I have a nice document scanner. I have great OCR and document-management software. I have a solid system for converting paper into digital documents. I hardly ever print anything. I even wrote a book on the paperless office. And yet, somehow, I still have tons of papers in my home office, and despite my best efforts, more appear all the time. What's happening?
The old joke goes, "The paperless office has about as much of a chance as the paperless bathroom." For the moment, let's ignore the fact that paperless bathrooms are apparently becoming a thing. Is the paperless office really that hopeless?
The business world is in fact making slow but steady progress toward paper reduction. For example, the use of office paper decreased by 40 percent from 2000 to 2011, and it's increasingly rare to find banks, utilities, and other services that don't offer paperless billing and payments. Those of us who run small companies may be in an ideal position to push things further, because unlike managers in big corporations, we have greater latitude to set our own rules--and less inertia to overcome.
But the biggest barrier to a paperless office may be the very word paperless. If using any paper at all, ever, means that you fail to meet the definition of paperless, maybe we're thinking about this concept the wrong way. You may not be able to achieve a completely paperless life, but that doesn't mean the paperless office is a myth or failure, any more than the fact that you can still drive a car makes airplanes a failure. Going paperless doesn't have to be all or nothing to be effective.
Examine your goals
Why do you want to go paperless, anyway?
Back in the 1970s, when the idea of the paperless office first surfaced, the care and feeding of paper was a much bigger problem than it is today. Executives recorded memos on tape and paid people to type them up, photocopy them, and circulate them by hand. Communicating with the public involved writing a lot of letters, each of which had to be sealed, stamped, mailed, opened, replied to, and so on. Filing required vast amounts of space, and finding previously filed papers often took a long time.
In short, dealing with paper was a huge drag on productivity, and a future without those annoyances was what a lot of people were hoping for. All those problems have greatly diminished, and some of them have virtually disappeared. We may still have lots of paper, but we have less paper-related pain. If your goal in maintaining a paperless office is greater productivity, you may find it more useful to focus on that, rather than on the paper itself.
For example, if you receive lots of printed documents and your main problems are finding information in them and figuring out where to file them, the scan-OCR-shred routine will serve you well. It won't literally reduce the amount of paper you encounter, but it will address the inconveniences you struggle with.
Then there are the trees. Environmental issues, including saving forests and reducing waste, are certainly noble reasons to decrease paper usage. I applaud that instinct, and I think it's a good reason to choose digital newspapers, magazines, and books over their printed counterparts, because those are cases in which truly vast amounts of paper can be conserved. Agonizing over whether you should print out a single two-page document isn't worth it, however. You'll have a much larger impact if you concentrate on the bigger offenders.
Surrender to the ironies
Furthermore, no matter how hard you try, the path to paperless seems to be paved with, of all things, more paper.
Consider the following true story. When I bought my iPhone 5 from Verizon earlier this year, I immediately signed up for online account access, automatic payments, and paperless billing. A few days later, I opened my mailbox to find three separate envelopes from Verizon. Inside each was a letter confirming my enrollment in one of these services designed to reduce the amount of paper I receive. That's right: Verizon felt it necessary to send me a letter to tell me how environmentally friendly they were being by no longer sending me paper bills!
I could tell you similar stories about my banks, insurance companies, and so on, all of which insist on sending me mounds of needless paper. I recognize that sometimes these companies may be bound by unavoidable legal notification requirements. I'm just saying: You might have to accept a tiny step backward for every few giant leaps forward, and that's not a bad thing.
Focus on finding things
For me, a paperless office is more about convenience than anything else. Digital documents are easier to search, share, and back up than paper documents, and they take up essentially no space. Scanning documents, converting them to searchable PDFs, and then shredding or recycling the originals (to the extent possible) addresses those needs brilliantly.
Of course, scanning doesn't reduce the volume of incoming paper. If there were less of it that I had to handle in the first place, I'd be happier still, and that's something I'm working toward. I've already opted in to electronic statements for every service I use that offers them, I send invoices by email, and I usually "sign" simple contracts, NDAs, and other agreements by superimposing a scanned signature with PDFpenPro ().
Change your habits
The other day, however, I exchanged business cards with half a dozen other people at a table, and I immediately felt stupid for doing so--there's an app for that! Sure, I can scan this stack of cards on my desk, but I could just as easily have snapped a photo of them with a scanning app on my iPhone or iPad such as Prizmo () and handed the cards right back. The same goes for receipts, product literature, and all the other miscellaneous pieces of paper I tend to grab without thinking. I have the technology; the more significant obstacle is the need to change my habits.
I'm also trying to reduce the amount of paper I generate, but frankly, it wasn't that much in the first place, and it's not a particular source of discomfort. I'll be surprised if I go through a whole ream of printer paper this year, but if I happen to use 600 sheets, I'm not going to feel guilty about it.
Nearly paperless, and proud
My office isn't completely paperless and probably never will be. (What? Get rid of all my wonderful old books?) But I'm not going to sweat it. I'll keep scanning until there's no more incoming paper, and in the meantime I'll bask in the knowledge that without tedious tasks such as filing, faxing, stamping, and mailing, I'm already living in the nearly paperless future.