The Complete Guide To Going Paperless

The Complete Guide To Going Paperless

You already pay your bills online and get electronic statements, but there are even more ways you can stop killing innocent trees and wasting time and money dealing with paper. It’s time we went paperless.

Reduce Unnecessary Postal Mail

Junk mail is one of the biggest sources of annoying and unwanted paper. Instead of contacting every company who sends you a catalog or piece of mail and asking to be removed from their mailing list, there are services who help you opt out en masse. In particular, get in touch with the Australian Direct Marketing Association and get added to their Do Not Mail service.

“Print” and Scan to PDF

Instead of printing documents onto paper and filing them away, “print” them to PDF files. Mac users already have a “Save as PDF” option built into every Print dialog by default. Windows users need a little extra software.

I use the free CutePDF Writer, which adds a PDF “printer” to your options. Choose it and you’ll save the document to PDF (instead of printing it on paper). Adam likes doPDF, which serves the same purpose.

Most desktop search software, like Google Desktop or Mac OS X’s Spotlight, can search inside the contents of PDF files, so you don’t need any extra software to find PDF’s you’ve saved. See also Lifehacker readers’ picks of best PDF readers.

If you’ve already got an important bit of paperwork in your hand but you want to digitise it, you need a good document scanner. I’m still loving my Fujitsu ScanSnap, a portable document scanner that I bust out for contracts, legal agreements, and other already-in-paper-form documents.

Here’s more on how to scan paperwork to PDF in one step.

A Word on Backing Up Your Data
Of course, once you start digitising important paperwork, you’ve got to have a good backup system in case your hard drive fails or computer crashes. While fires, flood, and coffee spills can just as easily happen to paper, computer disasters are always possible. Be sure you’ve got automatic local and remote backup for your data just in case.

Digitise Your Signature and Email Instead of Fax

The biggest source of paper in my work life is contracts and client agreements that need to be signed and returned. While people generally say “sign this and fax it back to us”, you can do it without getting paper involved. First, create a digital version of your signature with a transparent background. Then, get the documents via email, and email them back with your signature added to them. (While there are lots of different kinds of electronic and digital signatures, this type will work for common consumer scenarios. It won’t work if you need something witnessed or to appear with an original signature.)

Bypass Paper Entirely and Capture Information Electronically

Many of us walk around with mini-computers/digital cameras in our pockets thanks to smartphones, and we can use them to bypass paper entirely. Instead of jotting your grocery shopping list on a scrap of paper, use Gmail Tasks, Remember the Mlik or your list manager of choice on your phone. Transcribe whiteboards to PDF or even fax documents using previously-mentioned Qipit. Also, popular note-taking application Evernote makes it dead easy to capture ideas, lists, and notes without killing a single tree.

What Little Paper You HAVE to Keep

Getting rid of ALL the paper in your home or office still isn’t possible in a world where receipts, birth certificates, house deeds, marriage certificates and other important information still needs to be in-hand. To keep your financial paperwork volume down to a minimum, check out how long you need to keep tax documents.

In addition to the paper-reducing techniques mentioned above, folks on Twitter had more ideas for how to reduce paper: fitzwillie says, “evites. Video holiday cards.”
rossm says, “print on both sides of paper, refuse paper (and plastic) bags when shopping, print to pdf whenever possible”
NoahGK says, “for mail-in rebates, I scan to PDF (for my records) and mail the originals (if there’s no online option).”
danielzev says, “I never ask for a receipt when using my debit card”
thompsonpaul says, “Put a No Junk Mail block on mailbox – get online versions of grocery, electronics, hardware flyers instead.”
rickhuizinga says, “Reduce paper? Fujitsu SnapScan and Evernote. All paper documents are scanned to PDF w/OCR, saved to Evernote, and shredded.”
jesseGlacken says, “How I use less paper: News, bank statements & bills via web. eBooks. Cloth napkins & dishtowels vs paper. Canvas grocery bags.”

How do you reduce the amount of paper in your life? Give up your tips in the comments.

Gina Trapani, Lifehacker’s founding editor, never wants another piece of unnecessary paper in her life. Her feature Smarterware appears every week on Lifehacker.


  • PDF Creator is another free pdf virtual printer. I find it much better than cutePDF but have not used doPDF so I cannot compare them. It also has the advantage of being open source (and having a bunch of hidden but very powerful functions – e.g. mass converting pdfs to images or vice-versa)

  • I no longer take handwritten notes while researching in the library. I photograph items of interest and save them to an Evernote which will also tag the information with the location.

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