Get Organized: Tips for Going Paperless

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By – Jill Duffy from PC Magazine

How much physical paper do you keep? When a financial statement arrives in the mail and you don’t have time to read it, do you stash it into a junk drawer? Do old receipts line the bottom of your bag? It is possible to go truly paperless and digitize nearly every last scrap of paper, and it’s a lot easier than you might think, as long as you approach it in the right way.

“The time is ripe right now to go paperless, and the reason is we’re sitting in a transition period, not unlike the transition we went through a few years ago with photography from print photos to digital,” says Brian Berson, CEO of FileThis, an online digital filing-cabinet service.

When Berson and others in his field speak about saying goodbye to paper, they’re not just talking about documents that have already accumulated in the home. They’re also talking about future papers coming your way any moment now, such as recurring bills.

“The average household has about 25 businesses with which they have recurring, durable relationships, and it’s more than that if you count travel,” says Steve Shivers, CEO of Doxo, a company that offers an online digital filing cabinet service. All the bills generated by those relationships add up fast. And even if you’re receiving statements by email, you’ll want to make sure they’re stored centrally, backed up, and appropriately tagged so that you can find them.

If you’re ready to truly go paperless, here’s what you need to know to get started and to keep it up so that digitizing documents becomes a habit, not a one-off project.

Start By Going Forward, Not Backward

In kicking off a paperless venture, focus your efforts on how you’ll move forward, rather than how you’ll deal with the backlog, says Harris Romanoff, senior vice president of product management at Neat, another company that specializes in helping individuals and small businesses manage their paperless documents.

“What I’ve observed over the years is the prospect of getting organized or getting paper-free is very aspirational. We see a lot of interest in Neat around New Year’s and tax season, but then people say, ‘Oh my gosh, I have so much!’ They get overwhelmed,” Romanoff says. The people who succeed, he adds, are the ones who draw a line in the sand, a starting date for putting all their new papers into the Neat system. “Once they get up and running and it becomes part of their routine and their daily work flow, then they can start to move backward.”

Berson from FileThis sees a similar tendency. “Anyone looking at their filing cabinet or drawer full of papers will say ‘Oh, I’ll do it next week.’ It may seem daunting to start, but it really isn’t.”

Most people start, Berson says, by stopping paper bills from bank accounts and credit card accounts first. Next, the average paperless person moves into bills and insurance documents—and, again, these are bills that will arrive in the near future, not piles of paper in the corner of the kitchen. Third, people typically digitize other kinds of financial accounts, like investment accounts, says Berson.

Pick a Service, Stick With It

Once you’ve stopped paper statements on some of your basic financial accounts and utilities, you’ll want to store them in one central location (which should ideally be backed up, too).

You could keep your documents offline by storing them locally on your computer, but they could eat up a huge chunk of space, depending on the quantity and quality (resolution) of the documents you keep. Another downside of local document storage is that you can’t access your paperwork from anywhere, which you can do with an online service. Say you’re at the bank applying for a mortgage or trying to refinance your home. The whole process will be much speedier if you can immediately, from your phone, pull up PDFs of the old paystubs and other documents that the bank requires.

Ideally, you want an online-accessible system that’s backed up and which includes tags that help you find your documents when you need them. Doxo, FileThis, and Neat all offer this type of service. Each offers a slightly different level of automation. For example, Neat is very good at identifying documents used in U.S. taxes and labeling them as such. FileThis adds tags to your paperwork automatically, including the type of document and relevant dates (such as the purchase date on a receipt). Both Doxo and FileThis offer “fetch” services that can automatically pull important documents out of your email accounts, or directly from the service provider. Doxo and FileThis also both offer integration with Dropbox and Box, in case you want to store your files in those popular storage accounts.

Fetching documents is one feature you’ll definitely want if you use PayPal. PayPal only saves the most recent three months’ worth of statements. If you use a digital filing cabinet that has fetch, it will grab a copy of your PayPal statement each month and save it, so you’ll have a complete history of your records.

No matter which service you choose to use, pick one and stick with it.

Develop Workflows

As you become comfortable with your digital document setup, you need to develop little workflows for digitizing more kinds of paper moving forward to make sure being paperless becomes a habit you keep.

Martin Stein, chief marketing officer of FileThis, says he has made it a habit to save PDFs of manuals every time he buys a consumer product that has one. He also always forwards from his email to FileThis all receipts he receives from Amazon.com.

Building workflows is all about finding small actions that have big payoff in the long run, so long as you consistently take immediate action and do the task every time there’s a trigger. If the trigger is “receive an Amazon receipt” the action is “forward it to FileThis immediately.”

Set Aside Scan-and-Shred Time

Eventually, you’ll have workflows in place that help you stay paperless moving, but there’s one workflow in particular you should create: a scan-and-shred time.

One of the worst things you can do is let documents hang around that you simply don’t need. Shred them!

Dedicate one day or moment in your week when you will scan and shred papers that have recently accumulated, such as incoming mail and receipts. Doxo’s Steve Shivers says for most people, 80 percent of what they’ll find in their piles will be shreddable. Once you get into the habit of assessing that weekly buildup, you’ll find that most of it doesn’t even need to be scanned. Shivers points to credit card statements as an example. He says you can save the year-in-review statements, and shred all the monthlies. If you use a digital filing cabinet that includes a fetch service, you already have paperless copies on file anyhow.

Adopt a Digital Note-Taking App and To-Do List

One of the final holdouts I see among people who want to go paperless but can’t quite commit is note-taking and to-do lists. Some people just like writing on paper and scratching out their completed tasks.

Hey, if paper works for you in this area, that’s fine! But consider many of the pros of using a digital to-do list:

  • you can reorder your list based on your changing priorities without rewriting the entire list
  • digital to-do apps include alerts and reminders so you don’t have to keep due dates in your head
  • you can search your lists or notes for keywords quickly
  • a history of your lists are always available, should you want to archive all your old to-dos and notes.

To adopt a paperless to-do list, you also need to make sure you’re effective at creating to-do lists in the first place. If your lists are self-defeating (and for many people, they are) you might want to see my tips for creating better to-do lists.

Evernote is my favorite application for taking and storing notes. I won’t go into the thrills of Evernote here, but you can glean a lot about the power of the app by taking a look at these tips for using Evernote.

As for to-do lists, I personally use Awesome Note on my iPhone, which syncs and backs up to Evernote. But there are a number of great apps depending on what you need. For example:

  • the Any.do app for iPhone and Any.do for Android have a feature called the Any.do moment that reminds you each morning to review the to-dos and meetings scheduled for the day; there’s also an Any.do Chrome plug-in so you can get at your tasks from a desktop or laptop computer
  • Remember the Milk has been around for ages and is a wonderful and straightforward to-do app for Web and mobile devices
  • Asana is probably the best app for collaborative list-making and assigning tasks to different people, because it lets you work with up to 30 users at no charge
  • Todoist has mobile apps and a Web app so you can access your to-do lists from nearly anywhere, as well as some collaboration features.

Use More Mobile Apps!

Yes, mobile apps are almost always with you, and that’s their greatest benefit, but Shivers says another reason to use mobiles is they’re just more fun than traditional websites and online services.

“People are moving to 100 percent digital, but they’re not thinking of it that way. They’re moving toward 100 percent mobile, or 100 percent ‘device,'” Shivers says. If you show someone a cool app, they’ll be interested to play with it and explore what it does, he adds.

“The friction of trying something new is so much lower with mobile devices,” he says. “You need to find something that has instant gratification” to catch someone’s interest.

So load up those mobile apps for storing, retrieving, and managing your digital documents! The tools that you actually use every day are the ones that will stick.

Don’t Bother Saving…

“There’s a lot of stuff that people want to digitize but they have no reason to do it,” says Shivers. “There’s no payoff.”

I’ve already mentioned the lack of value in saving monthly credit card statements, but what are some other documents you might not want to digitize or save?

Berson of FileThis says medical records are one of the trickiest areas because of the laws regarding how they can and cannot be stored and shared. You can keep personal records and medical insurance documents, especially “explanation of benefits” documents, but you probably won’t be able to easily keep other detailed medical records, unless you use a HIPPA compliant system, such as Microsoft HealthVault.

Ultimately, says Martin Stein of FileThis, deciding what to save comes down to each individual. “It’s very personal to you and what you do. Whether you’re a student and you’d want to save notes and papers you write.” Stein, for example, says he doesn’t care about emails and doesn’t need to save them, but someone else might, depending on his or her line of work. “Over time, you can develop a sense of what’s important, and the needs might change over time a little bit for each user.”

To learn more about Going Paperless, contact MCC today! 

 

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