Perhaps many to-do lists have lengthened simply because there is more to do. In his 2015 book, Shadow Work: The Unpaid, Unseen Jobs That Fill Your Day, the writer Craig Lambert cataloged a startling number of now-common tasks that have been enabled by the technological advances of the past 30 or 40 years: Purging your email inbox, managing your online passwords, booking your own travel, researching health conditions online, scanning your own groceries, navigating online customer-service portals, answering customer surveys, checking your own bag at an airport kiosk, and so on.
As we perform these tasks, Lambert’s stopwatch is running. “They nibble away a minute of your time here, five minutes of your free time there, and the next thing you know, you’ve lost an hour of your day,” he told me. Many of these “incursions into unstructured time,” as Lambert writes, are no accident: Businesses and organizations benefit from “helping [themselves] to your free time” instead of hiring more employees. Over the years, that incentive has contributed to loads of shadow work, such as pumping your own gas and waiting on hold for a customer-service agent.
And while technology can make life more convenient, it can also eat away at our time in under-recognized ways. Lambert told me that he recently tried to get a light-up accessory for his dog so he could easily spot her after sundown in a nearby field. The first one he ordered online wouldn’t stay on her; the second, an illuminated harness, necessitated two calls to customer service—one to figure out how to put it on, and another to request a replacement, because it didn’t charge properly. The whole ordeal was a case study in shadow work. Yes, the gizmo allowed him to play with his dog where and when he wanted to, but procuring it was a considerable time suck. Before the age of online shopping and affordable dog-illumination technology, Lambert said he would have just taken his pet to a better-lit place, angst-free.
The stress of shadow work is, just like paid work, exacerbated by the fact that the internet often allows you to do it at any hour. Lambert thinks “true downtime” is less easily achieved: “Even if you’re not doing [some online task], it preys on your attention just because it’s an available option.” There used to be some sense of relief, he told me, after stores had closed for the night.
In the to-do-list equation, shadow work addresses only the volume of tasks that people must do. It’s also important to consider people’s bandwidth for doing them. This is an idea that the journalist Anne Helen Petersen has raised in her writing on burnout, a deep and paralyzing weariness among Millennials that she attributes in large part to the sustained pressure they’ve felt to make themselves into perfect workers.
Petersen’s inquiry into burnout emerged from a pattern she noticed in her own behavior, a seeming inability to accomplish mundane tasks, such as scheduling a dermatologist appointment and vacuuming her car. “I’d put something on my weekly to-do list, and it’d roll over, one week to the next, haunting me for months,” she wrote in an article for BuzzFeed News in 2019. She called the condition “errand paralysis.”