How and Why You Should Go Paperless
For the last eight years, my office has either fit in my backpack or my Filson 24-hour Tin Briefcase, which I won last year from the Art of Manliness' monthly giveaway. (That has nothing to do with this article, it's just the biggest thing I've ever won, and I can't stop telling people about it.)
I carry a couple notebooks, two pens, my laptop, and charging cables for my laptop and iPhone. And that's it. Nothing else. No portfolios, no folders, no paper whatsoever is allowed in my bag (with the exception of business cards that I get at conferences and networking events).
As a result, my bag is light, easy to manage, and I never have to worry about losing or forgetting important documents. All because I don't like it when people give me paper.
(It's a quirk I've spent the last few years developing, and I think it's coming along nicely. Five more years, and I hope to turn it into a full-blown eccentricity.)
I was reminded how important going paperless can be during Hurricane Irma when everyone in southern Florida was evacuating their homes and businesses, worried about what they might lose. Entire companies can go out of business if they lose their financials and data in a fire or flood, and a family's important information can be irreplaceably lost.
I had decided to never rely on paper documents back when I started my company, and to work only electronically whenever possible. Here's how I did it.
1. Scan all business cards with Evernote
I described how I do this in a previous article, Surviving the Business Card Avalanche. The gist of it is, I use Evernote to take a picture of a person's business card, which will immediately email my contact information back to them. (Very useful when I don't have business cards with me.) It also sends the business card information to my iOS Contacts. This way, I don't have to keep their cards, because they're now in my contacts list.
Second, I use a combination of IFTTT.com and FullContact to sync the contacts between iOS Contacts, Google Contacts, and the FullContact app. (I keep my contacts in three separate locations for the same reason I keep my backups in three separate locations: extra security in case I lose a device.)
(Note: While I was researching this article, I was reminded that Evernote's Scannable app (for iOS only; sorry, Android users) does batch card scanning, rather than just the one-at-a-time option that Evernote offers.)
2. Ask for electronic copies of all documents
If you attend meetings where they hand out agendas, ask if they would just email you a copy of the agenda in advance. Then open it on your favorite electronic device when it's time for the meeting. When it's over, either archive it or delete it. (It's not like you're ever going to refer to it again.)
If someone wants you to read a special report, have them send you the electronic version and read them on your phone, a tablet, or your laptop, and store them on your hard drive or in the cloud. That way, if you ever need to find it again, you can always search for the topic or keywords, rather than flipping through three-ring binder after three-ring binder, wondering whether it's in the blue one from Q3 2014 or the green one from Q1 2015.
If you're worried about your hard drive space, but you need to keep those documents for a long time, copy and paste the text into a new Evernote document, and just let that app do its thing.
3. Scan or take pictures of all other documents
Fujitsu makes an Evernote edition ScanSnap scanner that I've coveted for years. It scans your documents for you, converts them to readable text, and file them away in Evernote for you. It can also scan receipts and business cards, although it's not necessarily ideal for photos. (You should consider a different scanner if you want to scan photos for home use.)
But if you don't want to spend the $400 –$500 on a desktop scanner, then download Evernote's Scannable mobile app and use it to take pictures of all your documents. Then you can upload the documents to Evernote, where they can be converted to text and fully searchable.
Finally, you can also get the Moleskine Evernote notebook, which lets you scan your hand-written notes, convert them to text, and save them in your Evernote network. One of the two notebooks in my briefcase is a Moleskine Evernote.
4. Sign all contracts and agreements with DocuSign
"Here's a copy of our agreement. Can you print it out, sign it, scan it and email it back to me?"
Or — OR! — how about I sign it electronically and skip all that other stuff?
If I have to sign documents, I use the DocuSign app — available for mobile and desktop, including a Chrome plugin — to drop in my signature, title, and date, and then return it to the sender.
I started using this several years ago, when I first got my iPad, and realized I never had to print a damn thing again. In fact, it was DocuSign, not Evernote, that first made me think about going paperless. (Evernote just sealed the deal.)
I created a very nice copy of my signature on my iPad in blue ink, imported it into DocuSign, and now I just drag and drop it into any place that needs to be signed. If anything, it looks like I printed it, signed it, and re-scanned it back to my laptop.
I sold my house in Indiana and rented one in Florida all with electronic signatures. In fact, my realtor and the title company used a different online documentation signing system. I've also signed book contracts, client contracts, and consulting contracts this way. So if anyone tells you that electronic signatures are not legally acceptable, they're either lying to you or they're too lazy to figure out how to do it. So if nothing else, create your blue ink signature, drop it in DocuSign, and just nod silently when they tell you to "print, sign, and scan."
5. Have multiple backups, both local and cloud-based
I keep three, and sometimes four, backups of everything I do. I've got both Apple Time Machine and an external hard drive, plus DropBox and Google Drive. I even use Apple's iCloud Drive for my regular work files. And let's not forget Evernote's own web-based storage that has copies of all my Evernote documents, in case I ever need to sign in from a new device.
Is it overkill? Sure, but I'm busy and don't have time to pare things down.
But the benefit is that I've got primary, secondary, and tertiary backups of everything. So even if I lose my two local drives, I've got the cloud. The added benefit is that if I'm away from my computer, I can still access those documents. (I was at a literary reading once when I realized I had grabbed the wrong piece. I accessed my iCloud Drive on my phone, found the right one, and was able to continue with no problem.)
What if the power goes out or you lose wifi?
That's annoying, but not a problem. For one thing, we were plenty prepared for Irma, so even a power loss didn't mean I would have been without my data. For one thing, all my solutions are accessible by my phone. For another, everything is still on my laptop, and I have plenty of power-related workarounds there. Third, there were plenty of places that did have power and wifi, and if there were some kind of document-related emergency, I could have gotten things done.
But if things are going belly up and I don't have power, wifi, or even access to my phone and laptop, I have much bigger problems than finding a couple of missing TPS reports could ever solve. So I'm confident I can solve 99.9% of my problems with my electronic devices and a can-do attitude.
Going paperless was never a challenge, but it's made a big difference in my productivity and organization. It was very easy to stop using paper and to switch to an all-digital environment. I had eschewed most paper many years ago, so it wasn't that difficult to make this one an official quirk and find the technology to help me nurture it further.
In the end, it has not only helped me keep a much neater, more organized office, but my bag is lighter, I don't feel bogged down by a bunch of needless stuff, and I can focus on working rather than trying to find everything.
Erik Deckers is the president and owner of Pro Blog Service, a content marketing agency. He is also the co-author of No Bullshit Social Media and Branding Yourself, which will see its third edition released in October. Surprisingly, he still loves paper books, and has a hard time embracing the ebook future.