Learn how going paperless and creating a digital filing cabinet can eliminate paper clutter and give you secure access to your most important documents anytime, anywhere, with just a few clicks!
Near the beginning of 2014, I was looking for content for my then year-old blog when I randomly said, “Hey Donnie, why don’t you write a post about that whole paperless thing you do?”
He had been honing his paperless system for a few years at that point. And I had seen what a positive impact it had on our own family, so I figured that it might be helpful for some other people too.
After some more nagging from me, Donnie agreed to write the post. It took off almost immediately. So many people wanted to learn about going paperless!
Going paperless means storing and organizing all important documents and files digitally, rather than in a physical filing cabinet. This not only eliminates a ton of paper clutter, but it also allows people to securely access all of their information right from their smart phone.
A lot has changed since Donnie wrote his first post back in 2014. Technology has improved. Smartphones are everywhere. And he has continued to work on his paperless process and streamline it even more. There has never been a better time to go paperless.
With all of these changes, I asked him if he would do a complete overhaul on his paperless post to update it with the latest information, and he gladly agreed.
Going Paperless and Creating a Digital Filing Cabinet
This post contains affiliate links. For more information, see my disclosures here.
Why We Decided to Go Paperless in the First Place
Before I realized my need for a paperless lifestyle, I had to reach an organizational breaking point. You know, that point where everything feels like utter chaos and you don’t know if you’ll ever be able to get it under control.
Early in our marriage, Abby and I started accumulating quite a bit of paper. They were all “important” documents that I knew we needed to keep as adults with our own household. I tried to take ownership of the filing and paper organizing duties, but I failed miserably.
We lived in a small townhouse at the time. One of the upstairs bedrooms was designated as my office. Over time, the paper clutter in that office became so bad that I couldn’t even stand the thought of going into that room.
We had two small filing cabinets in the corner. But gradually paper began to stack up first on top of the filing cabinets. Then next to the filing cabinets. And eventually spilling over onto the desk.
If I needed to retrieve a document, it would very easily take me 15 minutes or more to find what I needed. My system was not working. I had failed miserably at organizing our paper.
My “Aha” Moment
Around this same time I had somewhat of an “aha” moment at work. I was an oil & gas landman. Part of my duties involved researching legal documents at the courthouse. I would find the documents I needed, feed coins into the copy machine, and make piles of copies that I could then take back to the office.
Eventually I started to notice one particular landman that had a very intriguing process for dealing with the mountains of paper. He arrived at the courthouse with his laptop as well as a small black bag. It looked like one of those bags that soccer players use to carry their cleats. But inside the bag was a small portable scanner.
Instead of photocopying piles of paperwork and documents, he would scan everything and leave the courthouse with only digital copies. It was obvious to me that his process was much more efficient and organized than my process.
I couldn’t wait to tell Abby about this landman and his scanner. I knew that little scanner could transform not only my work, but also how I dealt with all our paper clutter and filing cabinets at home.
How Going Paperless Has Changed Over the Last Decade
It’s now been more than a decade since I started my paperless lifestyle and transformed my creaky old filing cabinets into a digital filing cabinet. Over that time, my process has improved and evolved.
One key difference over the past decade is how mobile phone scanning apps have evolved. The mobile phone processor speeds and camera quality has made using a quality mobile phone scanning app the faster and better (better image quality) option than the expensive dedicated scanner that I used when I first started my paperless journey. I still have my trusty old Fujitsu scanner, but I haven’t taken it out of its case in over five years.
The improved technology has made creating a digital filing cabinet and going paperless more accessible to most people. There is no longer a large upfront cost associated with a standalone scanner.
This paperless process has been so beneficial to our family that I find a lot of joy in sharing it with others. We’ve taught this process to thousands of people over the years and have also seen firsthand how it’s transformed the productivity of some of our close friends and family.
What We’ll Cover in This Post
There are, of course, people that are skeptical about starting a digital filing cabinet. There are lots of considerations in terms of privacy, security, and longevity. We’ll address some of those concerns in this guide, but we’ve also written an entire article that addresses some of those questions and objections.
My goal with this post is to give you an overview of my paperless process that will reduce your paper clutter, save you time, increase your privacy, allow for easy collaboration with your spouse or partner, and future-proof your documents.
Click on each of the links below to be taken to that specific part of they post:
Meet Your Digital Filing Cabinet: Evernote
Evernote is the heart of my paperless process. It serves as our digital filing cabinet.
Over the years we’ve tested just about every possible alternative. These include Microsoft OneNote, Notion, Bear, Google Drive, Dropbox, nested folders on a hard drive, and many more options. Nothing checks all the boxes like Evernote.
Evernote is the ideal combination of a multi-platform piece of software with an easy-to-use visual layout. It also has organization functions like note titles, notebooks, stacks, and tags, as well as advanced search filters and OCR searching. There really is nothing else that compares.
Evernote continues to improve and add features. And very importantly, your documents are never locked into their system. It’s easy to backup your entire digital filing cabinet or move to a new system entirely if you wish.
Evernote has stood the test of time. It is truly the optimal tool to use to eliminate our paper clutter and go paperless.
[If you want to learn how to set up your Evernote account the right way from the very beginning, we can help with that! Snag our free step-by-step videos by clicking the button below.]
Get started with Evernote and learn our proven paperless workflow for free!
These free video lessons will teach you how to set up your Evernote account the right way from day one– AND how to adopt the paperless workflow we’ve been using for more than a decade– so you can be well on your way to eliminating paper clutter in your home!
Let’s take a look at the five steps we’ll use to create our digital filing cabinet with Evernote.
1. Capture: Bring All Incoming Paperwork into Evernote
The start of your paperless journey is the capture process. It’s important to have a system and the right habits for capturing both physical documents (mail, forms, insurance paperwork, medical documents, etc.) as well as all the incoming digital info (email attachments, electronic bills, articles, PDF files, etc.) into one central location.
With our system, all incoming paper and digital documents are captured and sent to our Evernote “Inbox” notebook where they wait for further processing.
Turning Physical Paperwork into Digital Documents and Getting Them to Evernote
When I first went paperless, I would gather all incoming paper into one central location throughout the week. Then I would sit down for a single scanning session.
But now, mobile phone scanning apps are so fast and easy to use that I scan incoming documents right as I receive them.
If I bring in the mail, I immediately take a minute and scan the important documents. If I’m at the UPS Store returning a package, I scan the tracking slip the moment I receive it, right in the store.
I no longer wait for the paper to accumulate throughout the week. I scan right when I receive the paper.
It’s important to choose the right scanning app with the right features. Fortunately, there are a lot of great apps to choose from with good options for both iOS and Android devices.
Features to Look for in a Scanning App
When choosing a scanning app, there are a few features and requirements that are needed:
- Direct integration with Evernote
- Ability to set a standard naming convention. This will save you time during your weekly processing session when you are going through all the documents in your Evernote Inbox.
- Fast scanning with built-in features that whiten any document shadows and flatten out any folds or creases on the final image of your document.
- Can save in PDF format.
- The ability to apply OCR (optical character recognition) to your scanned documents. OCR transforms your documents into searchable text that is important for finding exactly what you need in your digital filing cabinet years down the road.
There are a number of mobile phone scanning apps that fit this criteria. It’s important to test out several to make sure the integration with Evernote is solid and that the app works quickly and can get your document into Evernote with a minimal number of screen taps. I talk about a variety of options in our course, Paperless Made Simple, as well as provide a walkthrough of the proper settings and how I use the scanning apps.
I have to admit that I find it refreshing and almost liberating to scan all of my incoming paper in my life almost immediately, and then shred or discard the physical paper. Once you’ve found a fast scanning app that you really like, the capture process is a lot of fun.
Moving Digital Documents to Evernote
In addition to capturing physical documents and adding them to a digital filing cabinet, it’s important to have a system for capturing documents that are already digital and adding them to your Evernote account.
I typically add digital documents to my Evernote account in one of four ways:
- Drag them into an Evernote note directly from my laptop
- Save digital documents I’m viewing on my phone directly to Evernote
- Use the Evernote web clipper to save articles, online receipts, and other information in a web browser to my Evernote account
- Forward emails that have attached documents to my Evernote account
That last method is particularly powerful. Each Evernote account comes with a unique email address that is tied to that particular account. When you send an email to that particular email address, the content of that email is saved to your Evernote account.
An example of this would be utility bills or credit card statements that are emailed to you. You can forward those emails to your unique Evernote email address, and then the attached PDF bill or statement will be added to your Evernote default notebook. In our case, that would be our “Inbox” notebook.
This process can also be made faster with custom email filters. In my email service provider settings (Gmail for instance), I can set rules to forward all emails from my electric company to my unique Evernote email address. This is an automated way of adding digital documents to your Evernote account. I demonstrate how to execute all of these options in our course, Paperless Made Simple.
2. Process: Organize the Digital Documents Within Evernote
“Capture” is all about how to get both physical and digital documents into Evernote. “Process” is all about what to do with those documents once they’ve been added to Evernote.
Unlike “Capture” which happens on a daily basis, I like to process all of the new documents in my Evernote Inbox on a weekly basis. It’s important to pick one day each week and set aside time to complete the processing session.
For me, Sunday evening is when I like to complete my processing session. We typically don’t have anything planned on Sunday evening, and it’s a good feeling to get organized before the start of the week.
What My Weekly Processing Session Looks Like
During the processing session I go through each note in my Evernote inbox one-by-one. I make sure each note has a proper title and I also apply all the relevant tags according to my tagging best practices that I teach in the course.
Once everything is named and tagged properly, I determine next steps. Some items that require no next action can be immediately moved to my “File Cabinet” notebook for future reference.
Other items may require a next action. An example would be a utility bill. During the processing session is when I pay all these bills. Yes, you can pay bills weekly! Once the bill has been paid, that note (that includes the utility bill) is then moved to my File Cabinet notebook for future reference.
Other items may require different next actions. For example, I may have a schedule for one of my kids’ sports teams in my Evernote inbox. The next action would be to add that schedule to our family’s shared Google Calendar. Once the schedule has been added to the calendar, the note that contains the schedule is moved from my Inbox notebook to my File Cabinet notebook for future reference.
What to Do with More Time Consuming Action Items
Other items in my Evernote Inbox may require actions that take longer than 2 minutes. For these items, I create a corresponding task in my task management program to complete the item.
For example, let’s say my auto insurance rates have gone up and I’d like to call my insurance agent to understand why. This will certainly take more than 2 minutes, so I create a task in my task manager and link to that particular note. Once that task is created, I move the note to my File Cabinet notebook and will reference the note (with the new rates) during that phone call.
The processing sessions can feel overwhelming, but it’s really easier than you think. It typically takes me about 20 minutes each week to process my Evernote inbox down to zero.
In our course, Paperless Made Simple, I explain how to quickly and efficiently complete the processing session with certain principles to follow. I also give you an over-the-shoulder look as I complete a processing session.
This is also the section of the course where we give you a detailed look into Evernote, all the features, and all the important settings, as well as best practices and strategies with notebooks, stacks, tags, shortcuts, etc.
3. Access: Retrieve Your Documents Anytime, Anywhere
This is when having a digital filing cabinet really starts to pay off. It’s so nice always having every important document at your fingertips, whether it’s on your computer or mobile phone.
There are so many times that Abby and I are out and away from home and we’re able to pull up important documents in a few seconds.
Maybe we’re at the mechanic and need a copy of our vehicle registration. Maybe we’re at the doctor’s office and need a copy of our immunization records. The convenience of our digital filing cabinet never ceases to amaze me.
But to take full advantage of a digital filing cabinet, it’s important to have a firm grasp of all the different access and search features Evernote offers.
Here are just a few of the ones I use most often:
When to Utilize Offline Notebooks
I have a number of Evernote notebooks that I have set up for offline access. This means that the contents of that notebook are available even without internet access on my mobile phone.
I have an entire notebook of fishing maps in Evernote that I can access when I’m on the river or in a remote location without internet access.
Before we leave for vacation each year, I set up an offline notebook with all of the important directions, phone numbers, addresses, and reservations. It’s important to be able to access these documents while on the road when cell service may be spotty.
Collaborating with Evernote Users and Non-Evernote Users
Another important aspect of accessing documents in a digital filing cabinet is the collaboration options. Evernote has powerful collaboration and sharing features that make it easy to share notes and documents with both Evernote users and non-Evernote users.
For example, if I need to forward a copy of a prescription to our children’s school, I can find the scanned document in our Evernote account within seconds. Then I can email that document to the school administrator without ever leaving the Evernote application, even if the person receiving the email doesn’t have an Evernote account. I don’t have to spend time downloading PDF documents and then attaching them to emails.
Advanced Search Filters for Quick Retrieval of Documents
One of the major improvements in Evernote over the past few years is their advanced search filters. I currently have over 7,000 documents in my Evernote account, so it’s helpful to be able to really drill down and get specific when searching for a document!
The search filters allow me to filter down my 7,000+ notes by tag or multiple tags, what notebook the document is located in, the contents of the note (like a PDF file, for example), as well as created date or updated date.
Every year at tax time I set up a very basic search filter for all of my documents tagged with “taxes” and “2021 taxes,” or whatever tax year I’m currently working with. When I apply that search filter, I see a list of all of my documents that meet that criteria.
I then save that search as a shortcut in Evernote so that during tax season, I can pull up all of my relevant tax documents with a single click. This makes preparing for tax season easy, and I can easily transfer my digital documents to my CPA as well.
Using the Power of OCR (Optical Character Recognition)
When we scan documents using our mobile phone scanning app, the app transforms all of the text into searchable text. This is called “optical character recognition,” or OCR. Then when those documents are added to Evernote, Evernote has an index of all of the text.
This becomes incredibly powerful when it comes time to search for a document. I can type “Abby” into the Evernote search bar, and Evernote will find every single note that contains the word “Abby” in the note title or “Abby” as one of the tags.
But what is really amazing is that Evernote will also find the word “Abby” inside the body of any scanned PDF file. It will pull up any and all of my notes that contain the word “Abby,” even if it was a scanned handwritten note from years ago.
This is powerful. There are many times when I search for some obscure word and Evernote will nearly instantly find the relevant note.
Having a thorough understanding of all the Evernote access and search features is important for fully utilizing Evernote as a digital filing cabinet.
4. Secure: Make Sure Your Information Is Always Safe and Backed Up
Evernote has some great built-in security features like two-factor authentication and a passcode on the mobile app. Using these features are an absolute must.
And then on the server side of things, Evernote has some pretty great security features like encrypting all data while in transit (when uploading or downloading information).
I would argue that your documents are *more* secure in Evernote than if they were sitting in a file cabinet in your home.
Everyone’s Documents Are Already in the Cloud
I know many people have concerns about uploading documents to the “cloud.” But in reality, all important documents are already in the “cloud” whether you want them to be or not.
Any important documents you receive in the mail or via email are already in the cloud on company servers. Your tax documents are in the cloud on various servers whether you scan the document into your Evernote account or not. It can’t be avoided.
The question isn’t whether or not you should add your documents to cloud servers. The question is, “What best practices should be used to secure those documents?” I have been impressed with Evernote security over the years.
Creating Secure Backups of the Information Stored in Evernote
But having a secure account is more than just making sure there is no unauthorized access to your account or data. It’s also important to make sure you have proper backups of all your important documents to protect you in case something should happen to your account or even to Evernote as a company.
I perform monthly backups of my Evernote account by exporting my entire digital filing cabinet into a .enex file. This file contains all of the notes, attachments, tags, and meta data associated with every document in my Evernote account. And this file type also allows me to upload the backup file to a new service should I ever decide to leave Evernote.
In addition to creating a .enex backup, I also export all my notes as HTML files once per month. The HTML file contains all the note information as well as a folder with all the note attachments (scanned PDF files).
I store these backups on an external hard drive that I keep in my firebox along with other important documents that require a physical copy like marriage certificates, birth certificates, documents with raised seals, etc. A safety deposit box would be another good place to keep this backup.
Advanced Backup Options
For more advanced users, it’s possible to automate parts of your backup process with a tool like Zapier.
In our course, Paperless Made Simple, I explain my full backup philosophy and then walk you through the entire backup process so you can complete it seamlessly with your own Evernote account.
5. The Great Paper Purge: Get Rid of Existing Paper Clutter
The Great Paper Purge is the part of the process that usually comes to mind when people think of going paperless. It’s where we tackle our old and accumulated piles of paper clutter and even entire filing cabinets.
We went through this process years ago with our old filing cabinets (we no longer own a filing cabinet!), so I understand how it can be overwhelming.
The first thing to keep in mind is that it’s important to have solid paperless habits and systems in place before tackling your previous paper clutter. My recommendation is to always pick a date and decide to implement the new paperless strategies moving forward without worrying about old paperwork at first.
Everyone wants to jump to the Great Paper Purge right away, but it’s better to leave it to the end once you are confident in your capture, process, access, and secure steps.
Three Actions to Take with Existing Paper Clutter
With your old paperwork, you really have only three options…
1- Throw away
2- Scan and throw away
3- Scan and keep
The biggest category will be your throw away (shred, recycle, etc.) pile. Do you really need your electric bill from 17 years ago? No. Get rid of it. When Abby and I went through this process, we ended up with bags and bags of old paperwork that was no longer needed.
The “scan and throw away” pile will be smaller. These are items you may want to reference in the future. This pile will be scanned into your Evernote Inbox and then discarded.
The “scan and keep” pile will be very small with only a dozen or so items. These are documents that may have an original signature or a raised seal. Maybe a property deed, a will, a car title, or certain mortgage related documents. I store these documents in our firebox.
The Great Paper Purge process may be somewhat time consuming, but it is also very straightforward. And once you complete it, you will be able to say “goodbye” to your paper clutter forever, and that is an incredible feeling!
Going Paperless is simpler than you think!
I hope this post was able to give you a clear bird’s eye view of our paperless process! The thought of doing all of the work to go paperless all at once may seem overwhelming, but when you break it down step by step, it really is simple and straightforward.
AND you get to completely eliminate paper clutter while gaining secure access to all of your most important documents anytime, from any location, with just a few clicks. That’s a pretty amazing payoff!
If you’re serious about going paperless, we created our course, Paperless Made Simple, to be the shortcut we wished we had when we first began creating our digital filing cabinet more than 10 years ago.
Paperless Made Simple walks you through each step of the process, showing you what to do in order, teaching how to set up your apps and make sure all of your settings are correct, and giving you tons of tricks and ideas for how to use Evernote most effectively.
Completely remove the overwhelm with Paperless Made Simple, and have confidence that you’re setting up your paperless system the right way from day one– no guessing games or costly mistakes by going the trial and error route!
If you’d like to save this post to revisit later, be sure to pin the image below so you can find it easily:
And if you’d like to learn even more about going paperless, these posts can help:
Have you gone paperless in your home? We’d love to hear your best tips and tricks in the comments below!
Thanks so much for following along! Have a great day!
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This post contains affiliate links. For more information, see my disclosures here.