In a previous post, I write about the insidious creep of administrative work it takes to run a modern household. From scheduling appointments to paying bills, calling about repairs, and following up with kids’ activities, the never-ending to-do list that is life admin takes up enormous amounts of time, resources, and brainpower.
Elizabeth Emens is the author of Life Admin: How I Learned to Do Less, Do Better, and Live More. She’s written a book on the hidden labor that takes up so much of our non-work lives and has the power to create tension, resentment, and real harm when not done well or ignored. She writes, “Admin is the office work of life. It is the organizing and coordinating and managing and faxing and emailing and calling and texting of our information and our lives . This is the kind of work that you can spend a whole day doing and then wonder, Where did my day go?”
Life admin also has financial consequences. Emens cites one study that estimates that approximately 20 percent of US households that could benefit from home – mortgage refinancing fail to do so , resulting in a forgone savings of $5.4 billion – just because we never got around to it. We also pay more than we should for cable, insurance, and other services because we simply don’t have the time to do the research or sit on the phone and wait for customer service.
If you have a partner in your household, chances are you’ve fought about admin. Depending on your personal admin styles, one of you probably does more of the work – and more of the fretting. One source of contention in a household I know well (I’m writing for a friend) is a contrast in get-it-done styles. Emens calls it the “Prompt versus Thorough” style. Do you want to tackle something immediately or wait until you can do a thorough job of it?
I find that undone admin wears me down like visual clutter; it drives me crazy until I can check it off my to-do list. This means I often take on my own tasks and others’, since I’m the one who a.) hates to procrastinate and b.) now, conveniently, has free time to do things, since my list is complete.
Emens says that even cooperation can feel unpleasant. “Watch out for “Just tell me what you want me to do. ” This sentence can be said in two ways. In one, the eager gopher , in his first day on the job , says to his new boss: “Just tell me what you want me to do! ” You know he’ll do it immediately and enthusiastically. In the other version, an irritated person who doesn’t want to help rolls his eyes and says, “Just tell me what you want me to do.” If he does it, he’ll do it halfheartedly — and he may make you feel bad for asking. The second version is the one to watch out for.
In fact, there are some men (sorry guys, it’s mostly men) who practice “strategic incompetence,” being so bad at a task that no one asks him to do it again. It works at the office and at home. The person simply pleads ignorance, or asks so many questions it’s just easier for you to do it yourself. Some people actually take on the task, doing such a bad job they’re never asked to do it again.
One military man told me how he handled being asked, as a junior team member, to make coffee for the senior team. “I made coffee that was so bad,” he says with a grin, “it was epic. After they were done choking and gagging, they removed me from coffee duty for the rest of my tour – for the safety of the troops.”
Jared Sandberg, writing for the Wall Street Journal, says, “Strategic incompetence isn’t about having a strategy that fails, but a failure that succeeds. It almost always works to deflect work one doesn’t want to do — without ever having to admit it. For junior staffers, it’s a way of attaining power through powerlessness. For managers, it can juice their status by pretending to be incapable of lowly tasks.”