Why isn’t stainless steel called stain-proof steel? Because it does corrode, it just corrodes less. When I set out to document my paperless life it felt misleading using the term “paperless”, which implies I’ve conquered the paper monster altogether. Rather this article is here to outline how I achieved a significantly paper-less existence and learnt to accept that there are situations where paper is still king.
The painful truth is we still love us some dead trees. When I set out to streamline my life, I found a few terrific guides on how to reduce the flow of paper but encountered the following obstacles upon implementation:
- Some companies cannot possibly imagine sending things in PDF format.
- Eliminating junk mail is a frustratingly futile effort since many people’s livelihoods depend on delivering junk mail. They’ll find a way to get it to you regardless.
- Paper is easier to deal with than images on a screen. Adjusting zoom, panning, and twiddling with annotation features is far more time consuming than pen on paper.
- I’m frugal. I need to know every penny that goes in and out of my bank account and find satisfaction in doing so. Hands-off accounting doesn’t cut it.
- Third party services for dealing with mail (accountant, scanning services, et cetera) are expensive and, well, refer to item #4.
So I discovered the need to reconcile the real world with my dream of living paperless. Here’s how I did it.
Automate and reduce: Cultivate a “not again” mentality. Received a standard, unchanging bill that doesn’t require your attention? Not again: set it up to be automatically paid. Your cable company sends you some junk mail? Not again: call them up right away and get on their do-not-solicit list. While you’re at it, tell them not to telemarket you either. Of course big companies are smart and also deliver unaddressed junk mail, which leads to the following technique.
Junk mail=white noise: You know how in particularly seedy shows or music videos corporate logos are blurred out? Mentally blur out the contents of any junk mail in the same fashion. Right into the recycling they go. I’ve researched how to stop junk mail, and practically speaking, you don’t. Accept it or lobby for a national do-not-mail list but just don’t be surprised when junk keeps hitting your mailbox.
Treading a paper path: Automation and reduction of paper is great, but there are still times when you might want to receive, examine and scribble on a bill. Having worked in a bank I have seen horror stories where someone’s hands-off philosophy of accounting has racked up huge bills and nightmarish errors on their account. I don’t like trusting large, impersonal companies with no accountability to me; they often process things incorrectly and I sleep better double-checking their work. That said, most of the remaining mail I receive is immediately opened, date stamped, tickler-filled for follow-up OR paid and scanned immediately. That’s my paper path; find one that works for you.
Scan for reference: On my relatively Spartan desk sits my computer, my phone and my Fujitsu ScanSnap scanner. If I had to give up one, it’d be the phone. While paper still has a place in my life, its storage doesn’t. Paper is heavy, cumbersome, unwieldy and generally a pain to store. So don’t. Bits and bytes take up no extra living space and provided you’re a steadfast backer-upper (of course you are, right?) then you can store paper in zero extra space indefinitely. I’ve owned two other scanners and have done my research and the ScanSnap is by far the best. Click the Amazon.com “Watch it in action” video link below the product photo to see for yourself. [Mac version here.]
Don’t sort, search: I love organizing but I love being organized more. Feigning busywork with elaborate sorting systems is a wasteful use of time. Searching rather than sorting is the future, if not the present. Thanks to the ScanSnap’s included software, every scanned item is automatically made searchable with OCR. Now I can find the most obscured segment of text from years ago in a matter of seconds. Simply press the scan button and let the computer do the work. Grab a piña colada instead.
Disposing of the remains: The hardest part of switching to a paper-less life for me was disposing of the paper in a secure and practical way. At one point I had amassed a few hundred pounds of paper waiting to be shredded. I’ve tried personal shredders (broke two good ones), calling document destruction companies (too expensive), burning the paper (too much ash), composting the paper (too much touble), and even dying the paper (I was desparate). With the help of AskMeFi readers I discovered a solution that works for me: I found a corporate paper disposal console. Of all my experiences I suggest either locating a console of your own (usually found in corporate offices) or buying a high quality shredder and going really easy on it.
At one point in my life I decide to drastically reduce my possessions. My paperless quest was born of that desire. Eliminating an industrial filing cabinet full of paperwork I managed to purge the paper, but not the content, almost entirely. In subsequent years I further tuned my system down to its current configuration. Now, my “filing cabinet” as I jokingly call it is mostly a thin single folder containing tax receipts. (I’ve heard auditors want original and if I’m to be audited I don’t want to complicate matters.) In all I’ve disposed of about three cubic feet of paper, plus several more Bankers Boxes full. Nowadays I shred maybe 100 pages every month or two.
My motivation for building this system was partially inspired by that giant industrial filing cabinet I had at home. I understand the importance of record keeping but found it to be the biggest dead weight in my life. While there’s still logic in dealing with paper and accepting its persistent role in our lives, there’s little reason to store it any longer. I was fortunate enough to realize technology had made the accumulation of paper obsolete and hope you will too.
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