Going Paperless: A Primer to Going Paperless in 2014

It is hard to believe that Thanksgiving is nearly upon us, and before you know it, we’ll be rolling in 2014. A new year means New Year’s resolutions, and in addition to diet and exercise, there are probably some people out there who want to get started going paperless in the New Year. I hear quite frequently that people want to get started with Evernote in some way or another, but aren’t sure where to begin. This week’s post is intended to help those who wish to get started, by providing a road map for how you might do this. It is a longer post than usual, but hopefully, it provides everything you need in one place to get started. Here is said roadmap, in the form of an infographic. Below the roadmap, I provide more details:

Going Paperless Infographic

There are 5 main phases to the process. If you go through each of the 5 phases, you should at the end, find yourself growing increasingly paperless day-by-day. That said, if you have already completed one or more of the phases, you can use this as a guide as to where you might go next.

To keep things simple, each phase has three steps or parts to it. These are detailed in the sections below.

Phase 1: Select your tools

A. Evernote. Evernote is the centerpiece to my paperless life. It is where everything is stored, and where I do a fair amount of searching, note-taking, and capturing information. These days, Evernote comes in a variety of flavors, but the most basic version is still free. Some of the options include:

  • Evernote (free version). Good for getting a feel for what Evernote can do, especially if you’ve never used Evernote before, or if you are uncertain how you might use it.
  • Evernote Premium. ($5/month or $45/year). Adds some nice features like more upload capacity each month (1 GB), offline notebooks, smarter searching, and things like PDF annotation when you use Skitch (Evernote’s screen capture and annotation tool).
  • Evernote Business. ($10/user/month). Ideal for business looking to go paperless. Have a shared library of business documents that all users in your business can access. Higher upload capacities and integration with some other applications like Salesforce.

If you do not yet have an Evernote account, by using this link, when you sign up, you’ll get a free month of Evernote Premium. Signing up is quick and easy–and for the basic version of Evernote, it is free!

B. Choose a scanner. I use the Fujitsu ScanSnap s1300i. I’ve been using it for over a year and I love it. But there are lots of scanners out there and it can be difficult to figure out what’s best for you. In determining what scanner to choose, you should consider the following:

  • Does it integrate seamlessly with Evernote? With my scanner, I put the paper in the feeder, press a single button, and the document is scanned directly into Evernote. No additional steps required.
  • How much paper will you be scanning over timeIt may be that you scan in a lot of documents up front, but less over time. For me, I’ve found that when I started out, I was scanning 5-6 new documents a day. Today, I’m scanning 2-3 documents a week. This is in large part because, having gone paperless, I no longer get a lot of paper.
  • Can the scanner do duplex scanning in one pass? In other words, can it scan both sides of the page as the same time. This speeds up the scanning process.
  • Can the scanner feed multiple pages? Some scanners only feed a single page and then you have to slide in another, push a button and do it again. Scanners that have sheet feeders that allow them to detect and scan multiple pages really speed up the scanning process. My scanner has a feeder that holds something like 15 pages at a time.

Another option is to look at the Doxie One scanner. This is a mobile scanner. It is small and easily fits into a backpack or messenger bag. I have one and I use it when I am traveling and find I still need to scan in documents. (It came in handy last year when we were on vacation in December and ended up closing on the refinancing of our house).

For some people, a desktop scanner is too costly, or simply not a viable option. If you have a mobile device like an iPhone, Android, iPad, etc., there are apps available that allow you to use the camera in your device to scan documents. In fact, Evernote’s mobile application has a “document camera” built into it. You might consider trying out this app, or one of the many other document scanning applications available before investing in a scanner, if you think a scanner is overkill in your situation.

C. Select a staple remover. You can pick up a staple remover almost anywhere, if you don’t already have one. Early on, I found that many of the documents I received that I wanted to scan in were stapled together. Having a staple remover proved handy.

These are the basic tools you need to get started. Other tools can come in handy down the road, but I don’t want to overwhelm you.

For more tips on the tools you use to go paperless, see my post on the Tools of the Trade, but keep in mind this post is nearly 2 years old. The concepts, however, still hold.

Phase 2: Determine your processes

A. Determine your “use cases”. If you are not familiar with the term, a “use case” is something used in developing and testing software, but it applies to any new process. For our purposes, a use case is an example of a specific, practical thing that you do on a regular (or semi-regular) basis, that might be made easier by going paperless. Many of the Going Paperless posts I have written are based on my own use cases. Examples might include:

You get the idea. Going paperless is more than just getting rid of paper. It’s about speeding up what you can do because your “paper” is now in digital format. Searching becomes easier, manipulating the data becomes easier, and integrating with other applications becomes easier. So before you get started, consider a typical day in your life, and note all  of the times in which you have to deal with paper. Each of those “repeatable” interactions can become a use case, and automating those use cases as much as possible becomes one of the big benefits of going paperless.

B. Getting things into Evernote. There are many ways to get notes and documents into Evernote. For newcomers, scanning is the most obvious, but these days, it is the method that I use the least. Other ways of getting notes and documents into Evernote include:

  • Emailing them to your Evernote account.
  • Using Evernote’s Web Clipper, to clip them directly in your browser.
  • Using another Evernote product like Skitch, Evernote Food, or Evernote Hello.
  • Using a third-party tool like the Drafts app to save notes in Evernote.
  • Using automation with a service like IFTTT (which allows you, for example, to send photos you upload to, say, Facebook, to Evernote.)

When you are considering how you will use Evernote, it is important to remember that there are many ways you can get notes and documents into Evernote beyond scanning them. As you list out your use cases, consider which of the many ways of getting stuff into Evernote is best for your use case. As an example, instead of jotting down your grocery list on a piece of paper and scanning it to Evernote, which takes 2 steps (writing it and scanning it), you could alternately type your list into your email application and send the list to Evernote. This allows you to do everything in a single step.

C. Consider the frequency and volume of paper you will process. Do you get lots of paper every day that needs to be scanned in, or just a little. Does it come in batches, no paper for a few months, and then a bunch? Based on the volume of paper that I get, I developed a process where I’d spend not more than 10 minutes a day scanning in paper, right after I visited my mailbox each day. (Today it is more like 2-3 minutes every 3 days.) Figure out what works best for you and develop a process that helps you keep going.

Another consideration: when people think about going paperless, they often think about the large filing cabinet in the corner, and despair: how am I going to get all of that paper scanned! Well, I didn’t bother with my filing cabinet. When I got started, I decided that I was only going to begin with new paper coming in. If, at some point, it seemed worthwhile to scan the paper in my filing cabinet I could always go back and do it later. But I haven’t needed to. I made this decision based on 2 factors:

  1. I rarely have to go searching in my filing cabinet for a document.
  2. In the 2+ years I’ve been going paperless, I have never needed a document in that filing cabinet.

Bottom line: don’t waste time scanning paper you don’t need or won’t use. At least not when you are first starting out.

Phase 3: Organize your notes

A. Dates. Every note in Evernote has a “create date” and this date can be changed when you are using the desktop application on Mac or Windows. The “create date” is the date the note was put into Evernote, but I change the date frequently, especially for scanned documents. Rather than the date I scanned in the note, I change the create date to match the date on the scanned document. If I am scanning a bank statement dated November 30, 2012, I change the note date to November 30, 2012. This does 2 really useful things:

  1. It makes finding the document by date very easy.
  2. It means I don’t have to come up with some oddball format to include the date in the title. I’ll simply title the note “Bank Statement.” I might have 50 notes titled “Bank Statement” but I can find the one I am looking for very quickly by looking at the create date.

B. Tags. A tag is a short descriptor that can be “tagged” to a note. Each note can have multiple tags. Tags are best used to relate groups of notes together across multiple notebooks. You should think about how you are going to use tags before you get started. I’ve written extensively about how I use them, but let me recap briefly:

  • Whenever possible, I avoid tags. First, they can grow like weeds and once they do, they become virtually useless. Second, it takes time to remember how to tag something (does this go under “finances” or “taxes” or both?). Speed is important. Fortunately, Evernote’s search capabilities are so good, I almost never need to tag a note.
  • When I do tag, it is usually to help identify the who part of the question. Evernote is very good at capturing dates related to notes (the “when”). And the title allows you to capture the “what”. Evernote can even capture the location of the note, giving you the “where.” All that is left is the who. So, I will often tag a note with one or more family member’s name. This becomes useful, for instance, when I am searching for my son’s school holiday list. I can quickly eliminate a lot of notes by searching under the tag for my son’s name. It also allows me to see everything I’ve captured about my son in Evernote.

C. Notebooks. By default, you start off in Evernote with a single notebooks. Like tags, these can grow out of control if you are not careful. I have used a fairly simple notebook structure that has worked well for me for over a year now. It is based on a set of notebook stacks–a notebook stack is simply  a collection of notebooks–for each of the major areas of my life:

  • Home life
  • Work life
  • Freelance writing

I have another “Reference” stack in which I file a lot of reference material (instruction manuals, articles, clippings from the web, etc.)

Within each of these stacks are as few notebooks as I can get away with. Once again, when I am putting something into Evernote, I don’t want to have to spend a lot of time figuring out where it goes. I can find it quickly enough using Evernote’s search capabilities. I really just want to capture it and move on.

Phase 4: Practice good online security

Some people are concerned about what documents they put into a cloud application like Evernote. First, it is important to know that you can have local notebooks in Evernote. These notebooks never go into the cloud and reside only on your computer. Of course, they are not accessible on your mobile device and because they are not as accessible, it limits their overall usefulness. But online security is a legitimate concern. My basic advice is: do what you are comfortable with. Go slow and see how things work for you.

Evernote is very good at protecting data. You can enhance that protection by practicing good online security. With respect to Evernote and going paperless, I think this comes down to 3 things.

A. Passwords. Make sure you are using a strong, complex password, unique to Evernote (in other words, you don’t also use the same password for Gmail, or Facebook, etc.) I use a tool called LastPass to generate a unique, long, complex password for all of my online services, including Evernote.

B. Use 2-factor authentication. Evernote allows you to enable 2-factor authentication. This means that 2 pieces of information are required to log in to Evernote: your password, and a special code that Evernote will sen dyou when you try to log in. This protects you in the event that someone gets your password. When you set up 2-factor authentication, you provide a phone number where Evernote can text the special code. If someone gets your password and tries to log into Evernote, they will be asked for the code. The code will have been texted to your phone. If they don’t have your phone, they can’t get in. Many services offer 2-factor authentication (Gmail, Facebook, Twitter, etc.) and I use it everywhere it is available.

C. Backups. Backups are like an insurance policy for your data. I use CrashPlan to backup all of my computers to the cloud. It works great, and I never have to do anything. I also backup my Evernote data once a month. I export the data to a EXEN file, which I then compress, and which gets backed up an external drive as well as to the cloud, via CrashPlan. In the extremely unlikely event that Evernote was to suddenly go away, I’d still have my data. At most, I’ll lost the most recent month’s worth. But to be honest, this isn’t something I lose sleep over. In fact, I rest easier knowing that I have my CrashPlan backups.

Phase 5: Go mobile

Once you’ve picked your tools and figured out your processes and use cases; one you’ve organized your notes and beefed up your online security, the next step is to take what you’ve done on the road. One of the biggest benefits of going paperless with Evernote is that it gives you the ability to access your notes from anywhere. I’ve been in a doctor’s office and been asked if I’d brought a particular report–I hadn’t, but I pulled out my iPhone, and found the report in Evernote in about 10 seconds. I’ve been at a homeowner’s association meeting where the treasurer forgot to bring the budget. I had it in Evernote. Here are a few jumping-off point for going mobile.

A. Offline notebooks. Evernote Premium users can (and should) take advantage of “offline” notebooks. This allows you to select one or more notebooks that you would like accessible on your mobile device, even when you are completely offline. It is different from a local notebook which resides only on your computer. Offline notebooks sync up with Evernote’s servers when there is a network connection, but remain locally accessible when there is not.

This has come in handy when, for instance, I was way in the back of Home Depot and needed to know how wide my staircase was and whether the thing I was looking at would fit up the staircase. I keep a “digital” version of my house in Evernote, with all of the various measurements. But, at the back of Home Depot, I didn’t have a signal on my phone. Fortunately, the notebook in which this information resides is an “offline” notebook, and I was still able to pull it up quickly, find that it would not fit up the stairs, and look for a better alternative.

Offline notebooks are a feature for Evernote Premium users.

B. Shortcuts. Introduced in Evernote 5, shortcuts is a list of arbitrary notes, notebooks, tags and saved searches that appears in the corner of your screen, or in a readily accessible place on your mobile device. You can add a note or saved search or pretty much anything to your shortcut list and have quick access to it. This is great when you are mobile. I have a shortcut to my digital house notebook in my shortcut list. I also have “working notes” in my shortcuts list, like notes for the story I am currently writing, or notes for the books I am reviewing.

Shortcuts save a lot of time that would otherwise be spent trying to search on mobile devices, something that, with small screens, can be tricky to do.

I recently provided a list of ways that I use shortcuts. Check that out for some more examples.

C. Document camera. The phone app for Evernote includes a document camera feature that makes it a little easier to capture documents using your phone’s camera. I use this more frequently than I would have expected. When one of the kids gets a bump or bruise while playing in the playground at school, I have to sign a form describing how the school treated the bump or bruise. After I sign the form, I snap a picture of it with the document camera.

For people who don’t have a scanner, the document camera can probably serve as a suitable substitute if you have a fairly low volume of paper.

How quickly or slowly you move through each of these phases is entirely up to you. But I think that the phases provide an ordered framework, beginning with the tools you need to get started and ending with some of the real power of going paperless: accessing your documents when you are away from the house or office. If you were better with additional incentive or friendly competition, well then keep reading because–

Coming in January–another Evernote Paperless Challenge

Beginning in January we’ll be doing another Evernote Paperless Challenge, the third that we have done since I’ve been Evernote’s ambassador for paperless living. These are fun, friendly challenges in which you can participate with lots of others interested in going paperless, share experiences and advice, and have a chance at winning some prizes. When the full details have been worked out, I’ll post them here, so stay-tuned.

If you have a suggestion for a future Going Paperless post, let know me. Send it to me at feedback [at] jamietoddrubin.com. As always, this post and all of my Going Paperless posts is also available on Pinterest.

Last week’s post: Quick Tip: Scan Now, Organize Later.


  1. Jamie,

    Thanks for this post. My key 2013 New Year’s Resolution was to “go paperless”, and reading through your post this morning was really useful. It offered me an opportunity to reflect upon how the past year has progressed, and prompted me to build a checklist of items yet to accomplish (e.g. 2-factor auth.)

    By in large, I feel pretty good about my paperless efforts this year. I have also built a process largely around Evernote and due to the relatively low volume of paper I have, I chose the Doxie Go scanner for it’s small footprint. Also like you recommended, my pre-2013 files are still sitting in their file box unscanned and largely untouched. I think this is one of the most useful tips for people considering a paperless effort. Letting go of the massive chore of scanning drawers and drawers of old documents was huge for me in getting started.

    It may also be worth noting for your readers that I have also found services like “FileThis” (for gathering monthly statements) and “Penultimate” (for free form note capture) to be very additive to my paperless process.

    In 2014, one of my goals will be to extend the paperless project (and perhaps Evernote) to my family and engage them on ways to reduce clutter, improve organization, and envision a world where paper is less pervasive. Particularly for my kids (elementary & middle school ages), I believe their world will be far different from mine and the sooner I can get them thinking about new ways to organize their lives, well…all the better.

    Thanks for all your help and support in 2013 and I look forward to more valuable tips and insights from your posts.

    Happy Holidays & Happy New Year!
    -Boston, MA

    P.S. – If you are ever searching for information/insights from a paperless “newbie” like me to help others who are just starting their own process, please feel free to reach out. Happy to help however I can.

  2. How does that work to retrieve the data with the EXEN file if Evernote ever happened to go away? Would you just continue using the desktop Evernote application to pull up the old notes forever? So say 20 years after Evernote went away you are still using the old Evernote desktop software in order to access your notes?

    This is the only concern I have for Evernote vs. if I dump files in a program like Dropbox – I could still easily move those files to another folder. Right now I am putting important files in both Dropbox and Evernote to prepare for if this ever happened – but it can be time consuming. Maybe I’m missing something here?

  3. First, thank you for the Bamboo stylus recommendation. I got a dual stylus/pen and it’s the most accurate input tool I’ve ever used.

    This is a such a helpful post to help conceptualize the process. One thing I’d add to the getting info into Evernote is the increasing number of apps that include integration with Evernote. This could be the top #1 or #2 way I get info into EN. It’s now a factor in whether I’ll buy an app or not. Two examples: Reeder offers EN. Feedly offer EN integration on their web version, and in they said the integration with the iOs app is coming soon.

  4. I started reading your posts about 6 months ago and have tried to go paperless both at home and at work. Actually the biggest problem I have is that the iOS apps from Evernote won’t let me change that Created Date. That is a huge annnoyance for me as I only sit down to a PC about once a week.

  5. This article is awesome and I think this will be an awesome challenge for 2014. I do have some paper projects, but if I can use as little paper as possible, I will do it! Plus, it will give me even more ways to use my Evernote Premium account! Can’t wait to see the next post! Keep up the great work guys, and God bless you all!

  6. Jamie, you mention you backup by exporting as a EXEN file. Do you mean ENEX? I can’t find EXEN.


  7. Thanks for posting this. Have had going paperless on my to-do list for a while. Already have the ScanSnap scanner, and my biggest barrier seems to be that file cabinet of paper. With your tip to use Evernote and to start with the current stuff and go back only if necessary, I might just get this done in 2014.:-)


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