Sensitive Dependence on Paperwork Conditions

I have struggled with paperwork all my life, to the point that I sometimes joke that it is my kryptonite.  A paperwork attack can reduce me from feeling superhuman to subhuman. Especially vicious Catch-22 types of paperwork. My life exhibits a sensitive dependence on paperwork conditions. When pending paperwork levels are high, I am nearly useless to everybody and not exactly in love with my own life either. When pending paperwork levels are low, I can move mountains.

In an extreme example, I was recently locked out of my bank account and to unlock it, besides the usual identity questions, my bank came up with the brilliant scheme of asking for a detail about a recent deposit for additional security. Thanks to paperless statements, I couldn’t supply the detail. Genius, right? You need to get into the account in order to find the information that would allow you to unlock it.

Eventually, we figured something out. We are finally at the baroque stage of industrial civilization with paperwork as strange loop.

In general, things aren’t quite so bad.  But having had to deal with more than my fair share of the universe’s paperwork in the last few months, I’ve come to some conclusions about why I am particularly oversensitive to the stuff (and why you might be too), and how to cope.

Sensitivity to Paperwork

I think I understand what determines sensitivity to paperwork: degree of introversion and intuitiveness in thinking style. So basically, I suspect INxx types in the Myers-Briggs scheme are likely to be more sensitive than other types.

Here’s why, introverts gain energy from things they do alone. While paperwork is usually done alone, if you get anything wrong, or if there is a glitch in the processing, you have to deal with strangers via a feedback loop of phone and email.  The probability of something going wrong with a piece of paperwork is proportional to the degree of arbitrariness and newness in the form, and the fussiness/brittleness of the processing system. So just being faced with a bit of paperwork usually triggers anxieties proportionate to the expected amount of draining interpersonal interactions in the future. These expectations are often overblown/worst-case unless you’ve dealt with failures in that process before and have some calibration.

That would be bad enough, but the other key feature of paperwork is that it is heavy on arbitrary information: specific names, dates, places, numbers and codes. It is usually very sensitive to small errors, and very unforgiving to missing bits and pieces.

That sort of thinking is great for strongly sensory types who love dealing with concrete, embodied things and dislike abstractions. But if you’re the Myers-Briggs intuitive type, paperwork targets your weakness.

An aside: bureaucracies that exist as networks of small local offices with some autonomy for last-mile service providers to adapt to local variability, are generally more forgiving and less sensitive than ones that exist as a combination of online/mail/phone interfaces and distant shared service centers where mysterious processes happen. So any visionary reformists reading this: if you want to serve individual humans rather than large corporate or government agency interests, invest in a network of branch offices. There are always ways to do this without hurting profits, so the only real reason to not do this is regulatory capture by larger/more powerful customers.

The other two variables, T vs. F and P vs. J, don’t have as much of an impact I think. T’s are probably frustrated by paperwork whose logic is obscure, and F’s are probably have a stronger anxiety response. J’s probably try to get paperwork done and out of the way as soon as possible, while P’s probably procrastinate more, but both are likely to be frustrated by having to do it.

It would be fun to characterize each of the 16 types more individually in terms of all the possible interactions among traits, to yield a unique relationship with paperwork.

Coping with Paperwork

For me, I’ve found that the following coping methods help:

  1. Bite off one piece at a time. There is a tendency to just let paperwork accumulate till it becomes an impossible drag on your thinking, and then clear it all at once, to enjoy a few days respite before it starts to pile up again. It is better to train yourself to operate under conditions of constant slight friction than bipolar craziness between superfluidity and high-viscosity sludge living.
  2. Don’t try to eliminate mistakes: Mistakes are costly in terms of lost future time and social iterations, but there’s a point at which fear of mistakes is worse than the cost of future damage control.  You can get so obsessive-compulsive about getting it exactly right the first time just to avoid follow-on iterations, that it can distort all sense of proportion. If a form is returned because you forgot to date it, so be it.
  3. Accept Minor Criminality: Bureaucracies deal with us in ways that don’t distinguish between small civic transgressions and not being in compliance, such as an expired business license, and criminal offenses ranging from speeding to murder. So it helps to accept that unless you’re dead (and sometimes even then), chances are you are not 100% in compliance of everything expected of you, simply because 100% compliance is cripplingly costly. Learn to be happy with 90% or so (I know many people who are at around 20-30%).

There are probably other tricks that people more comfortable with paperwork know about.


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  1. “That would be bad enough, but the other key feature of paperwork is that it is heavy on arbitrary information: specific names, dates, places, numbers and codes. It is usually very sensitive to small errors, and very unforgiving to missing bits and pieces.”

    But isn’t this true of programming as well, and don’t INxx types often make excellent programmers? (Or maybe doing paperwork is like working with someone else’s poorly commented code.)

    • I think the difference between forms and and programming here is that forms require interaction with people (which an INxx would more likely have trouble with) to get feedback, while programming requires less of that (you are interacting with a computer instead).

      Part of the dilemma with forms is that you have to predict what another person will think is important, and the feedback loop for that can be longer (unless the person is right there with you answering questions). Computers are more predictable than people in a sense, and the feedback loop between man-program-computer is usually faster than a man-form-man loop.

    • I am not much of a programmer but I would add that:
      1) Editors help a lot
      2) You can figure out some systematic ways of dealing with your common problems
      3) Programming syntax as such makes much more sense than the bureoucratic one
      4) Your main focus is on the abstract that stands behind the code rather than on the code itself
      5) The biggest reward lies within the activity itself and consist of something more than just avoiding punishment.

  2. I don’t believe paperwork/form-filling aversion is linked to I (versus E). That may be an additional factor but N/S nails it and J/P decides the timeliness. T may see illogical elements but recognize the overall compulsion more clearly than an F.

    With so much talk on Design and usability, one would expect some universal standard on design of forms (both paper and online)…