Helping people with computers... one answer at a time.

Going paperless can be scary and can seem overwhelming even. It's less difficult than you think, and can improve the safety of your documents as well as significantly reduce the amount of time you spend dealing with them.

I recently heard from someone that they had essentially done the opposite of going paperless. They'd reverted from digital tools and gone back to paper for most of their tasks.

Needless to say, I had something to say on the topic. Smile

I think that there are some serious advantages to going digital if it's done properly. In fact, I'll give you three very specific reasons why digital is better than paper in many (if not most) situations. The first one is, to me, so compelling that it alone would be enough. (And if you're a regular reader, you'll recognize it immediately.)

I'll also discuss some situations where paper really is better.

But first, I have to include a disclaimer.

Disclaimer

There's a possibility that this article could be misinterpreted as nothing more than a glorified "infomercial" because at the end, I'm going to suggest you check out a product to help with going paperless. It's a product from a friend, and it's an affiliate relationship, meaning that I'll get a cut if you purchase it.

I don't want that to get in the way of the topic, however. Whether that turns out to be interesting to you or not, I think there's a lot of value in understanding what going paperless – or rather, going digital – can do for you.

So I'll save that specific mention until the end and be very clear about it.

Either way, reducing the amount of paper in your life is in my opinion worth some serious consideration.

The problems with paper

Paper, particularly for record keeping, has three very specific problems:

  • It's bulky, taking increasing amounts of space as it accumulates over time.

  • It's often difficult to find a specific piece of information in that accumulation of paper.

  • It exists in only one place.

It's this last one that I find the most troubling.

If it's in only one place, it's not backed up

This should sound familiar.

The concept of backing up is not new and not at all limited to digital data.

The fact is you probably have only one copy of your paper documents – and I'll bet that some of those pieces of paper are incredibly important to you. And yet, those same pieces of paper are at risk of accidental disposal, loss, and even total destruction in the case of of a catastrophic event such as a house fire.

Yes, you could take the time to create duplicates, perhaps stored in a separate location, but that's time consuming and results in one and only one backup copy – unless of course you're willing to duplicate the duplication effort.

Enter digital documents.

Digital data may be easier to destroy, but it's also significantly easier to copy than paper.

Digital documents can be copied in an instant. Thus, digital documents can be backed up in an instant. Being only bits, they can easily be backed up to other computers, other devices, and other locations with relative ease.

As you probably know, I'm all about bits and bytes, and I'm all about backing up.

For me to lose my digital records:

  • My home would have to burn down destroying all of my computer's hard drives.

  • A data center in Michigan housing my primary off-site backup would have to be destroyed.

  • All of Amazon's redundant data centers where I house my secondary backups would have to be destroyed

  • Evernote, Dropbox, and Google's Gmail servers where I use various and sundry online services would need to be destroyed

And all of that would have to happen simultaneously.

Now, I'm not saying you need to be as extreme as I am.

What I am saying is simply that you can't do that with paper. As a practical matter, you can't even get close.

How much space do you need?

If you're like me, you have records – frequently relating to taxes – that you need to keep for various reasons and for a certain length of time.

If you run a business, it gets even worse and the amount of paper that accumulates year after year can become surprisingly large. When my wife and I ran a small retail business, our annual records added up to a roughly two cubic foot box full of paper – per year.

That adds up quick.

Even our personal records alone accumulated to take up a significant amount of space and required annual maintenance to discard records that could finally, legally, be discarded.

In the last couple of years, however, the amount of paper that we save from year to year amounts to a file folder and not a very full one at that. Everything else is digital

What used to be boxes and boxes and boxes of paper is now simply stored on my computer (and backed up like crazy, as outlined above). Maybe – maybe – it adds a single hard drive to my overall collection of equipment. Still, that's significantly less space than the boxes and boxes of yesteryear.

Can you find it? No organization needed.

You need a document from two – or was it three? – years ago. What do you do? You go digging. "Spelunking" might be a better term for most as it often involves digging into mountains of semi-organized paper.

I know, I know, there are people that keep their paper meticulously organized and can probably find anything without a moment's hesitation. If that's you, please know that you are in the minority. Smile

Computers, on the other hand, are great at searching. Really, really great at searching. Just ask Google.

But you don't need to be Google to search your documents.

Various and sundry tools can be used to search and/or index a collection of documents. Everything from Windows own built-in search1 to dedicated general purpose desktop indexers to document and note repositories like Evernote can all make searching large collections of documents a snap.

A few keystrokes and you're looking at the document that you were searching.

Once again, you can't do that with paper.

Use the right tools and you can do that search anywhere. I was at the emergency veterinarian2 some days ago and realized that if I needed, I could look up right then and there any of my regular veterinarian's receipts and after-visit statements using my smartphone simply because they were all part of my digital document collection.

And again, you can't do that with paper.

Getting started

The biggest objection that I hear from people is that getting started means they have to somehow scan everything they have and that's just an enormous task. So enormous that they don't even begin.

So don't. Yes, you can, and there are even services that will help, but ... don't.

Instead, start today with the paper you receive today. Switch to paperless billing and start saving the documents you get via email instead. Yes, invest in a scanner, but just scan new things as they arrive, reviewing each to see if there's even a way to avoid getting paper in the first place.

Decide on a storage mechanism – be it a simple folder on your machine or a utility like Evernote – and simply start slowly, but start today. It doesn't have to be difficult.

Another place that I see people getting all wrapped up is in trying to organize their documents as they're collected and scanned.

Heck, I was that person until just a few months ago. My lightbulb moment was simply this: organizing and even naming the files as they arrived or as they were scanned was a complete waste of my time as long as I could use search and easily find what I needed.

Paperless does not create (or really help) information overload

Information overload is very real, and something that today's fast paced digital society seems to not just enable, but almost require to stay abreast of news, activities and much, much more.

The internet's ambassador of time wasting...

Switching to primarily digital documents doesn't change that. It doesn't add to it, and it doesn't really help it much either.

What I see happening is people going to their computer to quickly find a document and while they're getting sucked into email, Facebook, Lolcats or who knows what else.3

That's not the document's fault. Or rather, it's not the fault of the document being in digital form on your computer rather than being buried in a box in your basement.

Too many people lump everything on their computer into one "thing" – a thing that they see as taking inordinate amounts of their time without drawing distinctions between the different tasks for which the use the computer.

All tasks are not created equal.

Blaming going digital for feelings of information overload is akin to blaming your television for your watching "Jersey Shore"4 – you could choose to use your resources more wisely.

Your computer can funnel immense amount of information your way, it's true.

However, going paperless doesn't add to the amount of information you have to deal with – it just changes some of its form.

Paper is right for some things

As digital as I am (and you know that I am), I have sitting next to my on my desk something unexpected.

A pen, a notebook, and a pad of paper.

Sometimes, paper really is the right tool.

It's just quicker to reach over and jot a note that it is to switch from whatever I'm doing on screen. I may transfer that note into digital form later (or not, depending on the context), but nonetheless paper will, for me at least, always be a quicker and more reliable way to capture an otherwise fleeting idea or bit of information.

It's all about using the right tool for the job and the right tool for the person.

For me, I'm all about the bits and bytes. I have tried to keep a moleskin for notes and journaling. I have tried to stay in sync with my wife's paper calendar. I have tried to pick up the phone and cold call someone.

For me, it always comes back to digital alternatives. I simply work better, more reliably, and more comfortably in most cases if there's a computer or digital device involved.

Not every person is like that.

Not every task is like that.

In my opinion, digital data is perfect for record keeping, for example. For more creative work, it really depends on the work and the people involved. Some cartoonists can only draw on paper – others work exclusively in digital media.

Whatever works.

Paper is also required for some things

A discussion about going paperless wouldn't be complete if I didn't mention that sometimes there's no choice. Some things are on paper and must be kept on paper. Original legal documents are the most common example.

Scan them anyway.

Seriously, most of the time when you need those documents is for reference, not for actual legal submission. Keep the originals in a safe place, but scan them for reference. That way, you'll have them available quickly as perhaps needed, with the originals still available for those instances where they're the only thing that will do.

What I do

Besides being seriously over-backed-up (if there is such a thing), and having a notepad next to me on my desk, here's how I'm going paperless – or rather paper-less, using less paper.

  • I've switched to paperless for most bills. I say "most" because it's not always an option, and even when it is, it may not be trustworthy. (For reasons that I haven't been able to fathom, I can't download one of my credit card statements reliably. I blame bad website design and get the paper copy sent – it's too important.)

  • I have a Fujitsu ScanSnap scanner that's fast and easy to use. Scanning even a multi-page document is loading it up and pushing a button.

  • In most cases, I then shred the original document for security.

  • The scanning software performs OCR on the document and produces a searchable PDF.

  • The document is automatically placed in Evernote. In short order, it's backed up to Evernote's servers and then to my other computers with Evernote installed.

  • If I need anything, I simply search for it in Evernote.

That's pretty much it. You'll note that I didn't spend any time naming or organizing the PDFs. If I need something, I search for what it would contain and it comes up quickly. If I need to share a scanned document with someone, I can save the PDF and give it a more descriptive name then.

Oh, and documents that come in via email – I leave in email. Once again, search – be it in Thunderbird or in Gmail – is a fine approach to finding something should I ever need it later.

Paperitis®

This is the product that I mentioned at the beginning. It begins with some very valuable free information, so I'd encourage you to have a look.

Audri and Jim Lanfords are the folks behind ScamBusters – one of the internet's premier sites on staying safe on the Internet.

Paperitis is the term that they coined to describe the situation of being overloaded and overwhelmed by paper and paper clutter and the drag that it all places on your ability to be productive.

If you're with me on this, if you're interested in reducing the amount of paper, paper waste and paper overload in your life and your business but don't know where or how to start, I'd encourage you to sign up for Jim and Audri's free video on conquering Paperitis.

I know this all sounds a bit "salesish" and I'm sorry if it's too much so, but I've seen what they have to offer and I think it's a great place to start, particularly if you have no clue as to even how to start.

And perhaps, even if you do. I've been working on going paperless since before Paperitis even existed, and yet – you know that "lightbulb moment" I spoke of earlier? The one about not wasting time organizing and naming newly created digital documents, but relying on searchability instead? I'd heard them talk about it before, but it wasn't until I encountered it again in Paperitis that it suddenly, really made sense.

And it's saved me untold time and frustration ever since.

Have a look at their video. It's a great place to start. I know they're taking questions on their blog as well.

I said earlier, whether Paperitis appeals to you or not, give the concept of going paperless – using less paper – some serious thought. The benefits of leveraging that powerful information storage and retrieval tool at your fingertips are pretty amazing.

It might even save you enough time to look at a few more internet cats.

1: Although I'm not a fan, Windows own search – particularly in Windows 7 – can do a decent job of searching the contents of files stored pretty much anywhere on your system. I'm not a fan because my experience is that it can be difficult to configure properly, the indexer can sometimes impact system performance, and it's occasionally just been temperamental.

2: All's well, thanks for wondering. Smile In fact, I didn't need to do the search mentioned, but it was very reassuring to know that I could.

3: Yes, yes ... I'm guilty.

4: An American "realty" TV show that has little to do with reality – or much of anything else worthwhile. If you're in a country or situation where you can't get it ... consider yourself fortunate.

Article C5616 - July 22, 2012 « »

Share this article with your friends:

Share this article on Facebook Tweet this article Email a link to this article
Leo Leo A. Notenboom has been playing with computers since he was required to take a programming class in 1976. An 18 year career as a programmer at Microsoft soon followed. After "retiring" in 2001, Leo started Ask Leo! in 2003 as a place for answers to common computer and technical questions. More about Leo.

Not what you needed?

19 Comments
Mark J
July 22, 2012 3:45 PM

This looks like an infomercial, but from having worked with Leo for about one and a half years, I can truly say when he recommends something, he's doing it because he believes in the product, and he would never make a recommendation just for the money.

Karl
July 22, 2012 4:54 PM

I'm all for reducing the use of paper. The only thing i would miss about going completely paperless is my free fertilizer and mulch. Add shredded paper to your lawn clippings and leaves, worms love it, free organic fertilizer. Also pile shredded paper around plants, it holds water so you don't have to water as often and it reduces weed growth.

It don't bother me if you are advertising a product and getting a cut from the sales, it helps you keep this free site going and helps the developers improve their product. I see nothing at all wrong with that, it's a win win situation.

phillip
July 24, 2012 9:18 AM

All very interesting and useful. Thank you. I'd have hoped the digitizing could have been done with a scanner a bit less than $1500.. like the one on so many printers.

You don't need a $1500 scanner to do this, and the one on many printers will do just fine. Personally I find the scansnap (~$450 or so) extremely convenient for it's multi-page double-sided scanning with the single push of a button.
Leo
26-Jul-2012
Don Randall
July 24, 2012 9:41 AM

Paper is also useful for editing. Although it's not necessary, it's generally much easier to see mistakes when documents are printed. Also, I like your recommendation for using a notepad and pen for jotting down notes. When I first started using a computer, I went so paperless that I learned the hard way. Sometimes when I received important phone calls, my computer didn't work or my internet connection was down. So there's nothing better than a few pens and a notepad--they rarely fail.

Ironically after writing that article I was filling out some important paperwork to be filed with the government and my pen ran out of ink. My only pen. Embarrassing, but I had to borrow from someone. There's no perfect solution. Smile
Leo
26-Jul-2012

Frank D
July 24, 2012 9:50 AM

What happens the day the Internet goes down -- even if only for a limited time -- with all your records and backups up there "in the cloud"? What is the value at that point of all the free space you have left by the paper documents you may have destroyed and no longer have? Where is the sense of security previously afforded by paper? And what about books and bound items? I don't think the Fujitsu ScanSnap can handle them too, can it?

Sure, I scan documents that are important and with sentimental value, and keep copies of them on both my PC's hard drive, in my offline backups, and even on CDs or DVDs, but I also keep the paper originals too. I don't think the National Archives, for example, keeps their valuable documentary items only "in the cloud."

Storage space, even though it may be limited, is usually cheap, IMO, compared to the value of the documents that fill it.

I certainly have never advocated keeping your data only in the cloud. That's extremely bad practice for any number of reasons. If my internet is down I simply use the local copies on my computers.
Leo
26-Jul-2012

Mike @ Multilink ACS
July 24, 2012 11:11 AM

Many years ago, about 1988 I think, in my job as an electronic security system designer I visited a new office site in London. The man that owned the office had computers on every desk which were all networked. Not a printer to be seen. Everybody sent emails and files, no paper. The man was pleased that he had a "paperless office".

Looking around the building was fine until I came to a locked door. The man opened it and inside were reams of A4 paper, plus two large printers. Asked what they were for in a paperless office he replied sheepishly " there for my printouts" I cannot total trust everyone to save files or send them correctly.

Moral or the story: Electronic media is OK but paper never crashes, locks up, deletes itself etc etc.

John OMeara
July 24, 2012 11:12 AM

Here are some good reasons to stay paper based for billing and being billed – plus a real life example.
1. Snail mail is still more reliable than email. Really. You have one address and one mailbox. People who generally respect unlocked USPS mailboxes, think nothing of snooping your email account. AskLeo has several articles a month helping people deal with problems in their email accounts. Or, ask 10 of your computer savvy friends how many email addresses they’ve needed as compared to postal addresses.
2. Are you a lawyer?, Virtually everyone who wants you to accept bills by email, first requires you to sign a ‘little’ (3-5000 word) legal agreement, most of which state it is your fault if they screw up, that you give up your rights to have disputes adjudicated, etc. etc.
3. Phone service agents treat postal customers with more respect. If you get your bill by email, you’ve already agreed to be disrespected by your vendor. You signed their legal agreement. It is amazing how attitudes change on the phone when you won’t provide an email address for billing or customer service replies. They understand they actually have to do their job and help you.
4. Ultimately, accepting billing by email transfers the burden of knowing what to pay, and who to pay, from the vendor to the customer. In an ideal world that is not a problem, but in the real world there are plenty of folks (think banks) who play shell games with their commercial terms, in order to nick customers for ‘fees’, unless you happen to notice the changes you are now responsible for finding and downloading yourself.
Here is a recent example. I am the treasurer for a small non-profit that intermittently purchases fuel. The supplier's bookkeeper started sending the invoices by email to 'save paper'. The recipient – who didn’t actually do any bill paying - thought it was just a courtesy copy, so bills went unpaid for a couple of years. The supplier actually understood that they were the problem, that we had never been told billing would come by email.
Paperless record keeping – YES, but don’t accept billing being billed by email.

Dave G
July 24, 2012 11:37 AM

Frank D (comment) doesn't quite get it. Your best back up and access point is still you computer with its second backup hard drive. And that doesn't depend on the internet. The "cloud" is for when your house burns down. lol

Irving Waldorf
July 24, 2012 11:41 AM

You can't download bank statements? Amazing, simply amazing as I have no trouble with my B of A or WFB statements. Can't understand what the problem is at your place.

Well, different bank, to begin with. And their technology is pretty clunky. It's my only disappointment with them, though. Smile
Leo
26-Jul-2012

Harold
July 24, 2012 5:01 PM

I have an all-in-one printer and am starting to scan receipts today, thanks to your article about going paperless.

anon emouse
July 24, 2012 5:10 PM

Way back in 1960, my company bought an IBM mini computer.

The salesman told me that once you (anyone) changes to computerizing their work, they will never go back to paper.

He said that printing out out all that stuff that had been computerized to go back to doing it by hand, via paper would be so horrendous a project that you are locked into computerizing.

Paper - gone computer = paperless.

Do you really want to print out everything so you can read a hard copy?

Make up your mind early on whether you want to BE paperless or electronic. Once you have made that decision - you are stuck.

Hilary
July 24, 2012 5:18 PM

This was a very good article. I have outdone Leo, in that I have scanned and made digitized folders for even a federal court case. There is mighty little that *can't* be safely scanned, and the paper copy discarded. We're living on a small planet that gets smaller with each new person born. Conquering the reliance on paper is a virtue that can't be overrated.

As for the requisite pen and paper--maybe that's why dual-books, the spruce gooses of the tablet industry, were invented. When I got my Entourage Edge, it was such fun jotting notes on the resistive side of the Edge, and then researching on the capacitive. Why dual-books have not caught on is a real mystery, the only answer to which seems to be their weight.

Leo, among all the technology you own, don't you have at least one resistive laptop or tablet?

Nope. It's always surprised me how little that's caught on, to be honest.
Leo
26-Jul-2012

Mocdeg
July 24, 2012 7:42 PM

I wonder why you chose Evernote as your repository instead of Microsoft Office OneNote. Were there features in Evernote that were not available in OneNote or could OneNote be used just as well?

I can use Evernote on my phone, my tablets, my Kindle, my Mac, the web and of course on my PC. Not terribly familiar with OneNote, but I'd be shocked if it handled that list of devices.
Leo
26-Jul-2012
Ravi Agrawal
July 24, 2012 9:09 PM

One major point you probably forgot to mention here is that paper deteriorates with time but digital copies don't (if stored on the proper media).

Ravi.

Mark
July 24, 2012 10:48 PM

For those who haven't discovered it yet, download and try the CamScanner app for your smart phone. Photograph whatever you want when you are out and about - a restaurant bill, a sign on a wall - and CamScanner converts it to a .pdf with a range of upload options - straight to email, Dropbox, etc. No fuss, simple to use, does what it says on the tin.
There are probably other apps that do the same thing - CamScanner is the only one I've tried. For me, its a 'must have' app.

Kevin
July 25, 2012 5:18 AM

Hi Leo
Another good and fair article. And further in my opinion I don't think you should have to apologize if you make some extra cash from your articles.
Alas I am retired now for some time, but when I ran my own business my accounts were done on an old computer. This consisted of a small business accounts app with the totals simply explained on a Works spreadsheet.
All was backed up on diskettes but also 3 hard copies were printed. One copy I kept, the second the accountant kept and the third was forwarded to Income Tax.
Of course there was no internet here then and I did not possess a scanner. But am glad to know that even then, I did take backups seriously.
Ah !! the good old days !!!

Dan
July 25, 2012 10:50 AM

This whole discussion is similar to storing your digital photos - What media do you use - hard drives, CDs, DVDs, tapes. If you do not keep up with the back up or storing that media in a safe place, you are screwed. And - You cannot be guaranteed that the media - hard drive, CD or DVD - will be able to be read in the future. I have photos and slides from the 1960s that are still around - no special hardware to look at them. And let's face it, most people are very lax about doing multiple backups on their didgital media. And.... online backup systems in the past have gone Bye Bye, taking all that info with them.

Ray Foster
July 27, 2012 5:53 PM

Leo, I have been reading your articles for a few years, and have yet read something I could use. Don't misunderstand me. I'm sure many have. Not being a computer Geek, I don't use a lot of bell and whistles. Anyway, your 'paperless' article hit a nerve. I think I'll try it. Maybe it's time I put a TIP in your jar too. tks, Ray

Strydrdenis
August 1, 2012 8:11 AM

Hello Leo. Great article on going "paperless" but I think you missed one of the mosy important reasons in this day and age the environment. Maybe I missed it when reading your article but to me that seems to be one of the most important aspects of going paper less in this day and age. Thanks again for your great articles. I find I am always looking forward to getting your great newsletter.

Comments on this entry are closed.

If you have a question, start by using the search box up at the top of the page - there's a very good chance that your question has already been answered on Ask Leo!.

If you don't find your answer, head out to http://askleo.com/ask to ask your question.