A couple of months ago, my wife and I took upon ourselves to move our paper clutter to the computer. We have accumulated over the past decade and a half all sorts of documents, which we annually or semi-annually go over, throw 30%, ‘sort’ 30%, and the rest stays jumbled till next time.

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Something like this, just in blue

We never agreed on how to sort the papers – I devised a way to utilize a drawer cabinet with labeled drawers, having one marked ‘to-do’, and the rest marked ‘salaries’, ‘his’, ‘hers’, etc. My wife loathed the cabinet, and kept stuffing papers in the wrong drawers – making the whole cabinet a ‘black-hole’ for papers that will never be found. The sorriest drawer off all was the ‘to-do’ drawer – where coupons and bills were left to expire…
My wife’s method was to sort the papers into ring binders, each having multiple labeled sheet-protectors, for each category. This method is a classic, and works perfectly for paperwork assigned to our accountant, but in the house-hold paperwork it has some interesting draw-backs. For example – the proliferation of ‘categories’ – ‘Warranties’, ‘Car Insurance’, ‘Printer’, ‘Home Theater System’ (how many papers go into that one?), etc. So, in the end of the day – where did we put the warranty for our Home Theater System?
Another issue was material fatigue – the more a category was well-used, so was the sheet-protector, which meant it would crumble, and you will find yourself holding an empty binder surrounded by formerly sorted paperwork…

Sheet-protector Sorting

I’ve made some experiments with scanning incoming documents in the past (I’ve recently found 8-year old images of documents scanned in such an experiment). The main problems I’ve encountered is that although scanners became ubiquitous when printers gave way to ‘integrated printers’, combining them with fax machines and scanners, these home scanners are dead slow, each page taking more than a minute to process (placing it on the scanner face, previewing it, scanning, saving, turning it over…), so it makes the whole procedure cumbersome when employing it on a daily basis, and impossible when trying to process a backlog. Furthermore, each scanned page takes from hundred of Ks to 4 Megs (if done with the scanner’s BMP default). I’ve also played with OCR, and was disappointed, especially since most of our real-life paperwork is not in English (yes, there are parts of the world where papers are in other languages…)
My renewed interest in scanning documents appeared when I’ve come across an IPhone application called ‘Cam Scanner’, whose premise is to take a picture of your document, which is then processed for high contrast and warped into a rectangle shape, making it ready to send to your repository, only a couple of tens of K in size, and quite readable.
This is great! Now you can add newly arrived documents to your repository in an (almost) point and shoot procedure. But what about the decade of backlog? Working on thousands of documents one at a time gets old real fast, and is in no way practical.

Rent a scanner

You can buy an industrial scanner, which starts at a few hundreds of dollars for small ones, which won’t be enough for the backlog project, AND be an overkill for any future daily procedure.

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Our temporary new best friend

So what we did was rent a scanner. We found a small business that  rents out scanners on a weekly or monthly basis (http://www.rentascanner.co.il for local readers).
We rented a small Fujitsu scanner, which can handle up to 50 pages in its feeder, and takes less than a minute to eat them all up, and give you 4 images per page (front+back*b/w+color).
The owner of the rent-a-scanner was a bit surprised by having us as customers, being more familiar with small businesses as his clients, but he was appeased by seeing me as a ‘computer-savvy’ type, who will take good care of his hardware.
My father-in-law loaned us a small paper shredder, and we were set.
So now, we have a week to scan all our papers. We cleared a weekend for ourselves, sent to kids to their grandparents, and went to work…

Collect

First, clear out a big space in your living room. Doing it in the living room considerably lowers the possibility for leaving things ‘in the middle’.
Now, go over all the rooms in the house, in every drawer, table top, cabinet, etc. take all the paper you can find, and dump it all in a big heap in the middle of your allotted location.

Sort papers

The main strategy for getting rid of all the backlog documents in as little time hinges on the fact that is should be a lot easier to actually sort them as digital images than as paper. This means we should go through all the papers in the shortest time, giving each paper as little thought as possible – putting it in one of three growing piles:

Shred

In this day and age, I’ve become very apprehensive to ‘data-scavenging’, where people know to look through your trash to find personal information they could then use against you in scams and identity thefts.
To the less-conscious this kind of project might end-up as a potential evil-doer’s motherload of personal data.
This is why I voted for no ‘throw-away’ piles at all – everything goes to the shredder.
In this pile goes all the papers you are absolutely sure you won’t ever need, and what the hell are they doing in my house in the first place?
This includes: old fashioned junk-mail, expired coupons, chrome brochures that come with your credit card statements, etc.
If you need more than 5 seconds to get yourself to through them away – put them in the next pile.

Scan then shred

This is the default, and the biggest pile. Here you put everything that does not distinctly belong to the two other piles.
Do not try to figure out any sub-piles according to the page’s content. You will get to that after scanning.
If documents are multi-page, keep all the pages together, as it will prove crucial after scanning.

Note: depending on your scanner, you might need to have sub-piles nonetheless, if you have documents of unusual size. Our scanner scanned to a pre-configured size, so it truncated papers which were longer than A4 unless specifically told to look for longer pages.

Scan and save

This pile is dedicated to papers you cannot throw away. Papers you are required by law to keep, or have extra value as originals (like coupons, or your degree certificate…).
You must keep this pile as small as possible! Don’t be tempted to stretch the definition of ‘cannot throw away’. Today there are very few pieces of paper you cannot live without.

Scan and Shred

A simple shredder will do the job
After you’ve sorted the papers, start scanning and shredding. Both chores have their meditative values, and since I’m the techie between the two of us, I was scanning, and my wife was shredding.
Be careful to remove all the staples from the pages, as both the scanner and the shredder are non-friendly to such things.
Do not read any of the papers you are processing at this stage! Simply dump them in a single folder (or trash bag, depending on your chore).
Make sure the files created are named in consecutive order, so you will process them at the same order you scan them – this way you will not lose grouped pages.
You can scan as PDFs or as images. PDFs support more readily multi-pages, but images have the added value that Evernote runs its OCR on them. Your scanning software may have OCR capabilities embedded in it, which makes things simpler.

You can take documents that contain many pages (such as your Insurance Policy) and scan them to a single PDF, but I would not bother with 2-3 page long documents, but simply put both PDFs in the same note, or merge them while processing later. The idea here is to make this chore as stupid and automatic as you can, otherwise, you’ll find yourself at the end of the day with far too little done.

So now you should have a huge pile of confetti, and a folder with a couple hundred megs of scanned documents.
Well done!
You can now rest, get the kids back in the house, and return the scanner and shredder. The scanned documents will go nowhere (as long as they are backed up). Sorting them is another form of meditation, you should do methodically, a few documents at a time. Being digital, it is so easy to get started, you can do it incrementally, over a long period of time, instead of as large annual projects – any document you sort – you can forget.

Read the next chapters:

6 thoughts on “Going Paperless

  1. This is amazing, something that we need to do too. So many papers in the house. Can't remember most of it. Looks a bit complicated to use Evernote and stuff for our generation, but if I use Lastpass I can do everything, don't you agree?

    Like

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