I have a confession. I am not, by nature, an organized person.
Anyone who has seen the piles of books, toys, mail, and hair accessories on my night stand can verify that fact. It is only through will and deliberate habits that I ever make it to an appointment on time and with the correct resources. Several years ago, my approach to organization involved paper lists and a daily planner.
Today, all my organizational efforts are digital in nature. I very rarely use paper, mostly because I would lose it. Now, my notes, my schedule, my task lists, and even my grocery list are available on any digital device in my hand.
A paperless life is not for everyone. I’m not a total convert. I am very old fashioned about paper books. I’ll never give them up. But beyond novels and non-fiction, I don’t have much of a need for paper. With the right tools and techniques, many people may find that going paperless allows them to be more efficient and less encumbered by the limitations of physical paper. Here are six tips that I’ve found helpful in my conversation to an almost paperless life.
1) Sync, Sync, and Sync
If you are going to convert your notepads and daily planners to digital tools, you need to trust that they will always be available. Cloud-based storage and productivity services are the best way to make sure that your meeting notes aren’t stuck on your work desktop or that your lost smartphone has all your family dentists’ appointments. Resources like Google's G Suite, Microsoft’s Office Online, and Apple’s iCloud allow you to create content on one device and send copies to cloud servers and other personal devices. So, you can add a calendar appointment on your laptop and synchronize it to your mobile phone using a cloud service like the ones I’ve listed. The idea is to ensure accessibility across all your devices and to have an automatic backup.
2) Leverage Mobile Apps
Along with synchronization and storage, cloud service companies often offer productivity applications that integrate with their other services. These might be browser-based tools, like G Suite Docs and Forms, or desktop applications, like Microsoft Word and PowerPoint. Most offer mobile versions of the same tools.
While you probably won’t be writing a sales report on your Android smartphone, it is handy to have apps to quickly reference a document or take notes during a meeting. The beauty of the cloud is that you can pick the best digital tool for the current situation and still have all your work readily available.
I also have a few apps that I utilize for non-work related tasks. There are three big areas where I find digital tools helpful in my personal life: grocery shopping, list-making, and family schedule. In all three instances, I store this information in cloud accounts that I’ve shared with my husband. He and I use different smartphones, but still have access to the same data.
For grocery shopping, I personally use PepperPlate. It lets me curate recipes, plan weekly menus, and build grocery lists. It takes time to populate the recipe library, but the customization and curation features are a huge plus. Similar apps for managing grocery shopping are Our Groceries and Out of Milk.
I have a paid personal subscription to Office Online, so I use the Outlook calendar and OneNote for my home organization. OneNote lets me manage my Christmas list, notes about vacations and packing, snapshots of receipts I’ve taking with my mobile phone, or screenshots of webpages from my tablet. It has apps for all the major mobile operating systems, as well as desktop and browser versions of the application. Popular alternatives to OneNote include Evernote and Google Docs.
As with similar tools, like iCloud and Google calendars, my Outlook calendar allows me to share my schedule across multiple devices and applications, as well as to other people who may need it. This allows me to overlay my personal schedule with my work calendar in the same applications. I can also send an invitation to view or edit my calendar to my husband. This way we have one master family calendar. As long as I have my mobile phone or laptop with me, I’m always able to quickly check where I’m supposed to be that day, whether it’s a department meeting or my preschooler’s dance recital.
3) Choose one tool or service & consolidate
Once you’ve found the right tools to store and manage your information, the next steps all involve examining your organization processes. For me, the first step was consolidation. Simplification was the goal.
When I first started moving to a paperless organization system, I found myself selecting tools like a buffet. I was using Evernote for notes, a combination of my laptop, Dropbox, and OneDrive for storage, one work and two personal email accounts. All those tools are good options, but I couldn’t find anything when I needed it. I had to search multiple locations to retrieve files or emails.
Last year I made the decision to migrate all my data to one of two locations, either my personal or professional cloud accounts. I chose to consolidate my personal notetaking, calendar, email, and file storage into Office Online. It took a lot of time to find, copy, and organize the information, but it was worth it. Now I have one login for all of those functions and I know exactly where to find everything. I have my tablet, mobile phone, and laptop configured to synchronize with Office Online and can work on the same date from any device.
4) Consider separating the personal from the professional While I did consolidate my data, I was very careful about separating my personal information from my professional work. Before my cleanup efforts, the two areas were muddled. This was problematic for organizational purposes, but also presented data integrity issues for my work.
If Randolph School ever needs to view my work product, it’s much easier if that information is located in services managed by the School. We now use cloud-based storage and productivity tools for business purposes, so I am still able to synchronize and access my work data across devices, which made the separation of personal and professional data much less painful. It’s always a good idea to check with your IT team before using third-party services. There may be specific policies or compliance requirements that your organization needs to maintain.
5) Think about an organizational structure that meets your needs
Once you have all your information in the same place, you still need to think about an organizational structure that will make retrieval of information quick and easy. Consider folder structure for file storage. For work, I organize my folders according to academic year and then by area: strategic planning, departmental budget, technology projects. For my personal information, I use broad categories: photos, genealogy, budget. I would caution against too many levels of folders. Keep it neat, but not overly complicated.
Take the same approach when organizing your digital notes. Generally, notetaking software allows you to create notebooks and include either hierarchical organization or tagging to aid searching. I organized my professional notebooks to match my file storage. I have a notebook for each academic year and then use sections and tagging to identify specific projects or topics. You should aim for a good balance with whatever structure you use. You don’t want it to be too general, but you also don’t want it too specific. If you can’t remember what you named an item, you won’t be able to find it.
6) Make allowances for traditional writing, when needed
As much as I find my paperless organization useful, there are still times when I need to write. When I’m brainstorming or collaborating on an idea with another person, I find it much more effective to use an old-school whiteboard. I’ve tried using real-time collaboration in applications, but it just doesn’t have the same feeling.
I also like to write out my weekly to-do list. There are very few actions as satisfying as putting a checkmark next to a completed item. Clicking a box next to a digital list entry is not as fulfilling, in my opinion. I was using a notepad, but my husband bought me a BoogieBoard for Christmas last year and I love it. It’s kind of like a grown up Etch-A-Sketch. I write out my list on Monday, check off items as I complete them, and press a button to clear the text and start over again with a clean slate. It’s paperless, but still traditional.
Bonus Tip: Experiment to find the right fit
My last piece of advice is to experiment with different solutions and different processes until you find the right combination for you. The wide variety of digital tools available means that you might have to try a few wrong choices before you settle on a good fit. It took me about three years of very deliberate experimentation. For me, the key was consolidated, cloud-based services and considered organization structure. Now, my pen and paper are rarely used, beyond an occasional doodle.