Guide To Working Paperless

November 3, 2008

9:25 pm

I think my simplest self-imposed challenge was to: go entirely paperless at the office this month. It was so simple it’s almost laughable. I’m so confident that I met my own goal I’ve posted this a week before the end of the month. So how did I do it and how did it spill over into my personal life?

I got the right (portable) tools in place

These days we all have laptops: they’re light, portable, and can go anywhere. I’m fortunate enough to have one for both work and play. My laptop (MacBook Air, my primary and only computer) goes with me everywhere (so all the tips will be for Mac users).

  • Office to home office
  • Conference room to conferences
  • Couch to bed
  • Bus and train

Not to mention the fact I carry a web-enabled device (iPhone) at all times (send tasks with an e-mail dropbox). In school, we took notes on paper because: it was portable. But now, the same can be said around the office with a laptop (and in school of course). I can plop down at someone else’s desk, I can get on a call, I can go in the hall, etc. I can conduct business anywhere. Sure, all you need is a computer, but a ’satellite’ is key.

The downside to technology

When you interact with humans, face-to-face, laptops and phones become a barrier. Its best to take notes on paper when sitting with co-workers or clients, but certainly not necessary. Being aware of the distraction and visible wall placed between you will help you navigate this problem.

Luckily I deal with most people online (phone or internet) and this makes it easy for me.

Technologies I work with

On day one I removed all paper and writing utensils from my work area to prevent any temptation. Sure, I still have a stack of business cards on my desk but I’ll tackle that later. These are the four simple technologies I require to go completely paperless:

  • Plain text editor: Anything from TextMate to Coda will suffice. You simply need a tool to take notes. When you talk to someone, take notes. When you have a meeting, take notes. When you draft a proposal or write a report write everything in markdown so you can convert it (PDF, HTML), keep track of revisions (subversion, git), and edit it with any other text editor. That’s right Microsoft Word, I’m looking at you. Bonus: a tool like SubEthaEdit allows collaborative editing which means you can take notes with everyone else on the call in the same room.
  • Web-based calendaring: I use Google Calendar so I can access my calendar anywhere. Plus, there are tools like BusySync and SpanningSync that allow me to go from Google Calendar to iCal to iPhone and back. Adding events from my phone or computer mean one less thing I need to scribble down.
  • Web-based tasks: Again, having my tasks accessible from any computer, anywhere is key. Since we eat our own dogfood at Crowd Favorite I use our tasks suite for both a work and personal to-do list. E-mail dropboxes (I always have my iPhone) allow a quick thought to turn into an actionable item and I never need to jot anything down.
  • Communication tools: My RescueTime dashboard says I spend nearly 70% of my time in applications and on websites I’ve tagged ‘communication’. It’s important to my job and so I’m glad I have reliable e-mail at GMail, cheap calls on Skype, instant messages with Adium (Google Talk, AIM) and a phone on my desk. When’s the last time you used paper to communicate in a day-to-day setting?
  • Paperless faxes: Most people have a scanner/printer (it’s hard to find the two separated these days) so they don’t need to fax anything. Just e-mail me the high-quality image. But, some things never change. Go spend the $9.99 and buy an e-fax number for the rest of the John McCain’s out there.
  • Digital Signatures: I say nay to faxes in the first place, you don’t need them to sign a document. Adobe has come out with perfectly acceptable digital signature technology. It’s really straight forward and allows for near-instant turn-around on contracts, NDAs, etc. Plus, hand-written signatures can be forged, right?

We’re all familiar with the 80/20 concept, right? These simple technologies catch far more than the majority (probably 90%) of paper that could possibly enter my work life.

But, some things cant be avoided

Little things come up every day and we pay little attention to them. Business cards are handed out at dinners, conferences and other events. Going to lunch or drinks after work mean you’ll be handed a receipt. So what do you do with the unavoidable?

  • Receipts: If I can see that the credit card printer has already spit out a second customer receipt I’ll be sure to ask for it. Why? So I can make sure I take it back and recycle it. Odds are when you decline it’s tossed straight into the trash.
  • Business Cards: I will gladly accept a card from someone if its seems appropriate (and offer them mine). Like receipts I will always put them in my phone and recycle the card. But, if the situation is right, I will then offer them to use my contxts account (simply SMS ‘devin’ to 50500). There are plenty of other services out there: TextMarks, MyDropCard.
  • Shipping Labels: Welp, some things can’t be avoided. I had to ship a book to a friend the other day and realized it was one of my few ‘non-digital’ exchanges this month.
  • Checks: Cash is king and if you want to do business you’ll accept checks. Online services are becoming more popular but there are things like fees involved. Free checking is far too easy right now.
  • Account Statements: If you can, obviously have them sent to you online (banking, bills, etc.). I have a few accounts that still don’t offer it and that kills me. Again, I have to suck it up, shred, and recycle, that’s the best I can do.
  • Periodicals: They’re mostly there, newspapers, magazines*, etc. They all syndicate online. The hardest part is when you’re faced with ‘offline’ time. NetNewsWire is my app of choice but that still leaves me high and dry with partial feeds and those that don’t push to RSS.
  • Books: With services like Audible and Audio-Tech business book summaries I haven’t read from a tangible book in a while. I have plenty that I will read (on planes, on the bus, etc.) because, well, they’re books. But taking steps like re-selling them on Amazon (reduce, reuse, recycle?) and subscribing to podcasts will certainly help you become paperless.

As you can see, there are some things that are hard to avoid. But you’re certainly not helpless.

So how did I do?

I feel pretty good about my new habits and I’m sure I’m not alone in my quest to work and live paperless. Is there something I’ve missed? Or is there something you’ve found that works better? Share your thoughts in the comments.

* I’ve collected nearly ten years of WIRED magazines and use them as a night stand. I love that magazine.

TECH cocktail Community Contributed Knowledge

Devin manages cool projects at Crowd Favorite, skis for Colorado Snow, and writes about business and technology at Mind Averse.

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