It was the eyes that I noticed first; where before he’d made soothing eye contact, now he kept his gaze averted. “What are you doing?” I asked as he tapped at his computer.
Eyes down, he replied, “I’m taking you off the flight.”
“But… but…” I stuttered.
He handed my passport back. “I’m sorry,” he said, looking at me, now flinty eyed. “You can’t go to India without a visa. You’ll have to go back to London.”
I was 18, in Schiphol airport, Amsterdam, not boarding the second half of my flight to Delhi. My mum had suggested I visit a travel agent before booking this three-week trip to the north of India and I’d balked. “Travel agent? Have you heard of the internet, Mum?”
I’d booked my flights and the hotel, and although I was dimly aware that I should get a visa, the website had a tiny script and the forms seemed difficult to navigate; I clicked away and decided it would all, somehow, just work out.
Of course, it didn’t, because international travel rules are international travel rules. I flew back to London that same day, got a visa the next morning from the Indian consulate, and the day after boarded a new flight. Luckily, the flight I missed had been oversubscribed, so the replacement was free: the funds I’d spent months scraping together were dented but not totally depleted, and I decided this was a learning experience.
The next time it happened, I was 28 and en route to Heathrow, to fly to Miami with my then boyfriend. “Did you get your Esta?” he asked.
“Oh, I checked and I don’t need one,” I blithely replied.
“You do,” he said.
I felt the familiar sense of dread. The admin for this holiday had been on a list that included consolidating pension plans, going to the dentist, replying to at least eight emails from my accountant (I am freelance) and sewing up a hole in the arm of my favourite jacket. These were my non-crucial-but-still‑quite-important to-dos (although that jacket still has a hole in it, two years later).
I’m sure you know the feeling. According to one 2018 survey of 2,000 Brits, the average adult carries out 109 life admin tasks a year, from sorting out car insurance to paying council tax; about half the respondents admitted they struggled to keep up with household paperwork. Life admin might be at once the most boring and overwhelming anxiety of our age: look closely, and we are procrastinating and blind panicking our way into an organisational crisis.
The little jobs that fill the gaps in our days like sand between stones have always been a problem for me. Filling in the forms to pay the bills that will keep the lights on and the phone working. Buying milk. Signing up in time to get the best deal. When I was 18, this was forgivable: I’d grow out of it. Ten years later, less so. Now I’m 31, and my inability to manage life admin has become a shameful character flaw. I tell myself I am too self-involved and not practical enough, immature and lazy. The more debit cards I have lost (I’m on my seventh for this year alone), the more bills I have forgotten to pay, the more I have started to see myself as a defective person. “I’m so silly,” became “I’m an idiot,” became “I just hate myself sometimes.” I work for myself, I pay my rent and I don’t rely on anyone else for money; I even do work that I enjoy. By some standards, I’m successful. But my admin ineptitude still makes me feel I’m lacking a fundamental piece of the “adult” jigsaw.
The US academic and journalist Anne Helen Petersen recently diagnosed people like me with “errand paralysis”, a symptom of “millennial burnout”. She argues that the 2008 financial crisis, the decline of the middle class and the rise of the 1%, together with the decay of stable, full-time jobs, means our mental energy is fully trained on keeping afloat: we don’t have the energy left for the smaller tasks. In this scenario, I’m a victim of the always-on mentality that has come to define my generation. This analysis does help to alleviate some of my shame – but it turns out that being bad at life admin isn’t just a flaky millennial thing – fully fledged adults suffer, too.
When Elizabeth Emens, a professor of law at Columbia University in New York and undeniable grownup, gave a lecture on the subject, she wondered if she might be making a huge mistake. “It was different from anything I’d written, or even heard presented, before,” she tells me. But as she started speaking, “an amazing thing happened: the law professors in the audience responded intensely to the topic. At the end, people approached me to say that it was as if I were seeing into their minds and marriages.” Emens went on to turn her paper into a book, The Art Of Life Admin, a project which she says grew out of her own life. “I was completely overwhelmed after my second child was born, with a whole lot of work that I didn’t expect would go with parenting. I knew there would be diapers to change and mouths to feed, but it didn’t occur to me that there would be so much paperwork. And mental labour. And it seemed largely an invisible part of parenting.”
Kim Palmer, a 40-year-old CEO of a tech company from Kent, can relate to this. “I have emails, WhatsApp, Slack, Trello. Bills come in different formats – paper, email, I get notifications on apps. Trying to make sense of all that is really difficult.” She recently sent her son to school in his uniform instead of fancy dress. “I forgot,” she sighs. “That’s the second time this year he was meant to go in a dress-up outfit and didn’t. I do feel bad but honestly, on the never-ending list of to-dos it was near the bottom. I know I should get more organised – I have a friend who is amazing: her life is spreadsheet heaven. But running a business and a household, I’ve found that unless I prioritise quite strictly, my mental health suffers.”
It’s the same for Kenny Mammarella-D’Cruz, a 55-year-old life coach. “The worst thing for me is modern society’s obsession with emptying the inbox and staying on top of all our communications. Everything seems to happen faster than the speed of light,” he says. “And it’s all automated – bills, applications, reminders for medical appointments. I tried to do inbox zero for a time – it was impossible: I was constantly missing deadlines. It was a nightmare.”
Even professional administrators can be tripped up by personal tasks. Marie Richards, a 67-year-old retiree from Stratford-upon-Avon, spent the last 12 years of her working life as an administrator for Warwickshire police. “But at home I never did my own paperwork,” she tells me. “We divided up the labour in the household; my husband did the paperwork and I attended to things related to our two daughters. I don’t know, my brain just never worked that way. I never got things sorted in time. At work I was very good, but at home I switched off.” When it came to pensions, though, Richards was adamant she would take charge. “I did it all: the paperwork, telephone calls and anything that needed to be done online. If I’m honest with you, I hated it. It made me incredibly anxious. Even now I hate receiving letters related to it, but I try not to put off opening them.”
Her husband, Keith Richards (not that one), also 67 and retired, suggests that we view admin more negatively now because of the huge shift in the way we perform it. “A lot of my admin is keyboard-mediated – for example, I do my bank accounts online. My dad gave my mum the household cash each week and she separated it into different old handbags. If she wanted something, she’d go to the relevant handbag and see what she had in notes and small change. And if you needed the bank, you had to go there. For my parents, there seemed to be fewer things to think about. I now feel bombarded with to-dos, but many of them take no time at all. I can hit a button and it’s done. The quality of the interaction is different, and perhaps that’s why it can feel like drudge work – there’s rarely a human there.”
Emens argues that, “Certain features of modern life make admin more pervasive. One of them is the rise of the bureaucratic state: we have more paperwork to complete, particularly around things like weddings, divorces, births and deaths. And another is technology, so admin reaches us with greater insistence and frequency. People expect us to respond to emails and texts; there’s an escalation of demands.” And where once we might have outsourced the business of booking a holiday, or the drudgery of filling in our tax return to an expert, we now turn to Airbnb, Skyscanner and Booking.com, or download apps such as QuickBooks. We build our own websites with Squarespace and cannibalise our lives to create content for social media. Individually each of these tasks might seem quick and painless, but as a whole they amount to a lot more work.
So much, in fact, that a whole new industry has sprung up to help us keep on top of it. Take the Bullet Journal, a specially designed notebook where to-dos are mindfully broken down into bullet points. It’s so popular there are now Instagram accounts, each with thousands of followers, dedicated to the art of bullet journalling. Millions of us watch “admin routine” YouTube videos and follow “cleanfluencers”, Marie Kondo disciples who have become famous for their tips on effective life admin management, as well as cleaning. The staggering popularity of what is, essentially, watching other people manage their to-do lists, hints at an overwhelmed population desperately trying to keep on top of myriad demands.
There is, of course, a spectrum of ineptitude, and I’ve never let anything get so bad that it has threatened my livelihood. But there have been big oversights. I have paid for two separate phone contracts for an entire year, even though I had only one phone (I didn’t realise I’d been signed up to two contracts; then when I did, it took me a few months to call my phone company). And I paid a year’s worth of insurance for phones I’d long since lost and not claimed for. But I’ve always been just organised enough to correct mistakes before the consequences became too dire. For some, though, errand paralysis can have terrifying consequences.
Sara Tasker, 35, a business consultant and author of Hashtag Authentic: Finding Creativity And Building A Community On Instagram And Beyond, is “awful at life admin”, she tells me. “I’m always running out of my prescriptions because there are so many steps that you have to remember. You have to notice you’re running low and then call the GP and then collect it. That chain of events always trips me up – there are too many points at which it can break down.” She would frequently forget to pay her phone bill, and also to invoice for work she’d done, meaning she did not have enough money to fill up her car. Then disaster struck: “I sold my car and forgot to send one of the pieces of paperwork to the DVLA. I then moved house twice and never got any of my redirected letters.” She missed reminders and threats of a fine, and it wasn’t until bailiffs came to her house, a week after the birth of her daughter, that she realised. “I had to go with my newborn to stand in court and speak in front of magistrates, and declare that I hadn’t received these letters so that the fine would be cancelled.”
Tasker traces this chaos in her adult life to a similar atmosphere at home when she was growing up. “I don’t think I ate breakfast until I was 20 because my mum was just as disorganised, and wouldn’t set an alarm, so we were always running late,” she explains. “I remember at school being frustrated that I couldn’t apply myself in a way that you’re told is the only right way. I wanted to do it, the reading and the homework, but coordinating all of it – actually sitting in a room and making it happen – never seemed to work out.” There is something freeing in the way she refuses to see this as a moral defect. “Because most people find it really easy, they assume that everyone finds it easy. They assume that those of us who don’t must be lazy or not trying hard enough. But it’s not true. Going to court, a week after my daughter was born, took infinitely more effort than sending off one letter.” She now employs her husband to take care of all her business and life admin, and has not missed a deadline since. “If I hadn’t met him, all that admin would have swallowed me up.”
Mammarella-D’Cruz also says he can trace his own problems back to his early life, which was marked by trauma. At seven years old, he was living in a refugee camp in Uganda, separated from his father. He became the “man of the family”, and felt responsible for looking after his mother and younger brother. “We didn’t have any money or much food and I think I internalised the idea that I needed to stay out of trouble at any cost. Nowadays, it seems so easy to be ‘in trouble’. I run a successful business and have a great rapport with my clients. But outside of that, I feel overwhelmed by the sheer number of tasks we’re expected to complete every day. I think for someone who didn’t go through what I went through, or who hasn’t experienced any significant mental health issues, it might seem more straightforward. But if you’re working from a high-alert starting point, even seemingly small tasks like getting through your email backlog can trigger this incredible anxiety. You think, ‘Who am I letting down?’ and ‘What if I’ve done something wrong?’ It stops you in your tracks.” Like Tasker, Mammarella-D’Cruz has employed his partner to help with the admin, and says, “Now my wife works with me, I can just acknowledge the panic and then move forward. She makes all of that more manageable.”
Emens tells me she interviewed people of all ages about the shame of not being able to complete their to-do list. “That’s a powerful emotion. Carrying shame around all the time must be pretty difficult.” She’s right. If I’m not careful, the shame relating to my 5,203 unread emails starts to inform my opinion of myself more broadly; it is very difficult to get anything done if you are weighed down by the shame of not having done it yet.
But in July, I achieved a life admin milestone: I paid my taxes on time. I felt a small thrill of pride at sending the money, via online banking, on the day of the deadline. I felt lighter knowing that I wouldn’t have to expect a threatening letter from HMRC. This, I thought, is what they must feel like, the people who’ve got it together – I wanted more. On Emens’ advice, I’ve been riding the high by making some simple changes; I’ve switched all my bills to direct debits and added notes to my Google calendar to remind me of important HMRC deadlines.
I know I’m not a completely reformed character; many of those 5,000-plus emails are likely to remain unread. But I also now see that perhaps it’s not helpful to set emotional stock by my efficiency. Does it really matter if you are exceptionally organised, or exceptionally haphazard? None of it speaks to the truth of who we are as people.
And as Emens points out, “Even people who avoid life admin have some really useful strategies to teach those who get it all done – namely, that there are some tasks you shouldn’t devote masses of energy to, because it’s not an effective use of your time.” In a world where there is more junk life admin than ever before, we all need to get strategic. For me, that means that on my next holiday, my travel partner will be in charge of the visas.
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