Paper-free zone

As a kid, it was such a thrill finding mail addressed to me in the letterbox. It made me feel special. But as the mail kept arriving, and the work of organising that paper cranked up, I started feeling less excited - it just became another chore. You know there's all these rules about what papers need to be kept. And some papers have information you need to keep to do something about. There are receipts printed on paper which fades over time, small ones that are hard to file, and just lots of different areas which, if not filed in some meaningful way, will surely be lost forever.

I'd heard about scanning in the past, but I had a big reservation about it. Like the paperwork, files on the computer were tricky to keep organised also. And what if something happened to my computer and I lost them all? And when you scan them in, then to kind of "flick through" your papers looking for something would become a tedious process of opening up each file one-by-one. It sounded cool in theory to have no papers, but not practical. Then early in 2009 I stumbled across an amazing app which forever altered my process as it related to paper.

If you're like me, then you're constantly looking for ways to improve how you get things done. To do things in the most efficient way possible - not so you can fit more into your day necessarily, you might just want to use the extra time to kick back on the couch with a coffee and chat, but definitely so you can get that mundane work done as quickly as possible. So here's my tip - take a look at Evernote.

Evernote is a note-taking application. You simply create a new note which has a title and body - sort of like an email. You can attach files to it, pictures, PDFs, Word documents, anything you like. So yeah I'm already hearing you ask, that sounds useful, but I don't know how I'd use it. I can do that with pen and paper, or just with a series of word docs. Why use Evernote?

That's the thing with Evernote, despite it's simplicity, or perhaps because of that, it can take some time to get going. You have to work out how you'll use it. I'll tell you how I use it, but first let me tell you a couple more things you can do with it. At this point, if you haven't already done so, I'd suggest taking a moment to sign up for an account and downloading the app so you can try it out as you go. Go to https://evernote.com to start.

So there's two other important bits of information you can add to each note - a notebook and one or more tags. All notes must reside in one and only one notebook. And notes can optionally have one or more tags. Think of the notebook as the filing cabinet where your note is kept. It can only be in the one place just like a regular note written on a physical bit of paper. Think of tags as sticky notes stuck to the note. There can be one or more of those sticky notes on your note. They're used to categorise your notes. For example, you might keep a diary, and each note you create for your diary entry you tag with "Diary". That means when you're looking at your diary, you can do so by just looking at the notes tagged with "Diary". Are you starting to see the organising power here?

But getting back to the paperless office concept, there's one more vital ingredient to this process - scanner. With scanners, you want something that will be simple to use. If There's ten steps involved to get a single sheet of paper into Evernote you're just not going to do it, so we don't want that. We want something super simple, and I'm talking one-step simple. We want to put the paper (or papers) in the scanner, press a button (on the scanner), and that's it. No getting a file saved somewhere on your computer and moving it into Evernote. No putting papers on the scanner one by one. No flipping papers over if you want to scan both sides. You get the idea, we want this to be super simple. And of course we want the resulting scan to be really good quality, no looking at the scanned document later and thinking (I wish I had the original). So the scanner I use to do this is the Fujitsu ScanSnap S1300. I bought this one a few years ago, so, like many things in the technology field, it's been superseded. The one that's currently available is the Scansnap S1300i. If you're reading this and that too has been superseded, well just get the current one, but I'd recommend you stick with Fujitsu. I live in Australia, but ended up buying it on Amazon as it was cheaper than getting it locally. Try this link - https://www.amazon.com/Fujitsu-ScanSnap-S1300i-Document-Scanner/dp/B008H....

If you're like me, you're thinking, that scanner looks good, but it's pretty expensive! Why not just get a multifunction printer - they have a scanner. Wouldn't that be OK? And my answer - a resounding NO! Please pay the extra, I promise you it'll be worth it. That one press and your document is in Evernote will mean the difference between you doing this and not. The quality on this scanner is superb. Evernote is built to work with it seamlessly, and you get that magic blue button which you press and it's in. The scanning is fast, it does the double-sided scan in one pass, and can scan multiple pages - you just load them into the top feeder (I think maximum is about 10 pages on this model).

OK so that's the scanner, now here's your new process for getting rid of all that paperwork once and for all.

Take our document, make sure it has no staples, and load it into your shiny new Fujitsu scanner. Press that button and, if everything is setup correctly, you should see a popup window appear like this as your document is being scanned


Then you may momentarily see an image like this as the document is being 'OCR'd" - where the text in the document is recognised so that you can search for it


Next, that document you just scanned should turn up in the default notebook in Evernote. I've created a notebook called 'Inbox' and designated that as the default notebook so that newly added notes go there ready for me to tag them. Once tagged, I move them into a 'Main' notebook really just so I know they've been processed.

Here's the amazing part. Now that you've saved your first document into Evernote, it's automatically sync'd online and fully searchable. That means you can rest assured your notes are safe even if your computer crashes, and you can easily find it again by searching for any text in the title or body of the note. Searching even works for text in images!

The trick now is to work out what tags you will use. You can add a new tag by simply clicking the 'Add tag...' text at the top of the note and typing something. For example, I model my tags after a famous system called 'GTD' from the book Getting Things Done by David Allen - see his website at http://gettingthingsdone.com for more info on that great system. So I have some tags describe in what 'context' I'll need that note, like maybe it's a remind to do something while I'm out, so I'll tag it with '@Errand' (the @ symbol isn't necessary, it's just what I decided to prefix all my context tags with so that when I start typing a tag, if I type @, Evernote will autosuggest my context tags). If I need to make a phone call as the next action for that note, I'd tag it with '@Phone'. Then I'll also tag it with another tag indicating what it relates to. For example, if it's a receipt, I'd use 'Ref Receipt' (again, I prefix a lot of tags with Ref so when I start typing Ref, I see all reference tags - being the majority of my tags as it turns out). As well as being a receipt, it might relate to a specific project, like my recent cruise to Vanuatu and New Caledonia (which was amazing by the way!), so I'd also tag it with '.Cruise Vanuatu 2017' (I prefix those project tags with a dot). I could even add a third tag if it's tax-related (wishful thinking that a purchase on vacation could be tax-deductible!) which would be 'Ref Tax 16/17' to show it relates to tax for this financial year. That way at tax time I can pull up all notes for that tax tag and have the information I need at my fingertips.

That was a bit of a whirlwind tour of my tagging system. I'd be happy to add more detail if you'd like, just ask in the comments below.

So that's my system for keeping papers out of my life. I no longer have mountains of folders, one for each tax year, lined up in my office gathering dust, or lots of papers in drawers. In fact, the only papers I keep are those for which I need the physical copy like Birth Certificates.

I hope that was a useful description of how I've managed to get to the paperless office. As mentioned above, if you have any questions about my process or anything else relating to going paperless, let me know - I'd be happy to help.

Until next time.

Derek

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