Originally published in Idler 68.
I’ve been thinking about paperwork lately because I’ve had to get a bit more serious about the business side of being a writer, lest various government darlings come and smash my knees in.
I used to make a habit of ignoring paperwork completely, going as far as putting it in the bin, unopened to see what the consequences would be. Sometimes, they’d be literally nothing. Today, I prefer to handle paperwork quickly, as soon as it comes in; putting paid to it in a lightning pounce, as in a game of whack-a-mole. Feel the wrath of my padded mallet, utility bill!
My gripe now is with the archive. I can live with the onus of paying an invoice quickly, but I dislike the presence of dead paperwork in my happy, idle life. I don’t like to have a bulging file of administrative documents lurking in my cheerful “tropical-gothic” flat, like a sober accountant at a party, grinding his teeth and reacting badly to my attempts to put a little hat on him.
So here are my newfound tactics for having almost no paperwork in the house:
Reduce it. The surefire way to escape paperwork is stop it at source. A contraceptive approach will prevent your nightmares from ever coming to life. This should work beautifully for idlers, as the kind of activity that generates paperwork is of the effortful variety: shopping, business-conducting, expanding of operations, formal ceremonies under the eyes of God and the law. You know, graft. It’s a pleasure to avoid.
Dependence on services and products generates paperwork too, so we must find ways to live without overly depending upon the commercial world. No television means no TV licence renewal woe. A small home with little stuff in it, means no insurance bullshit. No car means a galaxy of bureaucratic hassle eliminated. Escaping such unnecessary dependencies is the heart of self-sufficiency.
The idler prevails by putting her feet up and leaving them there. The less of a worker-consumer you are, the less paperwork comes your way. They have a saying in Denmark: “A brook-smoothed pebble receives no post.” Well, they don’t actually, but they should.
Minimise it. When archiving paperwork, it’s tempting to err on the side of caution. We fear that if we don’t keep every receipt and every communique, we’ll somehow pay for it later. It doesn’t generally happen though and you can ditch almost everything. If your entire paperwork archive was lost to a house fire, there’d be one or two inconveniences (retrieving a forgotten PIN, reissuing a passport) but, on balance, the loss would be a gain. Whack-a-mole it and throw it away.
Digitise it. Most companies and government bodies are keen for you to “go paperless” or “submit it online,” because it saves them money and gives them (they think) a firmer hold on your soul when you can no longer claim that something is lost in the post. Personally, I prefer digital paperwork because you no longer have an archive. Invisible it away and life feels much nicer, no dusty graveyard of old transactions lurking in the corner when you’re trying to make the love. Cyberspace (and I will never stop using that word) is as a good a bottomless pit as any when it comes to important documents.
The result of all of the above is that I’ve got my paperwork down to a single A4 tickler file and it feels good. The contents are just the truly useful stuff: passport, birth certificate, licence to thrizzle. Everything else is either online (in systems paid for and looked after by banks and whatnot) or snuggled down warmly in the landfill. The rain-soaked mulch of an old P45 is visible in the gutter of a neighbour’s house because I folded it into a plane that went further than I’d expected.
Psychopathically, sarcastically treasure it. An alternative to some of the above is to have one’s paperwork professionally bound into a beautiful, timeless book. This is a bit silly and I’ll confess to only thinking of it a few minutes ago, but why not take all of your admin down to an old-fashioned bindery (or to a branch of Mail Boxes Etc.) and see if they can bind it into a beautiful, clothbound volume to treasure forever next to your Sherlock Holmes and P. G. Wodehouse omnibuses. Have the words “My Lovely Paperwork” embossed into the cover, ideally in gold leaf. Imagine a tax official coming over for an audit, demanding to see your paperwork, and then seeing you pull this gorgeous tome down from the shelf. An unfamiliar feeling of hopelessness will surely fall upon him and he’ll start making motions to leave quietly. Naturally, this is when you should put a hand on his shoulder and say, “But you came all this way. Now then. Page thee fyrst…”
But seriously, you might be thinking. And I assure you I’m deadly serious. I’m as serious as can be. If you could see me now, you’d know that my eyebrows have knitted firmly into a devastating letter “X” the likes of which are seldom seen outside of 1960s science-fiction movie posters. Paperwork can be reduced at source, minimised in archive, and dumped into the infinity of Cyberspace where you could find it again it if necessary but will never need to.
What about HMRC though? Well, if you have a job, let HR take care of it. PAYE is one of the few conveniences of having a job. If you’re self-employed, do what I do. Have a single spreadsheet called “cash-based accounting 2019/20” or similar and treat it like a cash register for the duration of the financial year: enter any money that comes in or goes out in a pair of aptly-named columns. I also record invoice and receipt numbers (e.g. IDLER1) here so that I can search for them in my email or Google Drive later if they should ever be needed.
At the end of the tax year, either file your own tax return for free through the government’s Self-Assessment thing on the Internet or email your spreadsheet to an accountant (mine is called Brian – hello Brian!) who will do it for you for about £200. You are unlikely to ever be audited if your business is adorably small, so don’t worry about archiving your receipts in triplicate in a big scary box-file. Just don’t bother. It’s sunny outside. You weren’t built for admin.