Going Digital.

by Mark on March 3, 2010 · 1 comment

In my post Design Your Life to Get More of What You Want, I mentioned that minimalism is one of my areas of focus. One area of minimalism that I want to achieve is to go completely paperless. I actually began this transition many years ago, but I have never made it a deliberate process. The progress that I have made has been slow and incremental. My goal now is to “go digital” completely, by which I mean that all the documents that I want to maintain are stored electronically.

The Dream of a Paperless Office Begins

I remember reading about the idea of paperless offices all the way back in eighth grade (1982-1983), and I was intrigued. This is when personal computers really started to grow in popularity, especially in the business world. Many technology experts predicted that it wouldn’t be long before all documents would be stored digitally, and offices would become paperless.

The interesting thing is that the exact opposite happened! Computer technology made it vastly more efficient to create reports and other documents, so that is exactly what people did. Then they printed them out, sent them around, and stored them in physical files. Not exactly what the technologists had in mind!

There were several problems that prevented people from going paperless. One was plain old habit. If you have been working in an office for many years, you have already developed your own habitual ways of doing things that work for you. When you are already extremely busy, it is difficult to reinvent processes.

Secondly, the technology simply wasn’t very convenient. As an accountant, I know that although most accountants now spend a lot of time working with electronic spreadsheets like Excel, they also still love to work with paper. It’s still easier to annotate a spreadsheet with a pencil than it is to do it electronically.

The Tide is Turning

Slowly we are seeing a transition away from paper. E-mails have quickly replaced memos and letters as the preferred method of written communications. More people are opting for electronic statements instead of paper statements. As technology improves, people are developing better strategies for going digital. The trick is to change your mindset from a paper mindset to a digital mindset.

Ideas for Going Completely Digital

  • Stop printing stuff. Most of the time it is completely unnecessary. We often print it out for the sole reason of storing it. Why? Mostly out of habit. We feel that we should keep it “just in case.” Think before you print. Ask yourself if you really need it and what’s the worst that would happen if you didn’t have a copy of it.
  • “Print” your documents to a PDF file. For documents that you want to keep a copy of, you can always save them to a PDF file. There are free or very cheap software solutions that allow you to select a PDF file instead of a printer when you print a document. I use Pdf995, but there are many other great solutions as well.
  • Develop an organized folder structure on your computer. I have one folder called “Receipts, Invoices, and Confirmations” with subfolders by year. I have another folder called “My Pictures” with subfolders by year with more subfolders by month. However you set it up, make sure that you don’t have to think too much. If you do, then you will never use it.
  • Use an automatic backup system. Do you backup your files? For years I told myself that I really need to backup my files. Luckily nothing ever happened, because my backups were few and far between. I wasn’t willing to take that risk any longer, so I began using a great automatic online backup service called Dropbox. Now my files are constantly backed up in the background without me even knowing about it. See my Products page to read more about how this great little service works. It’s free up to 2 GB of storage.
  • Use a redundant backup system. For even more peace of mind, I use a second automatic backup system called Mozy. Mozy also offers 2 GB of free storage space. Mozy is the first online backup system that I have ever used. Like Dropbox, it backs up files in the background, but unfortunately Mozy isn’t nearly as user friendly when it comes to accessing files. Still, I use Mozy as second backup. It’s probably overkill, but the plan that I use is not terribly expensive, so I think it is worth it.
  • Get credit monitoring. This is a service that I don’t have but intend to research more thoroughly. Dropbox and Mozy both encrypt your files as they are transmitted over the Internet, so they should be pretty safe. However, security breaches are always possible. Also, with more and more of our lives happening over the Internet in various ways, identity theft is becoming more of a danger.
  • Ditch the physical photographs and go digital. These days most people have digital cameras. Film is dying a quick death. Still, many people get physical prints made from their digital photographs. Why? Programs like Google’s Picasa are making organizing, editing, and viewing photos a snap, and many of them are free.
  • Scan your old photographs. Do you even look at your old physical photo albums? I know I don’t do it very often. I do look at my digital photographs though. It’s just so much easier. I have plenty of physical photographs that I have been meaning to scan. I finally decided that I will never do it. Now I plan on sending them to a service to have them scanned, even the ones that are currently in photo albums. Then I plan on giving the pictures away or tossing them. I can always have a print made from the digital scan if I really need to.
  • Disconnect your printer from your computer. I haven’t done this yet, but I plan to. This will reduce my urge to print things. I am considering getting a very small printer for the rare occasions that I need to print something. I would just leave it in the closet. It has to be something very light and easy to hook up for a quick print job.
  • Shred, shred, shred. If you have a lot of physical files, you can probably shred the vast majority of it. I used to keep credit card statements, bank statements, utility bills and all sorts of stuff. Now it is all going through the shredder. I honestly will never sit down and do it myself, so I’m collecting my old papers in a box to bring to a professional shredding service. I still have quite a few papers to go through. I have two file cabinets at home (one that is already empty), and I intend to get rid of both of them.
  • Scan old physical documents that need to be kept. I have tax files and other documents that unfortunately really should be kept. I will need to scan these. How am I going to scan these documents? I really don’t know at this point. Will I do it myself? Is this something a professional service can do? Should I just find someone on Craigslist and pay them an hourly rate? I don’t know yet.

What other ideas do you have to make going digital more convenient, more secure, or more effective?

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