Working in a zen-like paper-free office


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By Mark O’Neill

Back in 1999, I created a bit of a mini-uprising when I was working for the Scottish Civil Service. We were drowning in paper and so I proposed that the Scottish Executive buy scanners to digitially copy everything onto the computer, and then revert to a paper-free office. Although I had a few supporters, I was drowned out by the “we love paper!” traditionalists. Remember this was 1999 – the infancy of the internet and – GASP! – the days of Windows 98! Concepts such as “paper-free office” were considered to be nothing more than passing fads. People were still trying to get to grips with e-mail.

Ironically enough, I was labelled as “a weirdo geek” by my boss! “I suppose next you’ll be wanting robots to open the mail!” she mocked. I told her it was an excellent idea.

Fast forward to 2008 and I am trying to roll out the minimalist / paper-free concept in my own home office. As a freelance writer, I accumulate paper at a staggering rate and my filing system has finally broken down. So with the aid of my trusty scanner and my 6GB Gmail account, I am scanning digital copies of items and emailing them to myself along with Gmail labels so I can find them again. Geeky? Perhaps. But at least I will never lose a document ever again when I need it.

The first victim on the hit-list are business cards. Everywhere I go, someone shoves a business card into my hand and so I have developed a mini-Mount Everest of business cards. So I set up a “business cards” label in Gmail, scanned all the important cards then sent them to myself as email attachments. To find them again, just make sure that the person’s name & company is in the Gmail subject line and that the email has the “business cards” label. So to find John Smith’s business card, you can just type into Gmail’s search engine, label:businesscards “John Smith” . I am fairly certain that Gmail can’t read the text on an image attachment – if they could, that would make retrieving a business card even easier. But in the meantime, just populate the email subject line and body of the email with keywords.

The next target was my many magazine subscriptions – six years of Time and Newsweek, as well as specialist trade publications. When I found spiders making a home behind one of the big stacks of magazines, I knew it was time to get rid of them. I went through each magazine and ripped out the pages I wanted to keep. The rest got thrown out in the trash (amazing how good THAT felt). The pages I wanted to keep were scanned and turned into PDF files, which were then emailed to myself with a “database” label and keywords in the email subject line. Now my magazine files are organised but I am probably a pariah in the spider community right now.

So you get the idea – find every piece of paper in your home and if you can digitize it, do so and throw out the paper copy (unless you’re bound by law to keep the paper copy such as legal documents).

Here’s some other things you can consider scanning into your Gmail account :

  • Receipts
  • Bills & invoices
  • Any kind of correspondence such as letters and bank statements (many online banking systems allow you to save your bank statements as PDF files)
  • Leaflets, pamphlets and manuals
  • Photos (although I would never consider throwing away the originals)
  • Postcards (both sides)
  • Study materials, educational worksheets, class notes

Another thing to bear in mind is that you may want to have a back-up of your Gmail account as a security precaution. This is where the great IMAP function comes into play. I am shortly planning to set up Thunderbird and IMAP all my backups to the PC where they can then be backed up onto disks.

Do YOU try to keep a paper-free office? Are you succeeding? Tell me your experiences in the comments and inspire me!

*** UPDATE ***

It has been suggested to me that I should mention some security precautions in this article.    That’s a great idea and I am kicking myself for not thinking of it myself.

If you are using Gmail to store confidential and personal information, you should always use a very strong password and you should also use the “https” security protocol (you can do this by accessing your Gmail at https://mail.google.com ). Using “https” not only encrypts the log-in but also the entire email session.

There is an excellent random password generator for the Firefox browser and I use it all the time.    Obviously, the more characters you use, the better (I use a minimum 25).





17 Responses to Working in a zen-like paper-free office

  1. I think this isn’t a bad idea, however where do you find the time to scan all this stuff that has already accumulated? I will consider it for the future, although I doubt I’ll ever touch and scan all the old stuff, except for maybe a few important documents.

    • Good point! I have an absolutely huge pile of paper correspondence going back 6 years which has to be organised, scanned and emailed into Gmail. I am doing about ten pieces of paper each day, whenever I have the time.

      I guess it’s just an on-going never-ending process but I am hoping that the increased organisation and productivity that results from it will be the big pay-off.

  2. I think this isn't a bad idea, however where do you find the time to scan all this stuff that has already accumulated? I will consider it for the future, although I doubt I'll ever touch and scan all the old stuff, except for maybe a few important documents.

    • Good point! I have an absolutely huge pile of paper correspondence going back 6 years which has to be organised, scanned and emailed into Gmail. I am doing about ten pieces of paper each day, whenever I have the time.

      I guess it's just an on-going never-ending process but I am hoping that the increased organisation and productivity that results from it will be the big pay-off.

  3. Great idea, security is of course important. I got turned onto Gmail at my last job, wanted to archive my emails from work (just in case) and the IT guys set me up and then I invited myself for my main account. I host at Dreamhost and they have a service that you can up upload files for a small one time fee. And it goes forever. Dirt cheap too.!

    Btw, Love the website. Some crazy fun!

    Cheers,

  4. Great idea, security is of course important. I got turned onto Gmail at my last job, wanted to archive my emails from work (just in case) and the IT guys set me up and then I invited myself for my main account. I host at Dreamhost and they have a service that you can up upload files for a small one time fee. And it goes forever. Dirt cheap too.!

    Btw, Love the website. Some crazy fun!

    Cheers,

  5. I think that this is a great idea not just myself but all those who want to make this world a greener place. The picture of the desk is what everyone’s desk looks like without folders but even that is wasting paper AND trees… You get an A in my book for being green!

  6. I think that this is a great idea not just myself but all those who want to make this world a greener place. The picture of the desk is what everyone's desk looks like without folders but even that is wasting paper AND trees… You get an A in my book for being green!

  7. This is a great idea! My laptop was stolen a year ago, and since then I’ve used Gmail’s google documents for everything – no more losing documents for me! My only addition is to remind folks to recycle old papers and magazines instead of throwing them away.

  8. This is a great idea! My laptop was stolen a year ago, and since then I've used Gmail's google documents for everything – no more losing documents for me! My only addition is to remind folks to recycle old papers and magazines instead of throwing them away.

  9. Hello Mark,

    I really like your blog. You failed to mention which Scanner you use. I’m looking for a scanner that can sync contacts with Gmail. Does yours do that?

    Very inspiring story of going against the flow with your crazy paper free ideas!

    Thanks,
    ~Molly

  10. Hello Mark,

    I really like your blog. You failed to mention which Scanner you use. I'm looking for a scanner that can sync contacts with Gmail. Does yours do that?

    Very inspiring story of going against the flow with your crazy paper free ideas!

    Thanks,

    ~Molly

  11. Frankly, this is a slightly outmoded version of what I do with GoogleDocs. Forget email when you can just save everything there! lol