This post by Abigail Goben popped up in several places and is one of those that gives a name to someone most people will recognise. It’s an important differentiation on what is often called ‘care work’ as it highlights how something important is taken when repetitive, administrative work is outsourced to other humans.
Executive Function Theft (EFT) is the deliberate abdication of decision-making, tasks, and responsibilities that are perceived as administrative or repetitive, of lesser importance, or aren’t pleasant or shiny, to another person, with the result that the receiving person’s executive function becomes so exhausted that they are unable to participate in, contribute to, or enjoy higher level efforts.
In the workplace, an example of EFT often plays out in the inequality of service labor, and I will specifically use academic service work here as it is my current workplace. Think of the people who end up with more than their share of administrative maintenance tasks — such as organizing get well cards, scheduling workshops, or taking notes. Consider the colleague who has a list of committee appointments a yard long and has just gotten a request to be on Another! Important! (is it?) Committee. These individuals may not be doing these tasks strictly because it is their job responsibility, but because they see a need to be filled or have been asked or tasked with taking on more service that they feel they cannot turn down. And notice how those tasks so often fall to the same group of people — especially when we get to any form of implementation or ongoing commitment rather than the “fun” ideation phase. One way to calculate these service loads would be to count the number of committees and task forces held by and expected of various individuals — who gets a pass and who gets penalized if they don’t say yes.
Quite often there’s a gendered component as to who is tasked with these additional service responsibilities — the office housekeeping as well as the care tasks of the workplace.
I will admit to never having been able to read Cal Newport’s Deep Work all the way through — I got too irritated — but I would point to his dismissive naming of the idea of “shallow work”, which he defines as logistical and often repetitive tasks, such as writing short emails. Newport recommends entirely stopping or poorly performing that work; I read this as encouraging readers to commit EFT against others around them. Too often the dump off of what are critical responsibilities is not to a specifically tasked and appreciated administrator but instead onto the junior, female, minoritized, non-tenure track, or precarious employees. It’s the maintenance work of keeping the workplace going and we do not appreciate the maintainers. Similarly thinking about EFT in the workplace, I was reminded of the guy who got famous with the Four Hour Workweek book and how we were all just supposed to outsource things to nameless underpaid gig workers. Notably, when looking for a summary of that book, I found an article by Cal Newport praising it.
Image: Uday Mittal