Practically Paperless with Obsidian, Episode 12: What Goes Paperless?

pile of letters in envelopes
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Welcome to my blog series, “Practically Paperless with Obsidian.” For an overview of this series, please see Episode 0: Series Overview.

One of the biggest challenges of going practically paperless is deciding what goes paperless. It is easy to know what stays on paper. I’ve tried journaling in Obsidian, for instance, and I just prefer paper. Paper has proved itself a good information storage unit over the centuries. And I think differently when I write with a pen in hand than I do with fingers on the keyboard. Then, too, I’m not giving up my Field Notes notebooks anytime soon. After more than a decade experimenting with various to-do and notes apps, I’ve found nothing beats a small paper notebook and pen in my back pocket for capturing items in short-term memory: shopping lists, to-dos, idea, notes and observations. That leaves everything else. But what of that “everything else” should go paperless?

When I was going paperless with Evernote, my experiment was to see if I could go completely paperless, so everything went into Evernote. But I found that 80% of the paper I scanned I never looked at again, even years later. And while it might not seem like a big deal to have that stuff scanned in, it illustrates a downside of Evernote’s ability to scan and search the text of scans: all that paper that I never used served as noise in searches.

I have been more selective in migrating documents into Obsidian. In doing so, I have followed a couple of general guidelines that I explain below.

Guidelines for what goes paperless

1. Is the document one that I never accessed in Evernote?

As I said, about 80% of the tens of thousands of pages I scanned into Evernote I never ended up needing. That is, I have them there, but in more than a decade, I never needed to call them up in a search for some purpose, even something as simple as glancing at the document.

I have ruled out importing these documents into Obsidian. This immediately culls the total volume of existing documents by 80% and makes what’s left much more manageable.

Moreover, this provides a precedent for future documents. If the document is of a type that I never used in Evernote, it is likely I will never use it in Obsidian and so it will stay out.

2. Is the document readily available elsewhere?

There were many documents that I brought into Evernote which I did end up searching for or using, but which are also readily available elsewhere. Various bank and financial statements represent examples of these. It takes effort to get these documents into a system like Evernote or Obsidian. But often I know exactly what I need when I go looking for it: for instance, the last 2 months of bank statements when applying for a mortgage. Since the “last two months of bank statements” are readily available online through my bank, there really is no need to have them in Obsidian.

This is true of other types of documents that I previously brought into Evernote. These days, many of these documents are readily available through the providers: medical records, insurance statements, tax forms, etc. None of these things need to be in Obsidian.

If the document is readily available elsewhere, my general rule is not to bring it into Obsidian.

3. Does the document have personal or historical value?

Finally, I ask if the document in question has some personal or historical value. This provides an exception to the guidelines above. Letters from my grandfather, for instance, are readily available in my papers, but I like the idea of having scanned copies available online for me to access. Ditto for other things like contracts for stories I’ve sold, artwork from my kids, or letters I’ve received from notable people.

What goes paperless?

So with these guidelines in mind, what goes paperless? A good way to see what I’ve been moving into and keeping in Obsidian is to take a glance at my folder structure.

folder structure for my obsidian vault
My folder structure in Obsidian

The first two folders (preceded by underscores) are “meta” folders. The first is where all of my attachments go. The second is where things like template notes go. From there, you can see how I’ve divided those things I think are worth capturing into several top-level groups:

  • Blog: notes related to my blog (including my outline of posts for this Practically Paperless series).
  • Daily Notes: where all of my daily notes files live.
  • Health: health-related notes and documents that are worth having accessible–like scans of our Covid vaccination cards.
  • Home: notes related to things at home. You can see some examples in the sub-folders, including things like “Official Documents” (birth certificates, baptism records, etc.) and Services (with a note for each service we subscribe to).
  • Reading: my reading notes, my commonplace book
  • School: school-related notes for the kids’ schooling. Report cards, etc.
  • Tech: all of my HOWTO tech related notes. These notes save me tons of times when I try to remember how I did something.
  • Travel: travel-related notes.

As the new year approaches, I have been thinking more and more about what I collect within Obsidian and what I collect outside Obsidian. I suspect the look of this list will change over the coming years. I suspect, for instance, that my vault will continue to become a commonplace-book-centered repository of notes from my reading, and notes related to the writing I do, but with certain things moving out to other tools because of greater accessibility.

One challenge, for instance, is sharing these notes with the family. I am the only one who uses Obsidian and I doubt I could get anyone else to use it. I had a hard enough time getting Kelly to use Evernote. I could see things like my Tech notes moving out of Obsidian and into Apple Notes because it is much easier to share them there, and there are frequently times when Kelly or the kids ask how to do something, and sharing the note would answer the question.

This is an evolving process and I expect to see it evolve more over the coming year as this experiment continues.

A reminder: I am taking next week off from the Practically Paperless series. There will still be posts every day here on the blog, but I’m still on vacation and wanted a week off from writing a post in the series. Episode 13, on my daily process for staying practically paperless, will appear on Tuesday, January 4, 2022. For folks who read this only this column on the blog, Happy New Year! I’ll see you back here in 2 weeks.

Prev: Episode 11: Associating Notes with Time
Next: Episode 13: My Daily Process for Staying Practically Paperless

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One comment

  1. This is a great series – thanks for sharing. I’ve played with various tools over the years for notes and mostly gravitated towards OneNote for personal and work notes. However, I’ve never kept a Commonplace Book and have been toying with the idea of either a physical, index-card-based system, or keeping it digitally with Obsidian. Your series is helpful for seeing how it’s done with Obsidian, and I think I’ll get it started in a similar fashion!


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