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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. 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.
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