How to Really Go Paperless

The following post is made possible by support from UPS.

Back in 1975, Business Week ran an incredibly cognizant article about the office of the future.

Will the office change all that much? Listen to George E. Pake, who heads Xerox Corp.’s Palo Alto (Calif.) Research Center, a new think tank already having a significant impact on the copier giant’s strategies for going after the office systems market: “There is absolutely no question that there will be a revolution in the office over the next 20 years. What we are doing will change the office like the jet plane revolutionized travel and the way that TV has altered family life.”

Pake says that in 1995 his office will be completely different; there will be a TV-display terminal with keyboard sitting on his desk. “I’ll be able to call up documents from my files on the screen, or by pressing a button,” he says. “I can get my mail or any messages. I don’t know how much hard copy [printed paper] I’ll want in this world.”

That sounds exactly like today, except for the paper. Weren’t we supposed to have been paperless by now?

A paperless office seems like a science fiction dream for many small business owners. Every day, it seems that we are inundated with more and more paper. It’s not your imagination. Global consumption of paper doubled between 1980 and 2000. Although it has started to drop, some, since 2000, the average American still consumes almost six 40-foot trees worth of paper per year.

Why did paper consumption increase along with the rise of the personal computer? Its been called an application of a Jevons paradox. The paradox was first described by a 19th century British economist named William Jevons:

As use of a resource becomes more efficient, in effect it becomes cheaper, which leads to greater use. Better fuel economy doesn’t reduce gasoline consumption; instead it encourages people to drive more, and overall gas use goes up.

As [he] recognized, however, the Jevons paradox didn’t fully explain why the paperless office had failed to materialize. Digital technology didn’t make paper cheaper; rather, it offered a cheaper alternative, namely electronic data storage. So why didn’t one drive out the other? [He] proposed the paradox of the paperless office: as the cost of memory technology drops, we create and store more digital documents. Meanwhile, easy access to printers encourages workers to make paper copies of all those documents, and total paper use increases.

So with all this paper we create, what do we do with it?

Does the way you find an old invoice or receipt have more to do with geology than with a system of organization? Mine use to.

Even if your filing system doesn’t resemble the various strata of sedimentary rock, you know what I mean. If you’ve ever spent much time buying carpet, cabinets or nearly any craftsman’s office, you know what I’m talking about. The filing system I call “geological” seems to be especially prevalent amongst sole proprietor businesses with offices that are only tangentially related to their core business.

When you buy carpet, for instance, you’ll often browse a showroom, or look at samples. After you find the carpet you want, the salesman usually takes your order on a sheet of triplicate-paper. At least one of those sheets of paper, after your carpet is ordered, delivered and installed, usually ends up in a heap on a desk in a dimly lit office somewhere that seems to exists only to contain a desk with a mountain of paper overflowing its top. The older orders are closer to the desk and the bottom of the pile, while the newer orders are closer to the top surface of the pile.

I’m not ashamed to say that used to be my filing system. All of the invoices, paid bills, and receipts ended up in a cardboard box that was sorted through only when necessary to find something, or once a year for tax season, whichever came first. It wasn’t pretty, and its only saving grace was that I confined it to a cardboard box instead of letting it pile up on my desk like quartz on limestone.

Once a year, when I sorted through that box, I’d think that there had to be a better way. I’m sure that if need a pick-axe to find something that you’re like me. What can you do?

I’ve hit on a solution that retains the same ease of use with which I used to deposit layer upon layer of paper into a cardboard box. My solution relies on three things:

  1. Dropbox online backup account (or Google Drive, Apple iCloud, SugarSync)
  2. Fujitsu ScanSnap Scanner (or this one for the PC)
  3. The biggest paper shredder I could find (not this one!)

I have a Fujitsu ScanSnap scanner. It looks almost identical to a fax machine that I had in the mid-1990s and works basically the same. I load a sheet of paper, or stack of sheets into the automatic document feeder and then press a scan button on the front of the machine. The scanner then whirls to life and individually scans each item in the stack, both front and back, before saving them as PDFs on an attached computer. It doesn’t matter if the items in the stack are the same size or shape, so I can mix thermal-paper receipts with printed invoices or color photographs. Each stack of documents will be saved together into one PDF file, so I try to group things that go together in one stack. If something comes in the mail, I’ll scan everything that was included in the envelope.

Digitizing the documents as PDFs is exciting, but once on the computer, the magic really happens. The computer processes each of the documents with something called OCR or “Optical Character Recognition”. Although the PDFs continue to look exactly like the original scanned documents, the OCR analyses the words on the scanned page creates a hidden layer of text over the top of the images and re-saves the file. This allows you to easily use the search functionality built into your computer to find any file quickly and easily. If you’ve ever used Amazon’s Search Inside functionality, or Google books, you can visualize how it works.

Do you need to find an old invoice from “Wilson and Associates” from 2008? If you scanned it, no problem.. Just pull up “Find” in Windows or Spotlight on the Mac and type “Wilson”. Within seconds the computer will find every file on your PC that includes the name Wilson, either in the file name or contents. Since the find functionality looks into the contents of the file, you don’t even need to bother renaming the documents.

If you want to get all fancy, you can organize the scanned documents into folders and utilize some kind of digital asset management software to organize the documents, but what’s the point, you’re not going to do that anyway. Just scanning the documents is almost more work than your capable of. Thanks heavens there’s only really one more step.

[Actually, I lied. There’s another step, but it doesn’t require you to do anything. When you first get your ScanSnap and install the included software, make sure that your scanned files are being saved to a folder backed up by Dropbox. You are using Dropbox, or some other software to instantly and cheaply/freely back up your computer to the “cloud,” right? If not, stop reading this article immediately and go signup right now. The last thing I want to have happen is for your computer to crash and you to lose everything just because you want to finish this column.]

Finally, drop the stack of documents into your shredder. If the stack of documents is too large for the shredder, buy a bigger one. There’s nothing less motivating to going paperless than an underpowered paper shredder. You want one that seems like it would shred a phonebook in one pass or, at the very least, a t-bone steak. Don’t worry about cross cutting paper shredders. They’re more expensive and typically weaker than the industrial strength strip shredders. Besides, you’re not doing this for security, you’re doing this to get rid of the paper.

Have you done this to your filing system, or something like this? How’d it work out for you? Did you keep at it?

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