This post is going to be a bit different than my usual fare, which often focuses on the more technical aspects of going paperless.
I’ve been writing DocumentSnap since the summer of 2008, and have had the opportunity to communicate with a large and fantastic group of readers.
Many have gone paperless and want to optimize their workflow, but many have been struggling to get started. They know (sort of) what they want to do, but find the whole thing too overwhelming.
This has been bothering me for quite some time, but I couldn’t put my finger on why or what to do about it.
Everything crystallized at the beginning of June when I attended Chris Guillebeau’s World Domination Summit
At Leo Babauta’s Zen Habits meetup and at Pam Slim’s content map session, I realized that I needed to outline my thoughts in a post and figure out what it is that is holding people back.
(Look at me look at Leo!)
From my experience, the roadblock manifests itself in two ways:
- Focusing on details that don’t really matter (yet)
In this post I aim to tackle both subjects and to convince you that at the end of the day, the only thing that matters is to start.
Don’t Sweat The Details
One of the great things about the Internet (and, more specifically sites like DocumentSnap) is that there is so much information out there. On almost any topic, you can find a metric ton of articles telling you how to do exactly what it is that you want to do.
On the surface this sounds great: the more information the better right?
It would be fantastic, if it were not for the type of issue that we are trying to solve by going paperless. More often than not, we are starting down this path because we already have a problem: our workspace is a disaster and we can’t find anything, we have 300 boxes of paper in our way, we need to downsize, the list goes on.
If we are already overwhelmed by the problem we are trying to solve, layering onto that an overwhelming number of solutions leads to shutting down.
Instead of looking at the big picture, we start to focus on the details. What should our folders be called? What is the perfect folder structure? Which is better, this software or that software? What on earth are tags? Ahhhh!
I am sure you can guess what comes next. By going crazy focusing on the details of our problem, we don’t actually do anything.
No Need To Apologize
The number one area that this paralysis occurs is around folder structure.
It is understandable why this is. Coming from a paper-based system, how you file things is absolutely critical. If you don’t know where you filed it, you’ll never find it again (unless you are like Eddie from Practically Efficient)
Before I continue, I want to stress that I am not at all against having a defined folder structure. Having a folder structure that means something to you can be very helpful.
I have received many emails that start with “I know I shouldn’t use folders but it is just the way my mind works…”. I couldn’t figure out where I picked up this reputation for being anti-folders, until I realized that a section title in my 4 Ways To Tame Your Documents ebook was “Forget Folders”. Oops.
The point I was trying to make in that section, bad title aside, is that with modern software we don’t need to go nuts creating a huge folder structure. This causes two problems: 1) It causes us to spend more time figuring out where to file a document, and 2) It causes the sort of detail-paralysis I referred to above. We spend so much time trying to come up with the perfect folder structure, we never actually start scanning.
Having said all that, if you like your folders, no need to apologize. Use whatever works for you.
Based on the emails that I receive, fear is a big issue with DocumentSnap readers.
If you are reading this and you can relate to a fear of getting started going paperless, I will first tell you that you are not alone.
Part of the reason that I started the Paperless Reader Stories feature is to share some of your fellow readers’ stories. They have overcome their fears and obstacles (or are in the process of doing so).
While everyone’s situation is different, there are two basic fears that people have when going paperless.
Fear Of Not Being Able To Find Things
The first fear that people have is that once they scan something, they won’t be able to find it again. If you’ve ever tried to hunt through your computer for a file that you know you saved, you’ll understand this fear.
Some basic strategies for getting around this fear are:
- Keep your document archive separate from the rest of your files. If you save it in Documents on the Mac or My Documents on Windows, create a folder underneath called ARCHIVE or File Cabinet or something and put your scanned documents in there.
- Make sure that your PDFs are searchable by turning on the OCR settings in your scanners’ software, or using a software package with OCR capabilities.
- Use a consistent naming convention for your files and stick to it.
- Use a folder structure that makes sense to you.
Fear Of Throwing Paper Away
This one is a biggie. It takes a lot of confidence to shred a document that until now you have religiously kept in your bulging file cabinet.
The simple solution to this fear is to trust your system, whatever it happens to be. As long as your documents are backed up in multiple locations and you have the ability to find them again, you should be good.
However, even that might not be enough for you. I especially see this with married couples where one spouse wants to go paperless and the other is afraid.
Sometimes no matter how bulletproof the system is, the fear of shredding documents is just too great.
If that sounds like you, what I recommend is that you still go through the scanning and indexing process as if you were going paperless, but then instead of shredding the paper, throw it in a box out of the way somewhere. This is where Eddie’s system might come in very handy.
This way, you have the benefits of a paperless workflow like searchability, backup, and lack of clutter, but you have the peace of mind of having the physical paper somewhere.
You’ve seen that focusing on the details and succumbing to our fears causes paralysis. This is not in any way unique to going paperless.
Lyle McDonald has a great article over at Body Recomposition on this topic as it pertains to fat loss:
Of more relevance, what often happens is that people get so overwhelmed at focusing on the details that they never act. They spend weeks looking for the perfect diet or training program (which doesn’t really exist in the first place, at best all programs have pros and cons and are, at most, best under a given set of circumstances) and lose time when they should simply be doing something.
Because, at the end of the day, assuming the training or diet isn’t completely and utterly moronic (and make no mistake, there are plenty of those out there) actually doing something is always better than talking about it for weeks on end.
Does this sound familiar? (I’m talking about going paperless now, not dieting!).
If it does, not to worry. There are some things you can do to just get started.
A lot of information that you read online is complex. I am more guilty than anyone on this point.
I would post crazy Applescripts and Hazel workflows all day long if I could, because I am a geek and sadly, that is the sort of thing that I find fun. I also have a great group of enablers such as Michelle and Alex that read the site, so it just encourages me.
Of course, normal non-geeks read this stuff and become overwhelmed. All they want to do is make their life easier, and this crazy Canadian is talking about Source URLs and text expansion?
Here is a sample comment that I received recently. I’m not picking on Marti here, because he is saying what I suspect a lot of people think:
All of this is so confusing to me. I have been ready, willing and able to go paperless, but like bungee jumping for the first time, I can’t bring myself to do it out of fear. I read the 7 lessons, but there is so much talk of other apps: Hazel, Evernote, Snippet and others I can’t even remember. Where do I start and how do I learn to be at the level of all the users here?
Again, does this sound familiar?
The solution to this is to just ignore the complex stuff. That’s right, just ignore it. None of it is required to successfully go paperless. You can come back to it if you ever need it, but for now, just ignore it.
To get started, this is all you need to do:
- Get a decent scanner. I like the ScanSnap, but it is certainly not the only one on the market.
- Create a very basic, very high level folder structure. When you find that it makes sense to you, create subfolders on an as-needed basis.
- Set up your scanner to scan to an inbox folder. In the scanner settings, make sure that it is set to create a searchable PDF.
- Once you scan, name the files appropriately and move them to the appropriate folders.
That’s it. Start with this for a week or two.
Once you have been doing the basic scanning workflow for a while, if you find that there are things that you wish were a bit easier start writing them down.
- Do you wish there were ways to make renaming files faster?
- Do you see points that you wish you could automate?
- Do you think it’d be easier to just have everything in one software package vs. your native folders?
- Would you like to have access to your documents on the go?
- Could you make things faster to find?
On an as-needed basis, start looking into solutions to the points of improvement that you come up with. (Quick plug: the Paperless Document Organization Guide may help with this).
The point is to make the changes that you want to make when you want to make them, bit by bit. Maybe you’re happy with how things are now after your test, and that is awesome. Keep doing what you are doing.
The important thing is to start.
Does this resonate with you? What barriers do you have, or have you overcome? I’d love to hear your thoughts either in the comments or the forum.
(Photo by Armosa Studios)