22 Jan

Cognitive Labor

This wasn’t a term I’d heard before, but the often invisible effort of cognitive labor is also known as life admin, which is more intuitively obvious. The person in a family who’s generally in charge of things like household maintenance and social coordination is buried in cognitive labor. It’s often unacknowledged, but the time (or bandwidth, if you must) it requires is time not spent on other things – like painting.

For me, a recent Psychology Today article about cognitive labor struck a chord. It suggested how to recognize and take back some of this time. Putting these tasks on a calendar makes them more visible. This makes it easier to identify what’s needed, then ask for or hire help. It also makes you more likely to cut yourself some slack – and less likely to continue trying to fit it all in until you are exhausted and resentful.

While my fabulous husband pitches in regularly and has his own favorite tasks, I shoulder most of the miscellany. This includes scheduling social activities, buying gifts (since I’m more creative), planning meals (ditto, imagining uses for leftovers), managing our insurance (due to my former corporate life),  and supervising home improvements (because I help design them and am good at project management.) See a pattern here? So what sane person wouldn’t just sit back with a crossword puzzle, and let me do the cognitive labor? LOL Guess I need to work on that, as I’d really love to spend more time painting.

This was a lesson supposedly learned years ago, in a time management seminar that pointed out the danger of focusing on the urgent to the exclusion of the important. Apparently I didn’t retain that, as it took me a year to complete this painting of the Alhambra, even though I was thoroughly inspired after our visit to Granada, Spain. It seems 2020 will require me to relearn what’s important, letting go of merely urgent cognitive labor in order to make more time for painting.


  1. This definitely resonates with me! I often get bogged down in this “cognitive labor” to the detriment of my consulting business or any other “real” work. And yet it’s hard not to deal with the myriad of details and tasks that fall under this term, especially since my partner isn’t likely to take up the slack! But I do need to find a better balance – and you’ve inspired me to try harder to do that!

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