When my Grandmother died, she left behind some clothes, a little furniture, and approximately one banker's box full of papers, letters, birth certificates, and so forth. In my grandparent's generation, the average person accumulated very little in the way of paper documents over their lifetime. Today it's different. My wife and I receive, through the daily mail alone, more paper in a single month than my grandmother accumulated in her entire life.
A few days ago, I was moving a pile of papers from one place to another, so I could find a different piece of paper. I realized that I have paper hiding in file cabinets, desk drawers, closets, and boxes stored in my basement and garage (and at least a half dozen boxes stored in a warehouse in Indiana). Mounds of paper lurking in the shadows of my life. This, I thought, has crossed into the borderland of insanity.
The Weight of a Single Sheet of Paper
Consider the paper in your life. A single sheet weighs almost nothing. A box of paper is somewhat heavier. When you add together all the paper hiding in the shadows of your life, you may find, as I have, it weighs quite a lot.
And that's just the physical weight. There's a psycho-spiritual weight, too. The reason we keep all that paper is because each document serves as a reminder of something incomplete in our lives. We trust the paper to remind us. The problem is, most of our paper is disorganized. and implementing a new system of paper management is difficult at best. Each little incomplete item is like an open loop in our brain. And just as having too many apps open at the same time on your computer can slow it down and even cause it to crash… so can having too many of these open loops cause your brain to “hiccup”. Your thinking slows down, and your anxiety and blood pressure go up.
So what can we do? We can start tracking these open loops, or “incompletes”, in a trusted system. Just one single system, so we know where everything is.
According to David Allen's Getting Things Done approach, each document is something we must:
- Identify (what is this?)
- Define (what does it represent?)
- Decide (do I have to do something about it?)
… and then either …
- Do it. Just take care of it right now.
- Delegate it. Assign it to someone else, so they can do it. Remember to keep track if it so I don't have to wonder if it got done.
- Defer it. Put it aside, in a system I trust will bring it back up at the exact time I need it.
- Delete it. Throw it away, discard it.
There you go. That's simple (if not easy).
But There's A Problem GTD Doesn't Solve
This approach reduces much of the stress caused by each document – but not all of the stress. We still have to worry about things like:
- Where is it (this package, email, letter, etc.)?
- Who has it? (who has the physical document abd who is responsible for following up)?
- If delegated, how do I know they'll do what they're supposed to do, when they're supposed to do it?
- What if I need to refer to it?
- How will I find it when I need it?
This is the final piece of the GTD system… what to do with all the paper in your life.
The first action: stop the flow of paper!
- Change your magazine subscriptions to digital.
- Purchase ebooks instead of physical books.
- Switch all your billing notices to paperless.
- Opt out of junk mail lists.
- Don't give out your mailing address.
7 Steps to Eliminate All the Paper In Your Life
- Capture. Collect all your papers, receipts, envelopes, notepads, magazines, and any other physical items that serve as a placeholder for the task or unresolved item.
- Process. Decide whether to do it, delete it, delegate it, or defer it. Once you've decided that, take the appropriate action (delete = trash pile, do it = take the action required, delegate it = assign it to someone else, and put a placeholder in your planner or other system you can trust, defer it = put it on your calendar and file it away.)
- Scan. This is the key step. Using a good digital scanner, preferably this one, to turn your physical document into a digital file. The format is PDF. Using the Fujitsu Scansnap, and scanning the file directly into Evernote, will result in your document being processed through Optical Character Recognition (OCR) software. This means the text from the scanned document will be searchable.
- Tag. Don't use a lot of Notebooks in Evernote. Use tags instead. Use as many tags as possible for each item, so that no matter what keyword you use in the future to search for the document later, you can quickly find it again.
- Backup. Use a service like Backblaze, to back up all your files in the cloud.
- Recycle. Shred and recycle all your paper documents to make certain they are secure.
- Repeat. You'll need to do this once or twice a week, to keep from building up a backlog.
This is a rudimentary description of a complex process. For a thorough (and unbelievably cheap) detailed tutorial showing you how to handle every step of this process, and offering some alternative software and device suggestions, grab a copy of David Sparks' Paperless Field Guide.
So how am I doing with my own “Paperless Project”?
It's a game of progress, not perfection. I have processed, scanned, and recycled several filing cabinets worth of paper documents. I fully expect to have all my paper gone by the end of December.
How about you? Are you going paperless? Where are you in the process? Share your journey.