How to manage paperwork and other adult responsibilities Life seems full of ever-increasing piles of paperwork — bills to pay, appointments to make, forms to sign, carpools to organize. Here's how to conquer the responsibilities on your to-do list so you can get back to your life.

How to manage the homework of adulthood, from paperwork to repairs

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Conquer all the things on your to-do list so you can get back to real life.
Hero Images/Getty Images/Hero Images

Life seems full of ever-increasing piles of paperwork – bills to pay, appointments to make, forms to sign, carpools to organize – so much tedious, time-consuming, unpaid labor. Call it the homework of adulthood, and many of us are earning a failing grade.

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Columbia Law School professor Elizabeth Emens calls this work "life admin," and wrote a book about it by the same name.

"Life admin is all the invisible office work that steals our time," Emens explains. "It's the kind of work that managers and secretaries get paid in an office to do but that we all do invisibly, and for free, in our own lives."

Here's how to conquer the things on your to-do list so you can get back to living your life.

1. Make it visible.

Recognize that these tasks are important and deserve your attention.

"The first part is just seeing that this thing exists and that it's a significant force in our lives," Emens says.

2. Know your own administrative personality.

Understanding your strengths and weak spots will help you find strategies that work. Emens breaks admin temperaments into four types:

  • The super-doer: You get things done and feel good about it.
  • The reluctant-doer: You get things done, but wish you didn't have to.
  • The admin-avoider: You don't do this stuff and feel bad and maybe a little guilty about it. (You may need to leave important items out where you will see them.)
  • The admin-denier: You don't do it and quite frankly feel OK about it — most likely because someone else will do it for you.

For instance, Emens says an admin-avoider can do things to make the admin visible, like put the bill that needs to be paid on the fridge. For a reluctant-doer, she suggests taking a photo of important documents when you receive them so that you have easy access to the info when you finally get around to dealing with it.

An important note: Emens says she interviewed a lot of people who felt shame that they can't seem to keep up with life admin, which can lead to more avoidance. Know that you're in good company. "People feel less embarrassed when they know that they're not alone," she says. "That this stuff really is hard."

3. Understand how you prefer to work.

Do you like high- or low-tech management systems? Do you tend towards short sprints or marathon problem-solving sessions? Choose a method that works for you and dive in.

"You've got to know which way is your way, to know which one is going to make you show up for the task and make it as as not-unpleasant as it can be," Emens says. "If you know what your preferences are, then you have a better chance of making a plan for how to deal with stuff that you might otherwise put off."

4. Find a buddy and work together.

We all have these tasks to manage. Why not make it social? Emens invited a group to come over with paperwork they had been avoiding or were behind on. She offered wine and a bite to eat and they all got to work. She calls it "admin study hall."

Another time she met with a friend to write their wills via videoconference.

"You know it's a gift we can actually give someone else," she says. "Here's a coupon for an hour of my time, or two hours or three hours, and I'll just sit down with you and deal with whatever the most awful thing is that you're dealing with."

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