What It Feels Like When You Have 'Errand Paralysis'

We all have days where we feel overwhelmed by everything on our plate. Maybe you have schoolwork to complete, work multiple jobs, care for dependents, or have a host of after-school activities to get the kids to on time. While all of these tasks require a great deal of mental and physical energy on a daily basis, some of the smaller everyday tasks on our to-do list can sometimes feel equally — if not, more — daunting than the big things.

Buzzfeed's senior culture writer, Anne Helen Petersen, introduced the term "errand paralysis" when she published a 2019 article describing the phenomenon that she says has fallen upon millennials in particular. The concept of errand paralysis pertains to avoidance or anxiety experienced around what one might think of as life's busy work. This includes scheduling your routine dental cleaning, taking that pair of pants to the tailor to get hemmed, mailing a thank-you note, or finally changing that burnt-out lightbulb above the stove. While these tasks may not be particularly mentally or physically taxing in nature, for those who experience errand paralysis, they can feel incredibly laborious.

How our body responds to errand paralysis

The physical sensations one may experience in the midst of errand paralysis can vary, but Petersen likens it to feelings of anxiety (via Buzzfeed). For some, anxiety symptoms may include nervousness, tiredness, difficulty concentrating, excessive worrying, difficulty sleeping, and more, according to experts at the Mayo Clinic. Painting an even more vivid picture, writer Chloe Gray describes in a Stylist interview with psychotherapist Beverley Hills how errand paralysis makes her feel like a cartoon character with words and thoughts swirling around her head like a dizzying tornado.

Life coach Chris Finn explains to Metro that when faced with errand paralysis, most people will either fight, flight, or freeze. Flight often takes the form of procrastination, he says. "[S]ome [people] will freeze, and not be able to concentrate or feel paralyzed, hence errand paralysis," Finn tells the outlet. On the other hand, those with a fight response may kick their efforts into overdrive, often leading to burnout. However, it's this pervasive culture of burnout that Petersen cites as the root cause of errand paralysis for millennials in the first place.

Why so many of us are experiencing burnout

This kind of burnout is ever-present for those born between the early '80s and late '90s, Petersen writes (via Buzzfeed). The 2008 financial crisis, advances in smartphone technology, rising costs of tuition, and the growing burden of student debt are just a few of the numerous contributing factors. Even more, the expansion of remote work has turned the once clearly-defined parameters of a 9-to-5 workday into a 24-hour workday for those who work from home and receive emails at all hours of the day and night. Not to mention the unique pressures placed upon millennials to secure a career that not only offers financial stability but is also passion-fueled and Instagram post-worthy — along with a lucrative Etsy side hustle, of course.

In a society that values self-optimization, there's little room for time-consuming tasks. Although changing out a light bulb may not eat up a significant chunk of your day, other mundane to-do list tasks, like calling your insurance company to dispute a medical bill, can. While many of these issues require larger societal change, psychotherapist Beverley Hills tells Stylist some different ways we can try and cope with errand paralysis. Prioritizing what is time-sensitive may help with tackling to-do list tasks. Others may benefit from asking for help. Most importantly, Hills emphasizes releasing ourselves from shame or guilt felt around errand paralysis by recognizing that it's not a character defect, but a normal human response to the fast-paced world we live in.