In a previous post, I wrote about how life admin causes conflict between partners, spouses, and roommates. Nobody likes having to take on the boring, low (if any) satisfaction tasks like scheduling appointments, calling contractors, or finding a new cleaning service.
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.
One of the challenges with admin, Emens writes, is that it’s sticky. Some couples actually sit down and work out their strengths, weaknesses and preferences about admin. But most of the time, the assignment is random.
Assigning admin by strengths and preferences should work well. But there are always mitigating factors. The more organized and paperwork literate partner should do most of the important and urgent tasks: paying bills, managing finances, or organizing receipts at tax time. The partner who enjoys shopping should pick up gifts; the one who cooks should make up the shopping list. The mechanical one should schedule repairs.
But often, these tasks split along gender lines. In households with a man and a woman as partners or roommates, men often take care of the outside tasks (scheduling lawn work and car maintenance) and the woman takes care of social, household and children admin. The problem with this is that most outside work is scheduled at regular and predictable intervals (think oil change) and household admin is daily and often, unpredictable (think babysitter can’t make it Saturday night, or child’s project due tomorrow – oops.) Emens says “This becomes a pattern—many people seem to assume that the topic of life admin is of interest mainly, or only, to women.”
One woman quote din the book says “The Amazon Prime account is mine, so all that admin is invisible. “He was like, ‘When are we going to run out of these night diapers?’ and I was like, ‘We’ve already reordered those six times.’” She does the admin task of ordering the supplies and carries the mental load of keeping track.
In many households, admin tasks are assigned not by who does them best, but by who did them first. Parents fall victim to this when they continue to pay bills, schedule appointments, and otherwise take on “adulating” for their (allegedly) adult children.
But even partners and roommates get stuck with admin they’d prefer not to do because they were the ones to do it the first time. Emens writes: “Admin tends to “stick” where it lands.”
She goes on to say: “… admin’s invisibility makes it easier for inequities to arise and go unnoticed or undisputed and thus to persist. Relevant here is the way admin is often literally harder to see than more physical forms of labor, and also, the fact that it is not widely viewed as labor. Admin is also flexible. In our technological age, much admin can be done almost anywhere. When the person who does dishes is away from home, someone else does the dishes or they pile up in the sink. But when the person who pays the bills or orders household supplies is away, he can often keep doing those tasks from afar.”
Once you do something a few times, you develop competence that your partner won’t have, making it harder to pass off a task without losing efficiency. You also develop relationships with contractors or vendors that makes you the preferred communication channel, even if you try to pass it off to someone else. To this day, we employ two different lawn services for different kinds of tasks. I always call one, and my husband deals with the other, simply because we were the one to make the first request for a quote.
Sticky tasks are hard to shake off.