Going Un-Paperless – 5 Steps For When You Find You Can’t Go Paperless

We live in the future, where all our files and folders live on our smartphones and laptops, right? Even our books are digital. So why is it that so many people fear going paperless, and what can you do when you find yourself in an environment that is either unwilling or unable to change?

Like most aspiring authors, I tend to enjoy food and shelter, so supplement my income with a day job. My previous role was inherently paperless. The only time I really made paper lists was when I was in a situation of overload and the act of writing it down gave me focus. This was easy to implement because I worked in a small but geographically varied team that communicated largely by email.

I didn’t realise how lucky I was, until I started my new short term role and my desk started slowly drowning in paper. I wouldn’t call myself an environmental activist by any means, but some days I positively weep for lost trees. Now, it would be wonderful to ‘be the change I wanted to see in the world’, but that requires buy in from all parties. This company is one of the largest employers in the Southern Hemisphere. That is a lot of people to convince. My particular division also arose out of an emergency situation, where the comfort and reliability of paper in an ever changing team/building/environment was paramount. For a lot of people, disaster management is best done on paper.

I’ve been using GTD for many years and my system has been through several modifications. For a long time I used an excel spreadsheet, then moved to Outlook Tasks to accommodate the system my boss was using (I was so happy to be working with someone who actually had a system that I was prepared to give a little). My separate personal system was in Toodledo. Notebooks were a joy because they were primarily for creating or capturing ideas, not tracking the mundane (although even that has become a bit more productive / geeky due to Ryder Carroll’s bullet journal system).

For going paperless in a Mac environment, check out MacSparky.


So, 5 Simple Steps:

1. Change what you can. Where there is no process, or the existing process has room for improvements, make them. Most people are actually willing to hear what you have to say when presenting a change to their system in a thoughtful, respectful manner. As part of that change, convert anything you can to a paperless approach.

2. Manage paper efficiently. If you have no choice but to deal with paper, then at least use it wisely. Don’t make unnecessary copies. Don’t just shove everything in one inbox and lose hours of your day looking for files. Essentially, have a system. If you do everything by email, then follow up flags and categories make tracking ‘waiting for’ items a piece of cake. Make sure that still applies if you’re stuck with paper.

3. Upload capture documents frequently. If you have an option to upload the paper documents that are floating around in ubiquitous amounts, then do so. More importantly, do it as often as possible. People are much less likely to make additional copies of a hard copy file for their own use if they can just view it on the screen in front of them. Most people are inherently lazy; use that to save the environment and your sanity.

4. Reduce the number of electronic systems. Another fatal error that is actually the case in most companies is the use of twenty four gajillion electronic systems. When one is not quite perfect, they find another one. Most of the time, it is not the tool, but the user is at fault. But that is far too difficult to address when you can just splurge a couple of hundred thousand pounds on a new shiny! Then half the users upgrade while half show reluctance. Great. Now the documents are in one of two places and the easy search is gone. Lather, rinse, repeat over the years and no-one trusts a damn thing. People go back to trusting the paper they can see and feel. Cull the tools and use common sense.

5. Spread the word. When people see that you are being more productive with a clean desk, then they will want some of what you’re having. Only, they won’t ever want to confess to it. We all know people like this; the ones who drown in chaos and claim it is because they are far too busy. Most of the time, they are simply inefficient and confuse busy with job security. Sometimes, it’s best just to give a little. Again, in a polite and respectful manner, point out small gains they can make at first. Even when looking at a productive person’s desk, a fresh pair of eyes can usually spot a few quick wins. Give generously to those who will accept help and enjoy watching them becoming less stressed over time. You’ll feel better and the trees will thank you for it.

Can you go backwards and still stay sane? I’d like to think so.

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