Early in her new book, the American law professor Elizabeth Emens admits she nearly didn’t get it written thanks to the crushing weight of what she calls “life admin”. Any writer could sympathise, but the irony is that her book is about life admin. I suspect you know what she means by the term. Life admin is all the irritating nonsense that’s neither paid work, nor housework or childcare, but that’s an inescapable feature of 21st-century existence – from the paperwork triggered by a big event (marriage, parenthood, a house move, bereavement) to the mundanities of online banking, travel planning, and all the other so-called shadow work we do, as customers of companies who used to pay people to do it. Life admin is boring, ceaseless, and it warps relationships. “Admin is not just a burden on marriage,” one of her interviewees glumly explains. “Admin is marriage.”
A big part of the problem is that life admin is invisible: we forget it exists, and the world doesn’t value the labour involved, so it’s almost impossible to factor it in when you’re planning your day, or debating whether to take on a new commitment. It’s apparently invisible even to the authors of most time management books, which is what makes Emens’s book, The Art Of Life Admin, so refreshing. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve been advised to strip my to-do list down, so that my discretionary time contains only deeply meaningful activities. But that’s like a follower of Marie Kondo inspecting a toilet plunger and asking “Does this spark joy?” The answer is no; but chuck it out, and you’ll be in trouble.
Emens doesn’t pretend self-help tips can solve the scourge; it’s a societal problem, especially in its outsized impact on certain populations, such as people claiming benefits. But she has solid advice. Don’t assume that because someone else wants something done, it needs doing. Schedule admin for when you don’t have energy for focused work. Use strategic delay (some things sort themselves out), and train friends and family to recognise when “Google it yourself!” is the answer to their question. But her book’s greatest service is the sheer reminder that life admin exists, in great quantity – and that living as if it doesn’t is a recipe for unnecessary stress.
My own life admin breakthrough came six months after our son was born, when I realised I was constantly haunted by about 40 “urgent” tasks, of the “buy a new nappy bin” variety, that never got done. I eventually saw the contradiction here: the definition of an urgent task is that something bad will happen if you don’t do it quickly; but I’d failed to do these tasks for months, and nothing bad had happened. Of course, some things become urgent through neglect. (Getting a dental checkup isn’t urgent, until suddenly it is.) But I had to face facts: most of those tasks weren’t urgent at all.
Now, I keep them on a separate list, out of sight and mind, and schedule time to power through them every two or three weeks. They get done belatedly, which is better than never. The only downside is that the better I get at life admin, the more of our household’s life admin I seem to end up doing.
Combine Emens’s insights on life admin with Tiffany Dufu’s book Drop The Ball, a call to action – or, rather, less action – on the housework front[email protected]