Is there anything more sisyphean than life admin? From car tax to holiday insurance to remembering the recycling collection days, these relentless tasks drain our time, energy and headspace, often without us ever formally admitting it. But could there be another way? Annabelle Spranklen explores
Ah, life admin. Two words we can guarantee you’ll probably say with a big sigh. There’s already a sense of dread in the phrase before we’ve even embarked on the tasks themselves. The seemingly endless to-do lists of paying bills, chasing quotes for that plumbing work, managing kids’ homework, opening those 200 unread emails, catching up on 21 missed Whatsapp messages and handwashing those cashmere socks (while asking yourself why you ever purchased cashmere socks?!)
According to a study in 2018, the average adult carries out 109 ‘life admin’ tasks every year with almost half the respondents admitting that they struggled to keep up with household paperwork.
A big part of the problem is that life admin seems to exist outside the constraints of time, with an invisible capacity to filter its way into our lives at almost every angle. Since the world doesn’t value the labour involved, it makes the tasks almost impossible to factor it in when you’re planning your day, or debating whether to take on a new commitment.
Life admin itself has turned out to be one of the biggest overwhelming anxieties of our age as we procrastinate and blind panic our way into an mental health crisis, Brigid Schulte, author of Overwhelmed, says that when we are deluged by work, we tend to get tunnel vision, ‘limiting your ability to see clearly or make wise choices.’
‘Your cognitive bandwidth can literally only focus on what is directly in front of you; the emergency that’s sprung up at work, the sludge flowing out of the inbox, all the meetings that have popped up on your calendar.’
US academic and journalist Anne Helen Petersen believes many of us are experiencing what she calls ‘errand paralysis’, a term used to describe the inability to cope with simple, boring tasks – like posting a letter or organising our diaries – because of this always-on mentality and mounting anxiety.
Elizabeth Emens, a professor of law at Columbia University in New York, penned a whole book about it, titled The Art Of Life Admin. ‘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,’ she said in an interview upon its release. ‘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.’
In modern society, we have an obsession with staying on top of communication, of clearing our inboxes and replying and responding to things at lightning speed. While tech has had its advantages, it’s changed our relationship with time, we are contactable 24/7. Messages can be ‘seen’ or ‘read’ and emails have the ability to tell the sender you’ve so much as glanced at it.
‘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’, says Emens.
Things that might have once been outsourced to an expert, such as booking a holiday or filing a tax return, have become easier to do ourselves. Individually these tasks might seem manageable, but as a whole they amount to a lot more work. No wonder we are all feeling the pressure. We only have to look at the surge in popularity of ‘cleanfluencers’ and de-clutter experts such as Marie Kondo to see how many of us are desperately trying to find ways to keep on top.
So, what can we do about it? 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 other words, not everything is as urgent as you think it is. Here are some ways to help you own your life admin – and not let it own you.
Lead the conversation
There are ways to prevent an extra task being added to your pile and it can often be found in our language. For instance, if you seem to be the one in your friendship group whose shoulders it falls on to organise a meet-up, think about shortcutting the process by offering a more assertive response, cutting back on your admin footprint. Instead of messaging everyone about when they’re free and proposing a selection of times and places, offer a solution – ‘We will be in the park on Saturday at midday, hope to see you there.’
Don’t assume that because someone else wants something done, it needs doing
When someone asks us to perform a task, it’s natural to want to jump up and perform immediately. However, it’s important to question whether the request is something that needs doing by you and whether it can wait. Use strategic delay – some things might seem urgent at the time but by waiting, they sort themselves out.
Prioritisation not procrastination
We all have those urgent to-dos swirling around in our head except, in most cases, nothing bad happens if we do them later. Neuroscientist and author of The Organized Mind Daniel Levitin helps prioritise those tasks by carrying index cards everywhere, writing down ideas about projects under way and things to do on the cards. He sorts them into order of priority before he goes to bed, then again when he wakes up and makes adjustments. ‘It dramatically increases my focus and reduces mind wandering while I’m working.’
There’s no instant hack that will make that paperwork disappear or erase routine obligations like parents’ evenings and eye tests. But, if you’re not someone who’s blessed with a coterie of servants and personal assistants, this simple strategy is the next best thing: a monthly personal admin day. This is seven hours to work through three of the most pressing admin tasks of the month. Keep it free from other distractions, you’ll be surprised how much you might achieve.
Working from home and staying on top of your life admin can be particularly tricky when you’re trying to do both in the same location. If you don’t have a separate home office, you’re likely to be using the same desk or kitchen table. It might seem impossible to differentiate between roles, but one solution is to sit in a different place so that you vary the view of the room or change up the vibe. Perhaps listen to music while you’re dealing with personal admin but turn it off while you’re working.