On The Term Paperless

On The Term Paperless

Cool ShreddingThis might seem like a strange thing to say, but I am not a fan of the word “paperless”.

It creates an unrealistic expectation, and even worse it creates a false binary state. You either want to get rid of 100% of paper (“Go paperless!”) or you only like and feel comfortable using paper (“You’ll pry my Moleskine out of my cold dead hands!”).

For better or for worse, paperless is the term everyone uses, so we’re stuck with it[1].

What Does Paperless Actually Mean?

I like how Kevin Purdy recently put it in a recent episode of the In Beta podcast:

When you pledge to go paperless, you’re pledging not to create more paper for other people or yourself than you need to.

Paper generation is definitely a great place to start. If you are not printing documents for yourself and if you can send documents to others electronically, you will be surprised how much you can cut down.

Usage vs. Storage

I like to think about paper from two perspectives: what do we use paper for, and what do we do with it after?

Myself, I like to work as digitally as possible, but I have recently started using paper notebooks more.

I know many people, including many DocumentSnap readers and Paperless Action Plan students who couldn’t imagine giving up their paper. My friend Mike Vardy makes the case effectively in his post Why Paper Works.

On the flip side, I was at a conference a while ago with Tim Grahl from Out:think, and Tim is the man as far as going all-digital. All his note-taking was on his iPad and incredibly useful and reference-able.

The question becomes: what do you do with your documents and other paper when you are finished actively using them?[2]

Bringing It All Together

To me, here are the facets of “going paperless”:

  • How can you reduce the amount of paper that you create and send to others?
  • What paper do you currently work with? Can you move any of it to digital?
  • How much of your paper do you need to keep? Can it be digitized?
  • How can you find the information that you need when you need it?
  • How can you protect your electronic information in multiple places?

Paperless is a term that has unfortunately become both highly idealized and highly divisive[3], but it doesn’t have to be that way.

Let’s just forget about the actual term and focus on what is important: making our lives and work easier, less cluttered, and more effective.

(Photo by rosmary)


  1. I’m even less of a fan of the “less-paper!” term.  ↩

  2. Here’s what I do.  ↩

  3. See the printing industry’s goofy response to Hellofax’s Paperless 2013 campaign.  ↩

About the Author

Brooks Duncan helps individuals and small businesses go paperless. He's been an accountant, a software developer, a manager in a very large corporation, and has run DocumentSnap since 2008. You can find Brooks on Twitter at @documentsnap or @brooksduncan. Thanks for stopping by.

Leave a Reply 7 comments

Brooks Duncan | Bos Organization | Los Angeles Professional Organizer - May 9, 2015 Reply

[…] Brooks’s blog Document Snap and his books are at the forefront of the paperless/digital organizing movement. Along with MacSparky, he’s brought a human and approachable voice to this whole notion of going paperless. (Including why the term “paperless” may not be the best choice of words.) […]

Can A Company Go Totally Paperless? | Tips To Learn How To Go Paperless | DocumentSnap Paperless Blog - July 4, 2013 Reply

[…] When I do talks about going paperless, I often tell the audience that it isn’t realistic to go totally paperless. It’s one reason that I’m not a big fan of the word paperless itself. […]

Stephen - March 22, 2013 Reply

Don't think of paperless as paperless, but as less paper. 🙂

Jim Sewell - January 31, 2013 Reply

The term 'green' is one that I dislike even more than 'paperless'. It sounds like someone is seasick.

    Jim Sewell - January 31, 2013 Reply

    Shoot, lost part of my post. The rest was: I think the problem is not paper, unless you are a real environmentalist seriously concerned about a piece of paper and the repercussions of that. The problem I see is organization. We all want to be organized and the stacks of paper remind us just how disorganized we are and how much chaos is in our lives. It's just that a stack of paper is easier to attack than chaos in general. The paper is just a symptom of the bigger issue of disorganization.

    Brooks Duncan
    Brooks Duncan - January 31, 2013 Reply

    Agreed. I think you will find that I have never once done a post equating going paperless with going green.

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