So you’re planning to go paperless in 2014? Congratulations! Done right, moving to a paperless, cloud-based filing system will save you money, clear up your space and make you more productive.
Here’s what you will need to get going.
Where to Start
Going paperless is daunting, and an intensely personal process. Depending on your space, schedule and security requirements, you’ll have to craft a paperless workflow that works for you. That said, there are a few elements that everyone needs to have or purchase before getting started.
1. An online filing cabinet to replace your physical one
This will likely be the most important decision you make in going paperless. There are dozens of vendors out there that offer to store your files on their cloud, with a variety of security options in place to protect them.
Services like Box and Dropbox are particularly good for sharing and storing Microsoft Office files, though have limitations when it comes to saving email messages or linking to other paperless accounts (e.g. your phone company) to derive your bills directly. Evernote requires a good deal more thought to set up because it is intended to be more than a filing cabinet, but is excellent in terms of mobile access, compatible apps and searchability. Other vendors like Google Drive, Amazon or Apple services are easier to adopt and often offer additional features like music streaming.
Here’s what to look at while researching and choosing an online storage tool: (1) security; (2) mobile accessibility; (3) storage space available; (4) price; (5) any restrictions on file types; (6) ease of uploading files; and (7) interface with other applications.
The only thing I’ll dictate here is that your paper ends up in the cloud instead of on a physical hard drive. Physical drives pose more of a security risk (flood, fire, or even just your cat mistaking the drive for a litter box) and are severely limited in terms of mobile accessibility.
2. A scanner
Once you know where you’ll be keeping everything, you’ll need a way to get it there. If you’ve got paper on your desk, the easiest way to put it into your new online system is a scanner. These are sometimes built into your printer or fax machine, but several new varieties are tailor-made for paperless spaces. Scansnap, for example, makes your PDFs searchable and integrates directly with a few cloud services. Some scanners are compact and portable, while others have pristine output, but take a while to complete the job.
The key features to consider here are (1) size; (2) price; (3) speed; (4) color scanning; (5) integrations with your filing system and (6) double-sided scanning.
3. A convert-to-PDF and/or screenshot tool
This is a second way to get documents into your online storage system. PDFs will be the main format for most of your stored files, given that PDFs are both more secure and more accommodating (of signatures, for example) than raw editable files. The downside of PDFs is that they are more difficult to search, but tools like Evernote and Scansnap are quickly overcoming that problem.
For items created in Microsoft Office, you usually have a “save as PDF” option within the application itself. For others, you can download applications like PDFCreator onto your machine to convert documents offline.
When it’s not a document you’re working with, screenshots are a great backup. Again, several PCs have in-built systems (or even just the PrintScreen button on your keyboard) to take screenshots. But using a free, web-based system like Awesome Screenshot or Lightshot can output directly to a PDF file and will let you crop the screenshot before you save it. The screenshot method is ideal for saving order confirmation information or online design plans to your paperless system.
4. A paperless billing system through your bank or credit card
The main way that most of us collect paper (unless you’re a lawyer) is in the form of bills, invoices, receipts, etc. Whether it’s your home utility bill or your company’s water cooler fees, everything seems to arrive by snail mail. These days, though, several companies offer incentives for paperless billing. The only problem with that is keeping track of all the passwords for individual sites.
That’s where consolidating your billing to a single site comes in. Check with your bank or credit card company to see if they provide online paperless billing hubs. Bank of America, Chase, First Republic, etc. each have a system where you can enter any billing account (your cable company or your steel supplier), and you’ll get notifications when new bills arrive. They can then be paid directly from your bank account. Even if you don’t use the billing hub to pay the bill, it’s a great place to consolidate all your bills paperlessly.
The Pros: You can take care of all your bills in one spot, and file away the bills without every printing them out or licking a stamp. The Cons: You’ll have to log into the online billing system regularly and create a habit around paying bills this way instead of replying to snail mail invoices.
5. A shredder
This is the most satisfying part of going paperless – and the bravest! Most of us have been attached to paper for so long that it takes a gulp of courage for us to shred that hard copy of our car insurance policy into a gazillion little pieces. But it is, after all, the end result of all your hard work - and the only way to prove out – going paperless.
Here’s what you’ll need to look for in a shredder:
Cross-cut capability for security
What I’ve laid out above is just an overview of the tools, not a dictation of your paperless process. You’ll need to decide how to string these together in a way that works best for your flow. Once you’ve set up the process and architecture, jump in. Start saving and shredding.