Reviewed by Liz Dexter
Emens is a professor of Law who made the discovery a while back that there was something invisible and other than “chores”: the stuff that goes before chores (working out meal plans for the week, researching sofas, choosing child care providers, applying for benefits, sorting out insurance, etc., etc.), which is a drain on resources and time and something that most of us aren’t very good at. So she decided to research and write a book on the subject, interviewing lots of people and thinking about her own life path in order to gain data once she found there wasn’t very much formally written on the topic (what resources she did find she references very thoroughly).
The book looks at what life admin is, breaks us all down into admin personality types (from super-doers to admin deniers), examines gender and poverty/privilege related factors, and, in the chapter I admittedly found least useful, has a look at what could reduce admin in an ideal world. She pulls out practical suggestions, and talks about how strategies of all the personality types can be used to our advantage, from planning things and using online calendars to strategically ignoring group emails asking a question until someone else has answered.
So life admin is the returning faulty goods, applying for benefits, making financial decisions and keeping track of what needs doing, rather than cooking, shopping or making a birthday cake. It is usually unseen, and problems arise when an admin denier actually denies the need to, for example, research millions of cameras to choose the exact right one. or look at loads of different summer school options as opposed to grabbing the first one that looks good, or trusting things will work out in the end – or engaging in strategic ball-dropping to make someone else find it important and do it. Emens’ most important point is that we need to see this as labour, make it visible and, if it’s presenting a problem, address that problem, through various strategies including actioning requests for information immediately through to switching off email for 24 hours per week.
It was interesting to read how people develop certain kinds of admin when in a relationship or family group – I know for example that when my husband and I moved in together after living together in his flat I took on certain bills at the new place, mainly so we both had address ID, and the “stickiness” she discusses of admin has indeed meant that we’ve continued to deal with those bills ourselves, and other tasks (he buys the telly so he sorts out the cable, even though it’s in my name).
I really liked the effort Emens put in to address both gender issues in admin (backed up with research) and also issues of poverty. For example, when she talks to law students who work as advocates at a legal services clinic about their own admin after discussing that of their impoverished clients:
These well-intentioned law students found it nearly impossible to talk about their own frustrations with scheduling the cable TV person, for instance, after talking about their clients’ struggles to keep their low-income housing or custody of their children. ‘It does make me feel selfish,’ one clinic student said, ‘when we’re comparing our admin problems to real problems.’
She points these divides out elsewhere, too, so it’s a policy that’s woven through the book. However, she advocates what she calls ‘admin compassion’, talking about the divides and maybe seeing why it’s more difficult for some people to deal with their admin as it seems so hopeless. She’s very much against judgement here, of ourselves and others. She even makes a special effort to point out that when she’s talking about admin and relationships, what she says is relevant to friendships and friendship groups or housemates as well as marriages and other romantic partnerships. As a woman divorcing another woman, she also takes pains to include polyamorous households in the panoply of folk she interviews (pointing out that the admin there can be extra-complicated by the existence of several types of admin personalities). All this makes the book feel inclusive and equitable.
It’s not a perfect read: the final chapter on blue-sky-thinking wishes doesn’t really add a lot and there’s a very long passage about the frustrations of meditation. But in general it’s interesting, reasonably short and well-meaning. Plus, well, reading it did have an effect on my own thinking …
My immediate reaction to this book was, ‘Well I know what life admin is and I even call it that when I’m applying for my athletics officiating licence upgrades or trying to avoid changing my name on my pension’ (I got married almost exactly five years ago). However, while some of the book talks about the potential negative effect on marriages and other kinds of relationships of life admin, especially when one partner/friend does more than the other, I have to admit that when I started to think about our marital life admin, while I rail a little against doing more chores around the house, I realised with a horrible dawning guilt that not only does my husband do a lot of our mutual admin (calls to sort out the cable subscription, researching futons, researching building and contents insurance every year), he also does some of MY life admin for me, most recently researching and sorting out my holiday insurance and also doing hours of research on the best mobile phone for me. Reader, I did thank him for it, surprising him but not as much as I’d surprised myself!
The book features good and extensive notes, with narrative as well as references, a decent and full index, and an Admin Personalities quiz, as well as a list of helpful hints garnered from people interviewed in the process of writing the book, to save people marking up such things in the book and noting them down: a nice touch. Some of the options are not for everyone, for example setting up what she calls ‘admin study hall’ where people sit down together to do their piles of admin, but having someone to whom you’re accountable keeping tabs on your half-hour of stated admin time could be useful.
Liz Dexter blogs about reading and running and not, thankfully, life admin, at www.librofulltime.wordpress.com
Elizabeth Emens, The Art of Life Admin: How to do Less, do it Better, and Live More (Viking, 2019). 9780241972496, 261 pp,. hardback,BUY at the Book Depository (affiliate link)