- Cognitive load refers to the amount of information we can attend to at a particular time.
- When we feel overwhelmed with too many decisions we may simply shut down.
- We live in a complex world where learning to prioritize demands is a key survival skill.
Anne Helen Peterson’s book on what she has termed millennial errand paralysis has garnered significant attention. The premise is that young people who grew up surrounded by technology, and incessant social media, find themselves stalling when it comes to completing the mundane daily tasks of life. Although I agree that the demands of the modern world are so incessant that it sometimes seems that we can only escape by hiding from them, I am not sure the problem is limited to a single generation.
It seems to me that all of us are struggling to figure out how to cope with the endless demands of our time posted by our technology-driven world. Although our lives are physically easier than those of our ancestors, we carry a much higher cognitive load. Essentially this means that we are expected to process more information, make more decisions, and navigate technological challenges that prior generations would never have dreamed of.
Coping with a constant flow of information, new technology, and the never-ending pressure to live up to changing standards of appearance and achievement is exhausting. When our lives are filled with constant decisions, comparisons, and choices it can be difficult to commit to anything leading to decision paralysis.
The complexity of our technological world doesn’t help either. During the pandemic, the requirement that people sign up for the COVID vaccination online was a major barrier for older people who weren’t technologically adept. While it was clearly unreasonable to ask the people who most needed the vaccination to access it through a medium they are not familiar with, it also illustrated the difference between the world they grew up in and today’s reality.
While standing in line at the bank or the DMV to complete a paper transaction had its own disadvantages, battling complicated access portals, juggling passwords, and trying to reach a real person in customer service have become the bane of the modern world, no matter your age. When ordering something online, trying to join a gym, or making an appointment gets too difficult many of us simply quit in frustration.
I do suspect that there are generational variations in the types of tasks we are most likely to avoid. Those of us raised in the pre-internet world take pride in our ability to meet challenges with ingenuity and perseverance. In the pre-cell phone era, a flat tire on the side of the road was a problem you had to solve on your own, unless you wanted to spend the night in your car. Younger folks, raised in an interconnected world are more accustomed to using electronic options to call someone to help them. The internet is awash in videos demonstrating how to change a tire, but watching someone else do it, and doing it on a dark, deserted road are two different things.
Solving problems in the real world requires patience and practice. Young people who grew up in families where their parents did too much for them may have unrealistic expectations about how much effort it takes to solve real-world problems. Individuals who didn’t have enough mentoring and support often assume that setbacks are due to a personal failing, rather than a lack of skills.
But these assumptions are not limited to people of a certain age. I often hear older people who are quite comfortable changing a tire, cooking a meal, or completing errands complain that they are giving up on technology. If they can’t get their phone, or computer to do what they want they either refuse to try at all or find a younger co-worker or relative to do it for them. Essentially, they are exhibiting technology paralysis.
The irony is that we have more opportunities and options than at any time in history, yet we appear to be reaching a breaking point. Trying to keep up socially and financially and maintaining all of the appliances, electronic devices, and household items necessary to do so is exhausting.
Rather than comparing various types of paralysis, we should all take a step back to see what we can do to solve the problem. If we can’t make ourselves attend to the physical or technological activities of daily life then we probably need to figure out the underlying problem. Perhaps we need to let some activities go, build more downtime into our schedules, decide which things we don’t need to do perfectly, and put effort into developing the skills we need to accomplish those things we need to get done.
Avoiding things we find aversive is normal. But if that avoidance is hurting the quality of our lives then it is on us to make the changes to our lifestyle or skill set that will fix the problems.
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Allen, P. M., Edwards, J. A., Snyder, F. J., Makinson, K. A., & Hamby, D. M. (2014). The effect of cognitive load on decision making with graphically displayed uncertainty information. Risk Analysis, 34(8), 1495–1505. https://doi.org/10.1111/risa.12161
Peterson, A.H. (2020). Can’t Even. How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation. Mariner Books.
Schwartz, B. (2016). The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less. Revised Edition. Ecco.