Want to go paperless? Been there and I'm doing it. Here's a braindump on more or less how I have including even a little video to share a few of the tools I have used to get there.
Recently a buddy of mine, who has a very successful real estate business, was sharing with me just how badly he wants to go paperless with his business. Real estate people feel this pain like almost no other. Everything has a form. The only thing more paper intensive might be the medical field, or probably any governmental concern.
Since I am paperless (I don't even take notes on paper anymore, if I have my Macbook open and running, which is almost always), this discussion with my buddy got me listing out all my favorite applications, both online (websites) and the kind you'd load on your personal computer. He took some notes and I have yet to check back with him to see if he has made any progress in this arena.
Meanwhile, today I saw an ad for a company here in town that promotes giving you the ability to "be paperless" so I took a peek at their site. They are basically an online document storage company, which is all fine and good, but the ability to store documents is just a sliver of what's needed to truly avoid the use of paper at all times while one is working. We usually all have some form of collaboration, project management and intercommunication going with others, and that makes for a pretty dynamic existence. "Storage" is very static (little to no change). To become truly paperless requires more than just one e-tool as a result. I use many.
In other words, if paper is something you truly want to curb in your life, there's much more to consider than just storing it. You can do it, though, with less effort than you might think.
Here are some more thoughts I have had on this area.
This list is a pretty good start:
- To truly become paperless, it is necessary that one subscribe to
the idea that data should have a proper place in the world and to get
it there with the least number of motions possible. E.g.: stickies, as
profitable an invention as they have become, have no place in the world
of Data Storage. To believe that they do is to potentially invite galactic levels
of chaos into your life.
- If this makes sense, it is therefore wise to, at the time of acquiring new data, and especially simple things like phone numbers or names (vs. huge amounts of data which are usually better organized already), get them into a more proper place right then.
So, if you use Outlook, ask the person who is giving you the name and
number to please hold on while you open Outlook up and create a new
record. I have had people wait for 1 or 2 minutes (seems like 5 or 10
to them I'm sure) while I run across the house and get to my computer
which I always keep running. No paper is ever touched when this
happens. "Brilliant!" So get that information into its proper place the first time.
- Get yourself a good automatic back-up system for your important data which you can "set and forget". Backing up your personal computer MUST be done automagically in order to avoid tragedy. It is also a good idea to test the Recovery process by pretending you have lost all your data. Make sure you know how to get it back again before tragedy strikes.
- Get to know Google Documents. You can do this by setting up a Gmail.com email account and then, once you're logged in, click on Documents at the top of the screen at www.google.com. This is a place you can create and manage online documents, spreadsheets and presentations. I use it liberally for two reasons: I can get to them anywhere from anyone's PC and those docs are being backed up by a multi-billion dollar corporation all day every day. Can't beat that. This doesn't necessarily make you any more paperless at first, but it is easy to share and publish documents without having to send someone an attachment, which makes it less likely they will print it. Mostly I just think it's a great way to create and store docs so I'm including it here.
- For documents that you have already created or will create that can't be managed using Google Documents (they only work with Word Doc and Excel and Powerpoint formats for the most part), I can't say enough about Box.net. Not only can you STORE documents up there (which gets them off your computer and safely being backed-up) but you can very easily share them with others. (See a short video on how I do this.) So if you do a lot of collaboration with one or more people, it's wunderbar. I have business development coaching clients and there are a lot of special Excel docs that I have them use for various purposes. I can keep all those forms stored on Box.net and then send a link to a specific document or to a folder (if I want to share a lot of docs at once). The point here is that it is easy to share documents with someone without having to use attachments or FAXing and it keeps them safe in case of aforementioned tragedy. In truth, I don't sweat my "automagic" back-up much these days, even though I have a special computer at home that just backs up all our personal computers, because most of what I create and use by way of docs is on either Google Documents, or Box.net.
- Now, if you do need to fax, do electronic fax: use E-fax. People fax you like they normally would, only eFax converts it to an electronic fax as an attachment which they send you via email. I have them send mine as .PDF files. But you can get .tiff (just another common format) too if you like. You can also "print" files you have on your PC or Mac and have it go out as a fax instead of onto paper. And if you have to send a physical piece of paper as a fax, just use your fax machine or scan it into your computer. Easy! Either way, electronic fax is the way to go. You can get a free trial with them too (link).
- If you're doing a lot of project work with other people, you can manage it all paperless with BasecampHQ.com. Basecamp let's you combine all the Files, ToDos and Messages for a specific project(s) in one place, and then give access to the people who are helping you with that project. I use it to manage all my client projects. VERY easy to use and work with. Not a lot of bloated features to understand or on which others have to get trained.
- The same company that make HighriseHQ (37Signals) created a great realationship manager called HighriseHQ. This is just as simple to use but is all about keeping track of your personal and/or business relationships--the ones you don't want to lose track of or fall out of touch with. It's a Customer Relationship Manager (CRM). Again, easy to stay paperless with this one. If someone becomes a new contact for me, I add them here first. This is where I'm putting them when someone gives me a lead or a new strategic relationship of some kind. I don't put them on some easy-to-lose sticky. No way! Would I store a piece of gold in an envelope on my desk? Not a chance. It's going in a safety deposit box or my safe baby. And that's what this is, only it's for the real gold in life: the people I work with and care about.
This above is good starting point toward the quest for less paper. There are a couple of other things I use from time to time, like the "Stickies" application on my Mac where I need to put something fast because I don't have time to open up Highrise or something. Stickies is a virtual version of the paper kind of sticky, but because I have it captured there, I can quickly copy/paste it into Highrise when the person I'm talking to gets off the phone. So still the idea is to get it into its proper place right away, if not as your coming into contact with the information for the first time.
There's a certain amount of discipline that comes into play here. We can all go running around like chickens with our heads lopped off, or we can decide to manage our lives a bit better one bit of data at a time and keep a cool head about it. It pays to be more deliberate about how you manage the information in your life. Start with the first step above, and then take it one at a time from there and you can indeed one day be paperless, or at least enough to make it count. Our trees will thank you if no one else, and so will your pocketbook.
Hans Eisenman is a business and technology coach who helps people and businesses make the best use of computer and Internet tools to increase their efficiency, get more business and improve their bottom line. He can be reached at hans AT hanseisenman.com.