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NYT Follow-Up: My paperless routine

Following my recent mention in the New York Times, I've been inundated with emails asking for more details on my paperless operation at university and I'm hugely flattered. While most of this information can be gleaned through skimming this blog, I thought I'd do everyone a big favour by publishing a rework of the original info I was asked to send to the NYT. However If anyone still requires further info then please don't stop sending me emails. I love getting them.

So how does a student deal with the enormous amount of paper he/she has to deal with in order to remain paperless? Well the 'solution' I employ could be broken down into three main elements:

  • The hardware I use
  • The software I use
  • The work-flow strategy I employ

Addressing each in turn, so they are easier to follow:

The hardware I use
The core of my hardware setup consists of 3 main components - Tablet PCs, scanners and digital cameras.

-=Tablet PCs=-
This is probably the most important tool as a paperless student Toshibam400and the one addition that' s helped me the most to operate almost 100% paperlessly at university. Before I discovered the Tablet PC, although I loved the notion of 100% paperless operation, I still had the huge 'stumbling block' of having to accommodate the ubiquitous and 'difficult in any other way but via paper' tasks of lecture note-taking and book annotation. Thankfully the Tablet PC smashed this stumbling block and gave me a 'natural' way to perform those tasks in a paper free environment. Undoubtedly I could not survive as paperlessly as I have done without my Tablet PC. I've now exhausted my original Tablet PC (Acer Travelmate c300) after 21/2 years of constant use and have recently purchased a new one (Toshiba M400)

Opticbook3600 As a student who has to often scan books or individual chapters, my main scanner of choice is the OpticBook from Plustek. This scanner has been specially made for book scanning and the scanner head extends to the edge of the housing allowing one to scan books without getting shadow from the book's spine. Of course I don't use this scanner for books alone and everything I have to scan i.e. that huge mountain of handouts, journal articles, extracts, together with the more domestic paper 'stuff' such as bills, receipts etc., gets predominately digitized using the OpticBook. It's a good scanner. Reasonably quick, large accessible buttons and pretty good scanning software.

In the near future I also hope to add a Fujitsu ScanSnap to my operation. Although completely useless for my book scanning needs (with it being a sheet fed scanner and not a flatbed) the ScanScap is getting a lot of good press lately. It's small footprint and fast duplex scanning would make it an ideal choice for all my other scanning needs.

Additionally, when I'm around campus during the day, I also make use of lab scanners when I need to - they're nothing more than basic flatbed scanners but they get the job done at a push.

-=Digital Cameras=-
Canona640 Another component in my 'getting stuff to paperless' workflow is the use of digital cameras, and specifically for the past few months the Canon Powershot a640. What makes this camera special, aside from it being 10 MP, is it has a multi-positional viewing LCD which is perfect for getting around the awkward 'hit or miss' guesswork nature of trying to photograph book chapters, handouts etc. with a conventional camera where the LCD screen is typically pointing directly upwards.

A quick transfer of the image(s) to the TabletPC and a bit of post-processing i.e. tidying up of the image, conversion to PDF, and my electronic version is ready to be annotated upon etc. I've got to admit that this form of paper 'capture' has produced the biggest 'wow factor' among my professors and peers. As you can imagine a lot of handouts are passed around before the start of a lecture/seminar/class and I tend, not to come across as a hotshot but to stick to my paperless principles, to 'camera capture' the handouts before the class starts. I usually find that people are impressed at the ease and speed I can build an electronic copy using this method. What's more I'm digitising 'on the fly' which means 1) I don't have to carry the handout around with me and 2) I don't have to scan it later.   

-=Other hardware of note=-
Desktop computer - Although the Tablet PC is my main paperless workhorse around campus I prefer a fixed desktop computer at home as the base for my paperless operation. The desktop effectively acts as my paperless HQ. Currently my desktop computer of choice is a Mac Mini. Although previously a Windows only fan, I've grown to love the Mac OS with a huge passion and if it wasn't for my need of a Tablet PC (which Apple still haven't produced), I would operate completely in a Mac OS environment...no question!!
350 GB external hard drive - Back up! back up! back up! and although I archive all of my documents on DVDs, and/or SD cards, I like the 'on tap' features that an external hard drive can provide. I tend to store all of my current semester material on the external hard drive so I can quickly and easily locate it, and generally about 6 months worth of non-university material. At term end I archive the contents of the external hard drive to DVD's clearing the drive out for the next term.   
19 in widescreen monitor - One thing I've learned about working paperlessly is that you REALLY NEED plenty of screen 'real estate' in order to get your work done efficiently. I'm currently working with a big widescreen monitor which, when used in combination with my Tablet PC gives me an adequate amount of viewing space but I still don't think it's enough and I'm working towards introducing another widescreen monitor into my paperless equation.
PDA - It's not always practical, safe or easy to pull out my Tablet PC on the move in order to catch up with a reading assignment etc. so to address that problem I transfer documents over to my PDA. This works well for me but the screen on a PDA is small and I intend to replace this component of my paperless  workflow with a UMPC but I am not intending to this until the prices of UMPC reach more realistic levels (hey well I am a poor student after all :o)). I'm also looking, in the future when they arrive to the UK, into e-readers such as the Sony Reader and Amazon Kimble.
SD cards - (and plenty of them) Mainly used for the backing up of documents I've captured on the fly. In terms of a removable storage option I prefer SD cards to any other medium as they're robust, light and a lot easier to work with than say CDs/DVDs 

The software I use
I could easily provide you with 2000-3000 words on all of the software that I use to operate paperlessly  and why but I think you'd be numb after reading it (besides most of it is probably discussed on this blog somewhere). Therefore I'll skim through the main stuff and if you need any specific info then I'd be happy to detail it:

  • Microsoft OneNote - I used to be a huge advocate of Agilix's GoBinder but lack of recent development has forced me over to OneNote. It's hugely powerful, and arguably Microsoft's finest application. I use this for all of my electronic note-taking and some of my annotating of electronic texts too. Just as the Tablet PC is my primary paperless tool at university, OneNote is its software counterpart - I simply couldn't operate to the paperless level I do without it.
  • Abobe Acrobat Pro - Used to create PDFs of ALL of my digitised material. In the case of book chapters. handouts etc. I also perform OCR on the documents before saving.
  • Google Desktop (coupled with Spindle Search for indexing removable media) - Perhaps surprisingly I don't use a third party document management application. Trust me I've tried loads - DevonThink Pro, Paperport, Paper Tiger, Paper Valet etc. etc. but ultimately it adds, in my opinion another unnecessary, element to the work-flow. Instead I prefer to keep things simple and I track all of my documents using Google Desktop. Provided I use a sensible naming convention (which I do) and OCR as much of the material as I need to, I have had no problem locating ANY document. 

The work-flow strategy I employ

  • Adopting a philosophy of 'prevention is better than cure' - By this I mean keeping the amount of physical paper I have to deal with to a minimum. I email professors to ask if they have electronic copies of handouts, course material etc. and most are usually very helpful.  I try whenever possible to scan 'on site' so I don't have to deal with scanning later on and i make full use of online e-book/e-journal repositories whenever I can. In the domestic environment I fully embrace e-banking, e-billing and have removed myself from all direct marketing mailing lists. This has made a huge difference to the point where it's rare that I get any physical mail now.
  • Facilitating paperless operation - Having a paperless 'HQ' is imperative - somewhere where you can instantly and effortlessly digitise paper. An always-on computer with an attached fast scanner and a mass storage facility helps greatly. Also when I  need to allocate a significant amount of time for scanning I arrange it so I'm doing something diversionary at the same time i.e. watching a movie, listening to a recorded lecture, researching online etc. By doing this the often tedious task of scanning is diluted and I don't get discouraged.       
  • Well organised e-filing system - I've mentioned this during my software rundown but it's imperative that a comprehensive filing system is adopted. The use of logical naming conventions (for folders, files and removable media labels)  is important, as is the need to fully OCR digitised documents whenever possible. Like I said there's a lot of fancy document management software out there but at least at the level I'm working at, Google Desktop is more than sufficient for my paperless needs as a student.
  • Routine - I think a big part of the success in being paperless comes from sticking to a routine. Sure it's difficult at first figuring out the best strategy for working paperlessly but once you have, things run smoothly. Digitising 'on the fly' helps keep the need to allocate time for block scanning but getting into the routine of processing paper documents you arrive home with as soon as you can is invaluable (and becomes habitual after a couple of weeks)   

Advantages for me of working paperlessly

  • I don't have to carry around massive loads of books, folders papers etc. and everything I've accrued during the course of the semester is right there, on me and in person
  • I can easily and effortlessly find information in my notes and books FAST.
  • I'm doing a really positive thing for the environment. Sure this is offset by my increased power and electronic demands but I offset this by adopting a greener electricity tariff, utilising power performance software, utilising solar power and by not replacing my 'gadgets' until my current ones fall over and die.
  • I'm not reliant on having to chase 'hard to find during essay time' books from the university library. I've determined what I need beforehand and taken appropriate digitising action.
  • OK I admit it. There's also something a bit satisfying about studying in a such a 'futuristic' gadget dependent way. It just gives you a warm feeling when you can turn a handout into an electronic counterpart.

Finally I thought I'd step up onto my paperless soapbox to leave you with a closing thought. Unfortunately there are many people out there who like to preach that the quest for paperless operation is pointless, and that attainment of a paperless lifestyle will never be nothing more than a pipe-dream. Well in my opinion, these are the people who tend to give up too easily and/or can't think things through.

Sure the road to turning paperless is difficult one at first. The transition requires a lot of time and energy investment but once everything is in place (primarily the three components I've spoken about), then the whole process of paperless operation is child's play. I think the only way to find success in being paperless is to live exclusively paperless for a period of time because it's the only way that one is able to find solutions and adopt strategies that help one operate this in way.


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Great article Rob.

My student days are way behind me, but I have been working to be paper-LESS in my office at home. One thing I have found to help me get rid of the paper once I get it scanned into the PC is to have the shredder (or trash can) right next to the scanner. I have a tendency to set the scanned document aside and not get rid of it, "just in case" I need the hardcopy for something, which I never do.

Greg - That's an excellent tip and a good one especially for the newbie paperless operative. I've used the 'keep it just in case' excuse many times myself in the past. This is a great way to teach yourself that you mean business.

Very interesting post, I would love to do this but maybe later in my life when im actually earning money instead of just spending it on £3000 a year uni courses and a £10000 (currently) LPC.

Interesting to see just how little you need. When my HP Pavilion 2050 arrives il prob put google desktop and OneNote on it to see how i like them. Also looking for mindmap software that i can use with a tablet, so i can draw things etc.

Everything I do from to-do lists, to paying bills is done online or via a piece of software. Serhan mentioned mindmapping. That has been a life saver for me. Look at PersonalBrain or MindManager. I've been impressed with both.

Thanks for your comment Rick. I've used PersonalBrain in the past. I liked it too but for whatever reason it fell off my radar. I'll see about giving it another go sometime. Thanks!

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