Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Why going paperless is so difficult

[caption id="" align="alignright" width="300" caption="Image via Wikipedia"]Fujitsu (PFU Limited) ScanSnap duplex document...[/caption]

As a "knowledge worker", much of my day is spent producing and consuming information. Fortunately, much of that information is available from the Internet, and stays on the Internet. However, there are other types of information that come to me in paper format, like account statements, estimates, invoices, and so on. Much of this paper information piles up; my desk is swimming in papers. Why is it so difficult to go entirely paperless?

Tactile Preference

One of the biggest complaints about using ebook readers is that many people prefer the feel of books. The tactile experience adds to the enjoyment; however, I think it goes beyond that. I think the problem is more than a sensory preference; it is a mental separation of concepts. This book is 2001; it is science fiction; it is written by Arthur C. Clark.

There are discreet attributes that a physical object has that our minds can separate one object from another. In a computer, you don't have that separation so much. Everything is a file. Whether it is  a spreadsheet, a database, a text file, an image, or an ebook, it's just a file. You interact with files in roughly the same manner, read-only or edit. Your only tactile experience is to type and move your mouse around. It's the same experience for all of them.

There is something to be said for the physical experience that separates a sticky note from  a business card or a legal pad. These variant physical experiences unconsciously lead you to deal with each differently. In electronic format, it is all a conscious effort.


I recently started working with a paperless office consultant in a co-venture. His job is to convert doctors offices into paperless environments. The thing is, they are not exactly paperless. Going paperless actually means having a great archiving system that allows you to destroy your paper documents. Your office workflow must have a way of systematically scanning and archiving records so that they are easy to find when needed.

To make that system efficient, you need high speed scanners, plenty of hard drive space, and labor to carry out the work. Add to that any software that will help you achieve your paperless goal.

Good, self-feeding scanners start at about $350, whereas a basic flatbed scanner can be bought for about $99.

Hard drive prices are very low compared to what they used to be. Storage is not so much a problem, it is relatively inexpensive to have RAID set up to protect you from hard drive failure. However, offsite backup can be costly, either in 3rd party online backup services or in creating your own offsite backup system.

So, that's where paperless fails for most households. On top of having to maintain your yard, keep the house clean, car maintenance, and such, you now have to become an information manager.

On top of that, when you have children, it's less expensive to have them drop a book than your tablet or reading device.


Another challenge to going paperless is that you have to physically convert your paper documents into electronic format. It is very easy to save original files as PDF. The advantage is that the document becomes searchable.

However, when you are scanning handwritten notes, they don't index. So in addition to spending time scanning the document, you must tag or somehow categorize the scan so that it is easily found later on. Or, you could OCR your documents; but now instead of feeding batches of documents into your system, you are reviewing each one individually. Time sink.

For me, my main need for going paperless is to get rid of all the documents that clutter my desktop. I have partially outsourced scanning to Shoeboxed to get rid of receipts, business cards, and important account statements. While they will scan almost anything I send them; I tend to photograph handwritten notes into Evernote.


Speaking of Evernote, another problem with paperless is access. You can carry paper with you. PDFs are not so easy. You need a device to view a PDF. Evernote partially solves the problem for me because I can dump documents in there and access at other locations; but, the issue of needing a device to display the document still holds true. Other people dealing with you must be equally digital to benefit from your paperless existence. Otherwise, you are going to have to print stuff out all the time.

Going back to GTD

Finally, each paper has a purpose, if you are into GTD. Your document is either trash, for reference, or there is some action that it requires from you. So, many times we don't want to make that decision as to where the paper belongs, so it's easier to save it for later.

You can significantly reduce the amount of documents you need to archive if you are willing to consciously decide the fate of each paper in your life. This, overall, is the biggest challenge to going paperless. By not chucking out useless documents, we create a great deal of work for ourselves in managing the information. Getting rid of stuff you don't need is probably the biggest obstacle to going paperless.

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