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How to Go Paperless: Bury the Paper Before it Buries You

How to Go Paperless: Bury the Paper Before it Buries You
Paper Stack

The paperless office concept has been around since the 1960s or ‘70s, much like the flying car. For many people, this has been little more then a myth. How can we get rid of the paper while our offices are filled with photocopiers and fax machines and the postal carriers and couriers keep bringing in reams of the stuff daily? What about the need to keep receipts for accounting and tax purposes? And what about the contracts and other legal documents? It is hard, but getting easier to do every day.

Well, the short answer is that in a normal office environment today, we can’t really do it 100%, certainly not in one simple step without burning down the building. But there are some simple steps that we can take toward the goal of not having to constantly manage piles of paper at home or the office. A few decisive steps applied over enough time can dramatically reduce if not eliminate the paper.

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Before going through the specific steps, we need to consider there being two kinds of paper documents: those we need to retain for the longer term (let’s call them records) and those that are transient in nature (call them working files). Different approaches work for these two basic kinds of papers or documents. The nature of your office and work has a great deal to do with which type of paper you can reduce or eliminate the most easily. A legal, accounting or medical office will likely have a harder time making its records paperless than an ad agency or political campaign office would. Decide which of the paper reduction steps you take and in what order you take them based on what you do and the importance of the various records and working files.

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Ten steps toward converting your office to a paperless one:

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  1. Begin with the end in mind. Be clear on your objectives so that you can target your conversion most effectively. For example, if efficiency is a more important objective than environmental, don’t try cutting your paper volume in half by recycling paper through the copiers to print on the backside. Double-sided copying easily jams the machine and often confuses whoever gets handed stuff printed on both sides. We found increasing the efficiency of the records management system much more important than reducing the number of working papers. By targeting the records management, the working papers reductions naturally followed.
  2. Decide on a date for a switch from paper-based to paperless for everything going forward. Chose a date far enough ahead that everyone can work toward. Not everything needs to be switched at one time. Don’t worry about converting old records until you have time to get around to doing something about converting them. Many of them can probably be kept without any changes and discarded once they get to a certain age.
  3. Establish an electronic records retention system and get comfortable using it before becoming committed to it. We didn’t go out and get an expensive or complicated system installed then make a hard conversion. What we did early on was to create a filenaming system that automatically sorts itself chronologically in most file directories. Just like the filename for this article which begins 20071106_1600… This is simply the metric system of year, month, day and time to the nearest minute or hour based on a 24 hour clock. If we save a version of this file on one person’s laptop then email it to the office, it gets filed automatically by whomever receives it. Revisions are easily handled by simply superimposing a new date/time at the beginning of the filename. We started doing this long before the switch date.
  4. Place a filename on every document worth keeping. In our office, if a document does not have a filename, it gets named or tossed out. This is true whether it is a paper or electronic document.
  5. Retain a paper file as the primary record for anything before the switch and the electronic record as the primary record for anything after the switch date. This is not a complicated thing. In our office, like most offices, there is often more then one copy of the important things around. We got into the habit of knowing where the record was then tossing out or deleting duplicates once done with them, especially for the paper duplicates. We get comfortable knowing that anything prior to January 1, 2005 worth having a record of has a paper version someplace and everything afterward can be found on a server.
  6. Inform your clients and suppliers of your paperless orientation. Come out of the closet and let everyone know because most people find it great. This does not mean you should beat up a client who wants you to send hardcopy proofs or a signed original instead of an electronic version. We tend to give clients whatever they want. However, we do beat up our suppliers. Our lawyers were some of the toughest holdouts but they eventually learned how to send everything electronically and scan documents that had to have signatures on them.
  7. Keep your technology and systems simple and compatible with what most people use. The great news is that PCs and MACs use file systems that no longer conflict with each other. There are still problems with using different types of graphics and multi-media formats but these are diminishing. If we stick to the basic formats, most people can deal with them. Be careful about using fringy formats, especially for records that need to be retained long term.
  8. Check and upgrade your older files from time to time to make sure they remain usable. CDs or tapes are a problem. They deteriorate and some of the earlier formats are no longer supported. We keep our records in live formats. Maintaining a backup server is no harder or more expensive than keeping an inventory of off-line storage media. Paper records deteriorate too if printed on acid paper or stored in a bad environment.
  9. Adopt an “If in doubt, throw it out” policy. We tend to be a bit quicker than most to toss out stuff we are not sure of. The odds are that since we only tend to ever look at maybe 1% of the records we store, there is a high probability the stuff we are deciding whether or not to keep is not worth keeping.
  10. Recognize and reward those who help meet the objectives. Whether someone becomes able to electronically edit or deliver documents on the fly or is finally replacing an old Remington manual typewriter with a computer, take the effort to show how this produces positive impacts, whether on the bottom line or the environment.

These were some basic steps we used and recommend that can help you make the shift. We reduced our paper consumption about 95% over the past five years. If you have already made shifts toward a paperless office and have some other ideas, please let us know by posting a comment. Or let us know if you had any problems in trying to create a paperless office.

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Last Updated on July 8, 2020

3 Techniques for Setting Priorities Effectively

3 Techniques for Setting Priorities Effectively

It is easy, in the onrush of life, to become a reactor – to respond to everything that comes up, the moment it comes up, and give it your undivided attention until the next thing comes up.

This is, of course, a recipe for madness. The feeling of loss of control over what you do and when is enough to drive you over the edge, and if that doesn’t get you, the wreckage of unfinished projects you leave in your wake will surely catch up with you.

Having an inbox and processing it in a systematic way can help you gain back some of that control. But once you’ve processed out your inbox and listed all the tasks you need to get cracking on, you still have to figure out what to do the very next instant. On which of those tasks will your time best be spent, and which ones can wait?

When we don’t set priorities, we tend to follow the path of least resistance. (And following the path of least resistance, as the late, great Utah Phillips reminded us, is what makes the river crooked!) That is, we’ll pick and sort through the things we need to do and work on the easiest ones – leaving the more difficult and less fun tasks for a “later” that, in many cases, never comes – or, worse, comes just before the action needs to be finished, throwing us into a whirlwind of activity, stress, and regret.

This is why setting priorities is so important.

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3 Effective Approaches to Set Priorities

There are three basic approaches to setting priorities, each of which probably suits different kinds of personalities. The first is for procrastinators, people who put off unpleasant tasks. The second is for people who thrive on accomplishment, who need a stream of small victories to get through the day. And the third is for the more analytic types, who need to know that they’re working on the objectively most important thing possible at this moment. In order, then, they are:

1. Eat a Frog

There’s an old saying to the effect that if you wake up in the morning and eat a live frog, you can go through the day knowing that the worst thing that can possibly happen to you that day has already passed. In other words, the day can only get better!

Popularized in Brian Tracy’s book Eat That Frog!, the idea here is that you tackle the biggest, hardest, and least appealing task first thing every day, so you can move through the rest of the day knowing that the worst has already passed.

When you’ve got a fat old frog on your plate, you’ve really got to knuckle down. Another old saying says that when you’ve got to eat a frog, don’t spend too much time looking at it! It pays to keep this in mind if you’re the kind of person that procrastinates by “planning your attack” and “psyching yourself up” for half the day. Just open wide and chomp that frog, buddy! Otherwise, you’ll almost surely talk yourself out of doing anything at all.

2. Move Big Rocks

Maybe you’re not a procrastinator so much as a fiddler, someone who fills her or his time fussing over little tasks. You’re busy busy busy all the time, but somehow, nothing important ever seems to get done.

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You need the wisdom of the pickle jar. Take a pickle jar and fill it up with sand. Now try to put a handful of rocks in there. You can’t, right? There’s no room.

If it’s important to put the rocks in the jar, you’ve got to put the rocks in first. Fill the jar with rocks, now try pouring in some pebbles. See how they roll in and fill up the available space? Now throw in a couple handfuls of gravel. Again, it slides right into the cracks. Finally, pour in some sand.

For the metaphorically impaired, the pickle jar is all the time you have in a day. You can fill it up with meaningless little busy-work tasks, leaving no room for the big stuff, or you can do the big stuff first, then the smaller stuff, and finally fill in the spare moments with the useless stuff.

To put it into practice, sit down tonight before you go to bed and write down the three most important tasks you have to get done tomorrow. Don’t try to fit everything you need, or think you need, to do, just the three most important ones.

In the morning, take out your list and attack the first “Big Rock”. Work on it until it’s done or you can’t make any further progress. Then move on to the second, and then the third. Once you’ve finished them all, you can start in with the little stuff, knowing you’ve made good progress on all the big stuff. And if you don’t get to the little stuff? You’ll have the satisfaction of knowing that you accomplished three big things. At the end of the day, nobody’s ever wished they’d spent more time arranging their pencil drawer instead of writing their novel, or printing mailing labels instead of landing a big client.

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3. Covey Quadrants

If you just can’t relax unless you absolutely know you’re working on the most important thing you could be working on at every instant, Stephen Covey’s quadrant system as written in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change might be for you.

Covey suggests you divide a piece of paper into four sections, drawing a line across and a line from top to bottom. Into each of those quadrants, you put your tasks according to whether they are:

  1. Important and Urgent
  2. Important and Not Urgent
  3. Not Important but Urgent
  4. Not Important and Not Urgent

    The quadrant III and IV stuff is where we get bogged down in the trivial: phone calls, interruptions, meetings (QIII) and busy work, shooting the breeze, and other time wasters (QIV). Although some of this stuff might have some social value, if it interferes with your ability to do the things that are important to you, they need to go.

    Quadrant I and II are the tasks that are important to us. QI are crises, impending deadlines, and other work that needs to be done right now or terrible things will happen. If you’re really on top of your time management, you can minimize Q1 tasks, but you can never eliminate them – a car accident, someone getting ill, a natural disaster, these things all demand immediate action and are rarely planned for.

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    You’d like to spend as much time as possible in Quadrant II, plugging away at tasks that are important with plenty of time to really get into them and do the best possible job. This is the stuff that the QIII and QIV stuff takes time away from, so after you’ve plotted out your tasks on the Covey quadrant grid, according to your own sense of what’s important and what isn’t, work as much as possible on items in Quadrant II (and Quadrant I tasks when they arise).

    Getting to Know You

    Spend some time trying each of these approaches on for size. It’s hard to say what might work best for any given person – what fits one like a glove will be too binding and restrictive for another, and too loose and unstructured for a third. You’ll find you also need to spend some time figuring out what makes something important to you – what goals are your actions intended to move you towards.

    In the end, setting priorities is an exercise in self-knowledge. You need to know what tasks you’ll treat as a pleasure and which ones like torture, what tasks lead to your objectives and which ones lead you astray or, at best, have you spinning your wheels and going nowhere.

    These three are the best-known and most time-tested strategies out there, but maybe you’ve got a different idea you’d like to share? Tell us how you set your priorities in the comments.

    More Tips for Effective Prioritization

    Featured photo credit: Mille Sanders via unsplash.com

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