While I do not make New Year Resolutions (instead I reaffirm my long term goals), others aspire to start new habits or overwrite bad ones with the start of a new calendar year. One of them could well be to go "paperless" in 2013. For many years “paperless” has been more of a concept than a reality and only a few hardcore geeks figured out some rather complex solutions to obtain that state of organisation. But since a couple of years “paperless” is ready for the rest of us and you can, if you chose to, embrace it this year.

I have an entirely paperless workflow in place for 24 months now and can confirm that it works flawlessly and with reasonable effort. There are practically no technical hurdles, lots of tools that help you automate and I guarantee you’ll find stuff back faster than in the physical world. The investment you need to make is more time than money, but there are simple ways to get started.

Being “paperless” is something I would not have achieved without the following five tools.

The Manual: ‘Paperless' by David Sparks

Paperless-CoverGoing paperless is a process and you’ll need some practical help on the journey, valuable tips & tricks, a reference guide and something that gets you back on the bandwagon if you fall off. All of this is what ‘Paperless’ by David Sparky is. My personal journey to paperless would have been so much easier if only David’s ebook would have been around 2 years ago. There is not better place for you to start.

The Input Device: Doxie

One of my keys to paperless success is my scanner, the Doxie Go. The great advantage of Doxie Go is that it is small, mobile and scans without being connected to a computer. It actually sits in a drawer of my kitchen counter, which is the ‘landing zone’ for the entire family coming into the house and bringing the mail with them. I take it out every other day and scan all the documents that piled up on the counter, throwing them in the bin thereafter.

Doxie

Since I have been allegedly the first European Doxie customer of Apparent, the makers of Doxie, they have been super kind and send me the latest Doxie model, Doxie One, as a Christmas treat. After test driving it, I can testify that it is a great budget option (it sells for 149 US$ vs. the 199 US$ for the Doxie Go), comes with a complete set of accessories and also scans without computer.

Having the scanner where the mail piles up is definitely getting you closer to paperless than everything else. Doxie’s software comes equipped with OCR and direct cloud upload capabilities (e.g. to Evernote) which really makes it the ultimate weapon in your battle against paper.

The Storage: Evernote

One thing is scanning and filing everything, the other one is finding it back. The latter has long been one of the key challenges when going paperless. With Evernote that problem is pretty much gone. It OCRs every image you upload, allows you to organise by notebooks and notebook stacks, offers powerful tagging and searching capabilities and is available on nearly every platform, hence gives you access to all your documents at all times.

There are three tips I like to share when it comes to Evernote:

  1. Get a premium account: It is really worth it and you want to pay for such a great cloud service that keeps your documents organised and safe. Just the option to make selected notebooks available offline on your mobile devices and automatic OCR of all PDFs is worth the moderate annual charge.
  2. Use Offline Notebooks: Many do not know that you can setup individual notebooks in Evernote to be offline only. Meaning their content will not be stored in the cloud (and consequently not available on other devices or the web). For some of your documents this is maybe what you want to choose.
  3. Get ‘Evernote Essentials’: The ebook of my pal Brett Kelly is the standard reference for all Evernote users that want to get the maximum out of the application/service. It’s a great read and you’ll be an Evernote black belt when you are done with it.

For those who like a more Finder-centric filing approach, but still want to have their documents available when out in the wild the obvious alternative is Dropbox. I actually use Evernote and Dropbox in parallel as of this writing as a fully redundant storage for most of my reference material. I use Hazel to file my documents in Evernote and Dropbox automatically and at the same time.

The Safe Guard: 1Password

If you are not yet using 1Password for your logins and passwords, you are missing out. But this is not why 1Password appears in my list of essential paperless tools. One feature that is not used enough in 1Password is the option to create secure notes and attach documents to entries. While Evernote offers good levels of security, it might not be enough for some of your documents. Storing them as attachments in 1Password gives you an additional level of security. Chris Holscher looks at security choices you need to make at the beginning of your journey as part of his highly recommended paperless blog post series and 1Password is one of them.

Note that while 1Password is of course available for iOS in the incredible and gorgeous version 4 (and for other platforms), syncs securely via Dropbox or iCloud, attached documents do not get synchronised via the cloud.

The Automation: Hazel

Hazel-Rule

Hazel by NoodleSoft is pure magic: You can define rules per folder that look at nearly every conceivable characteristic of a document and do something with it if there is a match. It can rename the document, file it into a pre-defined folder structure or add it to Evernote with this nifty little piece of AppleScript:

tell application "Evernote"
    activate
    create note from file theFile notebook {“YOUR TARGET NOTEBOOK”} tags {“YOUR 1ST TAG”, "YOUR 2ND TAG", "YOUR 3RD TAG"}
end tell

Whether you use Dropbox/Finder or Evernote for storage, Hazel will make your life so much easier when it comes to renaming and filing scanned or downloaded documents. If Hazel would not have automated 80% of my filing work, I would struggle big time with staying paperless and organised.

Getting Started

As with every new habit and every ambitious goal what really matters is getting started. You may look at all these physical folders and piles of paper in your household and think you can never, ever be paperless.

The way I got started was by ignoring everything that was already there and only focus on the new stuff that came in. Over the last two years I came to realise that by now I have basically have 80% paperless already but just scanning what came in and some selected documents from the legacy pile. Who will care about that winter tire invoice from 5 years ago? That one should not stop you from going paperless!