Why we all need a little less admin in our lives
January 30 2019, the times
Take back control of your admin-crammed life
A new book offers an escape for the millions being crushed by those endless everyday tasks
Marie Kondo, the militant minimalist of our shelves and cupboards. Joining you in the new category of lifechanging solutions to problems you didn’t know you had is a Columbia law professor who wants to do for admin what Kondo does for stuff; see it, sort it, get rid of everything that isn’t there for either necessity or joy. In essence, take back control.
Elizabeth Emens is on to something with her analysis of the time-gobbling role that admin now plays in our days. She started The Art of Life Admin after her marriage began to crumble under the weight of all the administration that mark any adult’s life, and which had overwhelmingly become her responsibility: bills, insurance, childcare, thank-you notes.
Her wife didn’t engage with any of this, shrugging off most tasks as “unnecessary”. Vexed, Emens started listing all the organisation that fell to her. It took more than two pages. This was real, albeit invisible work. Her marriage did not last but her insight into this third shift did. When she describes it to others they tell her she is seeing into their marriages and minds.
Emens’ point is that this stuff sounds trivial, task by task, but the sheer weight of it can be overwhelming. This resonates. Last year a single-parent friend, alone following bereavement, rang me to say she was at breaking point. She could just about manage her high-level job alongside the exhaustion of coming home to children hungry for her energy and time. What was destroying her was the unrelenting tide of organisation.
From parking-permit applications to nanny tax, plumbers, lawyers’ letters over her partner’s money, playscheme registrations, holiday planning, expenses, MoTs, replacing a cleaning lady — this was more than one person could do. It was months since she had gone to the gym, read a book, seen a film.
She was up at six to deal with emails, sleeping less than six hours a night, was permanently anxious and distracted with her children, and still wasn’t keeping up. She saw no way out for years to come and was contemplating going on to benefits. “At least my children would have proper attention from the only parent they have.” A shorter-hours job was her only hope.
One of the perversities of modern life, Emens points out, is that the administrative burden is designed by society to be at its greatest when emotional crises hit. Death and divorce bruise us. Empathetically we know that people need caring for then. There’s a reason why the Jewish tradition is to lift all practical considerations from the grieving for the week after death.
We provide the precise opposite at vulnerable times. Deaths demand lawyers, bank accounts get frozen, pensions stopped, funerals must be organised, institutions informed, online accounts shut down. Divorces mean practical as well as emotional rupture, house moves, legal arguments, new financial divisions, perhaps new cities or countries or schools.
Emens points out that this barrage of responsibilities has risen as companies push tasks on to us. We are our own travel agents and self-service cashiers, banking administrators, secretaries. Because nothing takes long nobody sympathises when we haven’t kept up with their particular demand. There are mornings I wake up with a pressing deadline only to find that minor tasks must come first; queries about a party, a hospital appointment, a seminar, a lost car key, an authors’ list I promised.
I do them boiling with frustration as the minutes vanish and the pressure that no one else knows about builds up. There’s a reason I’ve been wearing broken glasses, with an arm missing, for an entire year, and it’s not because I can’t afford new ones, but because I have more admin in my life than I can bear to do.
Emens’ view: see it, simplify it, cut it out. Teach admin in schools. Allocate hours for it. Choose a partner who will share it. Make companies financially responsible for wasting time. If they mistakenly cut off our phones or double-bill us, as well as reimbursing us they should pay a PA’s rate for the time we take to sort it out. Make a Respect Our Time ratings scheme for institutions. Businesses such as insurance firms, which use time as a deterrent, should have to list the number of hours consumers spend settling their claims alongside their rates, so we can choose the one that takes four hours not the time-waster on 80.
She has instant practical suggestions. Set up a second email for purchases and tickets, so business spam is confined. Plan activities to minimise admin. If individual drinks or playdates are hard to fix, email people to say you’ll be in a café/playground/cinema at a specific time if anyone would like to join. For regular dates, like gyms and book clubs, make them recurring; 9am daily, or the first Sunday of the month. Write “NNR” for “no need to reply” at the end of emails when appropriate. Use phones to photograph and send documents that otherwise need scanning, to copy a recipe, to remember where you left your car.
She also suggests giving admin as a gift. Offer to research a school, book a holiday, recommend a flatshare. It might be more welcome than flowers which, in unpacking and arranging, demand others’ time.
Emens’ book is a call to distinguish what we must do from what can be minimised, to recognise hidden costs, to liberate time for what matters. In our uncertain world at least we can deal with the small stuff. I’m off to get my broken glasses fixed.