As long as computers have been part of work and home life, the dream of getting rid of paper in our lives and having all our documents live digitally has been a tantalizing goal. But single page scanners and building our own filing databases made the chore of digitizing and organizing the documents seem as hard, or harder, than just stuffing them into a filing cabinet and forgetting them.
At least, that’s how it used to be.
Now, this isn’t a cheap solition. Depending upon the choices you make, these tools can a not-insignificant amount. However, there is value in getting rid of almost all the paper in your life, clearing out those file folders and boxes, and knowing you can find any document you need, any time, without spending hours digging through stacks of old junk. Also, if you do any kind of paying work at home, you can (with the advice of your tax professional) likely deduct the cost on your taxes as a business expense, which could be seen as a 30%-40% discount (if you squint real hard).
Between doing the day-to-day business of bills and paperwork for a family of four, an all the details of GeekDad.com and GeekMom.com, there’s a lot of paper in my life. I’ve tried various filing solutions over the years to keep on top of things, but in the end, things would always end up in piles, or forgotten in file folders. Every year or two, I’d do a purge, get rid of old utility bills taking up room, and try to get a handle on the chaos, but it would always catch up to me again. We have a good HP all-in-one wireless printer/scanner with a sheet feed that made getting individual documents scanned and over to my computer relatively easy, but any serious multi-page scanning, and especially duplex (double-sided) scans, would inevitably fail. The machine is just not built for serious work.
Then I starting hearing about the Doxie and Neat scanners and organizing systems, and decided to do some research and potentially take the leap. Specifically, this post by Adam Drachis over at Lifehacker got the ball rolling for me. The two issues I ran into with Adam’s solution, though, were that I’m not an Evernote groupie (not dissing what appears to be an incredibly rich service, just not ready to spend the mental energy required to grok its big picture integration; plus they just got hacked), and the Doxie scanners were pretty much unavailable anywhere I looked (a good sign for their popularity, but alas, entirely useless for me).
So I did some more digging, and kept hearing people talk about the Fujitsu ScanSnap. Looking at reviews and ratings told me this was a seriously prosumer device that could do pretty much whatever was needed. It has a sheet feeder that does’t screw up save with the most mangled pages (and then, the native software has an elegant contingency response to let you go back and rescan the last couple pages), it’ll take large documents, and can do single or double-sided. What’s cool about the double-sided scanning is that it’s not a duplex system like our HP, where it takes the page past the scanning element, then flips it to get the other site (meaning more mechanical stuff to fail). Rather, it has two scanning elements, so it can scan two sides as quickly and assuredly as it scans a single side.
The final determinate factor for me was that every review I read praised the scanning software integration that lets you dump your scans into almost any other tool you might use, including Evernote, or a variety of other tools (there’s even iOS and Android apps so you can dump documents straight to your mobile device). Even at the lofty price of $430 on Amazon (admittedly more than the Doxie or Neat alternatives, I went ahead and ordered it, knowing that paying a premium for a tool that would just work, without fail, was worth it.
The next piece of the puzzle is the software to use for organizing documents. The big idea here was to get past all the old-school concepts of nested folders and long filenames explaining what the documents are, and embracing a metadata-driven model of tagging files for searchability. All I really wanted was a way to take the pdfs generated by the scanner, tag them for later, and forget them. Research in the Mac forums lead me to Yep! by Iconic Software ($23.99). Yep! scours your hard drive for pdfs, and then acts like iTunes does for entertainment files. You can add metadata to your pdfs and then search on keywords. Any new pdfs you create with your scanner can be OCR’ed as well, so that the search will see and find everything. Besides tags, you can also create notes attached to individual files, so you can keep track of the context or progress of a document through your personal workflow. It’s simple, and easy to use.
With those two pieces, I was ready to start the grand transition from analog to digital document control. But I was missing – or rather completely underpowered with – one thing: getting rid of my documents once I was done with them. We had a very inexpensive paper shredder my wife had picked up at Target a couple years before, but even with lightweight use, it was obvious it would be a choke point in any serious workflow. It was slow, underpowered, and liked to jam if you tried to put more than a page or two through at one time. Knowing I was going to have to shred a lot of documents (for security – no good putting personal information out in the recycling bin for anyone to find!), I started thinking about finding a new one.
And there, serendipity struck, and a PR representative – completely out of the blue – offered me a review unit of the Fellowes PowerShred 73ci ($170 on Amazon), a solid mid-range cross-cut shredder for small offices. You can put up to a dozen pages in the 73ci at a time, and it eats right through them. It’s “jam-proof” which means that when it feels itself getting overwhelmed, it stops, backs up whatever’s in its blades, then runs forward again, slowly chewing through bit-by-bit until it’s done. It will also each CDs/DVDs and old credit cards, so you can get a sense of the power. And it’s a cross-cut shredder, which means it doesn’t just cut pages up lengthwise (which could be much easier to puzzle back together), but sideways as well, so the output is a confetti of tiny paper shreds. The 73ci has a nicely-sized receiving bin which you can put trash bags into as well, for easy disposal, and it has a sleep-mode, to save power. All-in-all, an impressive performer.
With all the pieces in place, I went to work on the “grand transformation,” meaning the effort to convert all our old paper to digital, and then establish a workflow for documents moving forwards. In general, here’s how my system works:
Scan Document: if it’s something old, no processing is needed. With new items, like bills, I pay them and write a note on the paper itself that what was done and when (“paid 02/28/13”). It goes into the ScanSnap, which I can set for single-sided, or double-sided scanning, whether to create one file per sheet, or one for the whole scanning session, and whether to ignore blank pages (good for mixed piles of documents with some single-sided and some two-sided pages). I hit the button on the scanner, and off it goes. When the scans are done, a window pops up asking me what to do with the files.
Tag Document: Because I’ve added Yep! to the available tasks, I just click on that selection and all the pdf files I’ve just created show up in Yep!’s file manager window with easy-to-read and re-size thumbnails of each one. I just click below each thumbnail to add tags (“water, utility, bill” or “bank, statement” or “insurance, policy”), and boom, done with the hard stuff. I’ve even got the software set so the default file folder for new scans is in my Dropbox folder, so everything is backed up to the cloud, on top of the Time Machine backup to the NAS I have on our network. Everything is as safe as possible.
Destroy Document: With that, all that’s left is to get rid of the paper. Into the Fellowes 73ci, and stacks of obsolete analog information is reduced to easily-recyclable waste. Now, unfortunately such shredded paper is not a good resource for composting. Because many papers have bleaching chemicals in them, and many inks and glossy coatings are not environmentally-friendly, they just won’t decompose well, or if they do, the bad stuff can seep into what you’re growing. Best to just make sure it all gets to the recycling center, where they can sort it out.
The inital scan-fest may take a couple days to plow through, but this workflow is smooth enough that it won’t feel like a chore, and the freeing feeling of shredding and disposing of all that old clutter will make it fun. After that, processing each new document that comes into your life will be a breeze; no file cabinets, no folders, no figuring out where things will go or if you even need to save it. Ultimately, you can save everything without worrying about clutter, and knowing that you can find anything you need with a simple, google-like search, relieves a lot of anxiety.
If you have other solutions for digitizing your life, please leave them in the comments!