How Work Became an Inescapable Hellhole

This story is adapted from Can't Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation, by Anne Helen Petersen.The first thing I hear in the morning is my SleepCycle app, which is supposedly monitoring my movements in order to “gently” wake me as I emerge from sleep. I swipe it off and see the first alerts from the various news apps on my phone: bad things, getting worse. I check the Covid numbers in my county, then in my mom’s county. As I lie in bed, my thumb goes to Instagram for truly unknown reasons, but I’m less interested in seeing what others have posted than how many people have liked whatever photo I posted the night before. I check my personal email. I check my work email. I deleted the Twitter app off my phone, but don’t worry: You can always just open Chrome and go to

Courtesy of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

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I get out of bed and yell at Alexa a few times to turn on NPR. I turn on the shower. As it warms up, I check Slack to see if there’s anything I need to attend to as the East Coast wakes up. When I get out of the shower, the radio’s playing something interesting, so while I’m standing there in my towel, I look it up online and tweet it. I get dressed and get my coffee and sit down at the computer, where I spend a solid hour and a half reading things, tweeting things, and waiting for them to get fav’ed. I post one of the stories I read to the Facebook page of 43,000 followers that I’ve been running for a decade. I check back in five minutes to see if anyone’s commented on it. I tell myself I should try to get to work while forgetting this is kind of my work.
I think, I should really start writing. I go to the Google Doc draft open in my browser. Oops, I mean I go to the clothing website to see if the thing I put in my cart last week is on sale. Oops, I actually mean I go back to Slack to drop in a link to make sure everyone knows I’m online and working. I write 200 words in my draft before deciding I should sign that contract for a speaking engagement that’s been sitting in my Inbox of Shame. I don’t have a printer or scanner, and I can’t remember the password for the online document signer. I try to reset the password but it says, quite nicely, that I can’t use any of my last three passwords. Someone is calling with a Seattle area code; they don’t leave a message because my voicemail is full and has been for six months.
I’m in my email and the “Promotions” tab has somehow grown from two to 42 over the course of three hours. The unsubscribe widget I installed a few months ago stopped working when the tech people at work made everyone change their passwords, and now I spend a lot of time deleting emails from West Elm. But wait there’s a Facebook notification: A new post in the group page for the dog rescue where I adopted my puppy! Someone I haven’t spoken to directly since high school has posted something new!

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Over on LinkedIn, my book agent is celebrating her fifth work anniversary; so is a former student whose face I vaguely remember. I have lunch and hate-skim a blog I’ve been hate-skimming for years. Trump does a bad tweet. Someone else wrote a bad take. I eke out some more writing between very important-seeming Slack conversations about Joe Jonas’ musculature.

I go on a walk. I get interrupted once, twice, 15 times by one of my group texts. I get home and go to the bathroom, where I have just enough time to look at my phone again. I drive to the grocery store and get stuck at a long stoplight. I pick up my phone, which says, “It looks like you are driving.” I lie to my phone.

I’m checking out at the grocery store and I’m checking email. I’m getting into the car to drive home and I’m texting my friend an inside joke. I’m five minutes from home and I’m checking in with my boyfriend. I’m back at home with a beer and sitting in the backyard and “relaxing” by reading the internet and tweeting and finalizing edits on a piece. I’m texting my mom instead of calling her. I’m posting a dog walk photo to Instagram and wondering if I’ve posted too many dog photos lately. I’m making dinner while asking Alexa to play a podcast where people talk about the news I didn’t really internalize.