Going Paperless

paperlessSo you are thinking of going paperless, or as I like to think of it, living with less paper: Paper-less. The first thing you'll notice is how much we are dependent on paper! It's everywhere, and used for everything. Books, reports, receipts, manuals, checks, instructions, statements, contracts and more. Paper is the conveyor of information, agreements and knowledge. Until now. Now there are alternatives to paper in some areas.

Why go paperless at all? I decided to make the move to accomplish several things. I wanted to:

  • Reduce the physical storage space paper was taking up
  • The ability to find things easily
  • Manage documents, manuals, receipts more effectively

After making the transition, and much trial and error, here are my recommendations for taking your personal life paperless. I make a distinction between personal and business because taking your business paperless is a whole different level of complexity and expense.

Get Equiped

scansnapYou'll need a few new technologies to go paperless: a scanner, a good backup system and a shredder. Here are my recommendations for those:

  • Scanner: Fujitsu Scansnap - A small scanner that scans both sides of a page at the same time and turns your documents into PDFs. It comes with Adobe Acrobat Standard. Check the ScanSnap page on the Fujitsu site for the latest models for both Windows and Macs. No need to buy the deluxe bundle, because the "deluxe" software that comes with it is not useful or necessary for most people. For you mobile users, there is now a portable version that you can take on the road with you. The newest desktop model is the Fujitsu ScanSnap iX500 Scanner for PC and Mac (PA03656-B005) and can be purchased on Amazon.com. It has new features that integrate with IOS and Android devices wirelessly.
  • dropboxOnline File System: DropBox - Go to http://www.dropbox.com for more. I love this service! It's one of my favorite SAAS (Software As A Service) offerings. Set this system up before you start your scanning project. Set all your files and folders UNDER the Dropbox folder if you want everything to be availble to Dropbox, other devices, and stored in the Cloud. A document in Dropbox is available on your PC or Mac, your iPhone or Android phone, other computers and the web - virtually anywhere. As an alternative, Microsoft users can use Microsoft's OneDrive. OneDrive has most of the features that Dropbox includes - but not all, and is included in Office 365. Microsoft offers free OneDrive accounts with Outlook.com accounts, but I do not recommend them because the Terms of Service (TOS) do not protect you or your data.
  • Shredder: Anything that takes lots of pages at once. If you are hyper about security, get one that shreds into the smallest possible pieces. Get one that will shred credit cards, CD/DVDs and unopened envelopes. 
  • Scanning on the Go: Dropbox offers a great built-in scanner, and Office 365 has an app called Office Lens that works well too.After taking a picture of the item, you can then move it your Dropbox or OneDrive or OneNote folder, amoung others. 

Once you have all the equipment, the next thing you'll need to do is create a filing system that is easy to use and reliable to file all your documents. I do NOT recommend the system that comes with the Scansnap. While it does work, you'll be relying on the system and what Fujitsu does with it (or not) for many years to come, and I don't trust Fujitsu to maintain this system and always stay backward-compatible in the future. So here are some suggestions:

Folder Structure:

Windows:

    • Use Windows Explorer
    • Create a folder under your root (c:/) OR your DropBox Root and call it "Scanned".
    • Create a folder under "Scanned" for each year for which you will have documents that are time sensitve, e.g., "2016" and "2017" etc.. Store items such as credit card receipts, bank statements and stuff that is best filed by date under this branch.
    • Create folders under the year folder for Financial, Medical, etc.
    • Be consistent with your tree structure under each year (so you can find things in the future)
    • One advantage of creating year folders is that you can archive them more easily.
    • Create folders under "Scan" for documents that are perrinial such as manuals, articles etc.

Mac:

    • Use Finder
    • Create a folder under your root OR DropBox root and call it "Scanned".
    • Create a folder under "Scan" for each year for which you will have documents that are time sensitve, e.g., "2016" and "2017" etc.. Store items such as credit card receipts, bank statements and stuff that is best filed by date under this branch.
    • Create folders under the year folder for Financial, Medical, etc.
    • Be consistent with your tree structure under each year (so you can find things in the future)
    • One advantage of creating year folders is that you can archive them more easily.
    • Create folders under "Scan" for documents that are perrinial such as manuals, articles etc. 

File Structure:

Here is the file naming structure I came up with after a year of trial and error and some examples:

DocType - Vendor - Description - Other Qualifier - Date.pdf

Examples:

  • Visa - The Home Depot - Fence Materials - 2016_08_08.pdf
  • Statement - Wells Fargo - Personal Checking - 2016_07_31.pdf
  • Manual - Sears - Vacuum Cleaner - 2016_08_08.pdf

Getting Started

Now that you have the hardware, software and some ideas about file structure and naming conventions, here's some advice on how to get started.

Start slowly with items that will make a difference immediately in your day to day life. For example, start by scanning your bank statements and monthly bills. Scan receipts from stores.

Experiment as you go. As you create folders and files, try finding something and see if your system is easy to use.

Use Adobe Acrobat to create PDFs out of your eCommerce receipts rather than printing them and scanning them. This will save you time and paper.

Get one area under control before you start in on another. For instance, once you have all your monthly bills and statements scanned and can keep up with that, you can launch into scanning all your receipts.

Then move on to manuals, notes, certificate and medical records.

Make a inbox for items that need to be scanned and keep up with it. Don't let things pile up for more than a month!

To OCR or not to OCR

Your Scansnap and Adobe Acrobat can allow you to scan documents that are either "smart" or "dumb". To create a smart document, use the Scansnap setting that will OCR your document as you scan it. This is actually an Adobe Acrobat feature. It will take a long time and cost lots of storage space. Dumb documents are scanned as images only, and can not be searched internally. I find that I OCR very few documents. I store most as dumb images and use my filing system to locate things.

Taging your Documents

Adobe Acrobat has a very rich set of document tagging features built in. To date I have not used these features, but plan to explore them at some point.

Shredding

After you have scanned your documents AND made sure you have a 100% fool-proof backup system, you may consider shredding the originals. For my first six months, I filed and saved all my originals. I wanted to see what would happen over time. Would Home Depot honor a printed receipt that I scanned or would they demand an original? What I found is that most everyone honors the scanned and printed document. So I shred everything now, except orginals that don't scan well, or originals that have some kind of watermark or seal. Use common sense when making this decision. Don't shred your passport or birth certificate.

The Results

I'm happy to report that after almost three years, I have goten ride of two four-drawer filing cabinets full of paper. I can find what I need very quickly when I need it and access it anytime. I feel much more organized.

Consistency is the key and it does take a few minutes each week to keep up. Your friends will be in awe of your system and secretly wish they were doing it, and hate you for having done it!