Going paperless: Practical problems of the paperless lifestyle (and how I deal with them)

As a blogger, when I first decided to go paperless nearly 2 years ago, I told everyone. I not only wrote blog posts about it, but I told friends, family and coworkers. I made it pretty clear, I think, that as nature abhors a vacuum, I abhor paper. Of course, being outspoken on the subject runs you into immediate trouble. Show up at a meeting a work holding a piece of paper, and I get a roomful of jeers: “Hey look, Mr. Paperless has brought paper to the meeting!” Have someone come into my office and see that there is a still a small bookshelf in the corner with some books on it, and they’d say, “Hey, I thought you went paperless? What gives?” All of this I tolerated with the knowledge that when you put it out there, you are held to some higher imagined standard. But it does illustrate one of the practical problems of going paperless that I still face today:

Paper will be around for a while – you need to be able to deal with it

There are lots of things you can do to eliminate paper from your life, a few examples include:

But even if you did all of this, you are still going to have to deal with paper because while you may abhor paper, the rest of the world still runs on it.

Given the, the single most important thing you can do is have a process for dealing with the paper that comes into your life. The next step would be to look for places where you can eliminate paper you might otherwise get. Here are four examples that I’ve tried over the last two years with some degree of success.

1. Avoid printing whenever possible

At my day job, I find that before a meeting, the meeting organizer will send me a PowerPoint slide deck of the slides that will be covered in the meeting. When I arrive at the meeting, most, if not all, of the attendees have paper copies of the slides in front of them. (Sometimes, they aren’t even printed duplex!) I avoid this problem by sending the PowerPoint attachment to a note in my Work notebook in Evernote using the Outlook plug-in for Evernote:

  1. I open the email message with the attachment in question
  2. Click the Add to Evernote button in Outlook (see below)Evernote Outlook.PNG
  3. I sync up my notes.
  4. I take my iPad to the meeting with me and open the note on the iPad and review the slides from the note itself.
  5. If I have to take notes, I can add my notes directly to the note in question.

And what if I want to sketch some notes on the slides themselves? In this case, I do the following:

  1. I open the PowerPoint attachment and save it as a PDF
  2. I create a note in Evernote and add the PDF file to the note.
  3. I sync up my notes.
  4. In the meeting, I pull up the note and then open the attachment (PDF) using GoodReader1.
  5. I make my notes and annotations on the slides directly using GoodReader
  6. I save the file when I am finished.

2. Use Evernote to manage your to-do lists

There are lots of to-list software products out there. And there are lots of philosophies for handling to-do lists. I tend to take a very simple, bare-bones approach, a very light-weight Getting Things Done effort. I do this because sometimes, it can be easier just to scratch the notes on a piece of paper. Here is how I manage my to-do lists:

  • I have a tag called “inbox”
  • For each unique to-do item, I create a new note and tag it “inbox.” It doesn’t matter what notebook the note is in. If it is on my to-do list, it gets the “inbox” tag
  • I have a saved-search called “To-do list” which searches all notebooks for notes tagged with “inbox”

To call up my to-do list, all I have to do is click on my saved search and see what is on the list.

When I complete a task on my to-do list, I do one of two things:

  1. I delete the note, or
  2. If the note has useful information on it, I remove the “inbox” tag and file it in the appropriate notebook.

This has worked very well for me and it keeps things simple. Even so, sometimes it still does seem faster just to scratch a note on a piece of paper. To avoid this, I sometimes will speed up the creation of my notes by taking a photo or making an audio note, instead of typing things out. I’ll tag the notes “inbox” and move on. I don’t worry about various priority levels. That kind of stuff I can keep in my head well enough.

3. Make it easy for my wife to add to my to-do list

My wife isn’t nearly as paperless as I am. She often scratches her lists out on various pads she finds lying around dormant (because I no longer use them) and will then hand me a list of things I can pick up at the store, or things that I can help out with. In order to avoid this, I’ve given my wife a way to send things directly to my to-do list in Evernote using email. When she wants to add something to my to-do list, here is what she does:

  1. Creates an email addressed to my Evernote email address
  2. Put the to-do item in the subject line along with “#inbox”; the latter will ensure that the note is tagged “inbox” when it gets into Evernote
  3. Put any additional information in the body of the message.
  4. Send the message.

A few minutes after she does that, when I take a look at my to-do search, I’ll see her items on my list.

To make this even easier for her, I’ve created a “Jamie To-do” contact for her that has my Evernote email address so that she doesn’t have to remember it or look it up.

4. Sketch in Penultimate instead of on paper

I am also sometimes tempted to pick up a piece of paper to sketch out a diagram freehand. Indeed, in the past, I would sketch something out and later scan it into Evernote and get rid of the original. Since Evernote acquired Penultimate, however, I now do all of this kind of sketching using Penultimate and my Bamboo stylus.

  1. I open a notebook in Penultimate and sketch out what I need
  2. When I’m finished, I click the Send To icon and select Evernote


  3. Once the sketch is in Evernote, I file it as appropriate

This has been particularly useful in both my day job–sketching something out during a meeting–as well as in my fiction writing when I’m trying to get a grasp of a timeline or something like that.

Go paperless by degrees

I think that going paperless cold-turkey is difficult and I don’t think I’d recommend it. There are lots of practical pitfalls and problems that you can run into and those can be discouraging. With a phased approach you can address some of those practical problems more directly, head-on, one-at-a-time. It also allows you to gauge how paperless you really want to be. I am not 100% paperless, but I am closer to that Platonic level of perfection every day.

(As always, this and all of my Going Paperless posts are available on Pinterest.)

  1. If you’ve never used GoodReader, it allows you to edit and annotate PDF files on your iPad.


  1. Good article and pretty much along the same lines as my use for Evernote.

    I just purchased a ScanSnap portable scanner (http://goo.gl/VsNhU) that has insane integration with Evernote, so much so that you can just feed the thing with paper and knock up many pages scanned a minute.

    What digital pen do you use for Penultimate? I have purchased a few for the ipad but the tips are too large and precise writing is impossible. If anyone knows of a iPad pen that is actually pointed like a pen…?

      1. Ahh, sketching is probably a lot easier than writing notes. I’m pretty sure I tried the Bamboo stylus for writing and the rounded large tip simply didn’t work very well.

  2. Good Article Jamie,
    I use my ScanSnap Scanner to scan business cards right into Evernote. I put them into a notebook called “Business Cards” and they are searchable from my PC or my phone when I need the info. No more keeping business cards!

  3. btw: syncing goodreader with dropbox makes the file exchange process very efficient and fast:-) another recommendable sketch & moleskin-app is noteshelf. it provides lot of useful templates for notetaking and conception.

  4. Good article Jamie, thanks.

    I’ve gone down a similar path at work and use Noteshelf (www.fluidtouch.biz/noteshelf) with a Bamboo Stylus. Together I write at my pen and paper speed and Noteshelf has amazing ‘ink’. I gave up on the Adonit Jot Pro following skipping issues that kept emerging after a while (even after capacitive grease was applied), whereas the Bamboo is silky smooth.

    I sync all my notes to Dropbox and/or Evernote, and when given handouts in meetings photograph them in Noteshelf and add the image to the page I’m writing on. (Then I give the handout back to the meeting convener).

    PDFs get handled in PDF Expert (http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/pdf-expert-fill-forms-annotate/id393316844?mt=8) which is very robust and also a great reader.

    Whilst you can’t always avoid paper, you can get pretty close to Utopia 🙂

  5. You mention receiving magazines wirelessly, but the problem I have with that is that there is still not a good system in place that would allow you to highlight, dogear, annotate articles you are reading on your iPad.

    I like to use the webclipper as well to save online articles to read later, but once again the downside is that I can not make notes onto or highlight that article I am reading in Evernote on my iPad!!

  6. With my iPad 2, I find sketching to be a bit lagging. Is it just me? I have used penultimate, paper, and a few others. I’d love to sketch on my iPad but it just doesn’t feel natural.


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