3 Steps to a Paperless Life

UPDATED: August 29, 2014
PUBLISHED: August 29, 2014

I am a writer, and I love paper. I love the feel of it, the smell of it, and the promise it holds. I could sit in a stationery store and stare at its many forms for hours (that is, if I could find a stationery store anymore). But I am in the midst of a passionate pursuit of a paperless lifestyle.

You see, I love paper so much that I don’t want to hate it. I’m tired of towers of old bills and endless boxes stuffed with paper I might need, one day. I want the paper in my life to be solely the paper I love: my hardback copy of Webster’s Dictionary, my son’s drawing of the caterpillar he found in the garden, the Sunday edition of The New York Times. These are things trees would be proud to sacrifice their lives for. My water bill? Not so much.

I started my paperless crusade two years ago and I’m proud of the results. Through a combination of my iPhone and a cloud-based storage system (I use OneDrive for documents and Evernote for everything else), I have cut my paper clutter down by 80 percent. I now have instant access to the “papers” I need via any computer, tablet or smartphone. The next time you are pulled over for speeding and realize your new insurance card isn’t in the car, but on Evernote, will be the moment you realize what a life-changing step going paperless is.

These are the three steps I follow to manage my paperless life:

1. Photo Documentation 
If I have a paper item I want to keep, I take a photo of it with the Evernote app on my phone, tag it, and then throw it away. Evernote has an excellent document camera built in that takes well-defined images of text and also crops out any fingers and thumbs.

Note: There are countless blogs and eBooks dedicated to getting the most out of Evernote’s wide range of services. A couple to get you started: Going Paperless and Untethered with Evernote.

2. Print to PDF 
When I come across something I need to “print,” I choose the Print-to PDF option, available on Macs, the Google Chrome browser and software plugins for Windows. Then, instead of a physical piece of paper, I end up with a portable document file I can save directly to OneDrive.

3. Take Notes 
I still make notes with a pen and paper. When I’m done, however, I take a picture of my finished notes and store them in Evernote. I quickly discovered that a paperless system works best when everything you need is always in one place, not scattered in different drawers or sitting on your office desk when you’re working from home.

These steps worked perfectly for me for the first year of my paperless pursuit. But then my son went to kindergarten. If there’s one system in this country that has yet to embrace the paperless concept, it is the public school system. The daily deluge that arrived home with my 5-year-old was a new challenge. And it dawned on me, half the battle of a paperless life is managing the paper other people insist on giving you.

Here are some tricks I use to cut out “other people’s clutter”:

Documents Other People Want You to Store:
When my son brings home mountains of paperwork from school, I let him put them in our flatbed scanner and digitize it himself—an excellent learning experience for him and a clutter-freeing procedure for me. The scanner system also works for longer documents given to you by colleagues. Make sure you choose a scanner with an auto-feed system. Most scanners come with a “scan to email” function that lets you scan directly to your chosen cloud drive.

Documents Manufacturers Want You to Read: 
Most electronics manufacturers have realized the savings of not printing their manuals in three languages, but for some reason appliance makers still insist on producing instruction pamphlets a phone book would envy. These can go straight in the recycle bin. Make a note of your model number, head to the manufacturer’s website and download the manual as a PDF to your cloud drive.

Documents Marketers Want You to Spend Money On:
Unwanted credit card offers and fancy catalogues I can’t afford to buy from, you have met your match. PaperKarma is an awesome app that lets you snap a picture of the junk mail you receive and then contacts the company on your behalf to have you removed from the mailing list. And it really works; I’ve been using it for two years now and my physical mailbox is far more streamlined than my digital one.

There are so many benefits of a paperless life and very few drawbacks. When I catch a glimpse of my clutter-free desk as I sit down on a Sunday morning with a cup of coffee in one hand and the solid feel of The New York Times Review section in the other, I realize that paper-less doesn’t have to mean paper-free.

With technology, going paperless is simple. See how else tech can make life more efficient, including 4 ways it can make working from home work for you.


Jennifer Tuohy writes about consumer technology for eBay. See her recent piece on paperless solutions for students and parents (here). You can follow Jennifer on Google+ and at eBay.

Attorney and multi-platform journalist Sunny Hostin is the four-time Emmy Award-winning co-host of ABC’s The View.