How to digitise your paper documents
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Introduction and going digital

Note: Our digitising paper documents feature has been fully updated. This article was first published in June 2009.

A paperless life is conspicuous by its absence. For decades we have attempted to remove paper from our lives, but the quantities we all produce seem to expand at an almost exponential rate.

The good news is that we can become paper-light by embracing digital technologies, and developing a new way of thinking and working that moves us away from paper, and focuses our attention on the digitisation of information.

Managing all the paper we produce, whether in our personal lives or businesses, has an impact. WRAP's Green Office Guide suggests the average worker uses 45 sheets of paper a day, of which half is discarded as waste. PwC also identified what it called the 'soft' cost of paper, referring to the figure of 11% of paper documents which end up being lost. PwC also calculated that businesses that can remove or reduce the paper they use can improve their productivity by 30%, no less.

Businesses in particular can clearly benefit from moving to more digital document management. Research from AIIM's (Association for Information and Image Management) Market Intelligence Unit concluded: "Unnecessary printing and copying is rife within all businesses, costing a 10-person company over £670 per year (about $1050, or AU$1400) just in ink/toner costs. Add to that the cost of paper, storage, handling and postage, and the negative effect of every single extra copy of a document within the business becomes apparent."

We are all now used to the digitisation of many analogue products including music, books and magazines. Yet we still for the most part manage mountains of paper from bills to the masses of print-outs we all use every day.

Moving to a completely digital document management system may be a step too far at the moment – as some legal documents still need to be on good old paper, such as your will, for instance – but the vast majority of the paper mountain you have at home or in your workplace can be reduced or even eradicated.

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Going digital

So, you've made the decision to go paperless. What are your options? Follow these steps to start your paperless life:

1. Take a complete audit of the paper documents you have

Once you start to assess the documents you have, you'll be surprised at how many of these can be discarded.

2. Sort your documents into categories

There is no point in scanning every piece of important paper you have if you just end up with hundreds or thousands of files in a single folder on your computer's hard drive or in your cloud storage space. You need to be able to locate a specific document in the future, so categorisation is a must.

3. Name your files consistently

Locating a bill or a single receipt your accountant might need in, say, three years' time will depend on a consistent and clear file naming system.

4. Pick your storage

With the cloud offering masses of cheap storage capacity, it can be a great asset for your digital files. But always keep a local copy that is backed up just to be on the safe side.

5. Store the paper

This may sound counterintuitive to what you are trying to achieve, but in some cases you have no choice but to store your paper. Accounts of limited companies for instance need to be kept for six years. Look for secure storage services in your area.

In a white paper Hewlett Packard says: "A document management system is just like a catalogue or library of documents. For each document the system will detail what it's about, who wrote it, who can see it, who can change it, who has changed it – and where and how it can be found."

Taking some time to plan the attack on your paper mountain will pay dividends later. You'll be able to reduce the quantities of paper you need to digitise and more importantly, have a great system to locate your files when you need them.
Hardware and software options

Now that you have laid the foundations for your digital documents, you can start to think about how you will physically turn your paper into digital copies. Here you have a number of options in terms of hardware and software:

1. Multi-Functional Device (MFD)

If you already use an MFD at home or at work, the built-in scanner can be a real boon. If you just have a few documents (less than 50) to scan, a desk scanner is fine. More than this and the automatic paper feeder that is a feature of many MFDs will save you hours. All of the leading printer manufacturers including Brother, HP, Canon and Epson have a range of MFDs to choose from. You might also want to check out: How to buy the right Multi-Functional Device for your print needs.

2. Desktop scanners

Flatbed scanners come in all shapes and sizes. In most instances – unless you need to scan larger documents such as maps – a standard A4 scanner is all you need. Devices such as the CanonScan range and the Epson Perfection scanner can handle documents as well as photos.

There are also specialist scanners from companies including Neat, Fujitsu's ScanSnap range, IRIS andDoxie. These all offer a number of scanners to match your precise needs.

Scanning receipts can also be fast and efficient with applications like Receipt Bank. Most scanners will come with OCR software, but if you need this application, ABBYY FineReader and OmniPage are the perfect complement to a desktop scanner.

3. Apps

Small quantities of documents can be effectively scanned with nothing more than a phone or tablet app. The Google Drive app for instance includes powerful OCR software that scans your documents and saves them to your drive space. Camscanner is also popular and is free, as is Scanbot 4 Evernote fans can use Scannable as long as you use Apple iOS devices.

4. Scan to cloud

As the cloud has become an almost essential component of modern life, there are a number of services that enable you to scan directly to the cloud storage locker of your choice.

Both Windows and Mac OS X can scan documents, and applications such as Microsoft Word and Adobe's Acrobat can also power through your scanning. Epson's Scan to Cloud service seamlessly links your scanner to cloud storage.

With such an array of scanning options be sure to take your time to assess what kind of documents you need to scan today, and also what you might need to scan in the future. Developing a good scanning habit will mean that over time your paper mountain will be reduced and could even disappear…

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Always think digital

After you have dealt with the existing paper you have, fully scanning and filing your documents, it's then time to think about how to become a digital obsessive and abandon paper altogether.

This is now entirely possible thanks to a number of innovations. Not all of these will be useful for you or your business of course, but they do offer a number of options you can use to create your own specific and specialised digital document system...

1. Pen and paper

If you are used to carrying a notebook and pen everywhere you go, making the change to a digital equivalent can be difficult. You don't have to give up pen and paper when you want to go digital thanks to innovations such as Mod Notebooks which offers an integrated scanning service that takes your filled notebooks and digitises them for you.

2. Digital notebooks

Taking the idea of the notebook into the digital age, one of the most advanced systems is fromMoleskine. Linking the firm's popular notebooks to the Evernote app offers the best of both worlds. Furthermore, one of the most developed applications is Microsoft's OneNote. You can save anything to OneNote with the application also being compatible with scanners from Doxie and Brother.

3. Digital pens

We all know how to use a pencil or pen. Digitising what you write and draw is a great way to ensure the content you create can be used to its fullest extent. There are a number of options to choose from: You can link your beloved Moleskine notebook to the Livescribe digital pen system and digitise your notes and drawings. Or alternatively, another possibility is IRISnotes.

4. Stylus

Moving completely away from paper is of course possible by using smartphones and tablets as digital notebooks. Here there are a number of pens or styluses available including a specialised pen forEvernote fans. There's also a pen for Surface Pro users and of course the new Pencil from Apple.

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Freedom beckons

Digitising your existing paper documents and then adopting a digital-only approach to how you record information will free you from paper management that can be time consuming.

It's not really possible yet to completely remove paper from some aspects of your life, but you can certainly massively reduce the quantities you are producing and managing with some well-chosen tools and services.

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