Booknotes: Life Admin by Elizabeth Emens

Finished reading: Life Admin: How I Learned to Do Less, Do Better, and Live More by Elizabeth Emens 📚

Another of those books that could have been served by a long article–but my obsession with producivity and organization colors my view. And maybe I was reading for the wrong reason.

My friend Bob, another productivity nerd, after one of our discussions of how we organize our software and physical environments to remember the myriad stuff we have to do, once asked, “How do normal people do it?” Life Admin is a book for the normal people who have never heard of and don’t care about GTD or Pomodoros or Bullet Journals. It’s a book for people like the author: an overworked, overbusy, single working mom who faces a world of administrivia and wonders, “How do people do it?”

Emens’ chief innovation, for me, was really separating the idea of “admin” as a concept and type of work all on its own, from the tasks that it supports. Grocery shopping is a task; figuring out what the meals will be this week and creating the grocery list is admin. Admin is the work around the work.

For instance, she breaks household projects down into three key parts: “planning/research, decision-making, and execution.” She writes:

If you want to share a project, decide who does each part. For instance, one person can do the front-end research, and the other can do the back-end implementation. You can make the decisions together or make one person the decider.

This example illustrates one of the key differences of Emens’ book from typical productivity tomes. The latter are focused on how the individual can organize and optimize their environment. But Life Admin focuses on how people deal with admin while in relationship to other people, and how some partners–no matter how they feel about admin–bear the burden of domestic admin, child care admin, meals admin, etc. These are mainly women in heterosexual unions, but even in gay or polyamory relationships, Emens makes the point there is typically one person who does the admin. Somehow making that admin visible–or seen as relevant–to partners who deny or simply don’t care about the importance of admin, is also a key theme of the book.

Really thinking about all the jobs and projects one has to do systematically, like a project manager, breaking a project down to its component parts, is a skill that can be learned. But as Emens discovers in her surveys and focus groups, and in her own life, people vary in their emotional reactions to the idea of admin, from dread to denial to grim stocism to not-a-big-deal to actual enjoyment.

I resonated with Emens point about how admin can be “sticky”: whoever does a particular admin chore first is often stuck with the job whether they like it or not, whether it’s dealing with the landlord or planning the kids’ play dates. In my own life, Liz did all the admin related to the utility bills because they were in her name when I moved in with her.

The book has helped me see the admin in my life–and who does it–differently. So while I can’t say it was a great book (I skimmed and skipped whole sections of it), I can say it was a very useful book and it has affected how I think about and approach the work I–and others–do.