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Paper-less not Paper-free

Paper here, paper there, paper, paper everywhere. For most of my clients, taming the paper monster is a top priority, especially during tax season, the two or three months before the April 15 deadline. A multitude of new gadgets and online options claim to guarantee a paperless life, but as San Francisco organizer and paper reduction expert Joshua Zerkel told a conference recently, the best anyone can hope for is paper-less, not paper-free.

Paper will continue to come into our lives in the form of mail, magazines, documents from colleagues and items we print in order to read them more easily or to sign and mail, etc. Despite the Kindle and iPad, paper books and written notes will be a part of our lives for many years to come. Definite progress can be made toward less paper crowding our tables and desks, however, if we take a little time to experiment with a few key applications and find those that suit our situation.

Zerkel said that paperless tools must fit easily into a person’s existing workflow. You don’t want to reinvent the way you work completely. They have to be easy to use (or you won’t use them).

I had two office clients back-to-back last month who struggled with storing huge pieces of paper from brainstorming meetings — you know those enormous tablets that fit onto an easel for meetings and seminars? There are really no efficient ways to store the pages that make them easy to reference. My idea was to snap a picture of each page with a camera phone and save them to an app called Evernote, one of the most popular apps in the quest for a paperless office.

Evernote can recognize words in a photograph — called Optical Character Recognition (OCR) — so if the meeting is about merlot wine marketing, you can search for the word “merlot” and Evernote can find it in the photos. OCR is essential for paperless devices to be useful. The information has to be searchable.

The big added bonus to going digital when saving handwritten or oversized information is that you can share the notes with others outside the office. When you don’t base your systems completely on paper, it can give you the freedom to work from wherever you are — you may not even need a bricks and mortar office at all, which can save you an enormous amount of money.

One way many of us are experiencing the relief of less paper is in online bill paying. It is easy to set up, either on a home computer or through a bookkeeping service. E-bills and e-statements have proven to be a secure way to manage one’s finances and are a great introduction to going paperless.

Another place I see less paper is in the use of fax machines. The new paperless way to handle signing documents is to receive the document as a PDF and sign with a digital certified signature stamp, then e-mail it back. There is no printing involved at all in the exchange. You will need an advanced (not free) version of Adobe Acrobat to do this, but it is worth looking into — you can potentially get rid of a bulky old fax machine as well as reduce paper. The software lets you edit the PDF as well as “sign” it, so it allows for a lot of flexibility.

Once this type of document is digitally stamped with your signature, no one can alter it, so there is a security feature that is necessary for this type of paper-less exchange.

Something else people ask about all the time is NeatDesk, which makes a variety of NeatReceipts scanners. Zerkel also recommended Fujitsu portable scanners that work with your computer and are small enough to take on a plane if your life is really that mobile.

The good news is that if you do scan your receipts and organize them on your computer (which means keeping them backed up) the Internal Revenue Service says that you no longer have to retain the paper receipts. Some accountants are still nervous about this method, however, and insist their clients keep the paper backup. You will need to follow your accountant’s advice.

Don’t bother to go through boxes of old receipts and documents and scan them. If you think Evernote, NeatReceipts or other new devices, applications or software are right for you, start with your current tax year or the documents around the office and begin photographing or scanning there. Start where you are and move forward, not back. You’ll be able to shred most of that old stuff in a few years anyway.