In 2012 I began an experiment to see how much paper I could eliminate from my daily life. I was motivated by the elusive paperless office. Much discussed in the 1990s, I had yet to see an office that was truly paperless. The goal of my experiment was to see how far it was possible to go. It was not my intention to stop using paper entirely.
In April 2012, I wrote the first of what ended up being more than 120 posts on the ways I was using various digital tools—Evernote foremost among them—to go paperless. I called this series of posts “Going Paperless” to reflect my goal: that this was an ongoing process. I wrote these posts across several years, completing the last one in March 2016.
It recently occurred to me that these posts ended without any real conclusion. How did my experiment fair? How paperless was I able to go? What has happened since? This post provides those answers as a kind of epilogue to my going paperless experiment. I’ve drawn four conclusions from my experiment. As with all my going paperless posts, the conclusions are based on how I work. Here is what my experiment taught me:
- Paperless works well for automated storage of infrequently accessed documents.
- Paper works better as a short-term memory substitute.
- Paperless works well for sharing documents with others.
- Paper is more reliable as a long-term storage medium.
1. Paperless works well for automated storage of infrequently accessed documents.
I find Evernote to be extremely useful for automatically storing stuff that I don’t look at very often, things like statements, contracts, bills, correspondence. Either by scanning these documents into Evernote, or better yet through some automated mechanism like FileThis, having these documents in electronic format saves me time, clutter, and physical space. That is a definite plus in the paperless column.
2. Paper works better as a short-term memory substitute.
I have tried countless apps, some of which I have written about over the years, that allow me to quickly capture notes that, for me, act as a substitute for short-term memory. Examples might include shopping lists, what needs to go into my kids’ lunches tomorrow, the office number on the 9th floor that I need to visit, an idea for a story that occurs to me while on a walk, the score of my kid’s soccer game, the RGB color code for a screen background, etc.
None of the apps I have tried for this have proven better than good old-fashioned pen and paper. For several years now, wherever I go, I have a Field Notes notebook and a Pilot G-2 pen in my back pocket. These notebooks serve as my short-term memory repository. When I fill up one, I have another ready to go.
Evernote, and other apps, have tried to make this easy, but the infrastructure surrounding these apps make it harder. It takes just a second to pull out my Field Notes notebook. To do the same in, say, Evernote, I have to pull out my phone, unlock my phone, start Evernote, wait, it the green plus button, optionally title my note, and start tapping away. With my notebook, I could be done by the time that Evernote is starting.
And it is not just Evernote. I’ve tried Apple’s Notes app, OneNote, Drafts, and many other note-taking apps. They are all the same in this respect. Then, too, Murphy’s Law dictates that the one time I really need to get something out of my head, my phone has no power. I don’t have to worry about that with my Field Notes notebook.
Also, these are, strictly speaking, ephemeral notes, there to remind me of things—a grocery list, the title of a book I want to look at, movie times, whatever. There’s no need to permanently store this information. That said, I do keep the completed Field Notes notebooks, and number them chronologically. Occasionally, I flip through them (something almost impossible to do in a tool like Evernote or OneNote) and it’s like a walk through what goes on inside my head.
3. Paperless works well for sharing documents with others.
One thing that is very hard to do with my Field Notes notebooks is share them with others. For one thing, I use a kind of shorthand I’ve evolved over the years that would make it impossible for most people to decipher what I’ve written—not out of any sense of privacy or security, but because I can record things faster that way. That alone makes it hard to share.
Evernote makes it easy for me to share documents with others, especially those in my family. Having a centralized place to access documents means that my wife can get them as easily as I can. We don’t have to worry about managing multiple copies, or which one is current. They are all stored in one place that we can both access.
4. Paper is more reliable as a long-term storage medium.
My experience going paperless has taught me that there are two aspects to reliability: (1) how reliable a medium is for entering information; (2) and how reliable a medium is for storing information.
Interestingly, I’ve found over the years that I will be more consistent about, for instance, keeping a journal, if I do it on paper. I’ve tried doing this in Evernote, and in Day One, but I’ve never been able to do it consistently, whereas when I kept a journal on paper, I went years without missing a single day. The thing about paper, in this case, it that it is a highly available user interface.
I’ve given a lot of thought to the second aspect of reliability: that of long-term storage. I recently read Walter Isaacson’s biography of Leonardo Da Vinci and one thing that impressed me was the fact that something like 7,000 pages from Da Vinci’s notebooks have survived to this day. 500 years later, we still have them. That is pretty remarkable to me. The journals I kept 20 years ago are still there on the bookshelf, collecting dust. I can’t find most of the journals I’ve kept in digital format, whether online, or not.
The desire to keep this information online stemmed from two ideas I had early on: (1) if my journals were online, I could access them anywhere, any time; and (2) I could more easily search them. It turns out, however, that I am much more likely to write in a journal consistently on paper than online. And it turns out that I rarely have a need to search. And when I do, I’ve learned ways of indexing my paper journals to make searches easier.
Given that my journals from 20 years ago, paper though they may be, are still safe and secure on my bookshelf, and electronic versions have gone the way of the Dodo, I’m inclined to think that we still have to prove the viability of long-term electronic storage. I have no problem keeping the types of information I put into Evernote there because, for the time being anyway, I have no worries about it going away. But I also export that data and back it up regularly in case it does go away. It would still be in electronic form, and that would be something I would need to manage going forward. And perhaps it will turn out that 500 years from now, like Da Vinci’s notebooks, the stuff we put online will still be there for eager historians to lust over.
My experiment proved to be a mixed bag. I found that going paperless was useful in some areas, but that paper was more useful in others. I suspect that is why that I still haven’t found that elusive paperless office. And I suppose—given my growing fondness for Field Notes and Moleskine notebooks, and the sound of a pen across paper—that I am glad. Paperless is good for saving time, decluttering, freeing up physical space. But still like paper.