How Evernote has helped me go paperless (a status update)

Last fall, I went paperless at work. One of my goals for 2011 was to go paperless at home. As I have discovered, this is not as easy as just dumping all paper. It takes a concerted effort, but one that I think has already started to pay dividends.

Going paperless requires replacing paper with digital versions of documents, notes, etc. And those digital versions need to be stores, organized and easily searchable for it to work. Furthermore, they need to be archived and backed up. I don’t know if my efforts to go paperless would have been possible without Evernote. For those who don’t know, Evernote is an application that allows you to “remember everything.”  In its simplest form, it allows you to capture notes and organize them. The notes are stored in the cloud and are therefore accessible from anywhere you have an Internet connection. Evernote’s basic service is available for free, but I have been using their premium service (which gives you unlimited storage as well as a number of additional features) for quite a while now. Most importantly, perhaps, Evernote has a solid iPad and iPhone app that make capturing information and accessing your data from these devices easy.

What follows is how I have used Evernote and other tools to go paperless this year. I also outline how far I’ve managed to get in the first 8 months of the year, what challenges I’ve had, and the lessons I’ve learned along the way.

The scope of my paperless effort (so far)

I planned to start my new paperless life beginning with any new paper this year. That is, I decided at the outset not to go to my existing files and digitize all of them. I access them infrequently enough to where the labor effort wouldn’t justify the benefit. Instead, I decided that I would try a two-pronged approach:

  1. Eliminate paper, where possible
  2. Where it wasn’t possible, digitize any new documents and then get rid of the paper version.

To eliminate paper, I did things like sign up for electronic statements and billing for all of the services I use, banks, utilities, insurance, mortgage, etc. Doing this means I am never mailed paper in the first place. Instead, I generally get an email telling me that a statement is available. If I need to look at the statement, I can log into the service website. If I want to keep a copy of the statement in my electronic files, I can download it, usually in PDF format and add it to Evernote, but I only do this in cases where I think it handy to have readily available or searchable, since I already have electronic access to them.

For documents that still come to me as paper, my scope of digitizing them includes roughly the follow seven areas:

  1. One-out bills and statements (say, from a one-time service)
  2. Manuals, especially for home electronics
  3. Estate, homeowner and insurance information (wills, mortgage information, insurance policies)
  4. Pay stubs
  5. Any other significant notices (e.g. quotes I might get from service people, home owner association notices, etc)
  6. Important receipts (especially those pertaining to writing)
  7. Stuff I used to jot down on paper (blog ideas, story ideas, shopping lists, etc.)

All of these things ultimately make their way into Evernote through some fairly simple processes I’ve developed.

My paperless process

I have a preferred hierarchy for how things get into Evernote that goes something like this:

  1. Scanning and shredding. As soon as I get a piece of paper, if I am near my scanner, I’ll scan in the document, add it to Evernote and then shred or otherwise discard the paper version.
  2. Snapshots. If I am not near a scanner, I’ll create a note in Evernote and add a snapshot of the document to the note. One very cool feature of Evernote is that even text in photographs of documents in Evernote becomes searchable so that despite the document being a photograph, I can still search it. It’s not as ideal as scanning because if I ever do have to print or email the document, it is not as clear.
  3. Clippings. I’ll use web clippings for things like confirmation pages for things I’ve ordered. I also use them for capturing pages on things that I am researching, say, for a story.

One thing I’ve learned is that the sooner I digitize a piece of paper, the more likely it is to get into my system and not clutter up my desk. When I get my pay stub at work, I walk right to the scanner, scan it in, add it to Evernote and then get rid of the original. I don’t wait or let it accumulate. When I get home from work and check the mail, I take the mail to my desk, toss out the junk, look through what’s left, and immediately scan in anything I want to keep or want a record of. Then I shred or junk the original.

Another example: when I get a new gadget, I’ll pull out the instructions or manual that came with it and check to see if the manual exists in PDF version on the manufacturer’s website. If it does, I’ll grab a PDF copy, add it to Evernote, tag it, and then immediately toss the manual that came with the product. Having all of the my manuals readily accessible from within Evernote is really convenient. I can also add my own comments to the note containing the manual which is also helpful.

Organizing my paperless life

Evernote provides a number of ways to organize the information it contains. At the most basic level, there are notebooks. I think of a notebook as one large filing cabinet that lets you partition a particular set of information. Like filing cabinets, notebooks are completely arbitrary, but I primarily use 3 notebooks to organize my information:

  1. A personal notebook (My Notebook) which acts mostly as an inbox for unprocessed information. (For those familiar with GTD, yes, it is that kind of inbox.)
  2. A writing notebook into which anything writing-related goes.
  3. A paperless “filing cabinet” notebook, which essentially replaces the physical filing cabinet and contains the bulk of my digitized documents.

Within this framework, I use tags for further categorize the notes and documents. For things related to our cars, I might tag the notes “vehicles”. For things related to taxes, “taxes” and so on. The nice thing about tags is that a document or note can have multiple tags. So for instance, vehicle property tax documents can be tagged “vehicles” and “taxes” and I’d find the document in a search for either.

Evernote allows you to mark a notebook as “offline” meaning all of the notes and information is available even if you don’t have a network connection. I make my “filing cabinet” notebook available offline on my home computer as well as on my iPhone and iPad so that I have access to that information even if I don’t have a network connection.

Evernote also allows you to create “saved searches”. You can provide all kinds of criteria for your searches. For instance you can have a saved search that looks for the tag “taxes” or you can further constrain it by searching within a time range as well so that the search will always look for tax documents for the current tax year. I make use of saved searches for my most common searches, for instance “blog topics”, “story ideas” and “medical information.”

Accessing the information anywhere

Evernote has recently made great improvements to its iPhone and iPad apps. Because my information is stored in the cloud, I can access the information anywhere and that has proven very convenient. For example:

  • I was able to pull up a budget for a homeowners association meeting when the treasurer forgot to bring the budget along with her.
  • When we were in the hospital when the Little Miss was born, Kelly was asked if she had an advanced medical directive. We didn’t have a paper copy with us, but I was able to pull up the PDF version from Evernote on my iPad.
  • When I was filling out a form and needed my license plate number (which I don’t have memorized) I was able to pull up the note that contains a photo of my license plate.

As a premium user, I can share a notebooks with others. This is convenient because it allows Kelly to have access to all of this information as well.

Data security

Transferring information to and from Evernote’s servers is done via SSL encryption and the data itself is encrypted on the server. Because the information is stored in the cloud, I don’t have to worry about a fire or flood or other disaster destroying all of my files. But I take additional precautions. Recall that I said that I mark my main notebook, the one with my most important information, for offline use. That means the files and notes are stored locally on my laptop. The folder is which they are stored is backed up to an external disk and the contents of the external disk is part of my IDrive cloud backup, which gets backup nightly to the cloud. That is three levels of redundancy and if the data is lost beyond that, it’s just bad luck.

My progress through August

I think I’ve done a pretty good job at going paperless in the first eight months of the year. You will still find paper on my desk at home, although not a lot of it. And what is there usually doesn’t last too long. Even this should improve beginning in the next day or two. I’ve ordered a portable scanner that Evernote recommends for scanning documents (even duplex) and that integrates seamlessly with Evernote. This should help speed up the process of scanning (which up until now I’ve done mostly at work) and get that remaining paper off my desk.

I honestly cannot remember the last time I hand-wrote a note or list. I jot almost everything down in Evernote. Often times those notes get deleted once action is taken on them, but no paper is used in the process. I expect that by the end of the year, paper will be a fleeting thing for me, something that comes almost exclusively in the mail and lasts as long as it takes me to scan it in.

51 thoughts on “How Evernote has helped me go paperless (a status update)

  1. Well done, Jamie! I’m wondering how ji-normous your filing cabinet is?

    Now if there were a plan to recycle the shreded and un-shredded paper that would be a plus.

  2. Thanks, Bob. the e-filing cabinet is a few hundred MB at this point. But it is growing pretty fast. I need to check and see if our town recycling collects paper as well as stuff like bottles and can.

  3. I’ve just committed to beginning this journey. Your article is very inspiring. I’ve used Evernote in the past, but not to this extent. Hearing how other’s use it, is very helpful to this entire process. Congrats on your success. I hope to be in a similar place by the end of 2012.

  4. Rose, thanks for the comment! I will be doing another post soon on how I use it with the new Canon P-150M scanner, which is pretty awesome and scans directly into Evernote. I’m going to try to include a video in the post so that folks can see how easy and fast it is. Good luck going paperless!

  5. Jamie

    Very interesting, I use a very similar scheme myself. One thing you did not mention, though, is that there are some documents you have to keep as originals for future use (e.g. birth certificates). I put these into a single folder but use Evernote to record what is in the folder, and where it is located (as my memory gets worse!). You can always encrypt some of this info if you are super-sensitive about security. Will be interested to see how you get on with the new scanner.

  6. Nick, yes, you are absolutely right that you need to hang onto some originals. I keep that kind of stuff in a folder in a fireproof box. But I like your idea of creating a note in Evernote to record the location of those documents. The new scanner has been awesome. Will be posting about it (possibly with a video to go along with it) in the near future.

  7. How do you mark a folder on the desktop (Win PC) as offline? All I know of is an unsynced “local” notebook. Thanks.

  8. K, I use the Mac version. I’m not sure there is a way on the thick clients to mark a folder as Offline, but I know that there is a way to do it on the iPad client. This is convenient if you want to access notes when you are not connected to a network.

  9. Great article. I just started getting into Evernote. I’m curious how you are doing this. Are you filling bank statements, and utilities bills in Evernote? To the Evernote servers or do you keep an offline notebook? I still haven’t decided on how to deal with these. Curious on what your opinion is?

  10. Juan, anything I put into Evernote is stored in the cloud, on their servers. I believe on my Mac there is a folder that contains local copies of the attachments. I’m not sure there is an “offline mode” on Windows/Mac clients, but there is an offline mode on my iPad. I set the one notebook in which I file most of this stuff to sync offline so that when my iPad is not connected to the Internet, I can still access all the notes and files. For me, this is a large notebook, several hundred megabytes, so the initial syncing on the iPad can take a little while. All subsequent synching has been very fast.

  11. I am curious to learn more about scanning, which I mainly think of as suited for archival purposes. This is a stumbling block for me in going paperless. Can I easily get my scanned docs into a useful format? For example, does the Canon Scantini format business cards to input into Gmail contacts and receipts to input into Quickbooks? If scans need to be manually entered into another program or format, paper is more appealing. I´ve read about Neatdesk which claims to have the software to do this, but their machines don´t do grayscale and are apparently slow. Glad for input and advice.

  12. How do you deal with receipts and docs for purchases and whatnot that may be required for warranty purchases etc? Seems like manufacturers of products always want the ‘original reciept’ not a photocopy, scanned copy, or otherwise.

  13. Caleb, I haven’t had to use receipts for warranties and returns often since going paperless. But in the one instance that I have, they had no problem with me emailing a scanned copy of the receipt. It actually made things faster. I roll the dice with this, I’ll admit. There may be some places that won’t take something without the original receipt. I could keep it, but I don’t. I just trust that (a) they’ll take a scanned copy; or (b) I’ll never need it in the first place.

  14. Anders, my scanner scans to PDF format directly into Evernote. I use Evernote’s premium service so my scanned PDF becomes searchable–a very valuable feature for find things in the documents later. But keep in mind that I went into this with the goal of being paperless going forward. I didn’t–and still haven’t–gone back through my filing cabinet and scanned in all the old paper there. I see no point in doing that. I wanted the habit of scanning daily as the mail came in and that’s what I’ve done. (If there’s non mail-related scans, they go into the mail pile for that day.)

  15. Interesting ideas. I am a terrible hoarder and I have already started in my own half hearted version of what you have commenced, Jamie.

    For Anders, and others, I have found that using a scanning app on smartphone, eg Genius Scan, uses the phone camera and turns your phone into a scanner which will upload to Evernote or other places. It works, and file sizes are small.

    Just an additional thought.

    Tony

  16. I want to use my iPhone as scanner. What is the best app to do that with? And how do I get the result into evernote?

  17. Jamie,
    I was fascinated by your article. I am an avid Evernote user (it’s the “killer” app for me), but having said that I am not so sure that the time taken to scan documents and then transfer them to Evernote is worthwhile (as opposed to dropping the document in a filing cabinet). Sure you take the documents with you but you have to be careful – sometimes an ORIGINAL is required. Evernote copies of your Passport, Spanish residency papers, etc are not accepted as I know to my cost. Try getting a Spanish policeman to accept your driving license in Evernote. Common sense really – just makinv a point that the world won’t let you go 100% digital.

  18. Jamie
    Thanks for the insights and tips shared. I have been using EN for a few months now and am looking for ways to improve my knowledge and use of it.

    I have been donating my shredded paper to our local pet shop – they are always in need of shredded paper for the animals in the windows – a great way to recycle/reuse. Am also considering planting a tree every few months by way of replacing the far too many trees I have used in the past….

  19. Randall, I do pick and choose and prioritize what I scan. And I agree that you absolutely need the originals for somethings. Part of what I am trying to find out is how often you need the originals. If a document is requested, I’ll send a scanned copy and then if they ask for the original, I can present that, too. So far, it hasn’t happened. But to be honest, the situations where this has proven most useful to me have been ones in which originals were not needed, for instance (1) at a homeowner association meeting when the treasurer forgot a copy of last year’s budget. I had it scanned in and was able to call it up on my iPhone in seconds. (2) when we were in the hospital when my little girl was born and the nurse asked if we had an Advanced Medical Directive. I was able to pull an electronic version of that up as well, and that satisfied the hospital people. Baby steps here. The biggest win for me is that there is a lot less clutter in my office and I handle far less paper than I used to.

  20. I have been going through the same process. It’s really liberating to know that you’ve got everything and you can get at it. Thanks for the tip on offline on IOS devices – really helpful.

  21. Bravo.
    That is fantastic info. Wow! I am totally impressed. Not only is the writing excellent but your formula is spot on. I am a organizational fanatic and you gave very specific application of your technics. I have read and followed:”Take Back Your LIfe” written by Sally McGhee, as well as GTD written by David Allen. This system fits perfect into either of those systems.
    Great article!! Truly worthy of being an ambassador.

  22. Thanks -finally some useful information on EN!
    I will give it a try as I’ve had the app awhile and not used it. I especially like the Genius Scan suggestion from Tony Jacobs.
    I travel a great deal and am always trying to pare down the physical gear I have to lug around.

  23. @Anneke
    I use TurboScan at the moment (among some others that I have tried) to get a quick scan of a document. If you want a detailed version, the app scan’s 3 times for a better result. Scanning is best done with daylight and in a clear room.
    You just email the document to evernote. With the # sign you can add tags (if i’m correct) in the subject of the email. Your evernote account has a specific email adress that’s unique.

  24. One of my concerns re “Paperless” is OCR accuracy.

    The highest accuracies I have seen claimed for OCR processes suggest multiple errors on every page.

    I personally performed a test by examining a few lines of “OCRed” text and found two errors. One was a missing colon (:). The other was a forward slash (/) that had been converted to an “n”.

    The missing colon was not a substantive problem, however the forward slash was part of an URL. The latter could be a major problem in some circumstances.

    The bottom line on my concern is that when I have a large collection of OCRed documents, OCR errors could modify important search terms such that I might not be able to retrieve some of the documents.

    I have not been able to find supporting the ability to compare OCR results with the actual scanned material as well as the ability to correct OCR errors and save the results with the original scanned material.

    Are you aware of material analyzing this situation and making recommendations on how to ensure satisfactory results?

  25. Montie: I use Evernote’s Premium service and as part of that service, they make any picture or PDF searchable–even handwriting. I’m not sure what their technology is but every time I’ve tried searching a document that I’ve scanned to a PDF, for some term in the document, it has successfully found the document, and highlighted the search term in the document. This has worked to my satisfaction so far. Of course, your mileage may vary.

  26. @Anneke,
    I use camscanner+ from the German app store. Provides fantastic results with iphone 4, even when light’s not bright and original is of poor quality. OCR can make the text searchable. Just mail the result to your specific evernote mailaddress.

    Cheers, Sven 🙂

  27. Jamie,
    Are you completely convinced of Evernote’s security. Would you scan your credit card bills Bank Statements, and copies of you Income Tax returns into Evernote without encription?

  28. Fred,
    I share your standpoint and wouldn’t store critical documents in Evernote without having them encrypted before, e.g. with Truecrypt. But unfortunately there isn’t any version of Truecrypt for iOS or Android, as far as I know.
    Do you, or does anyone here, know about an alternative?

  29. Fred, I think everyone has to do their own risk/reward assessment for this. I don’t store things in Evernote that I have electronic access to through other means. So for instance, there’s no need for me to store credit card bank statements because I can get these electronically through my bank. I do store my tax returns which my accountant provides to me in electronic form and it is very convenient to access them there. I know people who cross the spectrum when it comes to information security. Completely convinced? How can someone ever be completely convinced? I suspect the risk is small but in the event the data is compromised, I have a rider to my homeowners insurance that fully covers any expenses and losses due to identity theft. That doesn’t give you back the time you might lose getting things cleaned up, but like I say, it is a risk/reward assessment that each person has to make for themselves.

  30. I’m right behind you, Jamie.

    This is the last challenge in my goal to be a radical minimalist. It works for me.

    Great post. Thanks so you.

    Keeping it easy and Breezy.
    Vita Reid
    The One Minute Minimalist

  31. Nothing says you have to shred or trash the original document. In most cases, I’ll put a sequential number on the document, scan it into EN, add the number to the title of the doc. This provides me instant access through EN, and if by chance I need the original I know by the title of the electronic EN version exactly where to find it without a complex fling system. I also add a mont/year for document expiration so I can search for all of those and delete/shred expired documents. A perfect blend of easy access, originals if needed, and thinning of old docs.

  32. Hi,
    I enjoy following your paperless office discussions regarding evernote. Fyi my McAffe software warns me against clicking on your website:
    Whoa!
    Are you sure you want to go there?

    http://www.jamierubin.net/2011/08/31/how-evernote-… may be risky to visit.

    Why were you redirected to this page?

    When we visited this site, we found it exhibited one or more risky behaviors.

    I don’t understand why, but I know many who wouldn’t take the risk and you can lose readers in the process. Best regards, anders

  33. Thanks for the kind words, Anders. I am aware of that little problem with McAffe. I wrote about the reason a while back in this post. Since I’ve written the post, I have contacted the site, and the ratings have slowly improved, but for the most part, it is beyond my control. Thanks for calling it to my attention.

  34. I have always had fear to trust with my personal data to an online document repository. If I put all of my bank statements, mortgage info or work related stuff — it goes out of my control, stored somewhere where some malicious person can get to it and use it. I know it might be a bit paranoid at these times, none the less the thought is a bit disturbing.

  35. You’re my hero Jamie. I’ve been looking for a way to get started on paperless document redundancy in my home for a long time. Thanks for this great article to get me started.

  36. One other thing you might want to consider adding is an expiration date.

    I put mine in the title of the document in the format of year,month so it looks like EXP1207 to expire in 2012 during the month of July.

    If I don’t know when it will expire i change the EXP to REV for a review date. That way, i KNOW I can get rid of documents stored in Evernote which I no longer need so I don’t clutter the files so badly.

  37. Woops – I should have added that I just do a search for the year/month expiration and all the documents come up for me to trash.

  38. Evernote files are encrypted on their servers, so your username ando password are needed to read your notes. But if you are still scared you can encrypt a single note with a 2nd password for that specific note.
    It’s really easy, select the text you want to encrypt (could also be only a part of the note, as I do for security code and pin in credit cards) –> right click –> “Encrypt Selected Text…”
    You will have to choose a password and a hint (write it! It turns out useful since you’ll soon have tons of passwords to remember) and voilat! You are secured 😉

  39. Great stuff! I’m a hyper-organizer myself. It’s because of this post that I’m going to take a second look at Evernote. One question: doesn’t my tax accountant (for corp and personal) need original receipts for everything? I have thick paper-fill folders jammed with original receipts for tax filing purposes only. How do you get around that?

  40. Hi,
    I am in the process on doing this myself and your article came up on the search. However, I do have one question for you, especially since it’s been a while since you’ve done this. How are you coming on the amount of space that Evernote allows you to use? I know the free accounts offer you only 60Mb, and the premium account gives you up to 1Gb, which is really not that much (Dropbox gives you 2gb for free), are you running out of space on Evernote?

    Thanks!

  41. Gustavo, yeah, that article is a little old now. I am an Evernote Premium user and have been since December 2010. Let me clarify the numbers for you. There is not total limit to how much you can store in Evernote. There are, however, monthly caps.

    As a premium user, my monthly cap is 1 GB per month. Each note can be up to 100 MB. In other words, I could upload my maximum every month, 1 GB and at the end of the year have 12 GB in Evernote. The total amount that is stored there is unlimited. If 1 GB isn’t enough for you, Evernote offers the option to increase your monthly upload capacity, for an extra fee.

    That said, in the 2+ years I’ve been a premium user, I only came close to my monthly cap once, and that was an unusual month. I typically add about 1/10th of my quota because many of my notes are small, and over the years I get less and less paper to scan in. I’ve probably got about 6,000 notes total at this point, and the total size of my Evernote data store (based on when I archive my data) is close to 2 GB.

    Bottom line, you cannot run out of space on Evernote. You can only run out of monthly quota–and even then, you can pay to increase that.

  42. Jamie, I’m a pack-rat. I get so much paper, I’m drowning in it. The magazines alone become hopeless. (Slowly canceling those of lesser interest).

    In addition to the normal mail is the amount of “bulk junk” mail such as request for donation or contributions. Once captured/hooked you will die under the paper that follows. In unsubscribing even if not originally subscribed, it takes time to stop their endless solicitations.

    Your model becomes an ambition and challenge which I hope to emmulate in the months to come. I recognize as long as you have access to your acocunt the statements are available. I suggest you down-load them to your PC/desktop. My experience with the paperless focus which is great was the inability to access these records unless you downloaded them to your home system because if you close your account the informaiton becomes unaccessable. I’ve changed my bank twice in 5 years. Those statements I thought were safe and secure online are NOT to be found or available. FYI.

    Thank you for your process, it looks doable and I WILL SUCCEED – in time!

  43. this read has been very informative…the older I get the more challenged the learning curves become…I am very interested in the scanner that goes directly to EN as I have lots of genealogy “stuff” that I would love to lose the paper copies of!! Paperless is sooooo appealing!!!

  44. Hi Jamie, It’s been a few years since the original article came out. Are you having any issues running out of local storage? It seems there isn’t a good solution using Evernote to off-load part or all of the database from your local drive to an eternal one, or to the cloud (unless you are just using the web version of Evernote.) I have so many documents to scan and archive, I’m afraid I’ll run out of room! Let me know if you have suggestions. Thanks, great article!

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