Miserable doing admin? Some tips
When I was preparing to have our second son, it was a stressful time. The pregnancy was unexpected, and I found myself with immense work responsibilities at three different jobs and life admin responsibilities (we were preparing for a cross country move) at a time when I was physically and emotionally tired. I kept trying to do things effectively and efficiently, which helped, but it didn’t improve my mood. I felt overwhelmed and was on a short fuse.
That’s when I learned how you feel about how you spend your time is equally important to how efficient you are.
I recently read the book Overwhelmed by Brigid Schulte in which she makes the point multiple times that one of the issues is not only that women do most of the household chores, childcare and life admin (the ‘unpaid work’), but how we do them creates anxiety and stress. Specifically, she makes two points that resonated with me. First, research shows that men tend to do the chores they enjoy, like cooking or shopping, while women have to get stuff done whether they like it or not.
Admittedly, I am very lucky in that my husband does far more than most – he does all the grocery shopping, cooking, cleaning up after dinner and drop off/pick ups and puts our son to bed. But in my mind these were ‘enjoyable’ chores. He could feel good because he was spending time with our son and getting better at cooking. I didn’t feel like I was progressing as a person when I did our taxes, fixed our cell phone bill or cleaned the house. I wasn’t feeling a great sense of accomplishment and most of these taxes were quite stressful.
Schulte also refers to the concept of role overload – “the constant switching from one role to the next that creates that feeling of time pressure.” Studies show the days of mothers are filled with stops and starts, which makes time feel more collapsed. Men, on the other hand, “tend to enjoy longer, unbroken stretches of time in any activity.” In other words, if you tallied up the total amount of ‘unpaid’ work my husband and I do, it could be the same. But his tasks are consolidated into chunks, while mine permeate the whole day. Add in the constant checking of the phone and email, and all these things, in the words of Schulte, “splinter the experience of time into thousands of little pieces.”
So, if you are feeling overwhelmed or unhappy when doing all of life’s ‘unpaid’ work, try doing it differently. Here are some things I’ve tried.
1) Designate a specific time each week you'll do your admin. Years ago I realized doing admin every day made stretched out the misery, and thus designated Fridays admin day. Every Friday morning I put together my to-do list for the week but also actually do everything all the ‘unpaid’ work that can be done that morning. If your work schedule isn’t so flexible, consider setting aside lunch breaks on certain days of the week each week or commuting time (if you can access phone/wifi during your commute). The goal here is to have something consistent. This means not only have you allotted needed time to unpaid work, but more importantly, you don’t have to think about it any other time.
2) Try reducing (or increasing) the frequency of types of ‘unpaid work’ and see how it makes you feel. If you hate doing laundry, are you less happy to do multiple loads all in one day, or to do one load every few days? Consider certain tasks and whether increasing or decreasing their frequency will make you happier or not. I have an ‘end of month’ list of things I now only do once a month like: deep clean the house, check all our credit card statements (to include that certain bills like internet and cell phones are correct), tax deductions, payroll, wash the dog, update and clean up storage and apps on my phone and print/scrapbook family pictures from that month. Before I designated these as once a month, I was constantly checking our accounts and fussing with my phone, which I found more stressful.
3) Create joyful time for ‘unpaid’ work. In Life Admin, Elizabeth Emens talks about having an admin party with a friend in which you hang out and do your most dreaded admin tasks. Emens also talks about getting organization supplies that spark joy. I have a great leather portfolio case that holds my calendar and to-do list that I love. Maybe listen to your favorite album (I listen to a lot of 90s music when I clean) or drink your favorite wine. I chose Fridays as my admin day because the misery is quickly superseded by the joy of the weekend. Or once a week take an uber to and from work, and do some ‘unpaid’ work on your commute. I often make phone calls when I’m taking the dog for a walk, since the joy of being outside with her can counteract the misery of whatever I have to deal with.
4) Get credit for what you’ve contributed – make your invisible work more visible. Most of what I do can be considered invisible drudge work. My husband isn’t even aware I’m doing it (like ordering stuff through a mileage website so his Qantas miles don’t expire) and even when he is, he doesn’t have a sense of how long things take. So sometimes it just feels good for your partner or roommate or whomever to acknowledge that you have done some ‘unpaid’ work that benefits them too. My husband calls me the ‘admin queen’ and at our weekly family meetings lets me rehash my greatest victories (even though hearing about how I successfully appealed our property taxes isn’t riveting for him). He actually suggested I start a blog to help me feel a sense of accomplishment for all I do for the family. It’s working.
5) Be wary of multitasking. I used to think that getting the ‘unpaid’ work done as quickly as possible was the best way. I would be on chat with one company fixing an issue, while cleaning the house and being on hold or dealing with customer service on the phone, while I was ordering needed supplies on amazon. Sometimes it does feel good to multitask, but Schulte mentions that research shows that women feel more frustrated, irritated and stressed by it. So just check in with yourself - maybe taking a bit longer to finish up your to-do list is worth it if you feel calm and relaxed instead of frenzied.
6) Swap duties with others. There are some tasks that make me extremely anxious. Recently we had to negotiated with our daycare how much we would have to pay during the coronavirus even though we weren’t using the service. I was losing sleep over it. So I asked my husband to take care of it. I went even farther – I knew if he ended up ‘overpaying’ in my mind, I would be unhappy. So I asked him not to tell me what they decided, and if it was more than what I thought was reasonable, to use money from the one account I don’t manage so I couldn’t see it. Also, going back to the ‘fun’ duties, I mentioned that I wanted to swap evening chores – I’d like him to straighten up the house while I put our son to sleep a few times a week. So even if you have an even time split with your partner or family or roommates, you may want to renegotiate who is in charge or what, or switch off if there is something everyone wants to avoid.
The bottom line is try different ways of getting things done in a systematic way. Every time you try something new, stick to it for two weeks and see how it worked for you. Acknowledge that how you feel about ‘unpaid’ work is as important as getting it done effectively and efficiently, so brainstorm ways to make yourself happier about your responsibilities and chores!