How I Manage My Life Without Paper

How I Manage My Life Without Paper

A while ago, there was a great suggestion from an awesome reader:

I'm interested in how you and other people manage their lives, their tasks, priorities, documents, to-do lists, and everything that goes with it. I first came to DocumentSnap for help on making my world paperless. With your guidance I've made good progress but still have more to do and I'm fascinated with hearing how other people do this.

Interesting question. Going paperless goes beyond just scanning documents and downloading statements. In this post, I will share how I try to minimize the use of paper in my life. Before I get into it, three points:

1. I use both Mac and Windows, but my primary machine is a Mac. I also use an iPad and an iPhone. Therefore, many of these solutions will be Apple-leaning. I understand that some of you don't go that way, and that's cool. There should be Windows and Android equivalents to all of these. If I know one, I’ll try to mention it. If you know of a great one, please share it in the comments.

2. Just because this is what I do, it doesn't mean that it is what you should/need to do. If you want to write in your paper notebook and use post-its, go for it! We all have to do what works for each of us.

3. To me, going paperless does not mean getting rid of every piece of paper in your life or business. I haven’t done it, I’m sure you haven’t done it, and frankly, it’s not a goal of mine. I wrote more about the word “paperless” here. To me, eliminating paper is not the goal — being more efficient and effective, and having access to the information I need right when I need it is. If that means the information is digital, great. If it involves paper, that’s cool too. Being religious about this sort of thing doesn’t make sense to me.

With that said, let’s get into it.

Quick Capture

I'm sure there are post-it notes somewhere in my office, but I don't know where they are. I try to do all my quick capture/jotting stuff down electronically. There is almost never a time that I am without an electronic device of some sort (sad, I know).

I used to use Field Notes notebooks, and I always have one in my bag, but since the Drafts app was released, I never use a notebook anymore.

I tend to capture information or tasks in one of three ways:

  1. If I’m at my computer, I’ll do a quick keyboard combination to bring up the OmniFocus Quick Entry window and dump the item into there.
  2. If I’m out and about, more often than not I am listening to a podcast or audiobook. I use Apple’s AirPods, and I have them up so that a double-tap on the left ear will trigger Siri. I’ll then say something like this:

    Add Download passport renewal forms to Omni list

    This will then put it into a special list I have in Apple’s Reminders app, which will then put it into OmniFocus for future action. I like doing it this way because then I don’t have to take my phone out of my pocket. However, I have my phone out already or if I’m in a situation where talking to my phone wouldn’t be ideal…

  3. If I have my phone out already, I’ll fire up the Drafts app and capture it there.

The key to all three of these strategies is that I want to capture the thought as quickly as possible. I can process/send it to its eventual destination later, but if I don’t capture it, I’ll probably forget it.

Shopping Lists

I don't use any special software for this, I just have a variety of shopping lists in Apple's Reminders app. I find it quick to add items to the appropriate list, and I can use Siri. I like how it syncs with all my devices, and I can check items off as I go through the store.


Another nice thing about the Reminders app is it is built-in sharing. So I can share my grocery list and she can add things to it.

I wrote more about paperless grocery lists here.


For my to-dos, I need something a little more powerful than Reminders.

I am a big fan of OmniFocus, which is available on the Mac, iPhone, and iPad.

I tend to (more or less) follow David Allen's Getting Things Done methodology, and OmniFocus is great for that.

I've used OmniFocus for a number of years, but I had a big epiphany after reading the OmniFocus Premium Posts guide from Asian Efficiency. The workflow they outline has made a huge difference for me over the years, and I still do things more or less the way it’s described in the Guide. Full Disclosure: I’ve been doing work with AE since 2017, but I bought OmniFocus Premium Posts back in 2013.

If you’re not an Apple person, many people like Todoist as a task manager.


I am a big mind mapper. For me, there is nothing better for brainstorming, planning, and getting my thoughts out.

Sometimes I do this on the iPad, and sometimes I do it at my computer. Either way, I use MindNode. It makes building out elaborate mind maps extremely fast and keeps everything in sync between my Mac, my iPad, and my iPhone so I can capture and review wherever I am.

If you’re not an Apple person, I know many people like MindMeister.


You can imagine my shock and dismay when I came home, and my wife had a paper calendar taped to the fridge. I still have nightmares.

Over time, we have made a surprisingly successful transition to an electronic calendar. We use Google Calendar and have a shared family calendar between us.

While Google Calendar is the backbone, I use BusyCal on the Mac and the Google Calendar app on the iPhone. I just use the stock Calendar app on the iPad.

Event Notes

Usually, when I am at an event, I take notes by typing into Drafts on my iPhone or iPad. In some cases, I write into a Moleskine notebook.

When I’m at an event with someone I know, this can be funny. For example, this is a picture my friend Rebecca Mullen took when she was shocked to see me writing in a Field Notes notebook.

Brooks writing! Oh no!
Brooks writing! Oh no!

I recently picked up a 10.5” iPad Pro and an Apple Pencil and have been experimenting with the GoodNotes app for capturing handwriting. I’m going to give it a try at my next event and see how it goes.

Either way, all these notes end up in Evernote.


I am a big fan of the You Need A Budget methodology, aka YNAB. They describe it as "four simple rules that help you stop living paycheck to paycheck, get out of debt, and save more money faster".

They have moved to a web-based service, but I’m still using the old YNAB 4 software on the computer. I download all my transactions into YNAB and categorize and track from there.


Using the same password everywhere is a recipe for disaster. You want to use a password manager so that you can have unique secure passwords for each site without going crazy.

I use 1Password on my Mac, Windows, iPhone, and iPad devices. It makes password management so easy and automated. More accurately, my family subscribes to 1Password for Families.


It's very rare that I need to fax something, but when I do, I use either HelloFax on my computer or Genius Fax on my iPhone. They make it easy to send faxes without having to touch a fax machine.


I like paper books, and I do still read many books on paper

Having said that, the majority of book reading I do is digital. My digital reading is on the Kindle that my wife and I fight over, or on the Kindle app on the iPad or iPhone when I inevitably lose that fight.

For books that I download in ePub format, I use the iBooks app on the iPad.

I also listen to a lot of audiobooks. If I am in the car by myself, I am listening to an audiobook. Audible is my service of choice for that.


I have shifted all my magazine reading to the tablet. I use the Wired app in Newsstand to read Wired, but I am starting to enjoy the Zinio app for some other publications.

I am sliding more and more down the slippery slope of digital comics lately, so ComiXology has become my guilty pleasure.

Filling Out And Signing Documents

I use PDFpen or good old to fill out PDFs, even ones that are not "fillable". Nitro is a good option on Windows.

Of course, Adobe Acrobat is the most popular program, and I do use that sometimes.

Holiday cards

I don’t send paper cards for obvious reasons (need to live the brand!), so when I want to send a card, I use Paperless Post.

Instruction Manuals

I hate having instruction manuals for my purchases all over the place. When I buy something, I search online — more often than not, there is a PDF version of the manual out there. If not, I scan the paper manual. I want to have this stuff accessible digitally.

How About You?

These are some ways that I manage my life without paper. How about you? Are there any areas that I have missed? Do you have any alternate tools that you recommend? Let us know in the comments.

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 29 comments

Joe - November 20, 2023 Reply

A professional book scanner with high megapixel camera, a good cradle, and scan software. You can digitize a hell of a lot faster than running all that paper through a sheet fed contraption. You need a professional model with lasers, a full spectrum lighting system (this is important), and high quality cameras. It isn’t cheap, maybe the cost of 4 loaded MacBook Pros.

Chris Byrne - August 6, 2021 Reply

If you need somewhere to keep everything I would recommend using Devonthink which I think is only for Macs but I’ve used it for some years and found it very useful. It’s a sort of glorified database but uses AI to help with filing and much more. Definitely paperless!

Jose - August 7, 2020 Reply

First Step: Spend thousand dollars on ipad …

E MARIE SHIPLEY - June 22, 2019 Reply

Sir, do you clouds or external hard drives? How do you keep files that you never ever want to lose?

Philip Owen - August 30, 2018 Reply

I see the next step beyond paperless as The Cloud so I am mostly migrated to Chrome/Android. Todoist is one of my key apps for being organized there. As an Ancient of Days, I try to use the phone but find a screen and a keyboard, perhaps at a standup desk, more natural.

I have two applications that tie me to a PC with Windows, hence the “mostly”. Dragon Dictate which is superb for big pieces of text and IBM Lotus Approach, a now deprecated database management system outstandingly the best in class. I know of no close rivals in The Clouds.

Sandra - January 30, 2018 Reply

I’ve decided to really get serious about organizing and after reading your’s and some other websites, I’ve ordered your Paperless Power Bundle. A friend told me about FOLDERMARKER.COM for help in organizing my digital folders on the computer.
Has anyone used this already?

I am a genealogist (since 1970) and have three file cabinets and 15 boxes of paper research data that I’ve had over the years. We’ve moved about every 4 years since 1988 and the last time (2016), my daughter said that she flat-out refuses to move them all again. So, I have to get busy and digitize them, file them, and extract pertinent info into my RootsMagic software. I have a scansnap scanner for paper and recently bought a flip pal printer for photos. All that makes a LOT of items to transfer to the computer.

PS I just found LibraryThing, that is a fantastic tool for cataloging your books.

Thierry - January 17, 2018 Reply

Hi Brooks,
It’s great to see you back on the blog.
I see some old comments, is this an old post that you updated and posted again?
Anyway, it’s still a good one to read.

    Brooks Duncan - January 21, 2018 Reply

    Oops yes, I had meant to mention that in the post (I mentioned it on Facebook) – it’s an update of a post I did in 2013!

John Murray - September 7, 2017 Reply

I’m nowhere as sophisticated as you: I use the native calendar, contacts, and notes apps on my Macs, my iPhone, and my iPad, synced through iCloud and I’m starting to use the Stickies app instead of little shreds of paper placed in front of my keyboard for “hard’ reminders. I got rid of most of my books years ago, once I found out that you could get PDFs for most of them. Novels and other books go on my Kindle. But the idea I’d like to share is about those user guides you get with practically every device or artifact you buy. I used to have hundreds of these on a bookshelf before I found out that most manufacturers have PDFs somewhere in the support area of their websites. So now, whenever I buy something, I grab the PDF for the User Guide and then recycle the paper. You can often find PDFs for those things you bought a few years back kicking around on the web too so you can reduce your existing collection of documents too.

Bryan - July 9, 2017 Reply

I really dislike paper, because as you get older – I’m now in my 6th decade – you get more and more notebooks to carry round (with less strength to do so! ). It is a no-brainer to me to go paperless.

I travel so much. I love to throw my iPad into my messenger bag carry on and choose what I want to read whenever I like on the trip and not to plan that ahead and carry books!

I use GoodReader for storing my schedules and programmes for the workshops I lead. Then I can mark the PDFs up and forward them on to colleagues by email with the annotations all embedded.

Was going to say the same about the Apple Pencil. It is streaks ahead of any other stylus type device I have ever used. And used with GoodReader I find it a real blessing.

I use virtually everything else that Brooks does for calendars, tasks, planning. I use MindNode for mind mapping and find it excellent for brainstorming with colleagues or planning sermons and lectures as so much can be shifted around easily.

Hope this is helpful to someone!

Bill Lindner - January 27, 2017 Reply

Just started using an Apple Pencil Stylus. Prefer it to the Adonit, which I had used previously.

Julian Gough - October 8, 2016 Reply

Thanks for the various suggestions. For Calendar apps, can I recommend BusyCal, both on the Mac but particularly on iOS. Ever since moving from Android to iOS I’ve been looking for a mobile calendar app that had a decent month to a page view which gave more information than just dots. I was using Fantastical 2 but have recently moved over to BusyCal.

Todd - September 4, 2016 Reply

The link for he documentsnap newsletter referring to the “Drafts” app only takes me to Could you post the actual link? Thanks,

    Brooks Duncan - September 21, 2016 Reply

    Whoops, those old newsletters aren’t online anymore. Here’s what I wrote in it though:

    When you are out and about (or oot and aboot as we say here in Canada), there are times when you want to capture information quickly, either for future reference or because it is some sort of action item.

    Last year I started going back to paper notebooks, but a combination of technologies has seen me swing back to all-digital and paperless capture in 2013.

    One of the friction points when capturing information on a mobile device is that you need to fire up an app, start a new note (or find an existing one), and type.

    This is still true, but on iOS I have fallen in love with an app called Drafts. It starts up quickly, and when it launches it takes you right to a new note in edit mode.

    The best part is, from there you can quickly send it to all sorts of different apps and services like Evernote for reference or a to-do app like OmniFocus for action items. It can even create or append to text files in Dropbox.

    Drafts combined with iOS’s dictation capabilities makes for an extremely fast digital capture. My poor lonely notebook.

    I looked around for an equivalent app for Android but couldn’t quite find one. Do you do something like on Android or do you have another iOS app that you like? I’d love to hear about it.

Bill - June 24, 2016 Reply

Regarding a noisy stylus – the soft fiber tip capacitive ones found at Boxwave and other places are great. They work well and are silent.

    Brooks Duncan - June 24, 2016 Reply

    Thanks Bill!

Ralph - February 5, 2016 Reply

I used to scan my monthly bank statements and utility bills, usually to Evernote. No I use FileThis for Windows. Probably could do the same thing with a little trial and error in IFTTT. It’s a little fussy to link with your various vendors, but once it does,it works very well, and has an electronic filing module for all those eStatements.

Notes – Either Evernote or sometimes Wordflowy which is a server-based note taking and outlining tool. I find it a little cumbersome to work with but love the fact that it gives you an email of all the changes you made to your notes by email the following day. Very helpful actually.

Not quite a paperless app, but I’m using ACTIVEWORDS that basically is a very powerful macro engine. Take a look at their videos to see it’s power. I had trouble installing in on my Win 7 machine, but it works with Win 10 Enterprise like a charm.

HTH, and thanks to Brooks for his constant flow of practical solutions. Well done, Sir.


    Patrick - June 11, 2016 Reply


    I too use FileThis on a Mac though and I find it really good. I know that we could rely on the storage of individual financial institutions and utilities but it is so much more convenient to have the documents delivered directly to Evernote and have everything in one place.

    Do you use receipts software? I am still using Neat for receipts and it works very well. I suppose the downside is the proprietary software,

Linda - January 31, 2016 Reply

Brooks… So glad to have found you on Asian Efficiency. I have been wanting to go paperless for years but do not have the time to figure it all out like you have. Reading through this blog I see I am familiar with many of the tools that you use and explain how to work everything together. I can now put on my to do list this year to transition to paperless with confidence. Looking forward to learning more.

    Brooks Duncan - February 1, 2016 Reply

    Thanks Linda! Welcome!

CC - January 28, 2016 Reply

I found u took a little more time and threw in the PC equivalent for all ur mac/i links this would be twice as good. It’s nice to have some links that apply to both like Evernote. But people like me come to a resource like you for quick info. That makes it particularly frustrating to read something that you use that sounds great and that u know someone wants to reference immediately (bc u do put links) and then have to go shopping in the Big World just to see what the pc/android equivalent might be – – of a piece of s/w we have never seen but only have ur short description. Frustrating enuf to just nit bother reading this at all. Clearly u get $ from ‘endorsements’ but so what as long as u r being truthful. And too chatty/cutesy and hyperbole… awesome suggestion from great reader… how about ‘one astute reader suggested’ . It was a very average suggestion. . IF we were not hugely short on time we probably wouldn’t need to go paperless and wouldn’t be here. Shorter more direct and put in the links that the majority of the world uses/needs –

    Len Zeoli - May 7, 2016 Reply

    Yes! It is terribly frustrating and time consuming to find Adroid/Win equivalents, and often ends in deleting an app that just doesn’t work well enough. I add my voice to pleas help with this.

Jeremy - December 15, 2014 Reply

Re: Fitbit Aria. I use IFTTT with a recipe that records my weight straight into OneNote. I’m sure there are recipes for other sites/programs to capture the data automatically. IFTTT is a great collection tool.

Karen - July 10, 2014 Reply

I LOVE Zinio….btw… some libraries (including my Toronto Ontario library) offer FREE current magazines!

    Cheryl - August 26, 2016 Reply

    Our library system uses Flipster. I have not see Zinio but I think it is something similar.

Searching for Accurate Maps - Experience Curating Book Free Until Mar 8 • Tips To Learn How To Go Paperless | DocumentSnap Paperless Blog - March 6, 2014 Reply

[…] my post How I Manage My Life Without Paper, I mentioned that I am becoming more and more interested in the concept of personal tracking and […]

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[…] my post How I Manage My Life Without Paper, I mentioned that I am becoming more and more interested in the concept of personal tracking and […]

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