Commentary: The curse of the to-do list and the burden of invisible admin in an already busy life

Commentary: The curse of the to-do list and the burden of invisible admin in an already busy life

The admin involved in running your life is neither appreciated nor compensated, but cannot be escaped, laments the Financial Times' Claer Barrett.

A man tired from working in the office. (Photo: Pixabay)
A man tired from working in the office. (Photo: Pixabay)

LONDON: My life could not function without to-do lists. I have paper ones, electronic ones, and even some of the sticky note variety, listing work stuff, personal stuff, financial stuff, family stuff and separate ones for special events such as holiday planning or future do-it-yourself projects.

Multiple lists break up the sheer number of tasks and make them easier to manage. I suspect there are more than 150 different things that I have “to do”, some of which I have no idea when I’ll ever get around to doing.

But as much as I love the soothing process of making lists and the joy of ticking off tasks I occasionally get a little grumpy that I am the one who has to do it all.

READ: Multitasking between devices associated with poorer attention and memory, a commentary


So when a book called The Art of Life Admin: How to do less, do it better and live more landed on my desk at the start of the year, it didn’t even make the to-do list. I started reading it immediately.

Elizabeth Emens, its author, sets out the dilemma in the opening line: “This is the book that I thought I didn’t have time to write. It is also the book you think you don’t have time to read. The reason for me, and perhaps for you, is admin.”

Admin, by her description, is an unseen form of labour that shapes modern life. Neither appreciated nor compensated, nobody can entirely escape it. It’s the “office work” of running your life and your household.

Pleasingly, there is a multiple-choice quiz to find your admin personality type. My husband would never do a test like this, but I suspect he would be an “admin denier”. Whereas I am a “super doer”.

And it is a good thing too, because the life admin of our family is never-ending. As quickly as I tick things off, more tasks appear. Why does this matter so much to me? Because a person’s admin skills are a pivotal factor in their success in managing money.

There’s the looming self-assessment deadline (already done it) and in April, a new Isa allowance to be invested (still to do).

READ: Five tips to get the most out of your workday, a commentary


The financial services industry profits from our inertia. Fail to put “remortgage the house” or “pay off the 0 per cent credit card” on your to-do list in time, and you’ll be shifted to much more expensive arrangements.

The same goes for letting your insurance roll over — the automatic renewal quote will certainly be higher than if you shopped around for a new policy.

I think of it as the “planning ahead premium”. Whether it’s a car, a holiday or a kitchen, you are going to save money if you set a budget, do your homework, look for a deal and book in advance, rather than buying the first thing you see in a mad rush.

But what it costs is time.

Recognising the burden of this “invisible” admin is one of the author’s top tips for couples with an admin imbalance.


I feel the title of the chapter “Is admin for girls?” will get the online comment section buzzing.

As well as being the chief “doer” of many household admin tasks, women tend to get stuck with what the author calls “kidmin” — organising the schedules and to-do lists of children, who invariably have more exciting social lives than we do.

Single parents have nowhere to hide on this one. If delegation or task sharing is not possible, the other party could offset the admin burden by doing a greater share of something else.

This system works very well for us — especially since I started timing the Ocado order to be delivered while I am out. Beer, delivered chilled, is my husband’s reward for putting the shopping away in the kitchen that I researched, but the installation of which he executed.

The author notes that “Mum and dadmin” (looking after elderly parents) can also fall more heavily on female shoulders, and that “death admin” is one of the worst tasks that can befall even a super doer.


Writing a will is the ultimate task to defer, but even if you tick this off, the probate system is horribly complicated for those you leave behind. My parents recently had to administer the estate of one of their closest friends.

She had been ill for a while, but in her later years had planned and paid for her funeral. This eased the burden so much that my dad decided to do the same.

“I got one for your mother, too,” he told me on the phone. “I even asked the funeral director if they had a plan called ‘die one, get one free’.”

Ms Emens’ tips for working through admin knots have given me lots of ideas, especially for clearing the “murky admin” that has been on my list for too long.


My top tip for admin-phobic readers is to buy better stationery — a tactic Ms Emens approves of. I graduated from the straggling “notes” list in my phone to Wunderlist, an app which can be split into categories with reminders and a star system for urgent tasks.

This is where everything is logged so I don’t forget. I can also electronically share tasks with my husband and children, which will help with delegating more of them.

For day-to-day execution, however, I cannot resist a paper list to tick through. I have a paper diary, too. That way I cannot be bounced into meetings electronically as nobody can view my schedule online. It also makes it easier to say “no” to things I would like to do, but simply don’t have the time for.

The quickest way to a shorter to-do list is putting fewer things on it. Inspired by the book, I have been cutting mine down, or at least archiving items to a “accepting that I will never get round to do” list. I’m also making another list — fun things to do with all the time I’ve saved.

Source: Financial Times/sl