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Navigating the Struggles of Life Admin With Elizabeth Emens

by on January 28, 2019

Elizabeth Emens’ Life Admin exposes the hidden administrative tasks that consume our daily lives and offers strategies to complete them effectively. Emens interviewed hundreds of people and conducted strategy sessions to probe our relationship to these tasks: who does (or doesn’t) do them, why we rarely talk about them, and how they affect our lives.  Her resulting book is a lively exploration on this often stressful topic, providing insight into how we handle these tasks and how best to implement them into our lives. Emens spoke to Brendan Dowling via telephone on December 13th, 2018. Photo courtesy of Nina Subin.

What role has the library played in your life?

I have this lifelong love of libraries, which in some ways has led me to a lot of different places. I remember with real fondness the little tiny branch of my local suburban library that was walking distance from my home. They had these summer reading challenges for kids. I remember loving that, that someone cared how many books I had read. There was a way I could tell that to someone. It wasn’t just my own private thing.

As a graduate student, I essentially toured England by visiting archives and libraries, holding every letter written by one of the people that I set out to write about. Getting to be inside the archives was a whole new experience for me that I just adored.

Now as a parent, I take pictures of books I see in order to then borrow them from the library for my kids and me to read together, or for them to read on their own. I’m a volunteer in my children’s school library. I’ve done that when each child was in kindergarten just as a way to be a part of their world through my favorite part of it.

I’ve never really thought of it as a thread through my life before. (laughs) People talk about “write your autobiography through a particular lens.” We all have a library autobiography, or I hope we do.

I found your book so helpful. To start off, can you talk about what you mean by life admin?

Life admin is all of the invisible office-type work that fills our minds and takes up our time on a daily basis, and also around big life events—the joyful and delightful ones, like new babies, and also the difficult and demanding ones as well. It’s also the keeping track of everything that needs doing.

One of the first words you use to describe life admin is invisible. In your opinion, why are these tasks so invisible, even to people who exist in the same household?

It’s invisible in two ways. It’s invisible both in the sense that a lot of it is literally hard to see, because it’s either happening in our minds as we plan and organize, or it’s happening in our devices as we email and text or put things in a calendar. It’s also invisible in the sense that it’s not salient as labor. If you cook a big meal for someone—especially if you cook a nice meal and spend half your day doing that—someone’s likely to notice that and say, “Thank you.” But if you spend half the day at the DMV, its quite possible that no one will either see you doing it or say anything about it in celebration.

And in terms of your example of a big meal, no one’s seeing all the work that goes into planning the meal—choosing the menu, shopping for the ingredients.

Exactly. If you organize a potluck at your home and say, “Lets have a potluck on Friday night. Everyone will bring something and then it will be easy.” If you decide to do it where everyone brings what they bring and you just eat what comes, that might not be much admin. But if you do it in a way where you think, “Okay let’s figure out who’s going to bring dessert, who’s going to bring main courses, who’s going to bring starters, and who’s going to get the wine,” you actually may have given yourself a big admin project at the end of which no one will say thank you. It might have taken a similar amount of time to just cook the dinner. Then people would have said thank you, and it might have been a kind of physical labor that is more rewarding. Now depending on your lifestyle and your job and flexibility and so on, the admin option may still be the best option, but I think it’s important to notice how that feels.

You talk about needing to say thank you in the book. What role does gratitude play in all of this? How can gratitude benefit one in the life admin?

There’s good empirical work that gratitude benefits all of us in our daily life. If you search gratitude online, you’ll find lots of references to studies showing its mental health benefits. I actually just wrote a piece for Psychology Today about holiday gift admin, and that Santa Claus—or Hanukah Harry, to a lesser extent—gets credit for a lot of people’s gift admin doing. I’m not the first one to point out that it’s a little bit ironic that we sing about Santa’s making a list and checking it twice but actually there are a lot of people—often parents and many of them women, though certainly not all—making those lists, but Santa’s getting the credit.

There’s a real opportunity once we make admin visible to actually start saying thank you to people, to appreciate the people in our lives who do that work. Sometimes who we are in one relationship is different from who we are in other relationships. I interviewed one woman who was very thoughtful about the fact that her husband tends to want them to own certain categories of work in their household, that somebody should own the full issue. But he never owns things that are what I call bombardment admin, the kind of admin that bombards you throughout your daily life, like texting the babysitter or last-minute school questions. He always does things that are one-off or quarterly. She noted that she actually does the same thing to her extended family. In her extended family, she’s not the doer of bombardment  admin. She’s the one who, with an aging parent, will agree to do the form that has to be filled out once every three months around a financial issue. But she’s not the one who’s checking in with the retirement home on a daily basis and taking those calls.

There’s a lot of opportunities for any of us to experience gratitude. Most of us aren’t always the doer or aren’t always the non-doer. So we really have a chance to both appreciate other people for what they do and to have opportunities to make visible what we do and feel some appreciation.

For you, what is the benefit of making life admin, which has been invisible for so long, finally out in the open?

There are benefits on the personal level and there are benefits on the societal level. On the personal level, being able to feel genuine gratitude is good for our health. It’s actually good to be able to feel that way. I think we can feel that towards ourselves as well. It makes it real and it makes us feel less like we’ve wasted our time. On a societal level, once we make this work visible, there are a number of legal and structural changes that should follow. Just to mention one, right now if Verizon overcharges you and you spend ten hours of your time trying to get your money back, you eventually get your money back but you can’t claim damages in court for your wasted time. Even though If you were a company and they wasted your company’s time because of a breach of contract, you’d be able to claim back your employee’s wage rate for those hours. This seems to me simply unfair to us as individuals. We as individuals can’t get that time back, but it could mean something to be compensated. Most of us aren’t going to have the time or energy to sue a company for wasting our time for a small number of hours, though a few admin rebels have tried to do so and failed for the most part. If a few people do this successfully, it would change the terms of those interactions if companies know that if they waste our time It doesn’t just go away, but could actually cause them pain where it matters in a financial sense.

In the book you talk about how it can be embarrassing to talk about life admin. Why is that?

A wonderful surprise in my interviews and brainstorming sessions was how often someone would apologize for talking about admin, even though I was interviewing them about admin! (laughs) I would get a lot of collective laughs between me and the interviewee when the interviewee would also realize it was actually funny to apologize for talking about the thing you were being interviewed about. I think it’s so intimate, because these are lists that we make and keep and private thoughts that we have about what we need to do that we rarely share with other people, but that are incredibly important to us. If you keep your to-do list in a little book and you lose that little book, it’s a terrible feeling.

I tend to keep my running list in my Notes App in my phone. Just earlier in the week it disappeared. It was gone! For a moment it was vertiginous. I felt like I was actually going to fall into some deep cavern. Then I poked around and found a new folder I didn’t know about called “Recently Deleted” in my Notes App, so I was able to recover it. But for a moment it was really horrifying. In a way there’s a private drama that we’re all having around this when these moments occur—when our computer stops working, or our phone doesn’t work—and you think of the hours that lie ahead of trying to solve that problem. Yet we don’t talk about it very much. Most of the people I interviewed were surprised how fun it was to talk about this thing that they didn’t realize they were doing so much of and not talking about.

I think that it’s partly because it’s so intimate and I think it’s partly because it’s associated with the work of secretaries. There’s a way this work is trivialized and demeaned—at least part of it, the paperwork part of it. It can feel like you must be boring someone if you’re going to talk about this subject, so I think that’s also part of the embarrassment of it.

How do gender roles play a part in life admin?

There’s a chapter in the book titled “Who Does Admin? Or Is Admin for Girls” that begins by asking the question, “If admin were a movie, would women play all the leading roles?” I’ve thought about the gender piece of this a lot, because I realized after my second child was born that there was an invisible layer of work I was doing on top of everything else and I didn’t have a name for it yet. Initially I thought it was just my problem. I started to talk to people and noticed that in a lot of the couples, there was often one partner who was doing the majority of this invisible labor, and in male-female couples that person was often the woman.

It started out as being a project very much about the distribution of admin. Over time it morphed into a project of how any of us find time to do this work, this thing that’s happening in the margins of the rest of our lives. Most of us don’t make special time for it; we just do it alongside everything else.

In answer to your question about the gender piece, it’s hard. No one has studied admin as I categorized it directly in a large scale quantitative project. What I draw on in the book is quantitative empirical work on different component parts of it. There’s the American Time Use Survey, there’s study of household management, and there are studies of particular kinds of domestic labor, like outsourcing labor. Then I also did interviews and brainstorming sessions with over a hundred individuals to try to get to the texture of this work in people’s lives.

From that, what I can say is that the largest studies don’t pick up multitasking. They tend to treat our work as blocks of time, so at work you’re working. For the most part they tend to show that men and women are doing similar amounts of household management and also a tiny, tiny amount on average per day, just a matter of minutes per day. If you ask people in any kind of admin onslaught—brought on by having kids, or aging parents, or an insurance hassle, or a health crisis, or a wedding, there are so many different things that can put someone in an admin onslaught—they would laugh at the amount of time that the American Time Use Survey thinks that they’re spending on this category.

To be fair, household management is only a subset of this work, the Office Work of Life is much broader than that. But still, It’s almost laughable what shows up in the biggest studies, in part because it’s just hard to capture what’s in people’s minds, and a lot of this work is happening in their minds or in these stolen moments alongside everything else. But there’s some more textured work, survey work, that does find that women are doing more of this, particularly anything related to kids. If you outsource your household labor in any way, it’s more likely that the work will list towards women in couples that are a man and a woman.

How do you see poverty playing a role in life admin?

Libraries offer a lot of different services in different locations, but I’m guessing that for a lot of people libraries offer some real help in admin for people who don’t have offices to go to. One of the big challenges of admin is that it’s the office work of life, and if you don’t work in an office where you have office equipment with which to do your office work, you really have a problem. If you don’t have a computer, a printer, a way to fax or scan, or a quiet place to do things, you really have an additional hurdle to face. People of means are more likely to have job flexibility that allows them to run out partway through their day and take care of something, make some calls, or respond to what is happening in the moment. People in poverty tend to lead much less flexible lives. The admin of benefits—applying for benefits and retaining benefits—is vast. I think it’s fair to think that the amount of work that the government gives people do in order to get or retain their benefits is overwhelming in ways that are a feature rather than a bug in the system. That is to say there’s a kind of rationing by hassle that’s going on. Some would argue that this is a good way to ration, because then the people who want it most get it. The idea that the people who most need benefits from the state are the people who are most organized and competent at filling out forms that I, as a lawyer and a professor, find exceedingly difficult to navigate seems implausible. I think we really need to rethink that if we want to give benefits where they’re most needed.

One of the reason I wrote the book was to try to increase our capacity to understand the admin of people very different from us. I can avoid my mail. I tend to be an admin avoider with regards to my snail mail. I can let it pile up and be mostly sure that nothing really terrible is going to happen to me on account of that pile of mail, especially if I glance at it when I first walk through the door.  Yet If you’re living in public housing, you can lose your housing because you don’t look at you mail for a week. To be able to see that things I consider to be routine and a nuisance have much higher stakes for people who are facing greater constraints than I am can be illuminating. It’s something that I hope people will take away from the book.

It seems that the book allows you to develop empathy for others who are different from you. I especially love the part of how you reframed how you view others doing admin. Can you talk about why that was helpful to you?

These days I often find that when I’m walking down the street I sometimes have to rather dramatically sidestep someone staring at their phone before they run into me. I’m often annoyed in this moment. Why isn’t the person looking up? Why aren’t they paying attention to where they’re going? There’s an impulse to assume that they’re doing something not that important on their phone, or at least it can’t be as important as not running into me. Yet after a time of working on admin, I started to think about the fact that that person might be doing some really important admin. That person might have gotten test results in the app from their health care provider telling them that they have some condition or that they need to follow up. They might be texting their babysitter who’s saying, “Your child is screaming. What am I going to do?”

I tell the story in the book that I sometimes read poetry on my phone. A good friend of mine said that my telling her that has changed how she sees people staring at their phones as they sit on the subway and don’t make eye contact with anyone.  Now she pictures them reading poetry and it makes her feel better. Similarly, I now picture the people who are running into me as doing some really important life admin for themselves or their family and it makes me feel better. It makes me more compassionate.


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