Get Organized, Go Paperless
This is a long article on going paperless. Before you decide its tl;dr (too long, didn’t read), here’s the quick summary.
If you have important documents to scan on a regular basis, (receipts, statements, files etc) and you value your time, and maintain quality, get a document scanner. Make sure it scans both sides in on go i.e. duplex and has a sheet feeder too.
If you only have the occasion documents to scan, and those are not important, then you can use a flatbed scanner, or even an smartphone app.
A short story – I’ve been telling a colleague to get a purpose built scanner which he naturally thought was unnecessary. One day I did a demo to show him how fast documents are scanned on my Canon document scanner. He went out the same afternoon and bought one.
Why I finally splash a small chunk of change on a document scanner
Filing and searching for documents wastes a lot of time. Remember the time when you spent 30 minutes or more looking for an important receipt, a document you needed, or bank statements? How about warranty information or an instruction manual?
Did you get all worked up, perhaps even have a minor argument with your spouse and turned everything upside down looking for that one piece of document?
I think most of us have been through that one time or another.
Yet, many of us, don’t like to do filing. Filing documents is a tedious, time consuming task. However, experience has taught us it is better to file than not to file documents. So, it is somewhat damn if you do, damn if you don’t. Either way, you have to pay for it with your time, eventually.
Very few of us are good at getting organized unless we make an effort to do so. That is why David Allen wrote the book titled Getting Things Done and created an entire business around helping people get organized.
If you are a well organized person, chances are, you may be the exception rather than the rule. You can stop reading this article now.
You can earn back money that is lost, but once you lose time, you can never get it back.
All of us need to deal with paper, at the very least receipts, junk mail, bank statements, utility bills, courses and other documents. If you are lucky enough to have help, like a secretary, or a well organized spouse, you are in a good place.
Having to manage client files, and doing our own taxes over the years have made me better at filing but its still something I feel like I have to do and only do so reluctantly.
I’ve also learned a thing or two.
Over the past few years, I’ve read about the go paperless movement. It is something I’ve slowly tried and put more effort into recently. Having information and documents all digitized, easily filed and searchable is easily a lot more efficient than dealing with paper files.
Transitioning to less paper
I started by reducing the paper coming to me by requesting for electronic statements from financial institutions and some utilities. Banks and telecommunication companies are the first to adopt this although some banks are still slow on this.
This has reduced some of the filing I had to do. I’ve also began using online transaction to make payments and keep receipts of such transaction electronically though pdfs rather than printing them out, thus reducing more paper.
This should be your first step too.
However, I have to manage a lot more paper on the work side of things.
What I did was instead of photocopying documents, I began scanning documents with an existing flatbed scanner, and also experimented with smartphone apps for making copies with the built in camera.
A smartphone is not going to cut it
While a smartphone with 5 megapixels is more than adequate for making good quality images of documents, having them not aligned properly and large image size requires additional steps to crop, resize (to make the file size manageable), convert to pdf etc.
Sometimes such images are low quality due to handshake or the bad lighting conditions casting shadows on the documents.
So, although you can use your smartphone to scan documents, it is just not feasible if you:-
- have a significant amount of documents
- want decent quality
- you truly want to go paperless
- want it to be hassle free
I found through testing over a period of several months to use a flatbed scanner to scan documents page by page is just as tedious if not worst than filing physical paper.
Finally I bit the bullet and I bought a document scanner. That is where my efforts at going paperless improved dramatically. Scanning is fast, reliable and most important of all, the scanned documents are searchable pdfs, which means searching for documents become fast and easy. More of this later.
With a dedicated documents scanner, you can process several cabinets worth of documents quickly, and store them on you computer hard drive.
The key thing about going paperless is actually the document scanner. There are several options for a dedicated document scanner. The ones that are proven for individuals and home office use are from Fujitsu and Canon. These scanners are small, portable, and do not take up a lot of desk space.
Without the right tools, going paperless will be an exercise in futility.
Been there, done that.
The important features in a scanner
In my opinion are, the follow are important feature of a scanner to make life better:-
- ADF, reliable automatic document feeder
- duplex scanning, scanning both sides in a single pass
- OCR, optical character recognition
To reduce paper handling, you really need a document scanner with an automatic document feeder, ADF, or sheet feeder. Some all in one printer these days have built in ADF. It makes scanning documents so much faster.
If you just have several 4 inch file folders, you may be able to get by using a flatbed scanner, and scan one page at a time.
If you have several drawers full of files, it will be tedious affair, and likely to frustrate your plan to go paperless. Take a look at how fast a dedicated document scanner can process your paper in the video below.
Duplex scanning means both sides of a document is scanned in one pass. It makes it much faster but the most important thing is that your pdf documents won’t become alternate pages that need you to manually reshuffle them. T
he scanner is also smart enough to ignore black pages so documents that are a mixed of single page and double page can be scanned without manual intervention.
In the video below, you can see how fast a document scanner can complete a scan job.
When I was deciding between a Fujitsu S1300i or Canon P215 scanner, the thing that finally made me choose the Canon was it held more pages in the sheet feeder, 20 versus 10 sheets in the Fujitsu. There is nothing much to separate them.
I’ve since found out that the Canon P 215 does OCR as you scan compared to the Fujitsu that scans the documents first, and then OCRs the scan. There is a bit of waiting time of a few seconds in the Fujitsu’s case. You can see this in the video here.
I believe that Fujitsu includes a separate software called ABBYY Finereader which does the OCR, and that is why documents are processed that way. The advantage of the separate software means you can OCR other existing pdfs in you computer to make them searchable.
For the Canon P215, you have to choose OCR at the point of scanning. The software OCR’s your documents as it scan and it cannot do character recognition of existing pdfs but does so faster.
This will be the key point to help you decide between the two. The price is almost the same too.
Faster scanning means you can get the job done in less time. Very important if you have several cabinet full of files.
Why optical character recognition, OCR
The other important criteria to look for in a document scanner is one that comes with software that can do optical character recognition or OCR to create searchable pdfs. This is very important.
When you scan a document, a scanner with optical character recognition can create documents that are searchable both within the document, and also by the operating system of your computer. This makes locating information so much easier.
Imagine you have several hundred or even thousands of pdfs in your computer, over the years. While you can name the file one by one, and arrange them in folders, imagine someday in the future, you want to look for some information but you can’t remember exactly what it is.
However, you know it is related to a certain topic.
For example, let say you have a recipe for pasta and cheese but you can’t remember which exact recipe. With searchable pdf, you can type pasta and cheese in the Folder Search and all the pdf that have the words pasta and cheese will be selected.
Without this ability, you will probably have to open and search each pdf individually.
Besides the scanner, if you read other articles about going paperless and getting organized, most people will also make use of Evernote as a part of their tool. I will mentioned the system which does not rely on Evernote.
First step to go paperless
If you want to go paperless without spending any money, the first step is to reduce the amount of physical paper you receive by opting for documents in digital format as much as possible.
Usually you can start with banks, credit card statements, utilities like internet, phone and mobile phone bills etc. I’ve done that switch over a period of 3 years and can immediately feel the impact.
I’ve also gently requested that any fax to me be sent via email from some partners I deal with. This has helped tremendously. If you are still sending or receiving faxes, please stop.
Needless to say, if you run a business, it is even more crucial to manage you paper document since you will need to keep records and perhaps even create paper for suppliers and customers.
Even if you do not run a business, paper can accumulate and start to bog you down with files and notes from conferences, brochures, articles or other information you collect over the years.
It is something all of us need to deal with to a larger or lesser extent.
Going paperless without Evernote
While Evernote is without a doubt a great tool, with documents that are automatically synced across multiple devices, backed up online, and available literally at your finger tips, with concern for privacy and security, I choose not to use it for the majority of my documents.
Do a search on the internet and you will find that breaches of security happens on cloud services. It has happened several times on different online cloud services including and you can expect it to happen every once in a while. When you have connected services across different devices, the point of weakness simply increases.
While there are ways to secure your documents like encrypting files before getting them synced on the internet, that is not done automatically.
The premium version of Evernote allows you to hide certain sections of documents but I prefer to encrypt the entire document rather than just sections of it.
Many go paperless advocates believe that no one would be interested in a buried avalanche of information from millions of users but I prefer not having my information spread all through the internet.
The third reason I choose not to use Evernote extensively is because I do not want to rely on another company to keep and manage my files. This is different from using a company to backup your files.
As I understand it, most people use tags on Evernote to organize their information. Tagging is a good feature in Evernote. The issue I have with this is the tags are not generic. It is only recognizable within Evernote.
In the event Evernote goes out of business, software glitches or change the tagging system, the hundreds or even thousands of files may no longer be easily be found if you depend on tags. Something I’d rather not find out a few years down the road.
Instead, I’d rather depend on something more reliable which is searchable pdfs right on my computer. The document scanners mentioned above comes with OCR, optical character recognition, to make your pdfs searchable. These pdfs are searchable within Windows Explorer on a PC and also on a Mac.
Since it is already available, I prefer to use that rather than introduce another software I have to use.
As far as I know, Evernote also creates searchable pdfs as you upload them to their system but it will take sometime for them to process your pdfs to make them searchable especially if you are on a free account.
The only thing I do lose out is not having my documents in the cloud available at the end of my fingertips. This can be a good thing or a bad thing.
Bad if you ever lose your phone, tablet or connected device, that data can be easily accessed. The good thing is any information that is synced is available even on your phone as long as you have a data connection.
Off course you can use Evernote locally without uploading to the cloud, which significantly defeats the purpose of having your documents synced everywhere.
The way I use my system, is only to sync less crucial information as and when I need it. I’ve used it for less important documents flight details, maps, images and backup of hotel telephone numbers etc.
I haven’t felt the need to sync financial and other information onto Evernote because it. Also do not want to clutter up my Evernote on my phone.
Tags in Evernote
If you want to include Evernote in your system, that is okay too. To each, his own.
Get hold of a guide on Evernote, like Master Evernote:The Unofficial Guide It will help be understand and make use of all the features in the Evernote app.
You will likely use the tag and notebook feature to help organize your files. Tags help when you want to filter and search for information. There are lots of articles about using Evernote for going paperless so I won’t repeat it here.
Suffice to say, if you are more concern with convenience than security, than Evernote is a good option. Make sure you have the set up proper notebooks which functions like folders to separate your documents.
Throw Away, Scan and Throw, Scan and Keep
One of the key things you need to decide as you process your documents is what to:-
- scan and discard, and
- scan and keep.
I found that as I process my documents, a significant portion of those gets thrown away immediately. And the clutter around me started to reduce too. This was the added advantage to seriously going paperless because many documents are in stacks that I was too lazy to file or discard.
Once I had the scanner, it made processing so much easier, with a ready waste paper basket just beside my scanner. So it was just a matter of deciding to discard, scan and discard. I have little document I want to scan and keep.
Scan the newest or oldest first?
Should you scan everything at a go now or to scan only new document going forward? If your mountain of old documents is too big, then a better strategy is to scan new documents first.
Many go paperless articles suggested not to process old documents but new ones as they come to you. The reason is pretty simple.
Let say you have a receipt from 5 years ago. Eventually, you will discard some of these documents as they are no longer relevant or needed. So by not scanning them now and only discarding them perhaps in a year or two, you save yourself the trouble of scanning them in the first place. Just throw them out when the time comes.
This is something you need to work out. You can always go back to scanning every single bit of your paper. I think it is too tedious do so when there is a lot of documents to scan.
Even if you choose to go all paperless, there are documents that you can’t discard after scanning them. There will still be paper in your life.
Keep this in mind.
By the way, whether you realize it or not, you are actually starting to create “rules” and a system for yourself on how you will deal with paper as they come in. Don’t worry about setting a perfect system.
Start small and you will adjust your rules and system as you go along. Keep it simple.
Naming your files
Before you start scanning, think about how you name your files. Over several years, I’ve always used YYMMDD, “Year” “Month” “Date” for banks statement, bills, digital receipts. Having the date is not crucial but the year and month helps to locate documents.
With the Canon P 215 that I use, there is no option to just use Year and Month, so I either have the entire YYMMDD or I rename the files.
Organizing your files
Some people choose to dump all the scanned documents in one large folder and rely on OCR to find them. Some suggest moving files to specific folders for different items.
For me, I name and move files to specific folders so that I do not need to rely on OCR to find things. It may take a bit of time to name files. With the software that Canon provides for scanning, you can select a name and then add YYMMDD. This is useful if you plan to scan a series of set of documents.
For example, if I have a client file with his name, say John Doe, when I process his file, I can type in John Doe and then feed the scanner. The files will be named JohnDoeMMDDYY-1, JohnDoeMMDDYY-2, etc. I can also select not having the YYMMDD just JohnDoe-1, JohnDoe-2 etc. This makes moving files into folders easy.
So, if you are not in business, you can have a naming convention that preface certain documents as you scan like ElectricBill20140101-1 for utilities, PhoneBill20140202-, Bank20140102-1 etc.
By doing so, you will have an easier time in case the search craps out on you when you need something urgent. You can also make folders for say recipes, financial statements, brochures etc.
This makes it easier even for your computer to search for things.
When you store documents, you need to have a system to backup your documents, either online or on a backup hard drive. A hard drive have a lifespan of around 5 years on a computer or laptop. It will eventually crash.
I use a free software called GFI Backup to backup my files to a portable external harddrive. There are other software that create backup. Within Windows or even iOS, there are built in backup software.
You may want to have more than 1 backup of your documents in case your external hard drive have problems and have some of the files store on the cloud.
Usually for many important documents, you can get copies either from your bank or even utilities for a price. Except for receipts, tax returns etc.
Things that are not recoverable tend to be things like photos and videos but that is a topic on backing up your hard drive rather than going paperless. The principle will be the same though.
If you are not that concerned about privacy, the online options to backup your documents include Evernote, Dropbox, Box, Google Drive, etc. There are many to choose from, some requires a small fee when you require more storage space.
When I want the added convenience as well as a online backup copy, what I is to encrypt those files before uploading them to Dropbox or any other online backup service. You can do the same as well just to have extra peace of mind.
Shredder. A shredder is a good to have item to prevent identity theft. Having found that most paper shredders are not that reliable, I forgo having one.
For documents with sensitive information, I tear out the identifiable section like name, address, and account number. The section without sensitive information is sold to be recycled.
The bits that are sensitive, are torn to bits and then throw into the kitchen waste or burned.
If you on your way to a paperless office, feel free to share your experience, or questions below in the comments.
Join my community to get more tips like this.
Excellent post. The fact that it’s long ensures all the details are here. This is a must-read for anyone thinking about going paperless.