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How to Start Going Paperless

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This post is part of a series called Going Paperless.
Go Paperless With Doxie

"We're going paperless!" seems to be the statement of our time. Banks and phone companies remind us of that, while adding an extra fee for paper statements at the same time. Businesses post internal memos about going paperless, and you've likely decided to do so yourself when looking at the prices of file cabinets for your home office.

Going paperless sounds like a great idea on paper—no pun intended. But what does it actually entail? What aspects of your life can you take paperless, and what tools do you need to do so? And what benefits will you see?

In this tutorial, I'll show you how you can go paperless, for real, and simplify your life in the process. Here's the ways you can start reducing the amount of paper you use, and make sure you can easily find the documents you need at the same time.

"Look Ma, No Paper!"

too much paper
Got too much paper? Here's how to stop wasting trees.

Going paperless sounds intimidating. It's a sweeping statement banishing paper from your life forever. Except, you don't have to stop using paper entirely to start going paperless. You can get most of the benefits of going paperless while still keeping the paper copies of the documents you find most important.

So what is going paperless? In general, it's simply using digital documents instead of paper documents. That could mean scanning every piece of paper you have, but it could simply mean some more basic steps—some you're likely already doing right now. Here's two simple ways you can "go paperless" today:

Banking

Today most banks offers e-statements—electronic versions of your account statements. What previously would've taken sheets of paper can now be downloaded and read electronically, usually in PDF format.

In the past, you'd have to store your paper statements somewhere, maybe in a filing cabinet, or a drawer. After a few months go by, or even a full year, you wind up with a huge stack of paper that needs to go somewhere. And then, there's the inevitable questions: How long do you store the documents, and won't it all eventually just end up in the trash? It simply feels unnecessary and wasteful. 

Instead of all that, look at how simply you can catalog and store digital statements in PDF form. All you need to do is download the e-statement from your bank's website and file it away in a folder on your hard drive—or possibly get it automatically delivered to your email inbox. Simple, easy, efficient.

organizing bank statements in folders in finder
Simply organize your e-statements on your computer, and never have to worry paper again.

Thanks to going paperless, we have a much more sustainable method for dealing with information like this long term. Your e-statements can "pile up" as it were for decades on your hard drive and they'll cause you little to no hassle or frustration. Oh, and don't forget that e-statements are really easy to search through, too. You can leverage your computer's built-in search functionality, helping you to target individual statements quickly. I'd bet that's easier than searching through your file cabinet.

searching for bank statements

While e-statements alone are a fantastic savings, combine them with online bill payments and you're really starting to go paperless. Instead of receiving a legion of paper bills in the mail each and every month, electronic bill statements arrive in your email inbox and are usually payable directly from your bank's website. Signing up for online bill payment helps you eliminate another stack of paper from your life.

Along with electronic bills, you've likely just eliminated checks—another use of paper—from your monthly routine? Instead of writing out a check for each bill, you can simply pay your bills online after receiving an email statement, and two pieces of paper and their accompanying envelopes are not needed anymore. The next time you need someone to pay you, perhaps at a garage sale or in your small business, you can keep them from using paper by accepting credit card payments with Square and even email them their receipt instead of printing it out.

eBooks

It's not just in the realm of banking that paperless advances are already being made. Look at the popularity of eBooks. Amazon's wide array of Kindle devices, Barnes and Noble's Nook, and even Apple's iPad with its wide array of ereading apps have all been successes in taking eBooks mainstream. In most cases, eBooks are more convenient and affordable then their paper counterparts. You can carry around every book on the New York Times Best Seller's List without breaking your back, and can search through the books to find that passage you wanted to quote—both advantages of saving space and searching time that you'll find as the main advantage of going paperless in any manner.

Reading is an area where you may have already gone paperless inadvertently. Do you still get a newspaper delivered to your front door each morning, or do you read the news online? Do you still get magazines in the mail, or do you subscribe to them through apps that you read on a tablet? Or have blogs, Twitter, Pintrest, and other online equivalent taken the place of magazines in your life? How about comics? If you're a hardcore fanboy you may still want the paper comics to keep that collection of yours pristine. But now both mainstream and indie comics alike can be read digitally. Everything we used to read on paper is now easier to read on a screen.

The transition to a paperless world is happening without us even trying, it seems.

The Tools of the Paperless Trade

Going paperless doesn't have to be scary. But as the saying goes, "knowledge is power". So to give you the power to go paperless, here's the terms you'll find most often mentioned when going paperless, and what they mean for you:

PDF Files

Right off the bat we have to discuss PDF files. They're going to come up over and over again. A lot of the tools designed to aid in a paperless lifestyle will talk about the management and manipulation of PDF files. So, what are they? 

PDF stands for Portable Document Format. PDF, as a file format, was designed to be used independent of any particular hardware, software, or even operating system. It's self contained. Everything needed to display the content of the PDF is embedded within it including the text, fonts, and graphics. The end result is the closest thing you'll get to a digital representation of a previously paper document. For documents where page layout is especially important, PDF is the best way to go. 

PDF files are an open standard, and they're supported by many apps you already use, from Microsoft Office and Apple's iWork apps to your scanner's default app. Adobe's Acrobat is the best-known app for creating and reading PDFs, but it's far from the only app that reads PDFs. In general, almost every computing device should be able to display a PDF, and PDF files will always look the exact same, no matter where you view them. That makes PDF exactly what it was intended to be: a truly portable document format.

Digital Archives

This is another thing that sounds complicated and expensive, but in reality it isn't at all. In its simplest form, a digital archive is something you already have: a system that let's you store digital files inside digital folders. Every modern operating system has this built-in, it's often called a file system. You've probably used it without thinking of it in this context before.

Remember, our digital tools of today are modeled after their analog counterparts of yesterday. You can use your computer's file system in the same way that you use your physical file cabinets: to store digital files inside digital folders. This is where PDF files really come in handy. Of course you aren't limited to just storing PDF files in these digital folders. It's a computer, leverage that. You can store picture files, audio files, even video files in the very same folders as your PDF documents. Hard to do that with a filing cabinet, isn't it?

If the thought of compiling your own digital archive is still intimidating, take a look at some of the other articles here on Computertuts+. They'll help you understand how to manage files on a Mac, and how to get the most out of using Finder

OCR

Like "PDF", OCR is an acronym bandied about it the paperless realm. You'll see it on feature lists, you'll find it encouraged in tutorials like this one. But what is it? OCR stands for Optical Character Recognition. It's a type of software that lets the computer "read" print documents and convert them into computer text. Instead of static pixels your scanned in documents can become searchable, editable computer text. This really expands the utility and flexibility of your paperless system. It means that whatever important paper documents you already have, can have a digital future.

If you want to learn more about OCR software and making it work for you, check our look at the best apps to OCR documents, and the companion tutorial on using the new Doxie scanner and its app for your OCR needs.

Collaboration, Sharing, and Synchronization

These terms are often touted as key advantages when replacing paper solutions with digital ones, but each of these features can be a bit confusing without a proper introduction. "Collaboration", "sharing", even "synchronization" all mean similar things. They're highlighting the flexibility that digital files have over their paper counterparts. 

When something is collaborative it means that more than one person can edit it, often at the same time. A feature like this is especially useful in office environments where more than one employee needs to edit the same document or set of documents. Sharing is similar, but usually doesn't include the real-time editing features that collaborative software has. When you can share a document it simply gives the document portability, and software that includes sharing capabilities helps to make moving documents and files around easier. When something includes synchronization though it means that the document portability happens automatically. Files and documents are copied automatically to a different destination. That destination can be somewhere else on your own computer, or it could be on a different computer entirely. It could even be on a server somewhere that's accessible via the Internet.

As an example, when you edit a document at the same time with someone else in Google Docs, that's collaborative. Emailing them the file so they can see or edit it themselves is sharing. And saving the file to a shared folder in Dropbox is synchronization since the file will be saved automatically to all the devices each of you use.

Then There's the Benefits

Collaborating, synchronizing, and sharing your documents, along with being able to search through them and easily file them without having to buy a new file cabinet, are all great benefits to going paperless. But that's really just the tip of the iceberg.

There's also the environmental benefits of not cutting down trees—though computers and e-waste aren't the best counterpart to that. At the very least, there's the space savings in your office, and the cost savings of not having to print everything out, since you'd have a computer already. Then, there's the benefit of being able to backup all of your documents easily and automatically, something that'd never be possible with paper documents unless you make photocopies of every document you have.

And, perhaps, the best benefit is that to go paperless, you don't actually need to stop using paper 100%. You can start using e-statements, eBooks, and scanned PDF copies of your legacy documents while still keeping the most important paper copies that you don't feel comfortable giving up. Once you get used to being able to easily locate any paper document and search through it on your computer, you'll quickly find that you want to quit keeping everything on paper.

Conclusion

I've given you an explanation of what it means to "go paperless," walked you through the technologies used to go paperless, shown you some easy ways to get started, and given you a few of the benefits to going paperless. Now, it's up to you. Take the first step, and as you're preparing your taxes this year and clearing out last year's documents, try to start taking some of your paperwork paperless. By this time next year, wanting to keep paper copies of everything will be a distant memory.

Then, to get more out of your newfound paperless lifestyle, check out our other Tuts+ tutorials that'll help you go paperless:

Resources
Graphic Credit: Paperless icon designed by Baruch Moskovits from the Noun Project.

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