Over the last few years, it has become commonplace to see people attending meetings without paper notebooks in hand, relying instead on their iPads and smartphones to take notes and read documents. In an increasingly digital world, keeping paper copies of documents no longer feels necessary, and while it may not be possible to become completely paperless, it is possible to get very close with the right tools.
The benefits of going paperless include the ability to:
use the search functions in word processing software to pull up specific information in a document;
share files and documents easily with team members who may be located across multiple locations; and
access documents from anywhere, which is a necessity for those who travel for work or who frequently work from home.
However, even for those who have largely left paper behind, there are some things—like handwritten notes from meetings and historical files such as copies of old grant proposals—that tend to linger in paper files. While it can be daunting to think about sorting through the mass of paper that may have accumulated over time, there are tools and organizing strategies that can make it more manageable.
Tools & Strategies to Go Paperless
Step 1: Triage the Paper
Schedule blocks of time (~ 30 - 60 minutes each) over a period of several weeks to go through all of your paper files.
Schedule your sorting time for periods when you typically find it difficult to concentrate, such as Friday afternoons, and reserve your most productive times of day for higher value tasks that require more focus. Choosing the right time block for the task is key to getting it done. If you choose the right time, paper sorting can be a relatively stress-free activity.
If you work for a small organization, see if your employer would be open to scheduling a periodic “clean-up” day when the office would essentially shut down to focus on cleaning up both physical and virtual workspaces. During the clean-up day, all but the most critical work would be suspended for a few hours (or the full day). This will give staff a block of time to organize their files, archive what needs to saved, and shred confidential information that is no longer needed.
Before starting to sort your paper, investigate whether your organization has any rules regarding how long (and where) certain types of documents should be kept. This will ensure that your sorting decisions will be in compliance with any standing policies.
Decide on the names of your sorting piles
If you go very general for the first pass—e.g. three piles, “keep,” “shred,” and “recycle”—the work will go faster. However, you’ll need to schedule additional time to go through the “keep” file to refine where each piece of paper should ultimately go.
If you prefer to touch each piece of paper once, you'll need to break down the “keep” pile into more specific categories. These categories could suggest the next action step such as “save to SharePoint,” “check for archived copies,” “file in personal folder.”
Create your “toss” rule to define what can be recycled (or shredded, if confidential). Some suggestions for what should go in the toss pile include:
Any document that can be accessed online (e.g. manuals for equipment or annual reports).
Materials that have already been saved in electronic version by you or a colleague.
Records from projects that ended 5 or more years ago. This includes meeting notes, participant/client lists, etc. Before applying this rule, it is a good idea to check the guidelines of your home institution and the project's funder (if applicable) as one or both may have storage requirements.
Outdated reference materials. Reference materials older than five years should be evaluated to see if they are still relevant or can be tossed.
Step 2: Scan the Paper & Set Up Naming Standards for Files
The paper documents you’ve decided to keep will need to be scanned. To make it easier to complete the scanning, particularly if you plan on scanning a few minutes at a time, you may want to consider purchasing a small, portable scanner for your office.
An affordable scanner that works quickly and produces quality scans is the Doxie Scanner. The Doxie has the advantage of being compact enough to store in a desk drawer and is user-friendly and easy to set up. The trade-off is that the Doxie only scans one side of a document at a time and does not have a feeder.
If you want two-sided scanning capability, you’ll need to move up to something like the higher-end Fujitsu ScanSnap.
After you’ve scanned your files and moved them to their virtual homes, you’ll want to create file names that easily identify the contents and indicate when they should be purged.
Before you create naming standards for your files, first check to see if your organization has guidelines already in place. If your organization does not have naming standards, it might be worth suggesting that a system be established so that all files, regardless of who created them, are named according to set standards to improve accessibility.
If you need to create naming standards, think of a naming approach that feels intuitive to you. Some tips to consider with your naming of files is to start with the date (YYYY_MM_DD), so your files can easily be sorted within their folders (e.g. 2015_06-08_GatesRpt_v.3).
To facilitate later clean up of the files, you can add a purge date to the end of the name consisting of month and year (e.g. 2014_06-08_GatesRpt_v.3_purge_2017_6).
For the keyword describing the contents, try to think of the one or two words that you would use to conduct a search to pull up the item. For example, the name of a foundation and the type of document (proposal, report, etc.).
Step 3: Maintenance
After clearing out your files and getting your naming standards in place, the next step is maintaining the system you just created.
When you receive a piece of paper, immediately evaluate it and determine if it should be kept, recycled, or shredded. If it can be shredded/recycled, do it on the spot.
For documents and other hard-copy materials that need to be kept certain period of time, or require further action such as materials you need to read, create folders representing action steps like “Read” and “File” where you can store the materials as soon as you receive them. Leave the folders in a visible place. This will help you to remember to file paper as it comes in and to reveiw the folders during the week and take action on the contents.
Once a week--again, maybe Friday afternoon or another time that is traditionally downtime for you--go through your folders to see what can be tossed and what requires further action. Action steps might include blocking time in your calendar to read a particular document; or, for things that need to be filed, deciding where their permanent homes should be and then filing and labeling them according to the naming standards you set up earlier.
On a regular basis—maybe once a month—go through all your files and toss those things marked to be purged that month, and review other items to see if there is anything outdated, requires action by you, or should be shared with others.