Welcome to my blog series, “Practically Paperless with Obsidian.” For an overview of this series, please see Episode 0: Series Overview.
Nearly 10 years ago, I wrote about my process for going paperless in 10 minutes a day. It centered around how I converted the paper I get into digital form; in other words: scanning documents. It was part of my going paperless experiment and there were two primary difficulties with it:
- There is always paper coming in, even if I attempt to go completely paperless.
- I was trying to capture too much.
Ten years later, I am looking to go “practically” paperless, with an emphasis on the practical. As my wife Kelly often reminds me, moderation is key. So this week, I wanted to talk about how I scan documents into Obsidian using as a context, my revised process for going practically paperless. And instead of 10 minutes a day, we’re now talking about 10-15 minutes per week.
Scanning documents to into Obsidian
As much as I’d like to tell you about the new whiz-bang scanner I have gotten in the years since I wrote my Going Paperless posts, the truth is, my trusty Fujitsu ScanSnap S1300i is still my main tool for scanning paper into digital form. I long ago lost count of how many pages I’ve scanned over the years–thousands easily. And the scanner is still working as well as it ever has. I know of cars that haven’t lasted that long without need for repair.
One nice thing about the scanner was that it had a configuration that allowed you to scan directly into Evernote. I’ve tweaked the settings for Obsidian. Here is how I have it configured today:
1. Application – Scan to Folder
I have configured the scanner to scan to a folder.
2. Save (folder location)
Because I use my scanner pretty much exclusively for scanning documents into Obsidian, I scan those files directly into the “_attachments” folder that I created in my vault.
Moreover, for the filename format, I selected the YYYYmmddhhmmss format option, which, as you might recognize is very similar to the Zettelkasten format I use for prefixing my note names. This is useful if I want to search for the raw documents in Obsidian by date in the same way that I search for other notes.
3. Scanning options
One of the nice things about the ScanSnap 1300i is that it can scan in color and it can do duplex scanning in a single pass. If it detects blank pages in the scan, it will automatically remove them. I use the default scanning settings as shown below.
4. File options
Be default, I scan all of my documents as PDFs. One nice feature of Evernote is that when you scanned documents into Evernote, their system would automatically scan the PDFs to make them searchable. At present, Obsidian does not have the ability to search the contents of PDFs, but given the community of developers, I have no doubt that a plug-in will eventually be developed that will allow this, if the core system itself doesn’t1. With that in mind, I set all of my scans to be “searchable” PDFs. This makes the scanning process take a little longer, but it is worth it in the ability to search the contents of those PDFs.
With these settings in place, when I want to scan a document into Obsidian, I set it up on the scanner, and then press the blue scan button. Once the document is scanned the PDF automatically ends up in the _attachments folder in my vault.
From there, I do two other things:
- I sometimes rename the PDF file to something more convenient.
- I create a structured note in Obsidian to “contain” the PDF. I do this so that I can take advantage of the metadata in the note (tags, etc.) to associate that with the PDF file itself. I then create a transcluded note link to the PDF file in the note, and then I want to refer to the document, I use the note that I created.
For example, I recently got my COVID booster shot and my vaccination card was updated. Using my ScanSnap 1300i, I scanned in the updated vaccination card. I renamed the resulting file something more useful, in this case: covid-vaccine-card-jamie.pdf. Then I created a structured note and linked to the PDF. I discussed structured notes in Episode 4. Here is what my structured note looks like in edit and preview modes:
Including the scanned document in a structured note may seem like an extra step, but it also allows me to add tags and other elements to the document that I wouldn’t be able to add to a plain PDF.
Practically paperless in 20 minutes a week
In the past, my process for going paperless in 10 minutes a day involved the following steps:
- Pick up the days mail and add it to the pile of paper waiting to be scanned.
- Scan the paper in the pile into Evernote
That “pile” included other paper, like things that came from places other than the mail: magazine or newspaper clippings, things that Kelly handed to me that we needed scanned, receipts, etc. I would go through this process every evening, and in general, it took about 10 minutes.
I found, however, that 90% of what I scanned into Evernote, I never looked at again.
My process today is similar, but there are 2 main differences:
- I scan my documents only once a week, instead of every day.
- I only scan those documents that I obsoletely think I am going to need in the future.
Scanning documents once a week
I scan the previous week’s documents on Sunday mornings. There is never as much to scan as their used to be, and it generally takes me 10-15 minutes to scan everything into Obsidian and create the structured notes for the things that I scan. You can see the small stack of paper waiting to be reviewed and scanned from this past Sunday in the image below:
When I finish scanning the documents, I decide whether I need to keep the original, or if it can be shredded. If they can be shredded, I move them into a box I have just off the picture above to the right, in which I collect documents for periodic shredding.
Scanning only those documents I think I will actually need in the future
I call this series Practically Paperless with the emphasis on “practical.” One of the lessons I’ve taken from my Going Paperless experiment is that while I scanned a lot of documents, I never again looked at 90% of what I scanned. To this day, more than ten years later, I still haven’t looked at most of the documents I scanned into Evernote.
In Episode 12, I will talk in more detail about what goes paperless in a practical sense, but for now, here is how I think about this at a high level. I ask myself the following questions:
- Is this something that I will need in the future, but have ready access to elsewhere? Bank statements are a good example. I have, on rare occasions (like when we bought our new house) needed access to recent bank statements. But these are readily available online from the bank. No need to keep them in Obsidian (or Evernote) if they are just going to clutter things up. I can get them from the bank’s online system when and if I need them.
- Even if it is available elsewhere, is this something that would be useful to have locally? Maybe I want to link to it from other notes. We don’t need official documents like birth certificates, social security cards, etc., but I keep them in Obsidian because I link to them from other notes: in particular, notes for estate planning and “what if” planning so that they are readily accessible.
- Even if it is not available elsewhere, is this something I will likely need in the next year, or more than once? I don’t see much of a point in keeping a document if I am not going to need it in the short term, or use it more than once.
There are exceptions to these, of course. I am working on a kind of “scrapbook” note in Obsidian that provides a kind of overview of my life through official documents, photos, awards, publications, etc. And I wanted some of these less-used documents to include there. But in general I try to think of the practical uses for documents I might scan. If there are none, or if the document is readily available elsewhere, I don’t scan it.
In Episode 6, I’ll talk about how I title my notes, and the things I think about in order to give the notes practical names to make them as easy as possible to find. That sets things up for the next 5 episodes (7-11) which will deal with searching and finding things when I need them in Obsidian.
See you back here next week!
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- Note that on macOS, spotlight search to look at the contents of a searchable PDF, so that is a convenient alternative. ↩