Going paperless: To scan or not to scan, that is the question…

Starting on the road to a paperless lifestyle can be a little overwhelming. Of course, there are some tools that can help to make it easier. There are things you can do to better organize your digital documents. Once your documents are been scanned in, there are ways of securing and protecting your documents. And having a simple process for going paperless can be a big help. But suppose you have all of these things. You’ve got your scanner and your software; you have a taxonomy for organizing your documents; you have a process that you follow each day. You are now faced with a stack of paper that you need to run through your process, and the question that arises most often at this point (at least for me) is:

Do I scan this or not?

I tend to think in frameworks (an occupational hazard, I’m afraid) and when I got started going paperless and knew I was going to have to pick and choose the documents to be scanned, I tried to think about what documents were worth scanning and what documents were not. Remember, my goal, in going paperless, was to make my life easier, not add complications to it. So I considered the value of having any arbitrary document in digital form and I came up with two main questions.

1. How often will you use the document in question?

Imagine a spectrum that runs the gamut of frequency of use for any given document. It might look something like this:

Paperless- Frequency spectrum.png

When you are considering scanning a document, consider how frequently you’ll actually use it in electronic format. Will it need to show up regularly in searches? Will you access it daily? Monthly? Only once a year? Somewhere on that spectrum is a line that varies for each person. To the left of that line, a document is not worth scanning in. To the right of that line, it is worth scanning in. Figure out where that line is for you and use that as a rough guide for whether or not you should scan the document in question.

I say rough guide because there are always exceptions. You may have a homeowner insurance policy that you’ll never look at again, but which may be convenient to have in electronic format in case of a dire emergency. In that case, it makes sense to scan in such a document. But these rough determinations tend to be based on another factor, which leads to the second question I came up with:

2. Are you a minimalist or a completist?

Again, there is a spectrum you might imagine that looks something like this:

Paperless- Personality spectrum.png

Figure out where you are on the spectrum and that will also help guide you in deciding what to scan. As a minimalist, you’ll probably scan a lot less. As a completist, you’ll scan a lot more. Knowing this will help push you over the edge one way or another when you are undecided. I marked the spot that roughly captures my position on this spectrum.

Deciding what to scan

You can take these two spectrums and put them together to get a rough idea of what you should scan and what you can leave behind. I’ve done this for myself in the example below:

Paperless- Personality vs. Frequency.png
Click to enlarge

The blue shaded area provides a rough guide for the kind of documents I regularly scan.  You can see that documents I’ll use more frequently are included, like writing-related receipts or contracts. So are my school receipts for my kid’s school and daycare, since I use those monthly for dependent care reimbursements. I’ll scan some insurance statements, even though I don’t use them frequently. But I don’t scan miscellaneous receipts, or things like utility bills. And, despite having gone paperless more than 18 months ago, I still have not gone back and scanned in old files sitting in my file cabinet. (In part, because when I consider them on the “frequency” spectrum, I find that I virtually never need them. Indeed, I don’t think I’ve opened my filing cabinet in more than a year.)

You can do this exercise yourself.

  1. Start with a blank diagram.
  2. Fill in the types of paper documents you have, placing them where they belong on each spectrum.
  3. Based on your threshold for frequency and your personality type, draw a shape around those documents you want to scan in.
  4. Use the result as a guideline for future scanning.

I’ve made a blank version of the above diagram available for download in PDF format:

[download id=”2″]


But if you wanted to sketch it out roughly yourself, it would look something like this:

Paperless- Personality vs. Frequency (Blank).png

Using this as a guide to deciding what to add to Evernote

Scanning documents is just one part of going paperless. There are other many documents that I add to Evernote that are already in electronic format. There is no need to scan them, but the question still remains: is this worth putting into Evernote. Once again, you can use the same criteria as before, evaluating an electronic document on the frequency you think you’ll use it, as well as against your personality type. I’ve put together a mapping of this for me, when considering putting any kind of document, paper or electronic into Evernote:

Paperless- Format vs. Frequency.png

In this example, you’ll note that I’ve replaced the “personality” spectrum with a “format” spectrum, paper or electronic. The stuff in purple is the stuff that I tend to scan into Evernote. You’ll note that things like utility bills and bank statements are outside the box. That is because these are already in electronic format (so no need for scanning) and they are on the “rare” side of my spectrum so I don’t feel like I need to keep them in Evernote. (I can access them online on those rare occasions when I do need them.) Tax statements fall on the more frequent side of the spectrum and those I will pull into Evernote (although they fall outside the scanning area because they are already in electronic format).

Tips for people just getting started on a paperless lifestyle

  1. Start with the paper that you’ll need most frequently and work your way backwards.
  2. If you are a completist, avoid going back and scanning in your entire filing cabinet, until you’ve done step 1.
  3. Consider documents that are already paperless (like electronic statements) and decide whether you need them in Evernote
  4. Constantly ask yourself, “how often will I use this?”
  5. Remember that this is a rough framework and it is okay to break the rules or make exceptions if it makes you feel better.

And good luck! Once you’ve gotten into the swing of things, you’ll probably find, as I have, how convenient being paperless can really be.

(Follow this and all of my Going Paperless posts on Pinterest.)

Published by Jamie Todd Rubin

Jamie Todd Rubin writes fiction and nonfiction for a variety of publications including Analog, Clarkesworld, The Daily Beast, 99U, Daily Science Fiction, Lightspeed, InterGalactic Medicine Show, and several anthologies. He was featured in Lifehacker’s How I Work series. He has been blogging since 2005. By day, he manages software projects and occasionally writes code. He lives in Falls Church, Virginia with his wife and three children. Find him on Twitter at @jamietr.

11 replies on “Going paperless: To scan or not to scan, that is the question…”

  1. One aspect that you did not discuss is the yearly cleanup.

    We all know that tax returns, as example, must be kept for a determined length of time. But keeping them forever is bloating any system. At the beginning of the year, I take a cursory look at the database and delete irrelevant items. This keeps the system lean and current. This aspect should be the subject of another great post.

  2. To add to Claude’s comment…I use a tag (named ‘Temporary’) for any notes that could or will have a finite useful life, but are high on the potential frequency or urgency scale.

    A review of notes with that tag makes the process of removing irrelevant clutter quick and easy.

  3. @Pete

    A workaround, if you have Dropbox also, is to use http://wappwolf.com/ to make an automated action that takes files in a dropbox folder and uploads them to Evernote. You can then just set that folder as the save-location for your epson scanner.

  4. What about security? Are there some documents you would not consider putting into Evernote, for security reasons?

  5. What I did on a scanner that was not supported directly by Evernote was set a file on your desktop and direct your scans to go into this folder. Then in Evernote goto Tools–>Import Folders and create the folder in Evernote to monitor this folder. Anything you scan will go into this folder and then automatically go into Evernote to the designated default folder. I then have the file delete out of my import folder. Hope this helps.

  6. Jamie,
    Im starting down the paperless road and I have a Very simple question about your system. What is your file naming system for your scanned pdf files? Do you rename files at all?

    I’ve read most of your (incredible!) series, and I’m very grateful for all the time and effort you’ve taken in blazing this trail for so many others.

    Kind regards!


  7. My Epson WF I selected scan to cloud, then it prompts to enter the evernote email address

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