We get asked a lot about how we operate so paperlessly. It’s as much about our approach and attitude toward being all digital as it is the technology we use. No matter what applications you use it’s difficult to operate paperlessly if you feel the need to print things to read them, or a habitual piler!

And you know what – it’s okay to print things to read them or work more effectively if you are a habitual piler. What’s important is that you develop a system that works most effectively for you, and use that system. If that involves piles of paper, but you always know where information is and how to get to it, that’s good enough.

However, we’ve found that a lot of our clients and support subscribers feel inundated in paper that they really don’t want to keep in piles on their desks, but also don’t want to (or can’t) throw away. Here are some tips on how I deal with that:

  • Suffer not a paper to live: The key is resolving to deal with paper as soon as (or even before!) you receive it. In a meeting, if someone hands me printed material, I politely ask if they can email a digital version. If I receive physical mail, or printed material with no digital version available I always try and process it right then. Processing means either reading and discarding it (perhaps after making a few notes) or converting it to a digital format.

  • Use a desktop scanner. I use a Fujitsu ScanSnap S1300i  The other ScanSnap scanners are high quality and widely loved by people trying to keep paper off of their desks. The beauty of these scanners (and others like them) is that you can stick paper in them, hit the scan button, and they will scan your paper documents directly into any one of several applications or directly to a file. This is how I convert most paper into a digital format.

Applications. Another key to operating as without using paper as much as possible is to create as few paper documents as possible yourself. Having good applications that substitute for paper is the secret to doing that.
  • Evernote: the hub of my digital existence. Meeting notes, snippets of ideas, web pages and articles I want to save, photos of whiteboards after meetings, scans of paper documents, all of it goes into Evernote. I can access Evernote from all of my computers, my phone, and my tablets, so I always have quick, easy access to my archive. One of the things that makes Evernote so great is that it recognizes the text in scanned documents and images, making the searchable. It can even recognize handwriting!  Evernote is also a decent writing environment; this post was written in Evernote and exported to our blog.
  • Google Docs: We no longer use the Microsoft Office Suite; Google Docs gives us all the capability we need for document creation (word processing, spreadsheets and presentations), allows for real-time collaboration and can be accessed from any web browser. We can easily share documents among our team and with collaborators/clients without having to clog up email servers with massive attachments. Docs doesn’t even require me to save my documents. Every change is automatically saved and versioned, allowing me to rollback to a previous incarnation of the document with a mouse click.
  • Gmail/Google Calendar: I consider email a necessary evil and try and avoid it as much as I can by using other tools. However, if I am going to use it, I need it to be as simple as I can get it to be, while also being as useful as I can make it. I receive a lot of email, and so to me, the key is being able to first, process mail quickly, and second to be able to find saved email even more quickly. Nothing beats Google for search. The Gmail Web interface with the addition of a couple of superb plug-ins allows me to not just fly through my email, but also to quickly schedule meetings and to see recent email and social media posts associated with the person I’m emailing. It’s also easy to move files from Gmail to Google Drive, so I don’t have
  • Basecamp: For both internal and external projects, we use 37Signals  Basecamp.  Unlike more heavy weight and traditional Gantt-chart driven project management tools, Basecamp provides us with an online collaboration environment where we can create schedules and tasks lists, share documents, and most importantly, host project specific discussions.  Not only does this save us from creating a lot of project related paper, but it saves us from trying to keep track of multiple emails and emailed versions of project documents.
  • Highrise: Also from 37Signals, Highrise is a simple and straightforward Customer Relationship Management tool.  Our CRM needs are simple but having CRM is critical for us.  Highrise does the job of keeping our customer information in one easily accessible place without a lot of complexity – and no paper.
  • Confluence: Confluence is a wiki.  I love wikis for a lot of reasons (which I’ll cover in a future blog post), and Confluence is one of the easiest to use.  We use Confluence to maintain internal and customer documentation is a away that allows us to tie it all together and avoid, you guessed it, paper notes and documentation.
  • Online banking, online ordering, online bill payment, online expense reports  Whenever possible, we use online tools for business tasks.  I can’t remember the last time I wrote a paper check, sent a purchase order, or signed a paper expense report.  Make it all digital and avoid the mess of paper records where you can.
There are a lot of applications that can help you become paperless; these are just a few of my own favorites.  The trick is not in which applications you use but that you use them.  The tools are there and pretty effective these days.  Cutting down on paper is more about making choices to use paperless solutions (and adopting the processes imposed by the software, rather than insisting on your own processes) than it is about finding the right applications.