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in: A Man's Life

• Last updated: December 7, 2020

How to Better Manage Your Life Admin

In your job, you probably have plenty of administrative work — managerial and secretarial tasks like filing papers and answering emails. Unengaging and tedious, this admin is likely your least favorite part of your job, and yet is necessary to keep the rest of your responsibilities, and the business itself, going. 

While you may not have thought about it before, you’re also laden with this kind of work at home, too. As Elizabeth Emens argues in Life Admin, running our personal lives and households — from relationships with friends and family, to the care and feeding of children, to the maintenance of our bodies and dwellings — requires performing a neverending slate of tasks.

Just as with job-related admin, “life admin” represents some of our least favorite, and most procrastinated on, to-dos. And yet completing them is essential to keeping our lives organized, functioning, and moving ahead. 

Today we’ll talk about how to tame your life admin, so that it facilitates rather than hinders your actual life.

What Is Life Admin?

Emens calls life admin “the office work of life.”

It’s the kind of work an office manager or administrative assistant would do at an office, but you do it yourself because it’s for your own life and household, and most people can’t afford personal assistants to take care of this stuff for them. 

Emens makes a distinction between admin and chores. Going grocery shopping, cleaning the house, and planting shrubs constitute chores. Creating a shopping list, figuring out which house cleaning supplies you need, and calling around to different nurseries to get prices on shrubs constitute life admin. Basically, if the task primarily involves mental work, it’s probably life admin and not a chore. But it’s not a hard line, so no need to get hung up on it. 

A non-exhaustive list of life admin-type work includes the following:

  • Paying bills
  • Paying parking tickets
  • Filling out applications for schools, scholarships, and after-school activities
  • Filing your taxes
  • Answering personal emails
  • Managing health care and health insurance matters
  • Making appointments for doctors and dentists
  • Calling/emailing customer support
  • Arranging shopping returns
  • Planning parties
  • Planning vacations and making reservations for the trip
  • Planning and managing home improvement projects
  • Managing household finances
  • Planning meals and making shopping lists for the week
  • Managing the maintenance of vehicles
  • Managing household utilities
  • Planning/purchasing gifts
  • Planning and coordinating social events
  • RVSP-ing for social events
  • Managing household supplies

Life admin comes in seasons. When you’re in college, your life admin will consist of filling out FAFSA and scholarship forms, enrolling in classes, and managing student loans. When you become a homeowner, your life admin will include managing homeowner’s insurance and planning home improvement projects. When you have kids, life admin will involve signing your kids up for activities and scheduling doctor appointments. When you’re older, life admin will include managing Medicare and retirement plans. 

While a lot of life admin involves smaller, routine, recurring tasks, it also includes tasks related to big, singular events, like the paperwork and to-dos involved in getting a divorce, being diagnosed with a serious disease, or losing a loved one. This kind of admin not only must be done while you’re dealing with the stress of what may be an unexpected event, but can sometimes become nearly as stressful as the event itself. We’ve all read accounts of families having to navigate a labyrinth of health insurance red tape and hospital bureaucracy to get the care they need to deal with an emergency or devastating diagnosis. Managing a loved one’s healthcare can become a full-time job, all thanks to the admin associated with it.

How to Better Manage Your Life Admin

The insidious thing about a lot of life admin is that it’s pretty easy to take care of. It’s not hard to fill out forms or call customer support. But as is true with all things in life, getting motivated to do small, simple stuff, is ironically harder than tackling big, important stuff. Life admin may need to be done, eventually, but it isn’t always urgent. It isn’t sexy or rewarding. It is frequently tedious and sometimes outright mind-numbing. 

Not doing life admin incurs a pretty obvious cost: stuff that needs to get done, doesn’t get done. This can cost you opportunities and money, as well as precious mental bandwidth; “open loops” squat on and severely fragment your attention.

But doing life admin incurs costs too. Actually completing these tasks takes time and energy, leaving you with less time and energy to invest in things like hobbies, relationships, and directly remunerative work. 

Given that there are costs both to not doing personal admin and to doing it, you want to get it done, but get it done as efficiently as possible, thus minimizing its footprint in your life. Here are some tips for achieving both goals:

Perform a weekly brain dump. The first step in getting a handle on your life admin is to actually know what life admin you’ve got going on in your life. I do this by performing a “brain dump” during my weekly planning session. I use this Getting Things Done Trigger List to help me think of all the life admin I need to tend to. 

Besides helping you figure out what life admin needs to be done, the brain dump is psychologically relieving. It feels good to get all those unfinished life admin tasks that keep popping up in your head indelibly recorded in an action-ready to-do list; as GTD creator David Allen told me on the podcast, “Your head is a really crappy office.”

Use Todoist to track life admin tasks. Once you’ve got all your to-do’s listed out, you need a way to organize and facilitate their completion. Enter Todoist, the perfect tool for tracking all your life admin. Earlier this year, I wrote about this task management tool which I use both personally and professionally. I like it because it’s clean and easy-to-use, works across devices, and is set up to allow for collaboration, whether with your co-workers at your job or your spouse at home.  

Hold regular marriage and family meetings. If you’re married or share a household with someone, you’ll want to make sure everyone is on the same page regarding life admin. Perhaps the best way to do this, is to institute a weekly marriage meeting.

One of the topics discussed in the marriage meeting is “tasks/to-dos.” During this time, Kate and I discuss any household admin that needs to be done, decide who will take care of what, and follow-up on “assignments” from our last marriage meeting. 

If you’ve got kids, we’d also recommend having a weekly family meeting where you can coordinate life admin as a familial unit. We use the first half of our family meetings to review the calendar for the month/week ahead and discuss family-related to-dos that need taking care of.

Schedule regular life admin maintenance. Some life admin is pretty routine and regular. For that stuff, I’ve created recurring tasks in my Todoist so that they show up on my list when they need to be done. 

A few recurring life admin tasks that I have scheduled on my Todoist:

  • Clean up and back up laptop every Sunday
  • Digitize paperwork on Saturday
  • Review bank statements once a month
  • Check with accountant about taxes and bookkeeping once a month
  • Review estate planning once a year

The goal with these recurring tasks is to prevent life admin from piling up and snowballing into bigger problems.  

Use the “2 Minute Rule” to quickly dispatch easy life admin. It’s easy to let life admin pile up. You tell yourself, “I’ll just do that later.” Later arrives, and you’ve got 20 different small but annoying life admin tasks to take care of. Instead of letting life admin pile up, try to dispatch it ASAP.

In Getting Things Done, Allen recommends that if you can take action on a task in less than two minutes, do it now instead of later. 

Lots of life admin can be done in under two minutes: responding to a text message from a friend, filling out forms, responding to RSVPs, and depositing a check are a few examples. 

With life admin, if you can do it now, then DO IT NOW!

Use “Stop Procrastinating” skills to power through life admin. Life admin is easy to procrastinate because it’s boring and often has minimal immediate, visceral ROI. There’s nothing really motivating or engaging about it. If you find yourself regularly putting off life admin, check out our in-depth article on how to stop procrastinating. Pick and choose a few research-backed tactics to help you power through life’s tedious tasks. 

Automate some life admin (including your social life). Perform an audit of the life admin you’re currently doing on the regular. Are there some tasks that create life admin that isn’t necessary and could be eliminated? Are there some things you could automate where you can set something up once and then never have to think about it again?

One area where you can automate is your finances; Ramit Sethi has written a lot about this and discussed it in my podcast interview with him. For example, Sethi recommends setting up a system where your paycheck is automatically put into your checking account, and then portions of it are automatically funneled into several sub-accounts that you’ve designated for different purposes.

While you probably haven’t thought about it, your social life is another area that can be streamlined via automation. As Emens observes, there’s a lot of life admin associated with planning get-togethers with friends. You can sometimes spend days going back and forth with multiple parties to coordinate a time that works for everyone. Circumvent this back-and-forth by simply sending a single mass text to your friends that says, “Hey, I’m having people over for a poker game at 5 PM. Come if you can.” Better yet, create a standing, recurring social event, perhaps in the form of a weekly/monthly discussion group. For example, my book club meets on the third Thursday of the month at 6:30 PM. Whoever can come, comes. The date and time never change, so there’s never any admin associated with planning that event. 

Take the cost of life admin into consideration when making decisions. Look to not only pare back existing admin tasks, but to reduce the amount of additional admin you bring into your life, by considering this cost when making a purchase or saying yes to some new obligation or endeavor.

This was an idea I picked up from my conversation with Lee Vinsel about the importance of maintenance. If you’re thinking about acquiring a new car, appliance, pet, ect., don’t just think about the upfront purchase price, but also about the admin costs that will come with taking care of that addition to your life in the years to come. Before getting your kids signed up for a new activity, factor in the time and bandwidth you’ll be spending on filling out forms and coordinating schedules and buying special supplies. Factoring in those hidden, down-the-road costs may tilt you towards not making that purchase or pursuing that activity.

Outsource life admin when you can. If you can afford it, try outsourcing some of your life admin. Hire an accountant to do your taxes. Try using a travel agent (they still exist) to plan your next vacation. Order ready-made lunches/dinners from the many companies that offer that service these days, so you no longer have to think about meal prep.

I haven’t done it, but I know of people who have successfully outsourced a lot of their life admin to a personal virtual assistant. Sethi has written a lot on this subject.

The thing to be careful with here, is that your outsourcing of life admin doesn’t just create more life admin; i.e., in delegating a task to another person, you’re saving time on not doing that task yourself . . . but now you’re spending the same amount of time managing the work of someone else. Only outsource when the result is a true savings in time/mental bandwidth. 

Hold “life admin study halls” with friends. One idea that I really liked from Life Admin was that of holding occasional life admin study halls with your friends. Doing life admin alone can be a slog. Doing it with friends can make it a bit more enjoyable. Schedule two hours on the weekend and invite your friends over to your place. Tell them to bring any life admin they need to do: taxes, filling out health insurance forms, planning home improvement projects, etc. Provide drinks and snacks. Play some tunes. Work on your life admin together. Not only does working with other people make the task more palatable, but your friends might also have some insights on how to make your life admin easier. 

Schedule a Reset Day when needed. By putting the above practices into action, you should get a better handle on your life admin. But occasionally you’ll have periods in your life when everything piles up all at once. For those occasions, plan a reset day. We wrote about reset days in-depth a few years ago. The basic idea is that you schedule a weekday (weekends are typically busy and not suitable for reset days) where all you do is clear the decks of back-upped to-dos. Reset days can be just what the doctor ordered in getting your life-admin house in order; any time I’ve done one, I’ve felt a psychological burden lifted from my shoulders. 

Helping Others With Their Life Admin

One big takeaway from Life Admin was that this area of life isn’t just something you can work on improving in your own life, but something you can help other people with in theirs.

Unexpected events in people’s lives create new stressful life admin for them that they’re ill-equipped to handle. When a friend loses a loved one, besides bringing over dinner, offer to help research funeral homes. When a family member ends up in the hospital, offer to make sure newspapers and mail are put on hold. Think about the life admin that might be accumulating while they’re out of commission and see if you can help with it.

Think about how you can help alleviate life admin burdens in your wider community too. Research has shown that being poor, and being burdened with the stress of having limited resources, is already a bandwidth suck. That makes tending to the willpower-draining tasks of life admin even harder to do. If you’ve ever wondered, “Why doesn’t that guy just get a bank account instead of using a payday loan place to cash his checks?” a partial answer is likely life admin fatigue. The dude’s probably so mentally exhausted thinking about how he’s going to pay his rent and feed his kids, it’s hard for him to find the bandwidth to think about opening a bank account. The crappy thing is that the life admin that he’s often too mentally tired to do is often the stuff that would help him start climbing out of poverty. 

So look for ways to volunteer your time and talents to help the less fortunate with their life admin. When we think of service opportunities, we typically think about organizing food drives or dishing out soup. And those acts can be important. But helping the less fortunate with their life admin tasks — figuring out taxes, registering for classes, setting up accounts — can provide a lot of ROI in helping folks move forward in life too. 

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