How To Keep “Work Housekeeping” From Taking Over Your Life

The experts weigh in on the best approach to tackle all the little work that adds up.

How To Keep “Work Housekeeping” From Taking Over Your Life
[Photo: Flickr user Andrew Seaman]

You do your best to delegate. Yet into every job, some work housekeeping (answering emails, organizing meeting times, booking conference rooms) must fall. This “administrivia” can eat up vast quantities of time and energy if you’re not careful. Most people want to spend less time and energy on these things, while still getting them done in a timely fashion.


So should you do a little bit at a time regularly, to stay on top of it, or save it up and do it all at once?

These are really two different schools of thought, and they extend to activities beyond administrivia. On the home front, some people like to do chores such as a load of laundry daily so they never have to spend a whole Saturday washing and folding. Others think the definition of hell would be doing laundry every single day.

Here’s how to figure out the best approach for you for all of that work housekeeping that never seems to go away.

Ask The Right Questions

Since people have different temperaments, the answer to the administrivia question is: “It depends.” But after talking to the experts, I have a few guidelines.

First, ask yourself this: How much control do I have over my schedule?

If you have near complete control, then feel free to save up your paperwork so you minimize the mental transaction costs of getting in and out of housekeeping mode. Laura Stack, a productivity speaker and author, says, “Personally, I think a month ahead for administrivia. I identify a day where I know I’ll be in the office (versus flying or speaking) and set it aside for administration: the day-to-day operational activities that don’t directly add to my bottom line but must be done to support the business. I schedule three to four conference calls with clients, book my travel, design handouts, and create PowerPoint slides for the upcoming month.” If you can’t do it once a month, try once a week, ideally during a low-energy time, like Friday afternoon, when you’re not about to do deep thinking.


However, as Stack notes, designating a time and doing it all at once “might work for a solopreneur with 100% control over his/her time, but it absolutely doesn’t work for the corporate office environment, as interruptions abound, and just as you have a time set aside on your schedule to deal with email, a crisis pops up.”

Turn It Into A Routine

If you work in a distraction-prone office, and multi-hour chunks of time just won’t happen, Bernadine Herlihy, who blogs at The Management Maven, has a different suggestion: “I’m definitely a proponent of doing a small amount every day and turning it into a routine, rather than a chore. I recommend scheduling a set time each day, for a fixed (short) amount of time–every day at 4:30 for 15 minutes, for example.” The upside of 4:30 is that, as with Friday afternoons, the opportunity cost is low. You’re not about to start anything big when you’re just an hour away from getting out the door.

Such a routine “keeps annoying little things from piling up and becoming a daunting task that you dread doing at the end of the week/month,” says Herlihy. It also has this benefit: “Daily scheduling also helps you stay focused on your most important work because you’re not tempted to deal with every nagging administrative thing that pops into your inbox. You can mentally ignore them in the moment because you know you have a specific time set aside that day to deal with it.”

In other words, when those forms from HR come in, you stay calm, because you know there is a time for administrivia, and now is not that time.


Avoid Distraction

Of course, there’s always the chance that you’ll get started on administrivia at 4:30 and look up to find it’s 6 p.m. You’d like to blame paperwork, but the Twitter tab on your browser suggests otherwise. How can you stop that?

Cathy Sexton, a productivity speaker and coach, recommends setting a timer for 15 minutes. For those who can’t stay focused for even that long, try five. “Basically, anyone can stay focused for five minutes,” she says, so “set the timer for five minutes,” get working, and “when the timer goes off, you can decide to continue working or not.” If you do, go for another 10 minutes. With no distractions, you may be surprised at just how much you can get done.

About the author

Laura Vanderkam is the author of several time management and productivity books, including I Know How She Does It: How Successful Women Make the Most of Their Time (Portfolio, June 9, 2015), What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast (Portfolio, 2013), and 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think (Portfolio, 2010). She blogs at