By Administrative Stress, I refer to the stress caused in dealing with filling forms, applications, talking to bureaucracies, and so on. This has caused me a lot of stress in the past and I've lost several opportunities because of my aversion in dealing with this. Over time I've become better at it. I still have a long way to go, but I've made progress. So here is a short list of strategies I use to overcome this stress/fear and I'm sharing in the hope that some people might find it useful. Feel free add your tips and strategies in the comments:

1. If you can afford to pay someone else to do the work for you and someone else can indeed do it, then do so. 

2. Breathe. It's OK. Focus on your breathing. You can get over this. Keep telling yourself that you're stronger then some  puny application forms. Take it one step at a time.

3. Don't catastophize. Much of the fear comes from imagining situations where you missed one little detail and therefore lost a huge opportunity or lost a lot of money or got into trouble and so on. This is textbook catastrophizing. Tell yourself that millions of people do this kind of work everyday and that you are no worse than them. In fact, millions might even be filling out the exact form that you are filling out (in the case of taxes or visa applications). Anna Salamon mentions in the Checklist of Rationality Habits that she managed convince herself of the safety of the wire-guided fall at the Stratosphere Hotel in Las Vegas by imagining twice the population of her college doing the jump and surviving. Similarly, you can imagine maybe your entire city filling out the application and no one getting into significant trouble. Also, you can use simple mindfulness exercises to focus on the present.

4. Use Checklists. I cannot overstate the importance of this. Write down every single thing you need to finish and process it one at a time. Write down the deadline at the head of your checklist and keep that date steady in mind.

5. If you need to make appointments, make them early. I'm currently applying for a German visa. I kept postponing making a Visa appointment because I thought I'd get one easily, based on my experience of applying for a Canadian visa. But as it turns out I was wrong and now the appointment date is uncomfortably close to my date of travel. Making early appointments gives you a clear and comfortable deadline before which you need to finish things and also leaves you room for errors or delays you might encounter. In fact, if there are appointments necessary, they should be at the head of your checklist as well.

6. If you feel certain about something or uncertain about something: check. If you are certain, make the belief pay rent. If you are uncertain, you have to vanquish the confusion. I once couldn't take the GRE exam because I felt certain that a particular form of ID (my drivers' license) was sufficient to take the test, but as it turned out, in my country only a national passport is valid. I lost a lot of money and time. So if you feel sure about something, be extra-sure.

7. Don't take it personally. Bureaucracies aren't deliberately evil. They are impersonal. They exist and you have to deal with them. In the end, if you do not complete the requirements, you will lose. For example, a Chinese friend of mine considers it very demeaning that she has to apply for a Hong Kong visa in order to visit people in Hong Kong, even though Hong Kong is officially part of China. This has kept her from visiting people she loves who live in Hong Kong. I think in the end she is not winning. 

8. Be courteous. This is a no-brainer. When talking or sending emails to officials, secretaries and so forth, you can be persistent but always be courteous. Remember that the person you are talking to is not out to get you. He or she is simply doing their job.

9. Bureaucracies can be flexible. Smaller the organization, more flexible they can be. For example, when I was applying to grad schools, all the schools had on their websites seemingly very tight deadlines by which I had to get all the application material in. One of the professors who was writing me recommendation letters was travelling and wouldn't write me a letter within the deadline for a few schools. This sent me into panic and I was considering not applying to these schools. But I emailed the application secretary and she was more than willing to extend the deadline for that recommendation letter. I sent the letter almost 2-3 weeks late and it was totally fine. So when in doubt, ask. If no dice, ask again. At the worst, you are going to get a polite no. What's wrong in trying.

10. If you need to procure documents from secondary sources, do it early. Because in almost every procurement exercise, there're inevitable delays. 

11. Use friends. If you can get a friend who is doing/has done the same application as you are, then do it with him/her. This is how I always get my taxes done. I have a friend who actually enjoys figuring out the gory details of the American tax code. And he always knows the answer to confusing points.

11a. If not, then if you can get a friend to simply sit with you when you're doing the application, then that helps a lot. You can chat, you can complain about the pain, you can talk about something in the application that is confusing you and so on.

11b. Further, tell friends that you're doing this application and it needs to be done by so and so date. This means that people will bring it up in everyday conversation: "How's that application going?" and this creates social pressure to make sure that you are doing it.

Please share your strategies in the comments!


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13 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 9:22 PM

Great list! Here is another one from my experience:

If your procedure with a government agency or another bureaucratic organization is being delayed (e.g., you sent some forms, they are supposed to send some important document back or contact you, and they haven't in the expected timeframe), call, don't email.

There is a good chance that your email will get no reply. If it is replied, there is an excellent chance that the reply will be a useless "we are working on it, just wait". The chances that it will actually help are tiny, especially if the organization you are dealing with is Vast and Impersonal.

You may have an ugh field about calling, because you will go through a Kafkaesque automated menu, or placed on hold and made to wait ages. But if you can get to a human, there is an excellent chance that they will be helpful and tell you exactly what is going on, or put you in contact with someone who does.

I completely agree. Also, when I send emails and don't get replies, I tend to use that as an excuse to not do further work. It becomes easy to tell myself: "Well I can't do anything until they reply to my email.". This is a huge failure mode, as I'm the one who is losing when the work is not done. As a good rule of thumb, if you haven't gotten a reply in 2 days, you are never going to get a reply.

A significant number of nerve-wracking administrative processes are actually not if you find a human being inside the system to help you. Once you get your hands on such an advocate, you find that hard deadlines are no longer hard, required supervisory signatures are not really required, and in some cases that the form you're worried about can be skipped, or doesn't apply to you.

The public-facing rules set forth by bureaucracies are often designed to be massively conservative. (They really need fourteen weeks to process this form before I can submit the second form?) Find a person inside the system. My preferred method is to go to their office in person, at which point you become a person in their mind and no longer a number.

My preferred method is to go to their office in person

I've recently found this useful when dealing with the IRS. Time spent to reject a form on unspecified technicalities: four months. Time spent to get human being on the phone: unknown (disconnected repeatedly with "no, we're too busy to take your call right now, or ever.") Time spent in a physical office to get what I needed: maybe an hour or two.

Granted it was an extraordinarily unpleasant hour or two, but it got the job done.

As an attorney, I deal with "administrative stress" quite a bit.

FWIW here are my suggestions:

First: If possible, have a work space which is organized to let you deal with administrative tasks comfortably and conveniently. For example, if you have a nice desk with a comfortable chair, a computer with an internet connection, a speakerphone, a fax machine, a scanner, etc. all within easy reach, it will subtract a bit from the mental exertion required to get each task done. Over time, this can make you a lot more efficient.

Note that it's common for bureaucracies to erect mental exertion barriers, for example by requiring things to be in writing or by making you wait on hold for a while. If you are set up to send out letters with minimal effort or to wait on hold with a speakerphone while you surf the internet, then you will be able to overcome these barriers more easily.

Second: Invest in a good scanner and scan every piece of paper you send or receive. Organize them on your computer. It requires a fair amount of mental exertion to get going with this, but in the long run its a good investment of mental energy since you will end up spending far less time rummaging through files to find stuff.

Third: Take notes of each conversation. The easiest way to do this is to just send yourself an e-mail which you type up during or after the conversation. The e-mail system itself will save the date and time and you will easily be able to retrieve it later. You just make a note of the name of the person you spoke to and what they said. When you are dealing with bureaucracies, it's often very effective to be able to say something like "When I spoke to John Jones on March 15 at 9:45 am, he told me X . . . . why are you telling me something different now?"

  1. If you can afford to pay someone else to do the work for you and someone else can indeed do it, then do so.

Alternatively, if you find that you are better than average at points 2-10, consider advertising your paid services to do this for others.

How much would you pay someone to get it done for you?

Much of the fear comes from imagining situations where you missed one little detail and therefore lost a huge opportunity or lost a lot of money or got into trouble and so on. This is textbook catastrophizing.

I had no idea there was a word for this. I just take it for granted that such grossly out of proportion consequences for error are a fact of life.

Maybe I shouldn't.

Flag it as, "I'm talking to NPCs again" and head for your broomstick. :-)

head for your broomstick

It might amuse you to hear that I initially misread this as "boomstick."

I work in a call centre, which is a slightly different form of bureaucracy but no less aggravating for a lot of people. All of the above apply, but a few additional tips:

  • If you think the person you're dealing with is an idiot, they probably are. We're paid minimum wage and have high turnover, so there's invariably a high percentage of low-skilled newbies. If you're calling about something complex, and you don't think the person is up to doing the job properly, do not be afraid to call back a couple hours afterwards and confirm that they did it properly. It's a lot less of a hassle than waiting a month to see that they screwed up your bill again, and we genuinely don't mind a friendly call to double-check.

  • If you can't navigate the phone tree, pick any option that gets you to a human. We can transfer you. (This may take some hold time). Speaking of hold time, speakerphone and doing something else is by far the best solution to a long hold. Just make sure you're close enough to pick up within 15 seconds or so when you do get through, or you'll have to hold again.

  • Phone lines aren't always clear. If there's any information you need transmitted at a character-perfect level - postal code is a common one for us - use a phonetic alphabet. Do not, under any circumstances, use "Larry", "Mary", and "Harry" as letters in the same sentence(I once had two people do this in the same day). If I am repeating something back to you and spelling it out, that means I need it to be correct - don't just blindly agree, actually listen to what I'm saying. Our computers tend to care very much whether it's an M or an N, and our phones tend to be very unhelpful at distinguishing them.

  • Calling up and asking for a discount will usually get you nowhere. Calling up and threatening to cancel will usually get you a discount.


I recently had to deal with a number of grant applications, which were definitely stressful. I was sure that I would mess up in some way, and actually I did: I included a recommendation letter for one grant in the application for another. Oops!

Most of your tips are things I realised myself during the application process, but I probably would have been better off had I read these tips beforehand, so thank you for sharing them.

My personal strategy is to double-check everything (though I've seemed to have failed at doing that in this case).