Back in my University days I used to start off each semester with the lofty goal of making that semester the point that I would go 100% paperless. Oh the dream of a paperless office has long been with me and many geeks a like. I was never able to achieve anything close to being paperless back then, I had no sheet fed scanner and too many professors that loved paper.
When I graduated and started freelancing, again, I vowed to be paperless. Luckily I was able to be about 80% paperless at that point, but that was mostly due to a lack of work rather than any particular paperless skills I had. About a year after I graduated I formed my current company with yet again the same goal of being paperless.
This time around though I knew it would be impossible to be paperless, I would be working in an environment that demanded paper copies be archived. So my goal was to be as paperless as I possibly could be, I am proud to report that I think I have reached an acceptable paperless to paper ratio.
I thought since I believe I have reached a nice balance that I would share some of my thoughts and tips on how to best implement a paperless environment.
One Step at a Time
Unless you are the only person in your office it is best to take things slowly. Don’t try to dump all the paper at once, focus on the more paper intensive task that you have and branch out from there. When I started my partners kept wanting to refer to paper leases and we would have to cull through these 30 page documents line by line searching for clauses. I scanned and OCR’d all of these documents one week, the next time we needed to access one I pulled it up on my computer while they searched the paper document. A split second later I had the answer while they were still on the second paragraph.
This was the catalyst the created a snowball effect for my company. My partners immediately saw the value of being paperless – they now wanted to know how to best implement it elsewhere. I could have started anywhere in the company, but I picked the one thing that really annoyed everyone. Instead of going paperless being an uphill battle I made it a nice even grade.
Once you make the decision to go paperless you need to get a scanner right away. Don’t buy anything that doesn’t scan sheet fed1, that doesn’t do automatic duplex2 and that doesn’t have some color ability. My recommendation is the excellent Fujitsu Scansnap scanners, I bought one in 2005 and it has been flawless since then.3
Fujitsu sells many versions, both Windows and Mac (it is very dumb that you can’t have one that works with both). They also make a ‘mobile’ line that is a bit slower but far more portable. I recommend getting the desktop version unless you honestly plan on traveling with your scanner – the mobile version is that much slower than the regular desktop version.
Whatever you do don’t buy a scanner that will not automatically create a PDF out of multiple pages – you will be sorry if you do.
Here is the biggy, I am not talking about taking notes during meetings or classes – that is much easier to do now that laptops, cell phones and iPads are a staple of meetings rooms. What I mean is that you need to create a system for jotting down those little things that pop up: a phone number someone tells you, an image size you need to remember, so on.
I used to do this with an OmniOutliner document, I would create one for each day. This quickly became annoying and rarely got used. What I have come to find is that this is a part of my life where it is not possible to go 100% paperless, I can only get it to about 50%. What I did manage to do though is to reduce the amount of paper hassle I had by 80% or so.
The first part is to start using the excellent Notational Velocity that syncs back to Simplenote. If you are using Windows try out ‘Notes’ which is coming along nicely as a Notational Velocity replacement for Windows users. I use this to create quick notes that I need to jot down, but only those notes that feel right to jot down on a computer.
For all other notes I write them down in a notebook. Now I used to just keep Post-it notes at the ready, then blank sheets of paper, then a Moleskin. What I found was that by using a large notebook, tucked just out of reach I am able to reduce the amount I want to write versus type and all the notes stay organized. With the added benefit of being able to rip out a page to hand to someone, yet they all stay organized and hidden away.
Currently my notebook is an excellent Whitelines Wire A5 Squared Notebook, paired of course with a Pilot G2 (I use the 0.7mm because when I write I like to be bold about it). I keep the note book folded open to a blank page at all times ready to go.
(A side note about Whitelines – I use this paper because I find the lack of structure in a blank un-ruled page annoying. I also find scans of lined paper annoying. Thus the Whitelines paper when scanned leaves no visible lines to be seen, while giving me lines as a guide. Truly great paper.)
The one thing that I ran into almost immediately was the people were not able to access our local file server once they were out of the office. I never thought we might want this when I set it up, but it came up right away. The complaint was that with actual paper files they could take stuff with them, never mind the fact that people never did take these files home.
After a lot of workarounds over the years I have finally found a great solution with the cloud storage service Egnyte. Using Egnyte we now store everything online and a local copy is backed up nightly to our server at the office. They offer iOS apps and WebDAV access (with versioning) so I am able to get everyone access to anything at any time.
This has turned out to be a blessing, it used to be that people would print out stuff when they were leaving for a meeting. Now they just login and download whatever they need when they are in or out of the office. The added bonus is that our paper/printer bills have gone way down.
Don’t accept them and try not give them out. Honestly.
My typical response when someone hands me a business card is to ask that they also shoot me an email with their info, because I lose business cards far to often. If you have an overly complicated email address, or you really want their contact info offer to shoot them the email.
This does two things, gives you a way to reduce paper and gives you an immediate connection with the person (the email chain has started with no pressure). I do this all the time and most people respond very positively because then they know that the contact info is received and not lost.
Again just don’t accept them. Really.
Alas in my business we need to able to accept faxes, some people just refuse to catch up with the times. We have an eFax account setup that costs less that $20 a month and gives us a local fax number and all of our faxes get PDF’d and emailed to us. We can also send a fax just by sending a PDF in an email to a special address. Pretty slick and works flawlessly in the past 3 years that we have been doing it.
There are some great iOS apps out there (Adobe Ideas) that allow you to sketch on the iPad and iPhone. It is going to be hit and miss, some people will prefer it and others will hate it. I love doing it, I am not very artistic so I don’t mind doing it on the iPad – the iPhone though is not so great for sketching.
If you can’t bring yourself to do it your best bet is to stick with paper and either use a notebook to keep all sketches together or to scan each sketch and archive it on your computer. I keep every sketch I do, whether it is digital or analog so that I have a reference if I need it (you would be surprised how often that may happen).
For a long time I had an vector graphic of my signature saved as a TIF file on my computer, and I would just insert it into any document that need a signature. Then I created a ‘dynamic stamp’ out of it in Adobe Acrobat Pro so that I could just stamp it on in there. Now though it is far easier and faster to use a little program for Macs called Autograph that allows you to use the trackpad on your Mac to sign PDFs and the like.
I don’t know of a Windows version of this software, but if you do please shoot me the link. I have been using it for a few months now and really like the workflow better.
Somethings Just Aren’t Ready Yet
Having said all of this, the most important thing to remember is that not everything can go paperless right now. There is not efficient way for me to save all of our accounting documents in a paperless way. There are ways to do it, but none that are cost and time effective.
Like wise with other things I have tried in the past. What really helps getting non-tech people to embrace paperless solutions is to make sure that the solutions are easier and faster than the analog counterpart. If you can’t do that then you will never be able to convince them to go paperless.
As Office Space taught us people hate Fax Machines and Printers, eliminating the need for those has made my partners very happy and more willing to embrace new paperless methods that I introduce.
I also took some time to create an Amazon Store of the products I mentioned above. Over time I will add things that I find helpful so be sure to check back. Find the store here.