Last fall, I went paperless at work. One of my goals for 2011 was to go paperless at home. As I have discovered, this is not as easy as just dumping all paper. It takes a concerted effort, but one that I think has already started to pay dividends.
Going paperless requires replacing paper with digital versions of documents, notes, etc. And those digital versions need to be stores, organized and easily searchable for it to work. Furthermore, they need to be archived and backed up. I don’t know if my efforts to go paperless would have been possible without Evernote. For those who don’t know, Evernote is an application that allows you to “remember everything.” In its simplest form, it allows you to capture notes and organize them. The notes are stored in the cloud and are therefore accessible from anywhere you have an Internet connection. Evernote’s basic service is available for free, but I have been using their premium service (which gives you unlimited storage as well as a number of additional features) for quite a while now. Most importantly, perhaps, Evernote has a solid iPad and iPhone app that make capturing information and accessing your data from these devices easy.
What follows is how I have used Evernote and other tools to go paperless this year. I also outline how far I’ve managed to get in the first 8 months of the year, what challenges I’ve had, and the lessons I’ve learned along the way.
The scope of my paperless effort (so far)
I planned to start my new paperless life beginning with any new paper this year. That is, I decided at the outset not to go to my existing files and digitize all of them. I access them infrequently enough to where the labor effort wouldn’t justify the benefit. Instead, I decided that I would try a two-pronged approach:
- Eliminate paper, where possible
- Where it wasn’t possible, digitize any new documents and then get rid of the paper version.
To eliminate paper, I did things like sign up for electronic statements and billing for all of the services I use, banks, utilities, insurance, mortgage, etc. Doing this means I am never mailed paper in the first place. Instead, I generally get an email telling me that a statement is available. If I need to look at the statement, I can log into the service website. If I want to keep a copy of the statement in my electronic files, I can download it, usually in PDF format and add it to Evernote, but I only do this in cases where I think it handy to have readily available or searchable, since I already have electronic access to them.
For documents that still come to me as paper, my scope of digitizing them includes roughly the follow seven areas:
- One-out bills and statements (say, from a one-time service)
- Manuals, especially for home electronics
- Estate, homeowner and insurance information (wills, mortgage information, insurance policies)
- Pay stubs
- Any other significant notices (e.g. quotes I might get from service people, home owner association notices, etc)
- Important receipts (especially those pertaining to writing)
- Stuff I used to jot down on paper (blog ideas, story ideas, shopping lists, etc.)
All of these things ultimately make their way into Evernote through some fairly simple processes I’ve developed.
My paperless process
I have a preferred hierarchy for how things get into Evernote that goes something like this:
- Scanning and shredding. As soon as I get a piece of paper, if I am near my scanner, I’ll scan in the document, add it to Evernote and then shred or otherwise discard the paper version.
- Snapshots. If I am not near a scanner, I’ll create a note in Evernote and add a snapshot of the document to the note. One very cool feature of Evernote is that even text in photographs of documents in Evernote becomes searchable so that despite the document being a photograph, I can still search it. It’s not as ideal as scanning because if I ever do have to print or email the document, it is not as clear.
- Clippings. I’ll use web clippings for things like confirmation pages for things I’ve ordered. I also use them for capturing pages on things that I am researching, say, for a story.
One thing I’ve learned is that the sooner I digitize a piece of paper, the more likely it is to get into my system and not clutter up my desk. When I get my pay stub at work, I walk right to the scanner, scan it in, add it to Evernote and then get rid of the original. I don’t wait or let it accumulate. When I get home from work and check the mail, I take the mail to my desk, toss out the junk, look through what’s left, and immediately scan in anything I want to keep or want a record of. Then I shred or junk the original.
Another example: when I get a new gadget, I’ll pull out the instructions or manual that came with it and check to see if the manual exists in PDF version on the manufacturer’s website. If it does, I’ll grab a PDF copy, add it to Evernote, tag it, and then immediately toss the manual that came with the product. Having all of the my manuals readily accessible from within Evernote is really convenient. I can also add my own comments to the note containing the manual which is also helpful.
Organizing my paperless life
Evernote provides a number of ways to organize the information it contains. At the most basic level, there are notebooks. I think of a notebook as one large filing cabinet that lets you partition a particular set of information. Like filing cabinets, notebooks are completely arbitrary, but I primarily use 3 notebooks to organize my information:
- A personal notebook (My Notebook) which acts mostly as an inbox for unprocessed information. (For those familiar with GTD, yes, it is that kind of inbox.)
- A writing notebook into which anything writing-related goes.
- A paperless “filing cabinet” notebook, which essentially replaces the physical filing cabinet and contains the bulk of my digitized documents.
Within this framework, I use tags for further categorize the notes and documents. For things related to our cars, I might tag the notes “vehicles”. For things related to taxes, “taxes” and so on. The nice thing about tags is that a document or note can have multiple tags. So for instance, vehicle property tax documents can be tagged “vehicles” and “taxes” and I’d find the document in a search for either.
Evernote allows you to mark a notebook as “offline” meaning all of the notes and information is available even if you don’t have a network connection. I make my “filing cabinet” notebook available offline on my home computer as well as on my iPhone and iPad so that I have access to that information even if I don’t have a network connection.
Evernote also allows you to create “saved searches”. You can provide all kinds of criteria for your searches. For instance you can have a saved search that looks for the tag “taxes” or you can further constrain it by searching within a time range as well so that the search will always look for tax documents for the current tax year. I make use of saved searches for my most common searches, for instance “blog topics”, “story ideas” and “medical information.”
Accessing the information anywhere
Evernote has recently made great improvements to its iPhone and iPad apps. Because my information is stored in the cloud, I can access the information anywhere and that has proven very convenient. For example:
- I was able to pull up a budget for a homeowners association meeting when the treasurer forgot to bring the budget along with her.
- When we were in the hospital when the Little Miss was born, Kelly was asked if she had an advanced medical directive. We didn’t have a paper copy with us, but I was able to pull up the PDF version from Evernote on my iPad.
- When I was filling out a form and needed my license plate number (which I don’t have memorized) I was able to pull up the note that contains a photo of my license plate.
As a premium user, I can share a notebooks with others. This is convenient because it allows Kelly to have access to all of this information as well.
Transferring information to and from Evernote’s servers is done via SSL encryption and the data itself is encrypted on the server. Because the information is stored in the cloud, I don’t have to worry about a fire or flood or other disaster destroying all of my files. But I take additional precautions. Recall that I said that I mark my main notebook, the one with my most important information, for offline use. That means the files and notes are stored locally on my laptop. The folder is which they are stored is backed up to an external disk and the contents of the external disk is part of my IDrive cloud backup, which gets backup nightly to the cloud. That is three levels of redundancy and if the data is lost beyond that, it’s just bad luck.
My progress through August
I think I’ve done a pretty good job at going paperless in the first eight months of the year. You will still find paper on my desk at home, although not a lot of it. And what is there usually doesn’t last too long. Even this should improve beginning in the next day or two. I’ve ordered a portable scanner that Evernote recommends for scanning documents (even duplex) and that integrates seamlessly with Evernote. This should help speed up the process of scanning (which up until now I’ve done mostly at work) and get that remaining paper off my desk.
I honestly cannot remember the last time I hand-wrote a note or list. I jot almost everything down in Evernote. Often times those notes get deleted once action is taken on them, but no paper is used in the process. I expect that by the end of the year, paper will be a fleeting thing for me, something that comes almost exclusively in the mail and lasts as long as it takes me to scan it in.