Paperless: how I got rid of so much paper mess

Have you ever felt overwhelmed by the piles of paper cluttering your home? Bills, receipts, contracts, and other documents come in faster than you can file them away, turning your home desktop into a mess of loose papers.

It’s no fun task to keep up with the steady inflow of paper from employers, utility companies, insurers, and so on – it never ends! I have shelves full of binders with old paperwork that I will probably never need, but I keep it all, just in case.

Here’s how I put a stop to the paper flood. I solved the paper mess and went paperless instead. Obviously, it takes some effort to set up a paperless solution, but it pays off in so many ways. The two biggest benefits I feel is (a) how easy it is to get the paperwork filed away, and (b) how fast it is to find anything later, even when I am not at home!

The Destination

Let me give you a view of how a paperless life works. It’s very simple, and that’s the whole point.

Part 1:
New paper coming in
can be bills, receipts, payment slips, insurance or tax papers, and so on—important documents that I don’t want to throw out, but sorting them is tiresome. Or, it can be personal mail or other things that I don’t want to lose, but also don’t have a good way of storing.

I put all of these papers into my document scanner. It automatically starts scanning the stack of papers, both sides at once, and stores the result as a PDF on my computer. This takes literally a few seconds. It’s baffling.

The computer automatically sorts and labels each PDF so I can find easily it later. That took a tiny bit of work to get set up, but once it’s running, it requires almost no effort at all.

Now I no longer need the actual paper, so I just put it in a box along with all the other scanned papers. I don’t sort that paper—it just goes into the box in the order it was scanned. When the box is full, I put it away and start filling the next box. That’s it.

There’s also the fact that few of these physical original documents really need to be saved in the first place, so in fact the majority of scanned paperwork goes straight to recycling. I only keep those few papers that I might really need in original physical form.

Part 2:
When I need some paperwork,
I go into my Paperless software (yes, it’s literally called Paperless) and easily search for any keyword, label, correspondent, or anything else that seems useful in the moment. Paperless shows me a preview of all matching documents and their details, and it takes two seconds to pick the file I wanted. It really is that easy! There’s also a phone UI so I can do this from anywhere in the world. This is so much faster than going to my shelf of binders and leafing through papers.

If I would ever need the actual, physical paper, then I have another trick. I give each document a little serial number as it is scanned. So I would first find the document in Paperless and see its serial number, and then it’s easy to shuffle through the box of scanned papers. Because that box is sorted in scan order, the serial numbers are all in sequence, making it fast to find the right thing among the random papers. How often do I have to do to this, you ask? Since I started going paperless 13 months ago: never.

User manuals, certificates, greeting cards, and other assorted material
is also easily dropped into Paperless, just like any kind of PDF that I want to keep for later. Because it’s so easy to add things, and so easy to find again, Paperless is becoming my digital shelf for all sorts of documents—not just those papers that arrive in my physical mailbox. It is even connected to my email inbox, so any PDFs that I get by email are also automatically added.

The Journey

Getting to that destination took some steps, naturally. Some of the steps were easy, some required a bit of computer tinkering, so this is not a recipe for everyone. However, If you’re not afraid of tinkering with computers, this is a very satisfying project.

Going paperless requires surprisingly few ingredients:

  • A good scanner.
  • A computer to receive the scanned PDF files and run the Paperless software.
  • Patience and perseverance to set up the software.

The Scanner

The scanner is the simplest part to handle, but probably also the most expensive. I started out with just using the scanner function that is built into my multi-function printer, but I quickly found that it’s not ideal. While it has an automatic sheet feeder, it only scans one side, so I often had to put each side of each paper on the glass plate by hand. Combined with a slow scan speed, that is just not the right tool for the task.

I did my research and found just the right device: a Brother ADS-1700W. This is a bulls-eye product because it does precisely what I need:

  • automatic document feeder: it can take a whole stack of papers at once.
  • double-sided color scanning.
  • blazing fast: it scans both sides of a page in two seconds flat.
  • convert to PDF: the output is a file with proper text, rather than an image.
  • save to network: the PDF is saved directly on the computer.
  • stand-alone: the scanner works without a USB connection, so it can sit anywhere.
  • automatic start: all of the above happens without touching the device. Just drop in the paper, and grab it after scanning.

There are only a few devices that can do this, and do it well. There’s also a model of the Fujitsu Scan-Snap but it’s even more expensive and takes up a lot of space. The Brother is compact, and is literally the most amazing thing I’ve bought in years. Although it costs 300-400 (€$£) new, I found a slightly used one for less than 200.

The Computer

This paperless solution works best with a computer that is always powered on, for two reasons. First, the scanner needs a place to dump its output. Second, the Paperless software that you use to retrieve your scans is a piece of software that you access with a web browser, and that software must be running somewhere.

Luckily, I am a nerd. I have already repurposed an old desktop computer into a little server that sits in my garage and runs a variety of tools, so that’s where I added Paperless, too. My server runs Docker, which is an easy-to-use platform on which to run other other software packages. Paperless is one such complete and ready-to-run package. (Technically, it’s the version called Paperless-ngx.) However, the PDF data sits safely on my network drive (Synology NAS) where concerns like data integrity and backups are already taken care of.

The Installation

While I won’t dive into the step-by-step Linux commands here (drop me a comment below if you want that), I will outline what needed to be done:

  • First, I set up the storage by adding new shared folders on my network drive. One folder where the scanner drops the newly created PDF documents, and another folder where Paperless stores everything. Setting correct permissions on these folders is important for the later workflow.
  • The server runs the Docker platform that makes it very easy to add new services. I grabbed the official software release of paperless-ngx for Docker and set up the necessary configuration. Mostly, that was about setting up the two file paths and their logins, and some preferences about date formats.
  • After starting the Paperless software for the first time, the most important action is to set up the rules for what it needs to do, like “once per minute, scan this folder for incoming data,” and “check my mailbox for PDF attachments, and if there’s a match then set this label”. I also configured how I want to categorize my files by setting up a handful of document types (contracts, user manuals, correspondence, statements, etc.) and some useful sorting tags (car, home, travel, insurance, work).
  • I configured the scanner’s settings about default scan mode, resolution, and such obvious things, and also made sure it could write its output to the network folder. Then I set up a shortcut that makes it scan from the input tray into PDF format and store it in that network folder, and the final step was to have it trigger that shortcut automatically when it detects paper in the input tray, so I literally don’t need to press a single button. The people at Brother really but some thoughts into this.
  • Finally, I printed some homemade sticker sheets of serial numbers with barcodes that Paperless can read and automatically save along with the document data. When I want to keep the physical paper after scanning, I put a barcode sticker in a corner before scanning. Anything without a sticker gets tossed.

Summary: The Reward

My workflow to process new documents is stupidly simple and fast: drop the paper in the scanner, and 5 seconds later toss it in a box, then a minute later I see it in Paperless. Important paperwork still exists, but I spent zero time organizing it. This way, the biggest reward is how easy it has become to deal with paper. Scan and forget, until I need it later. It’s bliss.

I have been paperless since 2022 and this works exceedingly well for everything new coming in. Paperless is extremely good at applying the correct tags, correspondents, and document types, based on how existing data has been saved. This means that, once I had scanned a bunch of paper, any new scans were automatically sorted with a high degree of accuracy. Every now and then, I go into the Paperless inbox and manually sort the things it could not sort automatically. They’ve made a nice dashboard that streamlines this work, so it’s really quick to do.

The one thing I have not yet tackled is that shelf of binders full of old documents. It’s not difficult to do, precisely because the system already runs smoothly, it just takes effort to actually feed all those old papers through the scanner. I’m glad I have a fast scanner, or else I would not even consider that task. I look forward to not having all those binders anymore – someday!

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