Going paperless in your home and work life is certainly an admirable ambition. Paper not only costs money in terms of paper and ink, but it clutters up your life and creates confusion. Plus, it’s easily destroyed by fire and water. Digital documents, on the other hand, can be backed up and stored off-site or on the cloud. And they are easy to search, sort and access from anywhere.
According to Ari Meisel of LessDoing.com, “Being paperless means you’re not only doing good for the environment but you are enabling yourself to live on your own terms, accessing ‘paper’ from anywhere in the world, automating its handling and outsourcing it to those better suited to deal with it so you can focus on the things you really want.”
So, given the benefits of digital documents, why not go paperless?
As it turns out, taking on the challenge of going paperless falls into the category of “perfection is the enemy of good enough.” People are easily frustrated by the sheer volume of paper to transition online and they give up. That’s why I suggest you try going paperlite. In fact, according to Joe Kissell of Macworld, “The biggest barrier to a paperless office may be the very word paperless…Going paperless doesn’t have to be all or nothing to be effective.”
The bottom line is that paper is sometimes required or preferred. You need the hard copy of your birth certificate, for example, and it often makes more sense to cook off a printed recipe so your iPad or phone isn’t exposed to heat and water in the kitchen. So the key to going digital is to start somewhere and do the best you can.
In her story “Get Organized: Adopting Paperless Notes, Jill Duffy of PC Magazine says, “Do not try to quit paper cold turkey. Pick one specific area where you will give up paper notes.” No matter where you decide to start on your paperlite journey, remember that it doesn’t have to happen overnight. “Remember, this is a long-term project. Don’t try to sort and organize every paper in your entire home in one day,” says Heather Levin of Money Crashers.
Keep It from Coming In
An easy way to go paperlite is to stem the tide of paper coming in to your home and office. You can then make plans to deal with your backlog of paper documents later. According to Brooks Duncan, owner of DocumentSnap.com, the way to get started is to “Look at where paper is coming in, and see what you can eliminate. You’d be surprised at how much paper we just ‘deal with’ that we don’t even need or want.”
1. Sign Up for Electronic Statements
If you were to do nothing else to cut your paper usage, you should sign up for electronic statements for your bank account, insurance policies and any bills you pay (cable, cellphone, credit cards, utilities and more). You then view these statements online rather than receiving hard copies in the mail. While this may produce an initial flurry of even more mail (Thank you for receiving your bank statement online…), it will cut the volume of paper for you to manage. Just don’t forget to pay the bills—and if you sign up for auto bill-pay, don’t forget that money is coming out of your account!
2. Opt Out of Junk Mail
The National Endowment for Financial Education suggests you use www.optoutprescreen.com if you want to halt credit card and insurance offers from coming in the mail. Other services, such as www.catalogchoice.com, allow you to customize other unsolicited mail.
3. Read on a Tablet
Read meeting agendas, reports and contracts—not to mention magazines and newspapers—on a tablet rather than printing them out.
4. Use a Digital Signature
Rather than printing out contracts, signing them and either rescanning or mailing them, use a digital signature. In Microsoft Word, this is easy: sign a piece of paper, scan it, crop the photo, and insert it where needed (Insert > Picture > Photo from File). For Adobe Reader, you can find instructions on Adobe TV. Or, if you have an iPad, Heather Levin of MoneyCrashers suggests the PowerPad Lite App for signing PDFs with your finger.
Digitize What You Need
Once you control the flow of incoming paper, you can deal with all the paper you already have. The first step here is to decide what you really need. In “Five easy steps to going (almost) paperless” in MacLife, Christopher Null recommends ruthlessly sifting and sorting then recycling immediately.
After the paper purge, a final step is digitizing the paper that remains. TSH of The Art of Simple says, “I recommend investing in a decent scanner, a paper shredder, and possibly a receipt saver like Neat Receipts. Find a workable money management system, and throw away needless receipts as soon as you enter them. You seriously don’t need that Starbucks receipts from 2001.”
5. Scan and Print to PDF
Don’t let the lack of a fancy scanner hold you up. At worst, you can snap pictures of documents with your phone. At best, you have a desktop scanner with a document feeder that processes piles of documents for you. Personally, I love my quick little Doxie scanner for items such as checks and receipts, and I only bother with the desktop scanner for longer documents like my tax return. Once you have a digital copy of a document, shred or recycle the hard copy.
What about all those documents that come into your life that are already in electronic form? Anytime you have the impulse to print something for posterity, simply create a PDF. In “Go Paperless: Stop Printing Everything and Enjoy the Digital Life,” Chris Hoffman of How To Geek says, “Print to PDF: Anything you might want to print—whether it’s a receipt, document, email, or web page—can be printed to a PDF file.”
6. Manage Your Digital Documents
So, now what do you do with that pile of digital documents you’ve created? If you leave them on your hard drive without an offsite backup, they are in as much danger as your paper documents would be during a fire or flood. A major hard drive crash could wipe out everything you decided was important enough to keep. The solution here is a secure cloud-based document storage system such as FileThis, DropBox or Evernote. These services offer searching and sorting features along with instant access from any device, anywhere.
If you take nothing else away from this story, remember that going paperlite is not an all-or-nothing proposition. As Duncan says, “The important thing is to start.”
Kelly Kordes Anton is a freelance writer and editor who lives in Littleton, Colorado. She specializes in financial education and publishing technologies.