I just listened to an audio book on being more productive which included using a paper filing system to get organized. While the book was great overall, this section made me twitch. I can’t help picturing a line of lime green 4 drawer filing cabinets taking up a wall in a home office chock full of manila folders surrounded by piles of inbound and outbound paper.
What do I have against paper? I’ll need to hold myself back a little here so this doesn’t become a therapy session but, suffice it to say, that in most cases using paper is largely inefficient, adds clutter and simply isn’t portable or accessible when compared to digital files. I also tend to like trees and would prefer to harvest their oxygen and our food more than I would like to process them for paper products.
But where were we. Oh yes. Reducing your paper clutter.
Mysterious stacks of random papers laying around can represent everything under the sun. Key dates for the kids school, upcoming sporting events, an unpaid water bill, a newsletter or paper with an article you may like to read. But these stacks all add up. Do you know what is in each one? Maybe. But having them there in the first place is likely a distraction to you and those around you on a few levels.
Have you considered digitizing them? Why not? Sound too expensive? Maybe too much work?
Let’s start with digitizing equipment. When I mention equipment did your mind flash to a big old “all in one” printer with an embedded scanner? Hmmm. You probably have something much smaller and more portable you already carry with you everywhere – your smartphone!
Just as easily as you can snap a selfie you can take a picture of your documents to digitize them instantly. Most smartphones take high quality images that are more than adequate to capture text and images on a written page. Have a multipage document? Consider using a PDF app you can quickly download from an app store to keep all the pages together.
Not sold yet? There are other benefits to digitizing with your smartphone. Free programs like Dropbox will automatically save a picture of the file on the cloud making it available on any of your devices. This is important as it makes your documents accessible from home, work, school, the airport and so on. Compare that to the accessibility of documents lodged in the middle of a stack at your home office.
Free note programs like Evernote let you take pictures as part of a note, make comments and tag them so you can quickly find your content in the future. I’ve found software like this to be a GREAT way to dam the gush of paperwork that seems to flow out activities like taking my car into the shop and visiting the doctor’s office. I especially like to use this with my real estate and other receipts I’ll eventually use as write-offs. The nice part about Evernote is that the images I take with the app reside with their respective notes in the app and NOT with the rest of pictures I take with my smartphone.
Ready to give it a try?
A great place to start is confronting the new paperwork that swaggers into your life. Try the following steps the next time someone tries to hand you paper once bound for one of your piles!
- Pass the paper back and tell them you have a serious paper allergy. Kidding about the paper allergy part but, where appropriate, considers asking them to send you a soft (electronic) copy or asking where you can find the info online.
- Ask yourself. Can I throw (recycle) this away now. If I do, what would happen?
- If you need to keep it, is there a reason why I need to keep this in its physical state? For example do I need to sign it? Do I need to send it back with a payment?
- If not, snap a picture!
- If it is for reference, immediately file or tag it in your digital system (you can quickly do this with your smartphone). If you need to take an action, immediately add it in your DNA list and prioritize it accordingly
- Then… Drum roll please… Pitch the physical copy!
Once you start to follow these steps I think you’ll find it somewhat liberating. Oh and think of all the potential papercuts you just avoided!
Consider broadening your search to destroy the paper stacks you currently cohabit with. Systematically go through each document and reduce your clutter by following the steps above.
Ready for the big leagues? Do you have a filing cabinet or filing drawer? Then it may be time to get rid of it or, at a minimum, seriously downsize. How? Consider doing a paper cleanse and scanning in the documents. With very few exceptions you do not need to keep the originals! Personally, with the exception of HUDs, Titles, Social Security Cards and Birth Certificates there is little else where original documents are required. As you start to scan, label and backup your files I think you’ll find this is a VERY liberating life experience.
Need more reasons to start in on the filing cabinets?
- If your house gets hit by a fire or natural disaster it could destroy your documents too. Storing them digitally with an offsite backup eliminates this risk. Programs like Dropbox and Evernote eliminate this risk altogether by automatically saving them on the cloud.
- Finding specific documents in a paper filing system can be a pain in the keister. When you digitize items and name them intuitively so you can easily find them with file explorer or other search software. In many cases you can even use text recognition features so all the words in the documents become searchable!
- Finally, save your family the trouble. Unless you are cryogenically frozen there will eventually come a day when you pass and most, if not all, of your documents will not be needed. Someone will need to button up your affairs. Digital files on a hard drive are a much less daunting and time consuming than tackling someone else’s physical filing cabinet.
Whether you start to occasionally take pictures of documents as they enter your life or if you roll up your sleeves and do a full on paper cleanse I think you’ll find it a rewarding way to reduce clutter!
Also published on Medium.
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