Ask LH: What Steps Can I Take To Make Paperless Reading Easier?

Hi Team Lifehacker, I try to go as paperless as possible at work, just like in your complete guide to going paperless. The problem is, something in my caveman brain finds it much more difficult to really absorb and analyse text on a screen compared to good old-fashioned paper. I find that with around five pages or more, I really start skipping information and missing important detail.

Is it the way my screen is set up? Distractions at work? Or is it just the enforced attention when I’m holding the paper in my hands and not seeing email popups and the like? I’m young enough to have grown up with computers, so it can’t be a technophobia thing.

Naturally when I print as a last resort it’s double-sided and recycled, but that’s really only mildly softening the environmental blow. Any ideas?

(Funny Printer Joke)

Dear FPJ,

Our going paperless guide does indeed have a lot of tips to offer on strategies for using (and storing) less paper. As we’re currently in the middle of our Tax Week 2011/a>, it’s also worth reminding people that you don’t need paper versions of records for tax purposes; electronic copies are entirely acceptable.

However, those strategies don’t generally address the issue you’ve raised — wanting to use paper rather than a screen for going through long documents. Frankly, my first immediate thought is that if you’re adopting all the other paper-reduction tips and using recycled and double-sided paper for this one printing task, you probably don’t need to beat yourself up too much. Our office printer is routinely strewn with spare pages and forgotten print-outs; compared to the average, you’re already doing pretty well.

With that said, here’s a few thoughts on strategies you could use to make on-screen reading a more compelling experience:

  • Maximise your app window. An obvious point, but many people don’t think to maximise the application before reading through longer documents.
  • Adjust your screen resolution. Reading small text on a high-resolution screen can be unpleasant and difficult, as can reading on a screen where the resolution is so low that every word is a centimetre high.
  • Change the font size. In a similar vein, if you’re working with a word processor document you can edit, then try changing the font to make it easier on the eye. (This is also a useful trick for editing your own work with a fresh eye
  • Disconnect from the Internet. If you don’t want to get distracted by emails, IMs or other procrastination triggers, yank out your network cable or switch off your wireless until you’re done.
  • Transfer the document to a tablet or e-book reader. If you want the experience of stepping away from your PC without involving paper, convert the document to a PDF and sync it to a Kindle or tablet.
  • Get rid of the printer so you don’t have a choice. OK, that sounds drastic — but if you don’t have access to a printer, you won’t have any choice but to work on screen. Admittedly you can’t get rid of the office printer if other people use it, but it’s a viable strategy when working from home. (You could also delete the printer from your own machine so it’s inaccessible.)

If readers have other paper-avoiding screen-reading tactics, tell us in the comments.


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  • A tablet makes a big difference, since you can sit and hold it more comfortably. Good if you need to mark up your documents or flip through reference docs.

    An e-ink ereader makes an even bigger difference for straight reading: it’s pretty much the same as reading from paper – nothing like reading from a screen.

  • PS – A quick way to get your docs from a computer to a Kindle without losing formatting is to “print as PDF” to the Kindle. This probably works for other ereaders, too. If you have a lot of docs for which formatting matters, it pays to get the large-screen Kindle (the DX).

  • Add me to the “use a tablet” deluge.

    I’ve been doing all my reading from PDA and now smartphone screens for over a decade (as soon as black text on white high-res screen became available) and now find paper books cumbersome.

    So that’s several hundred novels and lots of magazines and textbooks read from a hand-held screen.

    But I can’t read more than a page or two from my computer screen…

  • I don’t know, I use my computer for literally everything. News, learning, ebooks, audiobooks, movies, musics, pictures, living, breathing, dreaming… I don’t personally own a tablet so I can’t recommend one but I would like to try it.

    To my point, I do often struggle to read off a desktop screen I’m not sure if its my lack of ambition or that I’m too distracted. Maybe both, either way I do indeed like reading ebooks opposed to paper books for the exact reason someone else pointed out. It’s just too cumbersome to have 30 or 40 books lying around that take up more than twice the space on my computer. Especially considering when I can possibly put 10s of millions of books on my PC or thousands for phones & tablets.

  • I’ve tried a few PDF readers on iPad, “FastPDF” was good, but lacked features I wanted.

    Enter “iAnnotate PDF”; you can still have a massive library of PDFs on your iPad and download more or import from email, but now you can write on them, put highlights on there, underline, strikeout or take notes beside text. Once you’ve marked up a doc you can also skip through it, jumping from one annotation/note/highlighted section to the next.

    It’s about $10-12, but I think it’s worth it considering you get the benefits of digitized documents, and the natural note-taking features of paper.

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