Going Paperless - 1. Getting Started

When I worked at Texas Instruments in the early 90s, one of my fellow linguists would print every email he received at work. He had about three stacks of paper on his desk, each about two-feet high. Try as they might, the programming nerds could never convince Jack that the emails were safely recoverable on the servers - he insisted that they must be printed to be "permanent."

I think of Jack a lot in Higher Ed. His anachronistic view of the "ephemeral" nature of electronic media seems to have found its preservation in academe. I still show up to committee meetings where stacks of paper are distributed across the conference table - as if they are somehow more "real" than emailing docs. Students pick up on these biases, and often believe that a paper turned in on paper is somehow more "complete" than a pdf. In the absence of an institutional priority to intentionally move to paperless, faculty and staff are kind of left to their own devices to figure out how to go paperless.

Part of the challenge in going paperless is the inertia that paper seems to have. If I've old stuff in paper form in a file cabinet, it can feel daunting to think about scanning, naming, and filing all of that stuff. And since that stuff is paper, I might as well postpone going paperless.

I'd like to suggest that this is not the way to get started - and here are a few tips that can help get you on the path to "someday" being paperless.

Step 1 - Choose One Project

Rather than trying to "go paperless" on everything, a great way to start is on one project or in one course. I found that this approach gives room to work out specific kinks without investing time in fixing the whole system. For example, when I went paperless in one of my classes, I thought it would be fine for my students to send me their papers in email. That was a mistake - but it was a mistake in only one class, so it wasn't a big deal. I started with a single course, and a single committee, and focussed on finding paperless solutions in those two contexts. In short order, I started to figure out my system to migrate other projects and courses to entirely paperless affairs.

Step 2 - Stop Printing

Before worrying about scanning, it's a good idea to stop printing. In fact, printing to PDF is a great habit to develop. Usually, we print when we want to give someone a document - but if one develops the habit of "printing to PDF," those same documents can be sent via email (or Slack, etc.).

Step 3 - Inboxes

I keep a lot of my files in Evernote (Receipts, reference material, websites), and the rest in Dropbox (Records, gradebooks, student papers). I've found that organizing these in "real time" can be a "real headache." Instead, I have an inbox in Evernote, and an inbox in Dropbox - everything is saved to those inboxes, and processed later. I have an OmniFocus task to clean the inboxes once a week. This practice has proven useful in two major ways...

  1. I can batch name a lot of the work I've done in the week - if I've been working on a specific project, most of those files may have similar names.
  2. I DELETE files that I discovered I didn't really need - sometimes I realize that I saved a file that doesn't deserve to be saved. If I decide I don't want to process it, I delete it.

Step 4 - Ask for E-files - Politely

I was recently in a committee meeting where a colleague passed out a stack of printed spreadsheets. Saying, "I hate paper - why don't you just email us the files, you idiot?" is probably not the most effective means of getting cooperation. I will often say to a colleague, "Sarah, I really appreciate these data, and I'd like to make sure I don't lose them - can you email me a copy of this for my files?" Truth be told, when I get them, I throw the paper copies in recycling ;-) Your mileage may vary.


I mentioned this tip in the article about Filenaming Conventions - but it bears repeating. I use TextExpander to make my filenaming seamless and painless. I have a series of snippets that expand to common filenames. For example, I’ve a snippet with a shortcut “.pro” to conduct the following snippet...

<Proposal - %| - %y-%m-%d>

This snippet will expand to create a document title - and it will move the cursor into the middle of the file name so that I can add the unique identifier…

Proposal - | - 15-06-05


So we haven't even discussed scanning - let alone emptying the filing cabinets. Think about small projects, single classes, and trying to minimize GENERATING paper before trying to de-staple 24 linear feet of journal articles. I'll give some tips for THAT monster in the near future :-)

Posted on June 16, 2015 and filed under General, Evernote.