practice, whether you’re paying top dollar for membership at a trendy studio or simply setting aside 15 minutes each morning to sit still and focus on your breathing. As an added benefit, adopting this sort of mindful state can holistically improve the way you travel.
Finally, one of the most important steps you can take to avoid completely burning out is establishing a “turn-off” time. Petersen draws a parallel between the emergence of burnout and the age of “branding.” Absent a traditional 9–5 schedule, millennials operate under the constant self-imposed pressure that they should be working, or at least building their brand to be more attractive to future employers, at all times: “There is no ‘off the clock’ when at all hours you could be documenting your on-brand experiences or tweeting your on-brand observations,” Petersen writes. And with email and Slack making us “always accessible, always able to labor,” any time spent idle fills us with anxiety about what we should be accomplishing.
On a visit to LA last summer, freelance writer and photographer Briana Moore told me that this is the precise reason she instituted a “no-work-after-seven-p.m.” rule. If she didn’t intentionally set that boundary, she would just keep working late into the night. It was an unhealthy habit, but she recognized it. She understood that she needs time with herself and with her family to relax and reset, to exercise other parts of her brain, in order to avoid burning out completely.
Similarly, when we’re on the road, there’s a tendency to capitalize on pockets of time in our hotel rooms by spending it getting caught up on projects and updating our social media presence. But we should be mindful of this. Even if it’s just for an hour or two before going to sleep, set a specific time that you’re going to put everything down and clear your head. Maybe read a book, or watch Netflix, or call home. Find a way to get your mind off of that ever-present agenda. If even the thought of letting go like that gets your heartbeat racing, consider the alternative. If you’re constantly on, from the moment you wake up to the moment your head crashes into the pillow at night, are you really being productive that whole time? Are you putting your best foot forward with what you do produce? Or, is burnout creeping in and putting a weight on your shoulders? Hell, even Obama set aside time for himself on a daily basis. If the president can afford time to “watch ESPN, read novels or play Words With Friends on his iPad,” you can survive logging off for a couple of hours.
Burnout isn’t going away anytime soon. It’s our condition, after all. But by recognizing it and addressing it, we can learn to live with it. Burnout is an affliction born of our refusal to stop — to stop working, yes, but also to stop creating, experiencing, and exploring. Traveling the world is our number-one priority, and there’s no reason that never-ending to-do list should stand in our way.
How do you overcome burnout on the road? Let us know in the comments below!