2013: The Year Fatigue Set In

"Fatigue" turned out to be the perfect word for what many people were beginning to feel after a few years of hyperconnectivity, information overload and always-on living.
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Keen trend watchers notice the way certain words rise up out of billions of conversations, evoking essential thoughts and feelings about the zeitgeist in a syllable or two. Current examples are "network," "communication," "community," "well-being," "awesome," "hardwired" and "mobile"; they're everywhere, all-purpose Swiss army knife words that defy simple definitions.

This certainly applies to "fatigue." Not so long ago, the only times it cropped up in conversation were in relation to air crashes (metal fatigue) and military personnel (battle fatigue). Then in the late 1980s, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention came up with "chronic fatigue syndrome" to identify a sort of deep, enduring weariness that still has no single known medical cause.

Dismissively dubbed Yuppie Flu initially, the term "chronic fatigue" caught on, hitting popular culture just in time for the rise of the Internet, cellphones and megamultichannel TV. "Fatigue" turned out to be the perfect word for what many people were beginning to feel after a few years of hyperconnectivity, information overload and always-on living. It's what we feel when we're constantly being exposed -- or exposing ourselves -- to the same demands on our energy and attention. No wonder fatigue is now beyond trendy as a catch-all meme that fits so many situations.

Conscience Fatigue
Take your conscience. Most people want to do the right thing, be good citizens and feel good about themselves; worthy causes call on the good conscience of other people to pitch in and help. Sadly, there's a whole world of infinite need out there: sad eyes pleading with you, smart headlines that penetrate your defenses, poor people amid scenes of devastation. Just learning about a small selection of nonprofits and charities, let alone actually contributing, can take a lot of time and effort. For ordinary people who don't have the time and money of billionaire philanthropists such as Bill and Melinda Gates, the pulls on our heartstrings can feel like a never-ending reminder that we should be doing something for homeless people, famine, HIV orphans, natural disasters, arts foundations, and thousands of other good works near and far. It can be wearing. Nonprofits dealing with tight budgets are facing donor fatigue among financial backers and compassion fatigue among care workers.

This is especially true for all things green. After a spike in concern for the environment in the early 2000s, there has been a steady decline in consumer and voter interest. In fact, the 2012 U.S. presidential debates were the first since 1988 not to mention climate issues. Chalk a lot of it up to green fatigue -- people tiring of exhortations to do the right thing and of greenwashed sales pitches. Those who are open to changing their behavior have already done it, while the rest aren't interested in changing; either way, many "be greener" messages are resented or ignored.

There's even evidence of a backlash. Despite high gasoline prices, Ford says sales of its popular Explorer SUV are up 18 percent. Many of us are tuning out products touting their greenness (and which products aren't?) as we still struggle to pay our bills and question the value of organic kale over the much cheaper leafy stuff in our local supermarket. (The Stanford University study showing that organic produce isn't more healthful than conventional produce didn't help that cause.)

Decision and Ego Fatigue
In the eight years since psychologist Barry Schwartz published The Paradox of Choice, we've come to understand how a full-on consumer lifestyle can be exhausting. It turns out that making decisions is really tiring in ways that can be measured. Decision fatigue is not a fad complaint dreamed up by spoiled people; it's what happens when we have to keep weighing alternatives and making decisions. It even afflicts judges tasked with deciding whether to grant parole.

It's rife in the workplace. A study of 29,000 workers published by the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine found 38 percent of them experienced "low levels of energy, poor sleep or a feeling of fatigue" during the previous two weeks.

But decision fatigue affects a lot more of life than discharging responsibilities at work or deciding which mobile subscription to choose in private life. A growing body of smart psychology experiments has explored how making decisions saps the same mental energy that's needed to exercise self-control. Among the many sobering findings, they show that resisting temptation even for just a few minutes is tiring; resisting it all day, every day, is exhausting. It takes a lot of willpower -- or smart habits -- to conserve energy and avoid what's now known as ego depletion or ego fatigue.

It's a serious problem for anybody who has addiction issues. Trouble is, addiction is no longer just an issue for people with a weakness for drink, drugs, tobacco or sex. Now most people with an Internet connection and virtually anybody with a mobile device have personal experience with addiction. Stanford psychologist Kelly McGonigal, who wrote The Willpower Instinct, is one of many mental health specialists warning that technology addiction is a problem with serious consequences.

All this fatigue is mentally and emotionally draining, but it might also have deeper physical effects. Adrenal fatigue is all the rage among alternative health practitioners, who attribute it to overworked adrenal glands. Medical professionals say it's not a real medical condition. Either way, it's a response to the stresses and strains of modern living. And either way, watch for the relentless spread of fatigue -- and tips to combat it.

This is the 13th in a series of 14 posts expanding on Salzman's forecasts for 2013 in her annual trends report, a program of global communications group Havas Worldwide. This year's book, What's Next? What to Expect in 2013, was published on 12/12/12 and is available at Salzman is CEO of Havas PR North America and an internationally respected trendspotter.

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