How I do paperless

ZDNet columnist Denise Amrich shares a bit about how her paperless process works, in hopes that it may inspire you to find creative ways to reduce an overwhelming paper presence in your offices and lives.
Written by Denise Amrich, Contributor

It has been a privilege to take part in the most recent Great Debate, The paperless business: Is it already here?, not only because of my genuine excitement about the topic and the fun of debating my worthy opponent, Larry Seltzer, but also because of the fascinating discussion going on in the TalkBacks.

This is a level of connectivity to my data that is scifi movie level and represents a huge boost to productivity.

It was some consolation that, although I didn't win the popular vote, our wise moderator awarded me the win because he said I made better points proving that the building blocks for a paperless movement are in place today. I really do believe those building blocks are in place because I run a pretty paperless office myself, and I know many others who do, too.

Some of our readers were a little hard on me about my definition of "paperless" as meaning less paper, as opposed to paper-free (which would be no paper). However, I promise you this wasn't just a specious semantic manipulation on my part. It actually came from a non-paper reference. I Googled "define paperless" and the first thing that came up was the Wikipedia definition below.

"A paperless office is a work environment in which the use of paper is eliminated or greatly reduced. This is done by converting documents and other papers into digital form. Proponents claim that "going paperless" can save money, boost productivity, save space, make documentation and information sharing easier, keep personal information more secure, and help the environment. The concept can also be extended to communications outside the office."

Rather than rehash my debate argument, I'd like to address each of the items in the above definition. I'll share a little bit about how my paperless process works, in hopes that it may inspire others to find creative ways to reduce an overwhelming paper presence in their offices and lives.

Also I want to say that I am not anti-paper. I actually love paper, but absence really does make the heart grow fonder, and I appreciate it more when I use it appropriately. To me, paperlessness isn't about cutting paper completely out of my life, it's about being in right relationship with paper.

Reducing paper

One great way to reduce paper is to use your bank's online billpay function. You don't have to write checks, buy stamps, lick envelopes, or find a mailbox. I do the bookkeeping for our company, and I have signed up for paperless billing with all my vendors.

I sit down and pay bills one day per month because I figured out the optimal payment day (the 28th of each month) for everything to be in on time. I keep a running list of the vendors, take a few minutes to download all the latest statements (if I didn't already download them when I received the email notification that they're ready, or if they're not already set up to auto-send to my bank's billpay system).

The whole process takes less than an hour, and that's for a small corporation. As a private citizen I'd probably be done in 20 minutes.

There's no need to put the statements in a file folder because I have them all in individual digital file folders in a larger folder called "Vendor Files" inside the main "Bookkeeping" file. I've basically replicated my old file cabinet system on my server.

Creating a well-organized tree structure for your folders is key to feeling comfortable with digital filing of documents. However, if you use good consistent naming conventions for your files, it's easy to find them wherever they may be just by searching. For example, a filename might be 2013_0812_Verizon_Bill-PAID.pdf.

Good PDF software like the gold standard, Adobe Acrobat, is really important to a paperless office. There are a bunch of less expensive (and even free) alternatives if that's a bit too pricey.

When I get the company's mail from the Post Office Box, I bring a large Kespon Guard Your ID stamp with me and quickly go through the mail. I use the stamp to obscure the address on all catalogs and junk mail, which are immediately recycled on the spot at the Post Office.

All that paper never enters my office at all.

Sometimes I make a note of who is sending us stuff we don't want and take the time to make a phone call to request that they remove us from their snail mail list and add us to their email list. One exception is that all credit offers are taken back to the office to shred for security reasons.

Converting documents

Larry Seltzer said in his rebuttal that "often what passes for an electronic legal document is a PDF of a scanned page." But a PDF of a scanned page is kind of the whole point.

A good scanner is a necessity. I love the Fujitsu ScanSnap, which integrates really well with Evernote. It's a lightning-fast duplex scanner. When I bring the pre-sorted mail back from the Post Office, envelopes are opened and recycled, the documents are scanned in, appropriately named, electronically filed, and then recycled. Anything that needs to be delegated or escalated to a colleague is immediately emailed to them as a PDF attachment.

On a personal note, I love that I can have my cake and eat it too. For example, I still have all those birthday cards and snapshots and concert tickets and family memorabilia. They've been scanned, and are in my computer now.

Also, I have a small industrial guillotine paper cutter and I've used it to cut the bindings off shelves-and-shelves worth of books, scanned them in, and recycled their remains. I can breathe freely, and I no longer have to live in a dusty tomb of paper. Plus, I can have my entire library in my pocket.

Next up: Productivity boost and ease of sharing...

Productivity boost and ease of sharing

Items that require action are added to my Toodledo To Do List, which I can access from anywhere on my phone. If I have a few spare minutes while I'm out and about (maybe while waiting for a friend to arrive for a planned activity), I can deal with one or two of those items remotely.

To me, paperlessness isn't about cutting paper completely out of my life, it's about being in right relationship with paper.

Once things are scanned and on my server, I can get to them from my desktop, my laptop, my tablets, my media center, and my phone. Everything syncs with my Evernote, so everything is with me at all times. That is a level of connectivity to my data that is scifi movie level and represents a huge boost to productivity.

If someone asks me for a document at a business meeting, I don't have to dig it up and remember to do it later. I can email it to them right from my phone, in real time.

Saving space

There's a great document scanning and shredding service near me that will shred 200 pounds of paper for $25. After file cleaning (removing staples) and scanning (for which I hired a temp), 400 pounds of paper were shredded and baled by a giant machine, and taken by forklift to a recycling facility.

They let me watch the whole process to satisfy my concerns about security. It was a geeky blast! Look in your area to see if bulk shredding is available. It's fun, and it's so worth it not to have to slave over your own office shredder (and possibly burn out its motor).

Our company's warehouse is slowly emptying of old file boxes after they've been either cleaned and scanned, or dumped after their legal archiving period expires.

One positive side benefit of digital document archiving is that, moving forward, we can store more than seven years of paperwork voluntarily because it's easy. Unless you're trying to hide something, why bother flushing it? Digital data storage is cheap.


Many people are worried about hacking, identity theft, and government snooping. That is a real concern. If you don't trust the cloud, you can do double onsite backups behind an excellent firewall, and maybe keep offsite backups on hard drives in a safety deposit box. Larger companies can use offsite archiving services like Iron Mountain and the like.

My main security concerns involve making sure I don't lose my data to fire, flood, hardware failure, and the like. The Library of Alexandria was burned, but the whole thing would have probably fit on one Ankh-shaped thumb drive. If it were discovered in the desert or coastal ocean, and we could figure out what it was (and had a way to read the file formats), we'd probably still have a way to access all that lost knowledge.


So much has been said about the importance of avoiding deforestation and paper waste that I don't have too much to add here, and I assume I'd be preaching to the choir anyway. One thing I will say is that as we each move into our own right relationship with paper and reduce paper waste and overwhelm, the macrocosm will reflect the microcosm and the world will be a better place.


I wish you well on your paperless adventures.

I'd like to conclude by hilighting a very meaningful discussion board comment by one of our readers, M. Wager. I'll just quote it from his post, because I couldn't possibly say it better:

"Access to the written word, to works of art, to information of all kinds is accessible to almost anyone anywhere. The cost of this ubiquitous access is, of course, the need for technology.

But the human race is so much better off for having this access available to a large — and rapidly expanding — segment of the human family.

If all the electricity all over the world were suddenly gone, access to that information could be lost but one must balance that risk against the benefit of having all of human knowledge accessible to the great bulk of humanity."

Please share your tips and techniques in the TalkBacks below so we can all get better at reducing paper.

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