Whether for convenience, security or to help reduce your carbon footprint, making your home filing system a paperless one is a great idea. The initial set up can take a bit of time and effort, but in the end it's a system that's sure to save you plenty of both.
To make the most of going paperless, you'll need to develop an effective paperless workflow. Not only will it save trees; if done properly, it'll make finding elusive documents much easier too. If only you could do the same thing for your keys…
When you're going paperless, you'll want a workflow process that:
- is straightforward,
- doesn't take up too much time, and
- has steps that you can repeat easily every time you need to scan or save a document.
Going paperless in six simple steps
1. E-bills. Make a list of all the bills, receipts, invoices, statements and other correspondence you receive from telcos, utility companies, banks and other providers. Ring them up or go to their website and register for electronic correspondence. This will save you time scanning documents that could otherwise be sent via email.
2. Sort through your filing cabinet and any new mail. Throw out any redundant files, junk mail and anything else you don't need. If it's important, put it in a pile to be scanned.
3. Scan important documents (see scanning to PDF).
4. Save your documents in a file format that can be opened and used on any platform.
5. Document management. It's a good idea to give some thought to your folder structure before you start saving documents. You'll want a sensible and workable folder structure that makes it easy to save files as you go, as well as a consistent naming convention that can be easily searched on the computer and sorted into chronological order.
6. Store and backup your files with backup software on an external hard drive, on DVDs or Blu-ray discs, or a remote cloud service.
Scanning to PDF
If you're serious about going paperless, you'll probably want to use a dedicated document scanner, rather than a flatbed scanner or multi-function printer. While any scanner can do the job, a document scanner makes it much quicker and easier to scan multiple pages (even of different sizes) straight to PDF, and also makes scanning double-sided a breeze.
Most document scanners have OCR (optical character recognition) functionality, which gives you the ability to save PDFs in an editable and searchable format. You can also buy OCR software separately.
Automated file saving
Going paperless means scanning a lot of documents, which in turn means creating a lot of files, saving them and moving them between folders so they're stored in the right location. If you find that you're repeating the same thing over and over, there are a couple of programs that can help automate these tasks.
Belvedere for PC and Hazel for Mac are similar automation programs. You create rules for carrying out actions on files based on the file name, the extension or type of file, size, age, location and so on, then the program does the rest for you.
Photo to PDF with your phone/tablet
Another option for converting your documents is to use your smartphone or tablet, but it can be more time consuming if you've got a lot to get through. You can take a photo of a letter or receipt, for example, and use a dedicated app to process the image into a PDF file. Some apps will even have OCR functionality, which scans documents to make the text searchable.
- JotNot Scanner Pro can scan multi-page documents and also links to online storage services, like Dropbox and Evernote, so you can store documents in the cloud or save them straight to your computer.
- Scanner Pro can scan multiple pages to one document and save them as a single PDF. Files can be sent to Dropbox, Evernote and Google Docs, and the app also offers iCloud integration.
- Handy Scanner Pro scans documents as well as white boards and business cards and saves them as either a PDF or JPG file. Links to Gmail, Dropbox and Google Docs.
- DocScanner scans multiple pages and creates folders to which pages can be added later. It links with Dropbox, Google Docs, Evernote and Box.net. It's possible to add OCR by sending PDFs to Google Docs or Evernote.
Before you start scanning pages, create folders on your computer's hard drive so these are ready to go when you are.
Your folder structure will obviously depend on your personal needs, but you may want to have separate folders for:
- Tax (be sure to keep tax documents and receipts organised by financial year as it makes it easier to sort through them all at tax time)
- Credit card and banking
- Investments and superannuation
- Receipts (shopping receipts, for example, can easily fade or be lost and having an electronic copy can help preserve receipts for a warranty claim),
- House, utilities, phone and internet
- Children's school and day care
- Family history documents
- Copies of awards or kids' paintings
- Product manuals and technical sheets for household appliances
- Forms that are needed regularly
Pick a file naming convention and stick to it. A suggestion for a simple, effective file naming convention is as follows:
Year – Month – Category – Document Name.pdf
2014 – 01 – iTunes receipt – Pages app.pdf
By using the year and month at the start of the name, your files will automatically be organised for you. Use naming systems that are easy to remember, and avoid too many characters or strict punctuation. The file name should give some clue to what the file contains, to help you search if you forget where you put something and need to find it later.
A desktop search using Windows Explorer, Spotlight (on a Mac) or a third-party program installed on your computer will help you find documents if you can't locate them by manually going through your folders.
Paperless file storage and backup
You may feel uneasy as you start to throw out your papers and file your e-documents, so where you decide to store your documents and back them up is an important consideration. If you're feeling particularly cautious, you may want to save receipts and important letters in paper form, while recycling or shredding other less essential documents.
Storing your e-documents will be done either on your computer (or attached storage drive), or via the internet with one of the numerous cloud storage services.
Cloud vs computer
Local computer and external hard drive
If you don't need to access your files over the internet, or if you're worried about security, you can choose to create folders on your computer and save them locally or on an external hard drive. But we all know computers can crash and files can be lost forever so if you do choose this option, make sure you have an ongoing, automated backup program to keep your documents safe. You can do this on an external hard drive and even make additional copies on DVD that can be stored safely offsite.
If you want to access the files on different devices like computers, tablets and smartphones, then cloud storage might be your best bet. But as we know, data security and the internet don't always mix. Most cloud storage services offer data encryption, or you can do it yourself with programs like 7-Zip, but the best mantra to live by when putting documents online is that nothing is 100% safe.
When it comes to ensuring your data is backed-up, it's probably safer to use one of the more popular cloud storage services, rather than a new or unknown provider, because they should be less likely to have security breaches or go out of business.
Choosing your cloud service
Most cloud services come with apps that allow you to send notes, documents and web clippings from your smartphone and tablet. For more detailed information on how to choose the right cloud service see our cloud computing review. Some popular cloud services include:
- Evernote - An online web clipping and file storage service that has free and premium accounts. It's gained a loyal user base because it's simple to use and has many useful features. Paid accounts offer optical character recognition (OCR) for searching, password-protected notes and ample storage space for a large cache of files.
- Dropbox - An online file storage service that has free accounts with 2GB of storage space and paid accounts. You upload and download files through a browser and access them online or locally on your computer if you download the Dropbox application to your computer.
- SugarSync - This will store and sync files, share folders with other users and allow you to access files and documents from a browser, smartphone or tablet.
- iCloud - This is the Apple backup and storage service for documents as well as contacts, emails, music, apps and photos.
- Google Drive - Stores Google Docs files via a browser, and there are also smartphone and tablets apps.
- Microsoft SkyDrive - This works on PCs and Macs, and there are also apps for Windows Phone, Android and iOS mobile devices.
Play it safe
However you decide to work through the process of going paperless, make sure that when you're getting rid of your old paper files you do it securely. There are services that offer secure disposal of confidential information, which make it easier if you have a massive amount to get rid of.
In general though, a paper shredder is going to be a much cheaper option, will likely give you more peace of mind as you'll be seeing to the disposal yourself, and can be a surprisingly satisfying exercise!