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How many pieces of paper are on your kitchen counter, dining room table, or some other place where they don’t belong? Do you hang onto receipts in case you need them again? Is there a stack of papers from the vet that you keep in case you need to remember exactly what meds your pet took three years ago? All that paper sits there waiting for a time when you’ll be able to deal with it, whatever that means. (It means glancing at each page and then shoving them all into the recycling bin.) It’s time to get rid of the paper and all the guilt that piles up along with it. It’s time to go paperless.
I’ve been paper-free for nearly a decade. By paper-free, I don’t mean there are zero pieces of paper in my life. I still need my paper birth certificate, of course, and I use a small paper notebook for a language class that I take. For the most part, however, I don’t hang onto paper. Instead, I scan important documents to a storage service and keep digital notes in a note-taking app. I also write my to-do list and shopping list in my phone, and I pin restaurants recommendations to an online map. There are a lot of simple ways to remove paper from your life.
Going digital is easy. The hard part is not letting paper start to creep back in. If you’re ready to get rid of most of the paper in your life, here’s what you need to know to get started and to keep it up.
1) Forget the Backlog
It may sound counterintuitive, but the first step in going paperless is to forget about whatever paper backlog you’ve already accumulated and instead focus on the new habits you need to adopt to go paperless starting now. Don’t look backward: Adopt a go-forward approach.
You’ll get to your existing piles of paper someday—or not. For now, don’t let those papers hold you back. Having to deal with a backlog can feel overwhelming, and when people feel overwhelmed, they procrastinate. So forget about it for now. Instead, put your effort into making sure the backlog doesn’t get any bigger.
2) Get These Five Apps
There are five apps or services you need to go paperless. They are:
- a to-do list app,
- a scanning app,
- an online storage service, which is where you’ll put your digital files (more on this in a moment),
- e-signature tools (Adobe Acrobat is a good example) for signing digital documents without printing them, and
- a document delivery service for sending official documents without printing them.
3) Pick a Storage Service
Let’s dig in a little more on the third app, a storage service, because it’s more complicated than the others. The storage service is where you’ll keep digital versions of your paper documents.
Ideally, you want a storage service that makes your files accessible no matter where you are and backs them up. One option is to use an online storage and file-sharing service, such as Dropbox or Microsoft OneDrive.
Another option is to use a service that’s designed especially for people who want to go paperless. Neat and FileThis are two examples. They have special tools for people going paperless, such as the ability to automatically label and tag document types it recognizes, such as taxes. FileThis also has a “fetch” service that automatically copies important documents it finds in your email account.
No matter which service you choose, pick one and stick with it so that you can put all your digital documents in one place.
4) Sign Up for Email Statements and Digital Payments
If you still receive paper bills and statements, sign up to receive them by email instead wherever you can. If you still send checks regularly, see if you can switch to making payments online instead.
While utility companies and banks have honored digital payments for years, the last holdouts who don’t always accept them are landlords and management companies. If you’re stuck in this predicament, try explaining that they’ll get their money faster and more reliably when they accept digital payments. Even the smallest businesses can accept direct bank transfers with little or no fees attached. When you can pay all your bills digitally rather than with checks and envelopes, you get one step closer to being paperless.
5) Scan and Shred
Now it’s time to start developing new habits. Scanning and shredding or recycling is the one you’ll probably do the most. I much prefer to scan using a mobile app, but you could also use a desktop scanner or the scanning function on a multifunction printer.
Make a rule for yourself that goes something like this: When I get a new piece of paper that I need to digitize, I’ll use my phone to scan it right away and then place the paper in the recycling or shredding pile. Better yet, dispose of it directly in the shredder. Why wait?
Forcing yourself to follow that habit may be hard. “I don’t have the time to scan this right now,” you might say. Practice your new habit by scanning a document or two from your backlog, just to try it out. How long does it take? Which app did you use? You might also find that scanning documents in natural light goes more smoothly than doing it with indoor lighting. Once you get a feel for how to do it and how much time it takes, you might have an easier time following through.
6) Develop Other Workflows
Scanning and shredding is one workflow. As you get comfortable with your paperless lifestyle, you’ll find that you need more workflows for other situations.
Here’s an example: When you buy a new product, you can take pictures of the owner’s manual, receipt, warranty, and serial number, or any other relevant information. Upload those pictures to your storage service and then get rid of the extraneous papers.
Another workflow you might create is to save a pile of papers that you think you should shred but aren’t sure right now, and then go through them on a dedicated day. Pick a time and date, whether every Saturday or the first Sunday of the month, and use that time to clear out your stack.
Sometimes you may want to scan papers while also keeping the originals, in the case of insurance certificates, homeowner’s documents, and so forth. By digitizing them, you create a backup copy and ensure you have access to the information they contain, even if you can’t get your hands on the original.
7) Don’t Overthink It
There are some documents that you will question whether to keep the originals or digitize and shred them. When you’re facing a tough call, don’t overthink it. Being paperless should make your life simpler and easier—not more stressful. Stash the original in a folder, accordion binder, or filing cabinet. No one is going to come and take your Paperless Club card away if you hang onto a few papers.
Medical records are tricky, as you’re only supposed to digitize and store them electronically if you have a HIPAA-compliant system. You might decide to simply slip them into a folder or accordion binder and sift through it once a year for anything that’s ready to toss.
That said, don’t hang on to or bother digitizing papers that have no purpose. If you’re the type of person who diligently hangs onto paper believing you’re doing the responsible thing, it can feel scary to shred and recycle anything. But will you ever need that receipt for a sandwich or an explanation of benefits statements from two years ago? Shred them and let it go.