The same day Urban Outfitters offered me an e-receipt I read about how the Encyclopedia Britannica Encyclopedia Britannica decided to stop printing its volumes. After 244 years, they are going purely digital.
Of course, this trend isn’t anything new — Apple has been sending receipts to my email for a couple years now. I like it because it keeps my wallet clear and makes it easier to find that receipt later if I need it (I can just search my email). Also, let’s not forget that Wikipedia has been providing information electronically on millions of subjects for more than a decade. As if we needed a reminder, the last vestiges of our lives on paper are ending.
Except when it comes to our home offices and personal record-keeping. And so, decades after the paperless office first entered the lexicon (it was coined in a 1975 BusinessWeek article), we are still printing and filing, storing and shredding paper — way more than we need to. And the reason isn’t technology or stubbornness, it’s that age-old human stumbling block: habit.
So whether you want to go paperless (or even paper-limited) for greater mobility, less clutter, or a lighter environmental footprint, the first problem to tackle is your own habits — here are some guidelines for how to go paperless:
1. Sign up for paperless billing
This is super simple, and it’s likely that you are already doing it, at least for some bills. Many of us are still using the mailed bills as a reminder system, but the paper-saving way could help you be even smarter about paying your bills on time. First, spend ten minutes to put your bill due dates into your electronic calendar and hit “repeat every month.” I enter the due dates five days in advance of their actual payment dates so that I make sure I don’t incur late fees, as electronic payments usually take 2-3 days. As you are entering your dates, go to the websites for your billing accounts and sign up for paperless. Don’t worry: All your records are available on your online accounts anyway. Most companies even offer PDF downloads of your previously paper bill — the month’s statement — so you can see the exact same specifics electronically that you would be able to on the paper bill, a fact many people don’t realize. The bill itself doesn’t change, just how you look at it does. Once you’ve made the conversion, you’ll realize no part of the information flow has changed, but where you get it from has.
2. Embrace esigning
The last things I had been printing out were contracts, leases and the like, which need to be signed and sent back to someone. Most companies, however, will accept an esignature these days. An eSignature is defined as: “...an electronic sound, symbol, or process, attached to or logically associated with a contract or other record and executed or adopted by a person with the intent to sign the record.” As long as the intent is clear, it’s legal. (Learn more about the history of electronic signatures.) If you want to make sure all your bases are covered, services like DocuSign help both ends of an agreement sign electronically.
3. Move magazine and newspaper subscriptions to an ereader
No need to read everything on your computer screen, which can be tiring. You can cut a serious amount of mail, paper clutter and save the energy involved in cutting down trees to process them into paper, ship them, print them and mail them to your house by purchasing a Kindle, Nook or iPad (there are several versions of the Kindle and the Nook, in black and white and color, so be sure you are getting the version best for your needs). The upside is that eReaders are easy on the eyes and for many magazines and newspapers, there's additional content that can be accessed only in the electronic version.
4. Scan it
You can use a specialty scanner (I just use the one that came with my printer) to convert most paper records to electronic ones. It might take a bit of time to set up (be sure to use a computer file naming system that makes sense to you), but once it’s done, you will only have to update it occasionally.
5. Send invitations and cards electronically
While a heartfelt letter is often worth putting pen to paper, and postcards are still kind of fun to receive, Paperless Post offers a number of low-cost personalized cards, for example.
6. What to keep on paper
Your car title, registration and insurance information need to be on paper, at least for the foreseeable future. Even so, it's a great idea to scan these documents as these are important enough to require backup. Other things I like to keep on paper include records for my home, instruction manuals for my appliances (in case I need them if the power goes out) and copies of my pet's vaccinations, which you typically have to make a copy of anyway when you want to board, fly or groom them.
One final note: Be absolutely sure that you're backing up your files offsite, especially if you are scanning important records and recycling them. I use Mozy.com, which automatically updates all files on my computer each day. An external hard drive is not enough if there's a fire or flood in your house and your computer and hard drive are ruined. Data should always be stored in a separate place from your computer and hard drive.
If you own a business and want more specifics about how take a whole company paperless, check out this informative article on Lifehack.