Going Paperless: The Going Paperless FAQ

I have been writing these Going Paperless posts for nearly a year now, and as you might imagine, I get asked the same questions over and over again. This was brought home to me last week, when I appeared on Lifehacker’s “Ask an Expert” feature as the “expert” for paperless living. It was brought up again later in the week when I did a Google Hangout with some folks from Evernote on going paperless. I got to thinking: while there are probably a fair number of people who return to this column week after week, there are also probably a fair number of new people who arrive here each week. And for newcomers and regulars alike, it might just be useful to have an FAQ available. Newcomers can use it as a kind of guide for getting started. Regulars can use it to answer questions they might get asked by others. In any case, I thought I’d present a list of some of the more frequently asked questions I get on going paperless.


1. What do I need to get started?

I think there are four basic tools for getting started with a paperless lifestyle:

1. An Evernote account. Evernote is like a second brain for me. It is where I store my paperless life. There are different types of accounts available, depending on your needs. Evernote provides a basic, free account, which allows you limited monthly uploads. You can get a premium account for $45/year, which increases that monthly upload to 1GB of data, and allows for larger note sizes. (I’ve had a premium account for more than 2 years.) Evernote also has a business account that may make sense if you plan on sharing notes across a business environment.

2. A good, reliable scanner (see the next question below).

3. A staple remover.

4. (Optional) A paper shredder.

2. What scanner do you recommend?

I currently use 2 different scanners. On my desk in my home office I have a Fujitsu Scansnap s1300i. This scanner is small, but does what I need it to do. It’s got a sheet feeder so I can scan multiple pages. It scan’s duplex in a single pass. And most importantly, for me, it scans directly into Evernote with the single press of a button.

In my messenger bag, I carry around an even smaller, Doxie One scanner. This scanner allows me to scan documents I might receive when I am away from my office. It’s small, lightweight, and easy-to-use.

There are lots of scanners out there, so look around for what works best for you. I’ve been very happy with the scanners I listed above.

3. What other tools do you use to go paperless?

For me, going paperless is a life style and so there are all kinds of tools that help in the effort. Here are some additional tools and software that I use that keep me paperless and make my paperless life a little easier. Note, I am primarily a Mac/iOS/Google Chrome person so that’s what I list below:

4. This seems daunting! Where do I begin?

I tried to keep a few things in mind when I started going paperless:

  1. Even if I stopped using paper, paper would still come into my life because other people still use it.
  2. I had a filing cabinet full of paper, but I wasn’t going to touch it until I had a system in place for dealing with new paper

So I decided that the most important thing was to scan and get rid of any new paper coming into my life and worry about the old stuff later. I put together a process that worked well for me. I’d spend 10 minutes each evening dealing with any paper–and I’d do it right after I picked up the day’s mail. Here is what my process looked like:

Paperless Workflow

Over time, this has gone from about 10 minutes each day to about 5 minutes each day. And guess what? I still haven’t gone back and scanned the paper in my filing cabinet. Why? Because in 2 years, I have never–not once–needed to go into that filing cabinet for anything. And if I don’t need it, why take the time to scan it. So if the thought of going paperless seems daunting and you are not sure where to start, I’d suggest the following:

  1. Start with new paper only (your daily mail, for instance).
  2. Do this each night, for a month and see how often you have to access old paper.
  3. If you do need old paper, scan only those papers you actually use during the month.

At the end of the month, you will have a nice collection of useful scanned documents, as well as a better sense of what you’ll need going forward.

5. How should I organize my notes?

Organizing notes various by your requirements. So my first suggestion is to consider why you are going paperless. What is it you are trying to achieve? Once you have a better idea of your requirements, you’ll have a better idea of how to organize your notes. Here are some general suggestions I’d make regarding organization:

  1. Some information, like created date and modified date are captured automatically. The create date in particular is useful because it allows you to build a natural timeline of all of your notes.
  2. When I scan a document, I will change the create date to match the date on the document. This prevents me from having to come up with a title that embeds the date and makes it more difficult to search. If I have a bank statement dated 1/31/13, and I change the create date to match the statement date, it is much easier to find.
  3. Give the simplest possible title to the note. I’m not big on complex titles. I just try to be consistent. So, for instance, my bank statement note titles might read something like “[Bank Name] Monthly Statement.” Yes, I’ll have 20 notes with that same name, but they are distinguished by the create date.
  4. Use tags only when you have to and have specific purposes in mind. For instance, I generally use tags to help produce lists (like novels I’ve read, or story submissions I’ve made). I also use tags to identify to whom the note pertains (i.e., this note is tagged with my daughter’s name; that note is tagged with my wife’s name, etc.)
  5. Use notebooks to partition vastly different sets of notes. I organize my notebook stacks into the areas of my life: Work, Writing, Home Life, and then have a couple of additional stacks, like Diary and Reference for things that cut across all areas.
  6. I recommend keeping once piece of information per note. Discrete notes allow you much more functionality down the road. What I mean here is: don’t cram all of your bank statement PDFs into a single note; have one note for each statement. That way you can take advantage of the meta data for each note. Unlike limited space in a filing cabinet, you are not under the same constraints with notes.

I’ve written in more detail about how I organize my notes:

6. Are you concerned about security? What precautions should I take?

Like note organization, security is a personal decision and based entirely on your comfort level. Evernote goes to great lengths to protect your data. If you haven’t read Evernote’s Three Laws of Data Protection, you should check out that post.

One of the big advantages of Evernote is that it makes your notes available to you from virtually anywhere. This is because the notes are stored in the cloud. Some people are not comfortable with this, and that is, of course, understandable. Evernote does provide the ability for you to create “local” notebooks, which are not stored in the cloud, but are stored locally on your computer. The downside to these local notes is that they are only available on the machine on which they are stored.

A subset of the “are you concerned about security” question is often this: What if Evernote goes away? What happens to all of your notes?

I don’t anticipate this, but as part of good personal data protection practices, I do backup my entire library of Evernote notes monthly, by exporting them to an EXEN file. This file is essentially an XML file that contains all of my notes and attachments. It can be easily imported back into the Evernote application, and even into a local notebook. In the very unlikely event that Evernote went away or became unavailable, all of my data is still accessible.

The truth is that having my data in Evernote has saved my bacon on more than one occasion. I’ve been able to pull up data that I would otherwise not have been able to access, and I’ve been very glad that I’ve had it available to me.

Again, each person has to judge for themselves what they are willing to store in Evernote. Find what you are comfortable with and go from there.

7. What are some of the benefits of going paperless?

For me, there have been three big benefits to going paperless:

  1. I can find just about anything I need no matter where I am, within just a few seconds.
  2. I save a fair amount of time each day because I don’t have to go hunting for a document.
  3. I can automate a lot of processes thanks to Evernote’s integration capabilities with other products and systems.

There are probably lots more. You can feel better organized. You can reduce clutter and waste.

If you have a suggestion for a future Going Paperless post, I’d love to hear it. Drop me a line at feedback [at] jamietoddrubin.com. As always, this post and all of my Going Paperless posts are also available on Pinterest.

27 thoughts on “Going Paperless: The Going Paperless FAQ

  1. Good information here. The only thing I do differently (other than only having a rubbishy scanner) is I use Noteshelf rather than Penultimate. It doesn’t have the same automatic sync with Evernote, but it writes a lot better, and I can still send stuff to EN.

  2. Hi Jamie.
    Thanks for the inspiration on getting rid of the paper.

    What resolution are you scanning your documents at?

    The ScanSnap software lets you adjust the res and compression.
    I noticed in a previous post you said “standard resolutions”.

  3. Woostenhoffer, yes, I don’t need super-high res scans. It speeds up the scanning, but to my eye, the quality is the same. I’m away from my home office at the moment, so I’ll have to get back to you on what that “standard” setting actually is. (I can’t recall offhand.)

  4. Hi Jamie,
    Why not combine your posts into a pdf with the name:
    “Paperless for dummies” (or some other name without copyright)?
    You could even ask a fee!
    Thanks anyway for your interesting posts.

  5. Instead of a scanner – just use your SmartPhone or Tablet equipped with the right app to ‘scan’. I use JotNot Pro but there are at least a dozen apps that do the same thing. A little slower, but one less piece of gear to deal with, and many of these apps now scan directly to Evernote (and other cloud services)

  6. Evernote for ipad can photograph straight into a note. It’s recently been made even easier with a button on the home page (well, two buttons for different kinds of scan), which is much easier than using a scanner, or a third party app.

    The PDF clipper just released also makes capturing those online non paper bills easier – all my banking, utilities except electricity (they’ve not got there yet) are online. Many now only work online or charge extra for paper, in the UK at least.

  7. Great post – again! Could I suggest that you substitute the word ‘review’ for the word ‘scan’ in the fourth box top row in your flow chart. I think that is what you actually meant and using the term ‘scan’ could confuse paperless newbies.


  8. I’ve been getting a lot of use out of CamScanner for ipad and iPhone for a mobile scanner alternative to a scanner. It publishes direct to Evernote and has some great tools for cropping and keystoning. I use it all the time to scan whiteboards of team brainstorming discussions and saving them to shared notes.

  9. Great article! How do you handle receipts from things you purchase? How do you organize and store them? If I scan a receipt, I don’t think I could shred it since the store might only accept the original receipt if I needed to return the purchased item.

  10. Andy, the only receipts that I scan in are those related to my freelancing work, or for big-ticket items. I just scan them in via my scanner directly to Evernote, and file them in my Filing Cabinet notebook. In the 2 years I’ve been doing this, I’ve never needed the original receipt, but your mileage may vary.

  11. Jamie – Great stuff, thanks. I get a lot of pdf documents that i need to comment on or annotate. I use GoodReader on my iPad which is ok for nothing too extensive. You can type text on a pdf but I haven’t found anything that would let me write on a pdf and then save it as a pdf with the annotations. It would be wonderful to be able to pull it into something like Noteshelf. Have you come across anything?

  12. How did you decide on your scan format? Do you use PDF or PNG primarily from your desk or portable scanner? I have a premium account so I’m not in a pinch for not having PDF OCR within Evernote. Have you noticed Evernote is better at PNGs versus PDFs, or vis versa?

    Thanks! I have enjoyed finding this and reading all the posts.


  13. Hello Jamie,
    great post! I have been following your blog since a couple of month now and I am very excited about your ideas.

    In the following I would like to share a few other products which can also contribute to the idea of a paperless office and that might be of interest:

    1. Powerbotapps for sending notes from Gmail to Evernote. The advantage of this app is that formats are kept. (powerbotapps.com)
    2. Scanner – turn your mobile phone into a portable scanner (www.thescanbox.com)
    3. Signatures – sign documents in Gmail without leaving GMAIL or printing it(www.hellosign.com/gmail)

    Looking forward to more posts..

  14. Maureen, thanks for the kind words! I use IDrive for cloud backups for all of my computers, as well as this WordPress website. I configured it once and have never had to think about it. It’s come in handy on a few occasions, and saved my bacon at least once.

    I have an AppleScript that runs on the first day of each month that exports all of my notes in Evernote to an ENEX file, which is then compressed and moved to a place where my cloud backups will grab it.

  15. Jamie — Great post. I’m in the VERY early stages of creating a paperless authority site, http://www.paperless2013.org/. In my day job I work for an enterprise content management software company, so I’ve gained a lot of knowledge about how to help organizations become paperless. Great to see your chronicle of your efforts to going paperless. I think there is a lot of energy being creating around going paperless specifically in 2013, e.g. http://www.paperless2013.org/. The concept has been around forever, it’s almost like we need a new term, but the tools available now are truly transformational.

    Thanks again!

  16. Jamie, thanks for all of the tips. Does your Fujitsu scanner work well on photos? I have albums full of pictures that I want to scan.

  17. Jayne, I’m not a big photo scanner since most of my photos start as digital in the first place. That said, the handful of photos I’ve scanned in with my Fujitsu looked perfectly fine to my eyes.

  18. Do you allow the scanner to do OCR before sending it to Evernote or strictly relying on Evernote’s OCR of PDFs?

  19. Love your insights on this process of going paperless . . . which is my goal for 2013. Do you have anything you recommend to augment Evernote that acts as a reminder feature? That is my ONLY issue with this great system. It’s too passive to satisfy my busy life. I use Chrome, PC and Outlook.

Comments are closed.