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Paperless 101: Handling Physical Items


Paperless 101

Let’s talk about handling physical mail and items. As of time-of-writing, this is still a fact of life. Yes, snail mail is slowly disappearing, but the fact that we still check our mailboxes every week means we still need a good process for handling physical items.

Let’s skip any lengthy introduction and dive right into:

  1. What items are still physical?
  2. What items should we keep in physical form?
  3. The world’s simplest paperless process.
  4. How to go advanced.

1. What items are still physical?

What's Still Physical

Nowadays, you can opt to get most paper-based items delivered to you in electronic form – for example, your utility bills and your bank notices. In fact, given that this article is about going paperless it is strongly suggested that you check with your service providers and see if they can deliver you “e-statements” or “paperless statements” – it will save you and them a lot of time, and less paper = less printing = better for the environment.

That being said, there are still a number of things that still come in a physical format:

  • Checks. These are HUGE in the US and non-existent everywhere else. Sad, but true.
  • Items/goods. These are and will likely remain physical for quite some time.
  • Receipts. These are the little stubs from purchasing coffee or paying for stuff in cash. If you use a card or perhaps if NFC payments get a little better, we’ll be able to do away with these in the near future.
  • Legal/official notices. Almost always these come in physical form.
  • Sketchpad/legal pad/Moleskine notebooks. Great places to draw down ideas when you need to rapidly diagram or flesh out something. Unfortunately, we have yet to find a good digital alternative to these – drawing on an iPad with your finger isn’t quite just the same as pen-on-paper.

We’ll talk about what to do with these in the next section.

Note: An interesting fact is that while the number of physical mail/letters continues to drop worldwide, the number of packages being sent continues to go up – this makes sense in terms of online shopping and mail order services.

2. What items should we keep in physical form?

Things to Keep Physical

All the items mentioned above that come in physical form need to be treated a little differently.

Checks you want to scan, then sign/authorize and mail in or drop off at the bank. That removes the paper from your life.

Legal/official notices you will want to scan, but it’s probably also a good idea to get a file folder (no need for a filing cabinet) and to store them in physical for as well. For some reason government institutions and the legal profession get a little iffy about digital copies of anything. You’ll also want to check up on laws in your country – some countries require you to keep physical copies of official notices for up to 7 years.

As with everything else, receipts should be scanned first. Whether you keep them is up to you. Generally speaking, we recommend that people keep receipts if there’s a chance that you need to either return something or have something repaired/replaced under warranty. A good trick is to have a box with 12 envelopes in it, each for a month of the year. Keep receipts for 6 months, then at the start of every month, toss out all the receipts from over 6 months ago.

Something else to consider are item boxes. These are the big packaging boxes that your electronics and other items often come in. Like receipts, they’re worth keeping for up to 6 months before you discard them (if something works for > 6 months, it’s probably going to keep on working). One exception is large boxes for items like computer monitors or televisions – if you have the storage space, they’re worth keeping as you’ll be hard-pressed to find another box to move your items around in if you ever have to.

3. The world’s simplest paperless process

Regardless of if you’re going to keep the physical copy of an item or not, anything that can be scanned into digital format should be scanned into a digital format.

The process is simple:
1. Collect items in a physical in-tray.
2. Once a week, spend 30 minute scanning all these items in. This is as simple as loading up Image Capture (on Mac) or Windows Fax and Scan (on Windows) and saving the items into a folder as PDFs.

Image Capture

3. When all items have been scanned, use Adobe Acrobat or another program’s Reduce File Size feature to optimize the files.

Acrobat Reduce SizeAcrobat Optimized

4. Drag-and-drop the items into DevonThink, Evernote or your database application of choice.

Drag and Drop to Evernote

5. Sort and sync across to your mobile devices.

And that’s it – 30 minutes a week, and you can eliminate most paper from your life.

Tip: Create a folder on your computer called “Inbox” and always scan into this folder. e.g., /users/aaron/Inbox. This way you can drag-and-drop into both Acrobat and your database app with ease.

4. How to go advanced

Going Advanced

Once you’re comfortable with the process of collecting, scanning and then discarding physical items, you’ll come up against a couple of other issues that need to be considered.

The first is a common question we get from OmniFocus Premium Post customers is if they need to log physical items in their task management system. The answer is no – you don’t. Store them in your physical in-tray, process them, and consider them cleared once they’re digital… unless you need to action something else with them.

The second is about privacy – if you want the extra security, invest in a paper shredder or similar device and shred your documents after scanning.

The last is about keeping your digital copies backed up. We strongly suggest syncing across with a cloud service like Evernote or Dropbox, and yes while your data is “in the cloud” it’s also always backed up, even if your computer crashes. Good services: Evernote, Dropbox, Time Machine (for non-cloud backup).

If you want to go even deeper into scanning and equipment, be sure to check out Brooks Duncan’s site

In Closing

And that’s all there is to it – time to get scanning!

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