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Practical Computer Advice
from Martin Kadansky
Volume 12 Issue 6
June 2018
Going Paperless, Carefully Part 3: An Updated Perspective

I'm going have to buy another file cabinet?!

My motivation to change my paper-storage habits started with the realization that if my business and personal paper records kept growing, I would have to buy a third file cabinet just to keep up. Not only would that be an awkward addition to my office, it also said a lot about the never-ending growth of my paper records.

So, in late 2011 I decided to stop printing out any new receipts for my online purchases. Instead, I started "printing to PDF" and then storing those files in my computer. This reduced the growth of the paper records stored in my nearly-full file cabinets.

Then, in late 2014, I bought a dedicated document scanner (a Fujitsu ScanSnap iX500 Color Image Scanner) and began converting some of my longstanding paper records into PDF files in my computer. I then shredded and discarded those papers, which started to free up space in my file cabinets. I also began scanning in (and discarding) newly arriving paper documents, which also helped reduce the growth.

Now that I have been using these techniques for a number of years, here is my additional advice and perspective on "going paperless, carefully."

Goals and strategy

I recommend the following goals:
  • To reduce the size of your existing paper records,
  • To reduce the growth of your paper records, and
  • To be realistic: You may not completely eliminate your paper records, but with some work (and practice) you can definitely reduce them, while also changing your process from keeping too much paper to making more conscious choices about what to keep on paper vs. in your computer.
To accomplish these goals, I recommend a 3-part strategy:
  • Scan in new paper items (either as they arrive, or in periodic batches), then shred and discard them if appropriate.
  • Avoid creating new paper records by downloading files and "printing to PDF" whenever possible, and then storing those files in your computer.
  • Scan existing paper records into your computer, then discard or shred the originals if possible. You probably won't be able to do this all at once, so consider it a long-term project that you'll work on in stages.
How often should you do this?

Sometimes you will have to take action in the moment, like printing PDF versions of receipts for online purchases, especially from vendors whose receipts disappear when you close your web browser window.

For anything else that has no associated time pressure or deadline, when you scan it into your computer is entirely up to you.

For newly arriving paper documents, you could scan them as they arrive each day, or in batches each month or quarter, or when the "to be scanned" pile gets too large.

For longstanding paper records, you could set aside 2-3 hours each month or quarter in your schedule for scanning.

How to get started

There are many ways to begin:
  • Deciding what to scan and what not to scan: Is this pile of paper important to keep for the long term? Do I need it for my tax or legal or property or business or family records? Does it have sentimental or historic or compliance value?
  • Oldest and least important: What records have you never looked at and wouldn't miss, but still need to keep? Statements from previous years? Finished projects? Records from former (or deceased) clients, prospects, employees, or vendors?
  • Easiest to scan: Crisp text on white paper, no rips or creases or stains, paper clips and staples easy to remove.
  • Largest: Which categories or piles take up the most space in your records? Client reports? Correspondence? Tax returns? Expense receipts?
  • Compliance or legal issues: I recommend confirming with your accountant or attorney whether a scanned document is "good enough" for your records in case of a future audit or lawsuit, or an inquiry by investors, partners, or the government. If they tell you to keep the paper originals, you could still scan them into your computer for your convenience and as a backup.
After talking with my accountant, I started with my many years of business payroll records and cell phone bills, which fit many of the above criteria.

The bottom line is that you could be very organized about this, or you could simply jump in anywhere. I recommend doing whatever it takes for you to get started. Once you make some progress, you'll see that it's not that difficult, and then you'll be motivated to do more.

Proofreading your work

Just as you would check a paper printout to make sure that it printed properly, it is also very important to review every scanned document for readability and completeness, especially before shredding or recycling the paper original, specifically:
  • Did every page scan legibly? What about the faint items on the page, especially handwritten notes in pencil?
  • Did the entire page get scanned, or did anything near the edges get cropped off?
  • Are there any unwanted or blank pages to delete? I like to remove those "Here's how you reconcile your bank statement," "How to contact us," "Your rights as a consumer," "Special offers," and "This page intentionally left blank" pages.
  • Are the pages or statements in the right order?
And since you'll be scanning files from many different years, I recommend naming each file consistently and clearly, e.g., "2018.05.31 Citizens checking statement" instead of "May 31 2018 bank statement."

This is actually a lot easier than it might sound. After scanning each document into a PDF file, I scroll through it and quickly review each page. Most of the time they look good, but occasionally I spot a problem and have to re-scan, but I'm always very glad that I looked.

You should also recognize that while any conversion from one form to another (e.g., paper to PDF) may be very good, it won't be perfect. Some details will not be as clear, the image may be at a slight angle, and the colors will shift a little. And, if your process including shredding and discarding, the original will also be gone forever. That alone should be a good reason to check your work every time.

Having a good computer backup system has never been more important

This shift from paper records (physically stored in your home or office) to electronic files (electronically stored in your computer) makes having a thorough, scheduled backup system even more critically important than ever.

The last thing you want is to spend all this time and effort and money scanning in paper files and shredding them (and creating paperless electronic files to begin with), only to lose it all if your computer stops working or gets stolen.

Issues that you will probably encounter

These are the most common problems that I've experienced when scanning original paper documents:
  • Faint: Some paper documents, especially ones written in pencil (or that have faint text or images for other reasons) just don't scan well; scanners are still not as good as the human eye.
  • 3-hole punched: While they scan just fine, the corners of later pages get caught in the holes of previous pages already in the output tray every time, so unless I quickly turn those pages or remove them from the tray, they will spill onto the floor.
  • Double-sided bleed-through: The scanner might capture both sides of a two-sided original in the same image, which can make the resulting scan difficult to read. Sometimes the scanner's software has settings that might help, but ultimately you may need to use a different scanner for that document.
  • Torn, small, undersized, or irregular shapes: These require the use of the document scanner's transparent "carrier sheet" to scan them safely, or you could use a flatbed scanner. Either way, these will take more time and effort to scan.
  • Oversized: If you need to scan in originals that are too wide to feed into a document scanner, then you will either need to figure out how to scan them a portion at a time with a flatbed scanner, or find a service that can scan them for a fee.
  • Folded: Since the scanner uses rubber wheels to pull the original pages into the scanner, the folded pages of an original (like a brochure) will "slip" inside the scanner and not only jam but also rip apart. Such originals must be unfolded and fed as flat sheets, or dealt with as oversized pages, or scanned page by page on a flatbed.
  • Creased: You should reverse-fold these to make them as flat as possible before scanning.
  • Fragile: A fast, motor-driven document scanner will probably rip a precious 50-year-old document into pieces, so either use the transparent carrier sheet, or switch to a flatbed scanner.
How should you organize these scanned files on your computer?

Only you can decide what's best for you. Organizing my scanned files into folders and subfolders, separating first by business vs. personal, then subfolders by year, then sub-subfolders by category has worked for me. However, don't let this issue delay your getting started, you can always re-organize your scanned files later.

After scanning a document into a PDF file, I also recommend:
  • If the file is part of a series (bank or credit card statements, utility bills, etc.), consider merging (copying) its pages into a larger single PDF for the entire series or year, and then discarding that individual file. I use this technique to gather my bank and credit card statements as they arrive for each year into a single PDF instead of storing 12 separate PDFs. You could also wait until all 12 paper statements have arrived, and then scan them all at once into a single file, just as you might do with past years of paper statements already in your files.
  • Delete unwanted pages from your scanned PDFs, which will simplify your records and also reduce the disk space they consume a little.
While Adobe's Acrobat Standard (currently either $12.99/month or $299 for a one-time purchase) and Acrobat Pro ($14.99/month or $449 one-time) both include features like these, there are less-expensive options, including:
  • On Macintosh, the built-in Preview program (which you implicitly open when you click "Preview" in the Print dialog) does all of this and more.
  • On Windows, there are a number of free and modestly-priced PDF-manipulation programs that you can get. However, I would avoid any online service (where you have to upload your PDFs in order to edit them), especially for confidential documents like your bank or credit card statements, tax returns, etc.
Should you have someone else scan your documents for you?

If this sounds like a lot of unappealing work, but you can't ignore the growing mountain of paper that you're accumulating, you might consider hiring someone else to do the scanning.

I suggest asking friends and colleagues for recommendations, and interviewing any potential vendors or individuals in detail regarding the cost, the results you expect, how long it will take, how carefully they work, what their security and confidentiality policies are, how much experience they have, what will happen to the originals afterward, and more. Ask for references, and talk to all of them.

Then, if you have identified a reputable and capable person (or two), try them out. Have them scan a small number of less-important documents (including a variety of types and sizes) and see how it goes.

Where to go from here
How to contact me:
email: martin@kadansky.com
phone: (617) 484-6657
web: http://www.kadansky.com

On a regular basis I write about real issues faced by typical computer users. To subscribe to this newsletter, please send an email to martin@kadansky.com and I'll add you to the list, or visit http://www.kadansky.com/newsletter

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Copyright (C) 2018 Kadansky Consulting, Inc. All rights reserved.

I love helping people learn how to use their computers better! Like a "computer driving instructor," I work 1-on-1 with small business owners and individuals to help them find a more productive and successful relationship with their computers and other high-tech gadgets.

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