So you want to go paperless but you’re not sure how to get started? I’ve been paperless for more than a year now and here’s how I did it. Maybe some of these tips will work for you as well.
First: make sure you have the tools of the trade.
Second: recognize that while you might go paperless, most everyone else still uses paper. This means you will still receive paper from time-to-time. You need to figure out what to do with this paper.
Third: understand that going paperless is supposed to make your life easier, not more complicated.
It was with these things in mind that I developed a daily process for going paperless that has worked very well for me. If you are looking for an example of how to get started, this is how I did it:
My process1 works as follows:
- When I arrive home from work, I pick up the mail and toss it into an inbox on my desk, along with any other paper that I’ve accumulated during the course of the day.
- I sit down at my desk and go through the inbox, item-by-item, and decide: do I need to scan this? If I decide it’s worth keeping, I scan it into Evernote.
- Next, I decide: do I need to keep the original piece of paper? I make this decision for every paper, regardless of whether or not it was scanned. If I think I need the original, I’ll file it away. If not, I shred it immediately and move on to the next piece of paper.
- I repeat steps 2-3 until all of the paper in my inbox is either scanned, filed or shredded.
Let me elaborate on a few points:
How do I decide what needs to be scanned and what doesn’t? This is a decision that each person needs to make for themself. For me, I’ll generally ask myself 2 questions
- Have I ever needed to access this piece of paper (or something similar) before?
- Is the paper part of some complete set of documentation I am trying to maintain electronically?
The first question is the most significant to me. If I am not likely to have looked for it before, it is my experience that I am generally not likely to look for it in the future and I probably won’t scan it in. Remember: I’m all about keeping things simple. The main except is the second point: am I trying to maintain a complete set of some kind of documentation electronically? Even if I haven’t accessed the document before, if I am trying to maintain the set electronically I will scan it in that case.
How do I decide whether to keep the original? Again, this is up to you. I am making an honest go at being as paperless as I can possibly be so I will occasionally push the boundaries. Some documents are obvious. Certain legal documents like birth certificates are important to keep. I never keep receipts, however. I have found that in those rare instances where I’ve needed to return something expensive, having an electronic copy of the receipt has been perfectly acceptable. I’ve never been turned away because I didn’t have the original receipt. Sure, it could happen in the future, but it’s a chance I’m willing to take.
What about tagging the documents that I scan? That is part of my process, but takes almost no time. The truth is, Evernote’s search capabilities are very powerful and I only use tags in special cases. I will discuss my notebook and tagging taxonomy in a future Going Paperless post.
When I’ve written about this process before, one question I got was whether I really stuck to this process every day. The answer is: at first, yes. After a while, you get used to it. And of course, once the habit is established, it’s okay if you miss a day. That happens to me now. The important part is that I try my best to dump all the paper I receive in a day, mail included, in my inbox on my desk. That way the next time I get to it, I’ll empty it out, even if I’ve skipped a few days. Of course, paper can accumulate fast so I try not to miss too many days in a row. I’d say that on average, I probably spent not more than 10 minutes each afternoon clearing out my inbox and getting the important paper scanned into Evernote.
One thing I specifically avoided when I started out was to scan in everything in my filing cabinets. I was not interested in starting with piles of paper that I almost never looked at. I wanted to get started with new, live material. If I developed a good process, then I could always go back and scan in older material. So far, more than a year later, I’ve found no need to.
Has it worked? I think so. I have an impressive collection of digital documents, all of which are easily searchable in Evernote. On average, I’d guess that I save one minute of time for every document search I do with digital documents over paper documents. All of my tax “papers” were digital this year. It took me 10 minutes to prepare the papers for my accountant as opposed to the hours it took in previous years. Furthermore, she accepted the documents in digital form2 and got working on them right away, while the originals she needed crept to her through the snail mail. Then, too, there is the ability to immediately answer questions without having to take extra time to do it. For instance: yesterday, when I picked up my daughter from her daycare, I was asked for a copy of her birth certificate; they needed the number to complete their files for license renewal purposes. Rather than have to go home, search for the birth certificate, set it aside and remember to bring it in the next day, I pulled up the document in 10 seconds on my iPhone, gave them the number they were looking for, and was done with it.
Not only were the daycare people impressed, so was my wife.
- This is my basic process. It varies slightly when I am scanning in documents that are sensitive or that require more security. I’ll discuss that part of the process in a future post. ↩
- My accountant has her own firm, but Evernote recently announced that H&R Block is giving a discount to Evernote users. ↩