My People Will Be in Touch with Your People


Young Asian Couple Managing Finances, Reviewing Their Bank Accou

“OK – we’ll look into that and figure out the best option. Then we’ll set up a time to meet. My People Will Be in Touch with Your People.” Then I remember. I have no people. I’ll be doing the research, the deciding and the scheduling. Sigh.

Like most of you, I have a job. A great one that takes up a good portion of my personal bandwidth. I also have a couple of side gigs that are challenging, enjoyable, and have the added benefit of bringing in a little extra income.

I also have another job – a complicated, sometimes stressful, and unpaid job: I’m the family administrative assistant.

You might be too. Who, in your family, keeps the grocery list updated? Who schedules appointments? Who calls the repair person when something breaks? Who pays the bills? Who takes care of the kids’ school permission slips? Who researches babysitters, summer camps, or cleaning services? Who buys cards and gifts and makes sure to remember birthdays and other social obligations?

Are you feeling tired yet? Those are just a few of the everyday tasks that must be taken care of within a modern middle class household. And we spend hours every week in this important but dull, unpaid, and largely invisible work.

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.

Here’s how she describes life admin:

“Admin is the office-type work that it takes to run a life and a household. As with actual office work, this life admin involves both secretarial and managerial labor—filling out forms, scheduling doctors’ appointments, sorting mail, making shopping lists, returning faulty products, paying bills and taxes, applying for government benefits or identification, making financial decisions, managing any outsourcing, and keeping track of everything that needs doing.  This is the kind of work that you can spend a whole day doing and then wonder, Where did my day go?” If you’re an adult, you have life admin.

Life admin takes up enormous amounts of time, money and resources we could be spending elsewhere. When life admin is not distributed equitably between spouses, partners, or roommates, it can cause conflict. As with money issues, if you and your partner don’t have similar admin styles, you might spend a good deal of time fighting about the business of getting business done.

Emens has identified four distinct life admin styles, based on two variables:

  • Whether you’re getting admin done (feeling on top of it), and
  • Whether you’re feeling good about it.

Super Doers get things done and feel good about doing it. They’re organized with great personized systems for managing their life admin. They don’t miss deadlines and are generally good at simplifying the work and delegating what makes sense for someone else to do. Spoiler alert: I am in this category. My work background includes work as an admin, and I am naturally organized. I also hate chaos; the idea of missing a bill payment or losing an important document makes my skin crawl. That’s why I choose to do most of the life admin in our home.

Reluctant Doers do life admin, but they hate every minute of it. They may not be a natural fit for organization or research, and they have to work harder to make things run smoothly. If they could, they’d give up life admin or ask someone else to help more, but they’re often force into the role by a partner who has a different style or can’t be relied upon to get things done. They often feel resentful and spend precious energy trying to get credit or thanks for doing the work and making it more visible to their partners (aka complaining.)

Avoiders don’t do life admin. Emens describes it this way: “The Avoider sees admin out there, flying right toward her, and ducks.” He may generally think of admin as something he’s bad at, and he’s willing to live with the consequences.  Late fees, time spent searching for documents, resources spent re-doing projects or buying duplicate items – all just the price of doing business. They may feel guilt or shame about their avoidance, but they seem unwilling or unable to change. They’d rather spend their time on the important stuff of life. Usually, this carefree lifestyle is enable by a Doer who is there to rescue him or takes care of business for him.

Deniers don’t do life admin. They don’t even acknowledge it exists. They blithely ignore messages, emails, and don’t bother to open their snail mail. They’ve often been enabled by Super Doer parents or a spouse or an efficient work assistant who handles everything flawlessly. They don’t even see the admin; somehow, bills get paid, groceries appear and things get done. Life is good for a Denier, who vaguely wonders what all the fuss is about and why her parents are always so grumpy about boring things like bills.

Which style are you? Which style is your partner? Do you fight about life admin? We’ll tackle some of the issues and solutions for life admin in future posts.

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2 thoughts on “My People Will Be in Touch with Your People

  1. Pingback: Whose Job is it, Anyway? | @work: a career blog

  2. Pingback: Life Admin | @work: a career blog

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