Going Paperless

If you are looking for a quick answer to the question of how to go paperless, here it is...follow these directions in order and enjoy your new freedom from paper:

  1. Buy and read the iBook titled Paperless by David Sparks (also available in PDF format)
  2. Buy the ScanSnap S1100
  3. As needed apply some of the automation techniques and tools I talk about below

Now for all the fun details! Last fall I was part of small team at work that was looking at numerous technologies to enhance our work productivity:

  • Using iPads to get work done and boost efficiency
  • Collaborative Working Spaces
  • Using Apple TVs and iPads in conference rooms

As part of the iPad part of the study we purchased a ScanSnap S1300i document scanner as well as an iBook titled Paperless by David Sparks and a PDF productivity app called PDFPen for iPad. The purpose of these purchases was to investigate both how difficult it would be to adopt a paperless workflow and what the benefits would be in doing so. Below are the lessons learned from this activity and recommendations for going paperless, specifically for going paperless at home.

ScanSnap S1300i

We chose this scanner for two main reasons, the highly rated software that comes with the hardware and its ability to work on both a Mac and a PC. For home use the ScanSnap S1100 is plenty of scanner for most people. The main difference between the 1300 and 1100 is that the 1100 can only handle 1 page at time, while the 1300 can handle about 15 pages at once. The ScanSnap is a document scanner (pages are fed through a document feeder... as opposed to a flatbed scanner that can only do one page at a time). A dedicated document scanner is absolutely required for going paperless because of how fast it is able to scan multiple pages at once (instead of having to open and close the lid of a flatbed scanner for each page). The other key function needed is Optical Character Recognition (OCR), which the ability of the software to look at the scanned “image” from a document and convert that image into text that can be added to the meta data of the scanned electronic file and used later when performing searches for the document. Without OCR you would only be able to search for the file on your computer based on the title and not the content (words) within the file itself.

Why Go Paperless?

There are many benefits to shifting to a paperless workflow, storing paper takes up more physical space than digital storage and you can’t easily carry all of your paper documents with you all the time (storage and portability/accessibility). There is also an obvious financial benefit if you can significantly reduce the amount of paper used by saving in printer, paper, copier, and document shredding costs. Electronic data is also a more secure way to store and transmit sensitive data as opposed to keeping paper files under lock and key in a cabinet and having to physically mail or fax them to people. To me the biggest advantage to going paperless is the dramatic increase in data accessibility you get if your paperless workflow is implemented properly. While there is certainly a long-term cost savings to dramatically reducing paper usage, in my experience the culture shock associated with going paperless will almost always overwhelm any incentive to move from a paper workflow to digital. However, what I have found with this study is that much of the “culture shock” of going paperless can be alleviated if you follow a sound workflow and adopt a few really powerful tools. Given all of this, the real “carrot at the end of the stick” that will eventually win over the masses to paperless is the ability to always be able to access your data. I’ve found that people don’t completely understand just how valuable this is until you are in a situation where you have the data you need at your fingers and they don’t...then they are immediately sold!

Data Accessibility

Being able to easily search for and access all of your data anywhere you happened to be when you need that data is the killer feature of paperless workflow. There are several pieces that must come together for this to happen though:

  • Optical Character Recognition (OCR)
  • A ubiquitous format to store your documents for long-term that is readable by almost every system and document management application
  • An internet capable central storage location for your digital documents (like iCloud, Dropbox or Evernote)
  • A portable device capable of searching & accessing your documents (like an iPad or an iPhone...come on I’m an Apple geek, you had to have seen that coming)

Findings and Recommendations

As part of this paperless study at work I have adopted a paperless workflow at home as well. While I haven’t been able to totally take advantage of having my work data everywhere I go (for security reasons), I have been able to at least reap some of the benefits, for example:

  1. OCR enables me to find any document on my work computer very quickly
  2. Less time managing my documents and more time spent using them
  3. Cleaner desk surface, its either in a “to scan” pile or its already digital

I have found that for the most part a high quality scanner (like the ScanSnap S1300i ) in combination with a few automation tools (which I will talk about in the next section when I detail my workflow) have taken all of the pain out of going paperless and made it an incredibly efficient and effortless task to maintain. However, buying everyone at work a high quality document scanner is hardly cost efficient. Enter the latest Fujitsu Scan Snap series scanner, the ScanSnap iX500. If your organization is looking to go paperless then this device is a good way to go. The ScanSnap iX500 does all of the OCR computations on its built-in microprocessor, which enables the scanner to be used in a central location by many people without having to be connected to a dedicated computer. The ScanSnap iX500 can be used to automatically scan directly to your mobile device (both iOS and Android apps are available), bypassing the need to use a computer. Granted you would still need to transfer the scanned document securely from your mobile device to your work computer, I don’t see this as too difficult of a task. I have found that most of the daily tasks I am involved with at work are already paperless. So a walk to a centrally located scanner may only be a couple of times a week activity for most.

Going Paperless at Home

My particular program at work has already gone mostly paperless, so for me to really put a paperless workflow through its paces I needed to go paperless at home as well. So every other weekend I took my ScanSnap S1300i home. Now I could have gone really crazy and started scanning all the years of paper I had filed away, but I do have a life. So I opted instead to start going paperless just on the new items that hit our mailbox, desk, family room and kitchen counters from the day I first brought the scanner home. I have a set of 6 hanging "inboxes" next to our desk at home, so we started collecting all of the paper we wanted to keep in those "inboxes" until the weekend for me to bring the scanner home from work rolled around. Then it was time to start the process of scanning my paper and then the REALLY fun part...shredding the paper after its scanned!

My Paperless Workflow

The last item I wanted to share is the paperless workflow that I have adopted and have been sucessfully using for the past several months. The following list of software tools (along with the scanner mentioned above) are what I use in my workflow and are very specific to the Mac operating system. There are Windows equivalent tools out there, but I’m not a window guy so I’m not the best person to talk about Windows tools. In Paperless, David Sparks details these tools as well as their Windows counterparts. The tools I use are:

I basically follow the workflow suggested in the Paperless iBook by David Sparks, which is:

  1. Scan the document with the ScanSnap S1300i, which OCRs the document and saves it as a PDF in a folder on my desktop
  2. A Hazel rule watches for documents that meet a certain criteria and the document is appropriately renamed automatically based on the document contents and date of processing or publication (depending on how I setup the rule)
  3. That same Hazel rule then moves that renamed file into its final location on my computer (typically a folder categorized by mission...so no action taken by me except for the physical act of scanning the document)
  4. Textexpander is used for the cases for which I don’t have a Hazel rule, it quickly renames the file and then I manually move the file where it needs to go
  5. I then use PDFPenPro for Mac if I need to OCR a PDF I receive via other methods or for scanning them myself when I use the MFD (Muli-Function Device) scanner for a particularly large document (and the MFD does not OCR the document)
  6. I then use PDFPen for iPad to access, read and modify/take notes on PDFs

For those not already familiar with these tools:

Hazel is an automation tool that watches for changes to a specific folder and takes any number of different user defined actions on that file.

Textexpander is a keyboard shortcut tool (plus so much more) that can take a specified text string like “;date” and replace it with the current date in a format specified by the user (2013-04-09 for example).

That is pretty much my basic workflow for going paperless. It seems more complicated than it really is. My suggestion...take it one step at a time and only try to bring in one new tool or automation feature at a time and only if you really need it. The uses for all of the tools listed above are by no means limited to just my paperless workflow. I find myself using these tools on a daily basis for many tasks both at work and at home. Also I should mention that I have to turn off the iCloud syncing option in PDFPen for iPad and sync all my documents via the dock connector through iTunes. Many of the PDF documents I use at work, due to the content, is not able to be stored on a non-secure server like iCloud, Dropbox or Evernote so I still manage transferring those documents with a physical connection. Most people reading this blog probably won't have these sensitive data restrictions so you should be able to take full advantage of cloud service like like iCloud, Dropbox or Evernote.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.