Putting Off A 10-Minute Task? What's Behind Your Life Admin Paralysis

I'll do it tomorrow.
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Admin paralysis can strike in the most mundane situations. You might be a beacon of productivity at work, or queen of the Doodle poll in your social circle. But returning your Asos parcel on time? Impossible.

A year after moving house, I have finally registered at the local doctor’s surgery. The actual task – filling in a form at the reception desk – took no longer than five minutes to complete. Yet the idea of doing it has plagued me for months.

Logically, we all know that getting on with the job is the solution. So what’s behind this chronic procrastination for life’s boring jobs?

“Often life admin tasks are tiny in the bigger scheme of things, a quick phone call or dropping a return at the shop,” says psychologist and wellbeing specialist Lee Chambers.

“Despite being tiny, they have a tendency to keep popping into our mind and taking up our mental bandwidth. Unlike big tasks, they don’t require a massive commitment of time or energy, or feel so big it’s hard to know where to start.”

Yes, being overworked or time-poor may be explain why certain tasks are consistently put on the back-burner (burnout has a lot to answer for). But Chambers says consciously making a choice to put off certain tasks in favour of others can be an example of failure-avoidant behaviour.

“We make a conscious choice to put off life admin tasks for a variety of reasons, sometimes seeing them as low value, other times feeling that taking the action might expose our competency, we might be judged, fear the outcome or doubt the certainty on the other end of the task,” he says.

“This in itself starts to cause negative thoughts about why we are not just doing the task, given it’s relatively small size in the scheme of things, and these worries sap even more of our energy, and turn a small task into a growing threat.”

Small worries like needing to return a parcel before the deadline can become big worries if we’re anxious about losing money.

But there’s also something to be said about us prioritising work and social organisation, rather than owning our own schedule first.

“There is also the element of almost all life admin not having a specific bright line or boundary,” says Chambers, “and our thought we can just slot it into our day makes it easier to avoid when we have those gaps.”

So, how can we change this behaviour and tackle the life admin mountain?

Unsurprisingly, Chambers says the key is getting on with the task before you’ve given yourself time to think about it. But if that ship has sailed and you’re already thinking “I don’t want to do it,” break the cycle by asking yourself: “What’s the first small step I need to take?”

“This gets us thinking about what we need to do to start, rather than how we are feeling about starting,” he says.

“A common theme with these tasks is they are always on our to-do list, but you can counter this by doing it instead of writing it down, which will often take the same amount of time!”

For small tasks you need to do regularly, Chambers recommends “stacking” them with other habits or hobbies you also do regularly, “giving them a positive attachment and removing any rumination”.

“We can even consider how we will feel when we have the task completed, and quickly complete the task while we have that positivity resonance,” he says.

But it is also important to be compassionate to yourself, and acknowledge that “often the impact of not doing the small task is much smaller than the berating we give ourselves for not doing it”.

“A little forgiveness can make us less likely to avoid the task and have a negative association with tasks in the future,” says Chambers. “Being kinder to ourselves reduces the very stress that makes us likely to see tasks as threats rather than challenges.”