One of the things I’ve done to simplify my workspace (and home life) is to go as paperless as possible.
What used to be a ton of folders and trays and drawers is now reduced to bits on my computer (and backed up on the Internet). I can easily find things by searching, access what I need anywhere in the world, and it no longer clutters up my space.
If you’re interested in going paperless, I’ll share how I transitioned from paper to digital.
Going paperless is a slow process, and you shouldn’t expect to do it overnight. If you have a huge amount of papers, just do it in little bits, slowly, and you’ll get there.
Here are some things you can do immediately:
- Assess your papers. What kind of papers do you have? Where are they? How much do you have to digitize? Consider both work and home papers. What absolutely needs to be in paper form (like a birth certificate) and what can be digitized (tax documents)? Take a few minutes to look over what you have.
- Switch your bills to paperless. If you’re getting utility and credit card bills (among others), you can usually go online, log into their website (create a login if you don’t have one yet), and opt for paperless bill. This means they email you the bill instead of mailing it to you. It saves a lot of headache and paper. Better yet, opt for auto-pay, so you don’t have to worry about bills anymore.
- Ask for other things to be sent digitally. If you still have colleagues or clients sending you stuff via paper, ask for the digital versions instead. It takes a little time to ask people to switch, but it’s worth it because it reduces your need to scan things. There’s almost always a digital version of a document, because they’re almost always created with a computer.
- Get a scanner. OK, this isn’t always cheap, so if you can’t afford it yet, just start saving, or find a way to borrow someone else’s scanner. I bought the Fujitsu ScanSnap S1500M years ago, which is a dedicated document scanner. It changed my life — it scans a stack of documents (both sides) very quickly, and then allows you to quickly save it into your favorite destinations. My scanner is a bit out of date, though â€” you might check out one of these.
- Start digitizing incoming papers. When you get mail or other papers come into your home or office, digitize them immediately. With the ScanSnap, it can be done in seconds, so make it a habit of digitizing things as soon as possible.
- Start doing your old papers in small chunks. Take a stack of documents, quickly scan them, then save them into the appropriate folders (more on this below). Do this for about 5-10 minutes, then do more tomorrow. Eventually you’ll get there.
That’s how to get started — let’s look at different kinds of documents.
Kinds of Papers
There are lots of kinds of papers, and I can’t cover them all, but here are some ideas:
- Bills — go paperless, put on autopay. Or scan and pay as soon as they come in. File in Bills or Financial folder.
- Client invoices — send them out digitally, or if you’re receiving them, ask for them to be sent digitally.
- Kids’ artwork or school papers — take a picture or scan them. Have a small place you can hang the latest ones, but then scan/photograph them. Put them in one folder, use it as a slideshow every now and then.
- Important documents like passports & birth certificates — scan them for backup, put in an Important Documents folder. Keep the paper copies of these if necessary, but in a safe place. I bought a fireproof, waterproof safe for these.
- Tax documents — I scan these and put them in my Taxes folder. I don’t see the need to keep them in paper form, but many people recommend keeping tax documents for 7 years. I won’t give advice here.
- Receipts — mostly I just throw away receipts, because my digital credit card statement has a record of them. But for some receipts where I might want to return the item, or I paid with cash, I’ll scan and put it in my Financial folder.
- Tickets — often I’ll buy tickets online, so I’ll save a PDF version of them in an Upcoming folder.
- Newspapers & magazines — get them online instead. Cancel your subscriptions. I think most people have already done this.
- Books — I still like paper books, and still have some, but mostly I’ve gotten rid of them and use the Kindle.
I’m sure I’m missing a whole bunch of types of papers, but I think you get the idea.
The Digital System
Because everything is digital, it’s important to make sure everything is backed up. I simply use Dropbox — then everything is on my laptop, desktop computer, and backed up on Dropbox’s servers (and they keep several copies themselves). So if you save everything into your Dropbox folder, you don’t need to worry about backing up (at least in my experience — I’ve been doing this for years without a problem). You can also access your Dropbox when traveling, from anywhere with an Internet connection.
Here are the folders I have in Dropbox:
- Upcoming – tickets and things like that.
- Financial – bills and taxes are subfolders in here.
- Important Documents – birth certificates, copies of passports, marriage license, immunization records, etc.
- Kids – I put kids’ documents and artwork and the like in here.
That’s about it. Your needs will obviously be different, but I thought I’d share what I do.
- I use Google Docs for a lot of documents I work on, so that’s always backed up online.
- Photos — all my photos are digital, in Google Photos.
- I upload my home videos to a private YouTube channel for online storage.
- I also backup my important work stuff to an Amazon S3 folder that I pay for, just in case. Also my personal documents, about once a year. I haven’t found this necessary but I like the peace of mind.
- Gmail stores all of my email, Kindle backs up my ebooks, iTunes backs up movies, TV shows and music.