Six tips for going paperless

Please welcome Mark W. Shead, who blogs once a week on the informative Productivity501.com. He is a business management consultant focusing on using technology to streamline businesses.

I have been moving toward a paperless office for two reasons. First the amount of paper in my life continues to grow each year and I’ve grown tired of spending so much effort just wrangling physical paper. Second I spend a lot of time on the road. It is nice to have access to all my files whether I’m in working in my office in Kansas or waiting for powder to fall in Colorado.

The move to paperless has been an interesting experiment and I’ve been amazed at just how attached I have become to the pieces of paper I have saved over the years. Here are some tips for people looking to make a similar transition.

  1. Scan what makes sense – Go for the biggest bang for your buck. It doesn’t make sense to scan every single book you own, but it does make sense to scan in your bills, receipts and insurance paperwork.
  2. Give yourself time to adjust – You are probably going to find yourself very attached to your papers. I got over this by creating a “to shred” set of files. I kept the paper around until I was comfortable with my electronic access to it and was ok with shredding it.
  3. Backup, backup, backup – Make sure you have a reliable way of backing up your data. Not only do you need to back your data up, you have to test it as well. Also make sure you store your backups in a safe place. I keep one backup in my office and another encrypted on Amazon’s servers using Jungle Disk. That way if a flood or fire destroys my computer and backup hard drive, I can still get my data back.
  4. Get some help – If you have a lot of paper to scan consider hiring someone to help. A high school or college student can go through quite a stack of papers in a few afternoons. The worst part of switching to paperless is when half of your data is on paper and the other half is digital. Getting a bit of help initially can make your system much more useful to you right away.
  5. Think “Where will I look for this?” – There are many ways to file your scanned documents. When you are designing your system, make sure you don’t fall into the trap of thinking “Where should I put this?” You need design you system around the question “How will I look for this?”
  6. Don’t skimp on your scanner – The ScanSnap is one of the best scanners for the money. You want to make sure you don’t get something that requires putting each page, one at a time, on a flat bed. If it is too much trouble to scan in a new piece of paper, you won’t do it.

29 Comments for “Six tips for going paperless”

  1. posted by becoming minimalist on

    i have been going paperless in my office over the past year as well thanks to the new capabilities at my office. and i have a question more than a comment.

    how do i break free from the desire to read something on paper? i love clearing the clutter of my office and storing the files digitally; but when i need to reread a document, i often find myself reprinting the document on paper as opposed to reading it off the computer screen (which seems more wasteful than keeping the original document). i’m having a hard time moving towards feeling comfortable reading everything on a computer screen.

    any thoughts/advice? is that something that just takes time like you mentioned?

    -becoming minimalist

  2. posted by Rick Lobrecht on

    I read on screen all day long, but I still prefer to read on paper. It’s not really the paper that I like, its the position and posture of reading at my computer. I used to have a Tablet PC which was awesome for reading on the couch or in a “comfy” chair. The benefit of the Tablet PC was that I could mark up what I was reading and keep the scribbles. Another option would be to get a Kindle. I don’t have one, but apparently you get an email address for your Kindle, and everything you email to it gets converted into an eBook.

    We’ve done a fair bit of scanning and shredding, but not really enough. Shoeboxed seems like an interesting service, and it really isn’t too expensive (although I haven’t tried it yet.) https://start.shoeboxed.com/Register

  3. posted by Rue on

    I really should try to go paperless. I probably don’t have as much paper as some (or even most) people, but I do have some. I’ve been making sure that I can get bill statements online (and those that I can’t, I scan and save to my external HD). If I just took the time to find manuals for all my appliances and whatnot online, my file box would be a lot lighter! ๐Ÿ™‚

    Obviously though, there are some things that can’t be scanned, or can be scanned but you still need to have the originals (vital records, receipts for most returns, etc.) and having a good filing system for those things is crucial.

    @becoming minimalist – I think that reading things online gets easier with time. As long as a document isn’t more than a couple of pages, it doesn’t bother me – especially if I can make the type bigger – that makes it easier on the eyes. However, I do still print out things that are several pages long if they are all text (like journal articles back when I was in college and working on psych papers – it was a LOT easier to read those on paper than online). Anyway, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with printing things out if you don’t want to read them on the computer, as long as you don’t mind spending the money for ink/toner and you make sure to RECYCLE the paper afterwards! ๐Ÿ™‚

  4. posted by Kelly on

    What about the issue of software versions? How do you keep your scanned documents ever-accessible?

  5. posted by Erin Doland on

    @Kelly — Great question!! I get around this fear by keeping two copies of each document. 1. an image file (.jpg), and 2. a .pdf.

    If Adobe Acrobat changes in such a way as to never be able to read my .pdf file at some distant point in the future, I have the .jpg that I can run through the latest version of Acrobat.

    Also, programs like Evernote will read directly from my image file.

  6. posted by JJ on

    I work in a relatively “paperless” law office. It is far more efficient to have electronic access to client files that sometimes number in the tens of thousands of pages. We scan and run a character recognition program on each document and file it as if we were paper filing. If we are unsure of which document we need, just do a search and Wallah, there it is. Adobe allows bookmarking and commenting. When charting a file it is nice to not have to dig through stacks of paper with post-its hanging over the edges.

    At home I have a scansnap. I use the Freedom Filer filing system for our documents/paper etc. I have scanned in the documents and “filed” them according to the same FF organization headings. At the end of the month I scan in the month’s paper and have a backup. Using FF has reduced the amount of paper in our home already.

    We built a home that was involved in a 6 year legal battle. (We won. The builder owes us $150K. He filed bankruptcy. We are getting next to nothing except the dubious pleasure of paying almost twice what we should have for our home, ugh.) I have yet to scan all the paperwork involved but when I am done I will have emptied seven file boxes of document. I also have five boxes that need to be scanned from my father in law’s estate. The man has been dead for ten years and I don’t need to be hanging onto the paper.

    As for software versions: Usually there is a period of time between the old and the new software that allows conversion of older documents. I have used adobe. The oldest files seem to work just fine in the newer versions.

  7. posted by Mark - Productivity501 on

    @minimalist – Investing in a really good monitor is a good way to help move to reading things on the computer instead of printing them out. A 30 inch 2560×1600 display will let you see two pages side by side in high resolution. I have an e-ink device from Sony, but it isn’t quite big enough to read PDFs on. It does work well with plain text documents.

    I’ve also found that the vast majority of documents I need to keep, never need to be read again other than skimming for specific parts. For example, I need to keep copies of all of my insurance policies, but when I need to reference them it is usually just to read a single line or two. If you have a 200 page document that you need to read on a regular basis, you might want to hang on to the physical copy.

  8. posted by Karen on

    One thing I would miss if I started scanning in paperwork is the ability to make notes. For example, I have a lot of medical bills, and I like to write down when I paid the bill, what the bill was for (it’s not always clear from the bill) and the check number if I paid by check. (You never know when the insurance company will call you up and want this information.) You can add notes to pdf files if you have the full version of Adobe Acrobat (I used to do this at work) but it’s a bit expensive for home use.

  9. posted by Catherine Cantieri, Sorted on

    I can see the value of having paperless files, but I still love working on paper (sketching out ideas, brainstorming, editing, etc.). I might feel differently if I had a better scanner. ๐Ÿ˜‰

  10. posted by Dallee on

    What a timely topic — I’ve recently starting scanning my old personal files and financial records, after a LOT of research!

    The very best resource blog on scanning is http://www.DocumentSnap.com — in particular, look at the post on the sensible creation of settings to handle different types of documents at http://www.DocumentSnap.com/my.....-settings/. The DocumentSnap web site favors the Fujitsu M510 (for Macs) and S510 (for windows). I fully agree and mine works flawlessly! What a great machine in a small, sensible package and it is so very fast.

    The basic Fujitsu software is more than sufficient. Basically, each scanned item can be placed in a typical tree structure, with files named as appropriate. Each document can be renamed during the scanning /filing process; if scanning older paper files for an archive which is likely not to be looked at often, just putting all documents in one folder should be more than sufficient and involve minimal processing time.

    Your back-up remarks are entirely correct. Because I’m just starting, I’m doing backup on a separate hard disk using typical Windows “copy file” to another location procedures.

    I am very pleased!

  11. posted by Sivin Kit’s Garden » Blog Archive » Random Links 318 on

    […] Six tips for going paperless […]

  12. posted by Fazal Majid on

    The ScanSnap was until recently not such a good scanner. It had a relatively poor paper feed prone to double-feeding, and what’s worse, could feed two pages (thus missing a page without your realizing it).

    The newer S1500/S1500M does include an ultrasonic double-feed detector. I wouldn’t buy a document scanner without this feature.

  13. posted by Lazygal on

    I use our copier at work to scan in things like my recent car repair bills, insurance policies, doctors/vet bills, articles from newspapers/magazines that I can’t find on-line, etc. It saves them as a .pdf, but I’m reasonably comfortable with that format’s stability.

    If it’s an actual bill I’ve paid (like the phone), I just keep the paper for three years and then shred.

  14. posted by Six tips for going paperless « Solo in Ontario on

    […] office. Unclutterer, “the blog about getting and staying organized”, has a list of six tips for going paperless. I agree with everything they suggest, particularly their recommendation of the Fujitsu ScanSnap, […]

  15. posted by Clare on

    I own a ScanSnap, but am having a bitch of a time with…OCR? I guess? I have a lot of academic articles to scan in because they have my handscrawled notes in the margins, and I need them all (the documents, not the notes) to be keyword-searchable. What software should I be using? Bonus points for software that’s affordable on a student budget!

  16. posted by JJ on

    @ Clare: In the ScanSnap Manager you can set the Scansnap options to automatically OCR the documents when you are scanning them. The option is located under the “File Option” tab right below the file format choice. Adobe standard came bundled with my ScanSnap so I usually don’t use the ScanSnap OCR option as I am scanning at home, unless it is an article or policy of some sort.
    Do I get the bonus points?

  17. posted by gypsy packer on

    Becoming minimalist–Have your eyes checked. I hate clutter but keep three pairs of glasses–the dreaded bifocal, bifocal sunglasses for drivng, and a single-vision set made at an entirely different strength, for working on the computer. Opticians are happy to make such glasses and will ask detailed questions about the monitor size and your distance from it, etc. Clerical workers purchase them routinely.

    Even so, I am not crazy about reading on computers. You may want to transfer that paper to a plain-text file and load it onto an iPhone or another podclone with text-reading capabilities and read it like a book.

  18. posted by Enrique S @ The Corporate Barbarian on

    I use a file naming system that includes the date, format(email, excel, word, etc), title, and source. By using a search tool like Windows desktop, I can usually find just about any file. I really want a SnapScan, it would be a big upgrade over my Dell all-in-one.

  19. posted by Dave Gambrill on

    I use a site called Pixily to handle this for me. They charge very reasonable rates to collect, scan, and store my documents for me. I found it especially valuable at tax time since I could search receipts and other tax documents and print copies if needed. Check ’em out at http://www.pixily.com

    And no, I’m not an employee or partner – just a happy customer who thinks more people could benefit from their service.

  20. posted by Luisa on

    You know, I would go paperless with the statements, but the companies don’t make it easy for me. It’s tedious having to remember to go to to each company’s website, login and download the statements, every month and you have to go and click on each file one by one. A lot of them don’t even name each of the statements correctly, most use same generic name for every file, so I have to go rename each file I download, one at a time, some don’t even properly name the file with the right extension! I don’t expect them to email the statement directly to me, because there is security issue.

    Question, anyone can recommend an all-in-one printer scanner, that can do multi page duplex auto load scanning? Big plus if it can do good OCR and save to PDF.

  21. posted by The Plaid Cow on

    @Luisa: Unless space is a horribly tight, finding a good high-end scanner (like the SnapScan, which does everything you want) and a good separate printer would be best. You may even be able to set up the scanner software to have a scan-to-printer function so it works like a copier.

  22. posted by Six โ€œMoreโ€ Tips for Going Paperless | Fujitsu ScanSnap – Welcome to your productive, mobile, paperless, efficient life on

    […] Shead (who also blogs at Productivity501) and Unclutterer, and hope you enjoy Mark’s “Six tips for going paperless” post as much as we […]

  23. posted by Sarah on

    ALSO BUY A GOOD STAPLE REMOVER.

    Speaking from recent experience, there are more staples in your files than you realize. Without a staple remover your fingernails will suffer.

  24. posted by Linda Varone on

    Re: reading on a computer screen. It has been documented that people read 20% slower when reading on a computer screen. I think it is because our brains need to go through an extra step converting pixels into a “solid” image of each letter or word. Having just read a 270 page document I can say it was exhausting and frustrating in a way that reading it on paper would not have been.

  25. posted by Jackie Pettus on

    Most scanning seems like a waste of time to me. You’re not saving paper, either. If you’re scanning something, it’s already on paper. Most of the stuff you’re saving won’t ever be needed….it’s “just in case.” I keep those papers in a good old fashhioned file drawer. Once a year I recycle or shred everything I can.

  26. posted by Karen on

    I know this discussion is a year old now, but I have to answer Luisa above, and ask other readers, if you’re here: Why download the online statements at all? After I have reviewed my AT&T bill and made sure it’s all correct and OK to pay (a job in itself), then I can pay the total online.

    Why download and keep the 30 pages of bill at that point, or even the first page? I have a budget program that keeps track of what I paid for AT&T that month, and I can look up the bill whenever I want, if there is ever any question or problem with it (both on the AT&T site and by looking up that month’s bank statement). So why not have my creditors store all the bills for me?

  27. posted by Vanessa H. on

    I think this gives the illusion of minimalism. I mean, which is more complicated: a piece of paper in a drawer, or a computer + scanner + backup? Some things that seem less complicated are actually more complicated. However, it could also depend on your personal amount of files, as to which is easier for you!

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