Productivity

Five easy steps to going (almost) paperless

It's over between me and my file cabinet. Six drawers full of dead trees. Total weight: a gargantuan 194.7 pounds of paper. I can't think of any less useful way to utilize home office space, especially when most of the contents, once filed, will never be touched again. I’m also gearing up to move, and the thought of packing, unpacking, and refiling all that stuff made me even more eager to end the relationship, pronto.

The innards of my filing cabinets, before the Great Purge of 2013.

My goal wasn’t necessarily to get rid of every scrap of paper (an impossibility in some cases, as I’ll discuss), but at least I wanted to get it all down to a single file cabinet drawer. Here's how I did it, and you can, too.

1. Sift and sort ruthlessly

Sifting through nearly 200 pounds of paperwork is a Herculean task that took me the better part of two full afternoons. If you’re embarking on a similar quest, this first step is easily the most difficult but also the most rewarding part of the process.

Say bye-bye to last decade’s documents.

Here are some of the dead-tree gems from my personal archeological expedition:

  • Story ideas I jotted down ten years ago.
  • Writers agreements I signed in the 1990s.
  • FedEx shipping receipts from more than eight years ago.
  • A nondisclosure agreement, expired in June 1991, to review a Toshiba Libretto laptop.
  • Story clips and tear sheets for pieces I wrote dating back to 1995. (While it was sad to toss this stuff out, it amounted to nearly ten pounds of ripped-out magazine pages.)
  • Pay stubs from jobs long gone.
  • Endless files full of statements from banks and investment firms. (Why do these always have to be a minimum of five pages long?)
  • Credit card receipts galore.
  • A novel I wrote when I was a teenager.
  • The rejection letters for said novel.
  • Many pounds’ worth of product manuals, including one for my long-gone VCR.

2. Recycle immediately

It amazed me how much of this stuff was utter trash. What's more, many of the “important” items—including bank statements and utility bills—were now available online, making paper copies (and even scans) of them redundant. Most banks and financial institutions save statements for at least a year, and sometimes they hold on to them for up to seven. I knew that anything I was likely to need now I could access online on demand, and if I did need something, it would be within 12 months, for tax purposes. The bottom line: I wouldn’t need to save this stuff—nor would I need to scan it for posterity.

The towers of folders soon shrank down to two tidy piles.

Judicious pruning of everything got my total paper load down to about 30 pounds after just one round of sifting through files.

IRS

What remained was paperwork that could be scanned, but I questioned whether the effort would be worth it. Were my taxes from 2006 something I would ever want to check again? Or would keeping this file for another year until the mandatory “seven-year rule” expired be enough? I also had a large number of legal records that I knew I should retain—considering all their official stamps, seals, and signatures—and which I've had to produce in tangible form in the past. But none of this needed to fill up a drawer. I offloaded these types of documents to a storage box that could safely gather dust in the garage unless a true emergency arose.

A second round through the “keepers” left me with just over ten pounds of paperwork to deal with. These were primarily medical records, documents printed on oversize paper, some financial records to which I did not have online access, and documents related to real estate and auto purchases (which are often passed on in hard copy to the next owner). Then there was legal paperwork, including the articles of incorporation for my business and various business licenses (like those "THIS NOTICE MUST BE PROMINENTLY DISPLAYED" certificates).

3. Now, it’s scanner time

Scanning was the next step, and I spent quite a while trying to strategize. Scanning documents to PDFs is the obvious choice (particularly with OCR software to aid with searching), but then what? Many people like to store their stuff in Evernote, but while I’m a big Evernote fan, I didn’t think this would be a great option for these documents.

First, these weren’t documents I planned on using on a regular basis—or really ever at all—and I didn’t want to clutter up Evernote (which I use for daily notes and task management). For me, I felt storing PDFs in folders on my hard drive would be just fine and, more importantly, would free from any monthly fees that come with online services. (Cloud-based document management services like eFileCabinet Online cost at least $20 a month.)

Doxie One portable scanners

Numerous scanners—including Doxie and Neat—are specifically designed to make the archiving of documents easier, but I also didn’t feel I needed to reinvent the wheel here. The document-feeding system on my Epson WF-3540 works well (and is something Doxie lacks), and there was no reason it wouldn’t be up to the task of grinding through a few hundred pages of bills and statements.

As work projects go, scanning documents is not exactly a thrilling way to spend a weekend. It’s dull and unfulfilling, but watching your stack of paperwork slowly shrink to nothing makes it worthwhile.

I decided to scan documents in stacks of pages related to each other. The Epson scans to PDF and will bundle multiple pages into a single file, so I could put a dozen insurance bills in at once and end up with a single file instead of 12 of them. As scans completed, I gave each file an appropriate name (‘blue shield bills 2012’) and dropped them into an appropriate folder on my hard drive. Once I got into a rhythm, it went pretty quickly—it took me just a few hours to finish the scanning. If you do want to use Evernote to manage your documents, it’s easy to import everything into Notebooks once you’ve finished the scans and the organization part of the equation.

After scanning, my final paper-file weight: 4.9 pounds—about a 95 percent savings in weight. That’s not literally paperless, but it’s close enough.

4. Kick the paper habit for good

The next—and easiest—step of the process is to start paring down incoming paper that comes through the U.S. mail. Just log in to your bank and utility service providers’ websites, where you’ll probably find them begging you to sign up for electronic statement delivery or e-billing. Of course, you can also use your bank to pay your bills electronically as well, removing another piece of paper from the equation.

Every company’s e-billing or e-payment system is different, which is a bit of a pain. (This is also a great opportunity for an enterprising startup brave enough to standardize a rather messy industry. Anyone?) Ultimately, though, this gives you a lot of flexibility, as you really don’t need to sign up with yet another third-party provider to cut out incoming paper statements and bills.

Once you’ve gone paperless, there’s more you can do to make sure you’re minimizing your incoming paper load going forward.

Every last shred I had is now either digitized or down to this one drawer.

To minimize junk mail, sign up to opt out of prescreened offers for credit cards and insurance by visiting OptOutPrescreen.com, which is run by the three big credit reporting agencies. DMAchoice and the National Do Not Mail List can help you get rid of unsolicited commercial mail. As with the Do Not Call Registry, however, the effectiveness of the Do Not Mail list will vary according to callers’ compliance, and the impact is far from immediate.

5. Snail-mail scanning services stop the paper cold

Earth Class Mail takes things one step further by virtualizing your entire physical mailbox. You have your mail sent to the ECM service, and it sends you scans of everything. You decide what you want to keep, trash, or have forwarded to you physically. Packages can be forwarded to you as well. Designed for relatively small business operations, the service costs $20 a month for up to 50 pieces of mail, plus fees for overage on your items and for each physical shipment you elect to receive.

Outbox is a similar service that’s designed for residential users instead of businesses; mail is actually picked up directly from your existing mailbox three times a week. With Outbox, you can click to “unsubscribe” from junk mail and other unwanted stuff, and organize mail into folders and to-do lists. As with Earth Class Mail, you can choose to have mail delivered to you physically on request. Outbox is just $5 a month, but the service is available only in Austin and San Francisco at present.

What about all the notepads and Post-Its on your desk? Well, you can jettison those too, though this is more a matter of personal behavior retraining than a technical fix. Note-taking apps abound for phones, tablets, and PCs, and it’s here that a super-searchable tool like Evernote shines. Microsoft OneNote is also worthwhile, and Google Keep offers simplicity if you don’t need a lot of pizzazz.

A huge weight has been lifted

Within a few days, I'd gone from nearly 200 pounds of paper to about 2GB's worth of scanned files, plus a short stack of remaining documents that were easily stored. I'd also minimized incoming paper by converting to online accounts where possible and taking steps to ward off junk mail. Readily available scanning tools and some useful Web services have made it easy to go paperless. Take a few weekend afternoons, and soon your filing cabinet will be listed on Freecycle along with mine.

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