People are getting hip to the idea that being paperless is a good thing. When I preach the benefits of being paperless now people are easily converted to enthusiastic supporters. And the first question I get after a conversion is: what should I do first? It's a great question, of course. And, depending on several factors, the best answer will vary.
An acceptable answer, however, is this: the road to becoming paperless involves three phases.
Phase I doesn’t require any sudden change; you just have to commit to optimize your digital skills in general. Take email for example (please!). If you’re drowning in email (i.e. you don’t have a good techniques for processing your email quickly and reliably) you’re not going to help yourself by adding more burden to your incoming stream of digital information. Likewise, if you’re a solo and you don’t know how to backup your critical information, and you start creating more critical information that you have to deal with, then you’re just increasing the likely pain when you have a hard drive failure and no good backup.
So the first phase of becoming paperless is to simply get better at using the key tools that you already have in place. Definitely, that means becoming a major Email Ninja. It also means being adept at saving files to your hard drive and finding things by searching your computer. Being able to search for information on the Internet is also helpful for those times when no one is around to help you troubleshoot a problem. Solving most tech problems is a lot easier than you’d think. Why wait for Godot to show up when you can probably fix the problem yourself? Well, not by yourself exactly, because you'll be searching Google for answers to these problems.
The second phase of becoming paperless is to make sure that you keep digital information in digital form. For example, don't print out emails just to file them (or really for any reason). Emails are already in digital form, and they’re easier to manage in digital form so the last thing you want to do is to print them out.
A less obvious example is faxes. Don't let faxes go on to become paper!
Yes, it's true that when someone sends you a fax they often begin by putting paper into a fax machine. But what people forget is that fax machines are actually scanners; that’s how the paper gets digitized before its journey to you. If you put a traditional fax machine in your office to receive those faxes what you’re really doing is turning digital information back into paper. Web-based faxing is the way to go, and will keep you from receiving that nasty paper stuff.
Even outgoing information is often made into paper unnecessarily. A good place to defend against this is with a digital signature. If you had a ‘digital signature’ (e.g. a graphic image of your signature) and you could put it on letters that you were sending out then you’d be more likely to send the letter as a PDF attached to an email. That system would save you valuable time and probably get a much faster response. Granted some letters have to go out in the traditional way, but most letters don’t. And if you don’t know how to send letters as PDF attachments it’s probably because you’ve never created a digital signature and learned how to use it.
Finally, another place that people commit to paper is when they keep reference materials. Many magazine articles and other scholarly documents are available online for free. You can either download the documents and save them as PDFs or bookmark their URL into a system that lets you find this information quickly later. Why keep the paper “just in case you need it”? Eliminate paper documents that have little immediate value, or only uncertain future value.
Lastly, in Phase II you’ll want to learn to read documents you receive on a computer screen. I understand that you would rather read paper; so would I. Paper is very comfortable and it’s familiar so it feels good to absorb information by reading paper. But, the sooner you wean yourself from always printing out documents to read them the easier the transition to a paperless world will be. The cost of storing and sending digital information is steadily dropping. The cost of printing (are you paying attention to the economic crisis in the world of newspapers?) is going up and the cost of sending large documents is going to always go up too. Eventually it will be necessary for everyone to learn to read certain kinds of documents on a computer screen.
Why wait for inevitability to dictate what you can do? Why not start adapting to the format that will soon prevail and dominate? If you like to read on document while you create another one then get two monitors for your computer. They’re cheap and easy to set up. In other words, start taking proactive steps to reduce the paper that you create, or allow to be created. If you work hard in this phase then next phase is not really going to be that challenging.
The last step, Phase III, is to learn to digitize information, especially paper. People send you paper whether you want them to or not, so what can you do? Find an easy way to turn it into digital information. Basically, this means buying a scanner and learning how to use it. I recommend the Fujitsu ScanSnap iX500. It’s easy to set up and use, but it does still take some getting used to. But if you’ve spent the right amount of effort in phases 1 and 2 then this part will be pretty easy.
For example, let’s say you don’t know how to tweak some setting on the scanner. Well if you followed my recommendation that you become more adept at looking things up on Google, you’d be willing to type a search phrase like “fujitsu scansnap set up” and see what kind of help is out there. Probably someone has created a YouTube video, or perhaps a document with screenshots, that walks you through the process. And maybe they even offer some useful tips that they just discovered, and which wind up helping you tremendously.
Okay, let’s review the phases of becoming paperless: (1) you work on improving your digital skills with the goal of becoming more efficient, and more self-sufficient (e.g. learn how to do everything in Outlook if you have that email program); (2) you strive to avoid letting digital information become paper, using various tricks; and (3) you buy a scanner (Fujitsu Scansnap!) and learn how to use it and how to incorporate it into your daily workflow.