Organizing Paper: When to Go Digital

Part of the trouble with organizing paper at home is the myth that we should all be paperless by now. Not so. I was recently asked why digital files would trump paper files, and vice versa. Organize your paper, and become “paper-less”, to the extent that feels right for you, with these guidelines.

How to decide when to digitize your paper files

Organizing files in electronic format is better when:

• You need document access while on the road
• It is a working copy that needs multiple changes or wide distribution
• It is frequently used reference material, and could be accessed or kept active on a computer screen rather than cluttering up your physical desk
• It is a to-do list or other type of list that changes frequently and is easy to duplicate online but would take time to rewrite by hand (See why I’m loving Toodledo for my task lists.)
• Client or organization records need to be shared among a geographically diverse work group, like customer records that an entire service team might need to access, or health records that siblings all need to access to care for aging parents.
• If space is at a premium. For instance, I have a Center City Philadelphia client who scanned 5 bankers boxes of intake forms covering a 5 year period onto one thumb drive, so she was able to reclaim that square footage in her small store for revenue-producing inventory.
• When disaster planning, since you can make copies of records and send them off-site to protect against anything from a local fire to a regional tsunami.

Organizing files in paper copy is better for:

• Gathering information from individuals at an event. It is easy for people to write their name and contact information with pen and paper, but may be hard for them to navigate on a screen and keyboard.
• Final copies of documents that need to be retained for years or decades for regulatory or archive purposes, if you have the space to store them. Tax records, family memorabilia, HR records are examples.
• Bulky or bound items, like conference notebooks or textbooks, that would take time to unbind and scan, or might only be referenced rarely-to-never.
• If it is important to retain the size and scale of the original. For instance, I scanned most of my children’s artwork, but I did keep several pieces where their actual hand-print was used to make the reindeer or turkey shape. The size of the shape is part of the story, and I wouldn’t want that resized.

My three favorite tools for organizing and converting paper to digital.

Fujitsu ScanSnap S1100 This high-speed scanner is mobile, compact, fast, and can do cool things like turn a scanned document into a Word Doc that you can manipulate and edit. It can also scan straight to the cloud, such as Evernote. I own the S1500 model, and I carry it around with me, but the newer, lighter S1100 mobile scanner is the way to go if portability is a must.

Neat Digital Filing System This high speed scanner excels with software that automatically determines whether a document is a receipt, business card, or a document. It also can read receipt information and create exportable tax and expense reports, saving some work of a bookkeeper. I am no longer recommending this product.

• Your smartphone is also a powerful scanner. There are plenty of scanning apps, but I prefer to use the smartphone camera to scan directly into Evernote to file things like receipts and documents, and then share them with others as needed. You always have your smartphone with you, so there’s really no excuse to lose receipts or other documents ever again. Of course, this option is best for single pages or short documents. If you don’t have a smartphone or tablet, remember that we’re giving away a Samsung Galaxy Tab, so enter now.

Win Samsung Galaxy Tab from HeartWork Organizing
I personally own and use all three options. Many people may already own a home copier/scanner that can adequately handle small jobs of scanning, but I’ve found them pretty frustrating.

Of course, some files never need to be scanned, because they come to you in email as an electronic file, or you can get them from a website (such as bank statements). Consider being just a tad more diligent about filing electronic data in it’s native form if you are on a mission to reduce the paper in your life.

Should You Keep Organized Digital Files in The Cloud?

We’ve all learned from the high-profile hacks (Target, Home Depot, and others) over the last couple of years that nothing is completely safe on the internet. Once you connect, there’s always a risk that sensitive information will be compromised. I recommend keeping the most sensitive data out of the cloud entirely, or disguised in some way if possible. For instance, don’t call a simple excel document “Important Information” and load it with banking access and social security numbers. Before uploading to the cloud, password protect your documents, encrypt them at the source if possible, and disguise the name and even the data inside if you can. This is similar to the old trick of purposely mis-labeling a moving box as “bathroom and cleaning supplies” rather than labeling it “heirloom jewelry”. The former is less likely to be stolen during a household move.

When it comes to cloud services, consider whether the service has been in business for a number of years and whether they have ever been hacked. Carbonite, for example, which is a large computer backup service, has been in business since 2006, exists solely to securely backup your computer data, encrypts data on both legs of the data transfer, and has never reported being hacked. They have this to say about Carbonite’s data security. Although the average Joe doesn’t know what “bank level security” and all the tech speak means, it does point to the fact that Carbonite puts serious resources on security detail.

There are some extremely popular cloud services that will be honest with clients that while they provide excellent security, they make no claims about being unhackable, and they will recommend not storing extremely sensitive data in their service. Evernote’s, for example, is a great cloud service, but they do not make the same types of security claims, and their strength lies in other areas.

Most people are willing to trade the fact that they can’t have deep personal knowledge about the relatively small security risks that might be present in cloud services for the HUGE convenience and backup protection that distributed computing and powerful cloud services offer us in the modern age.

Fear is not a reason to avoid digital files. It is more possible to have your credit card number lifted by the waiter at a restaurant than it is to have your personal data compromised at a large online provider.

If you are on the organizing train with 31 Days of Clutter-Free Living, today’s task is to decide whether some of your files might be better kept in digital form. Let’s discuss over at the Clutter-Free Living Facebook Group.

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