Overwhelmed by endless, boring life admin? You are not alone

Why to-do lists can easily get out of hand

‘Since beginning to speak about this with people around me, it’s become clear that almost everyone feels overwhelmed by life admin’

‘Since beginning to speak about this with people around me, it’s become clear that almost everyone feels overwhelmed by life admin’

 

It’s out of control and I’ve finally admitted it to myself. When I observe other people, it seems as though they have a handle on it, but it isn’t something talked about all that much, so maybe I’m imagining that. For a while, I thought the root of the problem was procrastination. Slowly, though, I’ve come to realise that it’s much vaster than that.

Normally, I do the basic due diligence of finishing a book before I write about it, but it seems fitting that I’m writing this now, before I’ve finished Columbia Law professor Elizabeth Emens’s The Art of Life Admin.

Even typing that has me wilting with boredom. It’s a real challenge to think of a more boring topic than the mundane bureaucratic busywork that runs concurrently with your actual job, family, social and civic life. I confess that I’m awful at it, especially lately, while I’m navigating two jobs.

Life admin is such a pain that someone has written a book about it
Life admin is such a pain that someone has written a book about it

The letters build up inside the door where I leave them when I return home in the evening. I have two parcels in the hall containing things I need to take to the post office. There are ill-fitting clothes I have to return to the shop within a month’s notice if I want my money back and it’s looking like I’ll just lose the money because I won’t return them in time. I haven’t done a proper grocery shop in about three months, picking up bits of ingredients for dinner at lunchtime and spending more in the process, or ordering in because I haven’t planned well and feel too tired to cook.

When I wake up in the night, a to-do list of crushingly boring, stressful and time-heavy errands starts playing through my mind like the closing credits of the worst film ever made.

Bureaucracy

Tax returns should be filed soon (you’ll find me in my worst humour of the year around now); the endless, costly vortex of tax-related bureaucracy renders me positively barbarous. We are about to move house again – the hours of my finite life piddled away on the phone to utilities companies, and emailing movers and letting agents will make me sad if I think too much about it.

I don’t even have children, but life admin explodes for those managing someone else’s life as well as their own – parents and carers are particularly strung-out and time-poor. Life admin is a second, unpaid job. All of the best and worst life events, Emens points out in her book – births, deaths, marriages and divorces – involve huge volumes of admin when you’re generally overwhelmed and least capable of managing it.

As technology has advanced, companies increasingly push the work they traditionally did on to us – we are our own bank clerks, travel agents, grocery cashiers, accountants and . . . to put it bluntly, administrators. I freely admit that I can’t keep up. Much of it is that fatal combination of vitally important and mind-numbingly boring. Failure to keep up with life admin means stress, less money, more tension within relationships, and for people who are already in a vulnerable situation, potential disasters like the loss of benefits, a home or a job.

Emens points out that even though all of this stuff is the constantly-running background to our lives, like terrible lift music in an endlessly tall building, we are not taught how to manage it. It is undoubtedly a skill to anticipate, categorise and work through the basic tasks that run through a day – arranging someone to stay with your kids while you go to an appointment; paying the electrician; researching car insurance; reporting a lost bank card; talking an elderly parent through their phone or computer issue. All of this takes time, you’re not paid for any of it, and when put off it just builds.

Emens has a lot of practical tips but, even better, she suggests wider changes in how we consider this work. On an individual level, we can drag the silent work we do into the light. Since beginning to speak about this with people around me, it’s become clear that almost everyone feels overwhelmed by life admin. There’s some relief in that at least.

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