I have basically no paper. I don’t say that to virtue signal, I’m just glad I went through the process of scanning everything. It’s much better to be able to call up searchable PDFs in Google Drive than try to find paper in some kind of physical filing system. This post is a short write-up of the two phases of going paperless: the initial mega-scan of every piece of paper you have (and shredding…) and the maintenance part where you scan everything as it comes in.
The first part of going paperless takes at least a few hours. It involves scanning all of your existing paper documents. In order to have a useful destination, make sure you have enough space on your computer. I’m not sure how physical paper converts into digital space, but I found that a regular 8.5x11 piece of paper takes up about half a MB. So multiply roughly the number of sheets you have of paper by 2 and that is the number of megabytes of storage you will need for the files.
I found that doing the first part with a digital scanner (e.g. the Google Drive app) to be next to impossible in terms of efficiency. I gave up and bought a feed scanner. It was around $80 on Amazon and well worth the time savings getting all the pages I had scanned. I kept every receipt I have ever spent, every statement, every item from school and so on but I wanted to keep as much as possible so I scanned all of it. It took a few days, with a few hours in each day, to actually get through all of it.
Once everything is scanned and loaded into your PC, it can be nice to upload it to a cloud service. There may be less privacy, but it is more likely to last there compared to when it lives on a single device. Ideally use a service that allows for a local backup of the file in the cloud service. Google Drive is nice for this, and also uses AI to figure out what text is contained in your files. It is extremely accurate, and makes it easy to “Google” your own documents.
The second part of going paperless is ongoing scanning. I have a system where whenever I get mail, a receipt or some other form of paper, I scan it using the Google Drive app pretty much immediately. I also bought a shredder to add some security theater to my life and slightly improve how private it is to recycle the paper when I am done scanning it. At this point it’s just routine to scan paper using the Google Drive app and then shred it. The key is not letting paper build up again or you have to go through everything all over again.
In terms of actually filing the digital documents, my experience suggests that the less complicated the system you employ the more likely you are to stick to it. I just have a few folders (real estate, family, photos, finances, personal and work) and I dump everything into those folders. Now when I need something I just use the search bar, and that has taught me how to name things (if necessary) to be able to recall it when I want it. Google’s OCR tech is so good at this point even naming files seems like a waste, but I still do in case I ever want to switch to an offline option or the context would be helpful for some other reason in the future.
The last point that warrants mentioning on the subject of going paperless is that you should also do what you can to fight paper-based documents from entering your life in the first place. While the government, banks, insurance companies and other intrinsic monopolies can pretend it’s still the 19th century, most of them offer poorly marketed paperless and digital options for communication. I make a habit of making sure there is no way something coming into my life as paper can be instead be paperless. If that involves investing 30 seconds Googling for a digital alternative, I consider that worth it to save future scanning time.
The main bottleneck to going paperless is getting over the initial hump of scanning everything you currently have. Once that is done, maintaining it is pretty easy. One option if you are brave would just be to declare paper bankruptcy, shred (most) of it, and start scanning from then on. I found that given how easy it is to scan, and how little space the files take up, it just makes sense to scan everything. The only expense is Google Drive (usually free) and a feed scanner if you want to save time initially. It was well worth it.