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The idea of going 100 percent paperless might seem like a dream, especially if you’ve been reading the golden promises of many top minimalism and productivity blogs The 10 Most Practical Productivity Blogs of 2017 The 10 Most Practical Productivity Blogs of 2017 Few productivity blogs offer hands-on advice. Most tend to focus on self-improvement, feel-good, and motivational pieces. We've picked the top practical productivity blogs online today. Read More .

Ah, the bliss of waving goodbye to that shelf of ugly ring-binders. Imagine the time you’ll save being able to retrieve an ancient utility bill at the swipe of a finger. And let’s not forget the trees you’ll save. The trees!

But as is always the case with these solve-alls, things aren’t so simple. We can’t simply disregard a medium we’ve relied on for millennia. There’s a reason why paper has lasted so long. And there are plenty of reasons why we shouldn’t completely give up on it just yet (if at all).

Reading on a Screen Ain’t So Great

We all know the tactile experience of a paper book can’t be compared to staring at a beaming screen. But this is more than just sentimentality or the smell of a dusty book.

In The Shallows: What The Internet is Doing to Our Brains, Nicholas Carr explains that “the shift from paper to screen doesn’t just change the way we navigate a piece of writing. It also influences the degree of attention we devote to it and the depth of our immersion in it.”

paperback book
Image Credit: quattrostagioni via Flickr

Reading a lengthy piece of writing on a screen leaves us feeling disoriented. It’s difficult to picture where we are in the text. We can’t easily flick back a few pages to check something. Nor can we scribble in the margins. Then there’s the distraction of hyperlinks, and the Facebook notifications taking our minds away from what we’re supposed to be doing: reading.

All of this naturally leads to lower retention and recall How to Remember What You Read Using Simple Tools How to Remember What You Read Using Simple Tools Reading more won't do you any good if you can't retain anything that you read. Use these tips when you find it difficult to remember what you read. Read More . It prevents us from developing the neural connections needed for prolonged sessions of reading. It leaves us chasing small tidbits of information, barely ever reading more than a few paragraphs at once. That’s not to say all digital reading is bad, but rather that there are still benefits to paper-based reading that we ignore at our peril.

Backfile Conversion Is a Nightmare

While trying to go 100 percent paperless, you’ll inevitably hit the point where you need to start digitizing all of those ancient utility bills and newspaper clippings from 15 years ago.

Before you do this, stop!

frustrated on computer
Image Credit: Jerry Bunkers via Flickr

As with anything, there’s a point at which going paperless has diminishing returns. Seriously, what’s the likelihood you’re ever going to need to pull up that wage slip from 2001?

The last 10 to 20 percent of things you “need” to digitize are rarely worth the effort and time needed to scan, tag, and organize them The Best Way to Organize Evernote: Use Tags The Best Way to Organize Evernote: Use Tags Is your Evernote a huge mess? We show you a simple tweak that'll help you organize your notes like never before. Read More . Just squeeze them in a box, store them in the attic, and forget about them until you need them (which is probably never). The hours you’ll save can be spent far more wisely.

Paper Sends a Stronger Message

In a study from Temple University, the effects of print-based marketing were compared to digital marketing. The results showed that print-based material is more easily absorbed by the reader. It causes a more emotional reaction. It’s easier to remember. It’s more likely to prompt action.

The same seems to be true in a more personal setting. That’s why wedding invites are nearly always sent in the mail. It’s why we still get excited to receive a handwritten letter or postcard. It’s why we still enjoy flicking through physical photo albums. Physical things still have more gravity than digital things.

diary writing
Image Credit: Fredrik Rubensson via Flickr

Yes, digital communication has become the norm, but this has caused a loss in emotional connection. That leaves plenty of opportunities for us to revert back to paper when we want to make more of an impact.

Rather than a Facebook message, a handwritten note could be better. Sending someone a print-out of a photo rather than a JPEG will send a stronger message.

What About the Trees?

For some, going paperless is another step in the direction toward a healthier planet. But this isn’t necessarily true. Paper is one of the only truly sustainable products we have. Especially with more and more manufacturers joining certification schemes such as FSC and PEFC to ensure paper production is as environmentally friendly as possible.

forest
Image Credit: Stiller Beobachter via Flickr

The tech industry, and the cloud storage industry in particular, however, rely heavily on mountaintop coal mining for electricity. This form of mining strips forests back to the bedrock, causing irreversible damage to the environment. And then there’s climate change, caused in part by electricity generated by these fuels.

So if you think going digital is “green,” think again.

The Questionable Security of Digital

Many people want to digitize everything because they think it’ll be more secure in digital form. But in reality, digital files are far more easy to copy, share, hack, and destroy than physical files.

rusty padlock
Image Credit: eek the cat via Flickr

Without a robust method for routinely backing up your digital files The Best Backup Software for Windows The Best Backup Software for Windows Your data is fragile – it only takes one small accident to lose everything. The more backups you make, the better. Here we present the best free backup software for Windows. Read More , they will always be at risk. A decent backup system includes making multiple copies of your files and storing at least one of these off-site. Without this, a broken external hard drive could see you losing all of your photos. A hacked Evernote account could see you losing all of your digital notes. A lost password could see you losing all of your files from Dropbox or Google Drive. That’s not to mention the risk of identity theft.

With paper, however, there’s only one major risk: fire. It can’t be hacked, and it’s difficult to access in order to copy. In many ways, paper is more secure than digital (though it does gradually decompose), especially if you invest in a fireproof safe for the really important stuff.

The Cost of Digital

When going paperless, there will almost always be routine costs involved.

Free cloud storage often ends up costing you in the end, so you’d be well advised to find a good, premium cloud storage provider from the outset. For additional back-ups, and for storing masses of photos, you’ll also need to invest in some external hard drives. Every so often these will need updating to make sure they’re still compatible with new operating systems, etc.

money bill cut up
Image Credit: Tax Credits via Flickr

You might even want to store your digital documents in an app such as Evernote for easy tagging and sorting. If you want anything other than the very basic features, you’ll need to splash out Evernote Free vs. Paid: Which Plan Is Right for You? Evernote Free vs. Paid: Which Plan Is Right for You? Should you upgrade from Evernote's Basic to it paid Plus or Premium plan? We show you who will benefit from the paid plan and when you should not bother. Read More for a monthly premium subscription.

Over a paperless lifetime, these costs will add up.

Sometimes Paper Is Just the Best Tool for the Job

As you can see, there are plenty of reasons why going completely paperless is an ineffectual goal. It’s not particularly environmentally friendly. It can make important files less secure. Reading on a digital device is less rewarding and less effective as reading on paper. And there are routine costs involved.

Sure, go 50 percent paperless. Maybe even 80 percent. But that last 20 percent is rarely worth it.

post-it notes
Image Credit: SparkTruck via Flickr

For many tasks, paper is still the best tool for the job. That’s why so many people still swear by writing and journaling How to Jumpstart a Journaling Habit with 7 Simple Templates How to Jumpstart a Journaling Habit with 7 Simple Templates If you have a journaling template, you have a big advantage: you don't have to figure out what to write! Templates are time-savers and they also reduce the friction of starting. Read More in their Moleskine notebook, and why Post-It notes are still so damn popular. It’s why books are not dying, and why the best way to scribble notes and lists on-the-go, is with a pen and paper.

So when you find yourself aiming to rid your life of paper, keep all of this in mind. With each thing you digitize, ask yourself, “Is this really worth my time?” and “Could paper actually be the best medium for this document, after all?”

What documents do you think we should refrain from digitizing? And are the benefits of going completely paperless actually benefits or curses in disguise?

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  1. Susan Anderson
    July 24, 2017 at 4:03 pm

    Wonderful. Who needs old bills? But of course, if you pay digitally, you don't have your old checks for that hypothetical tax audit. Remember the statute of limitations. I keep credit card statements and toss receipts after 3 months, annotating tossing the tax-relevant ones in a drawer that gets sorted at the end of the year (or quarter). It's faster and easier. It's amazingly efficient.

    Bear in mind that anything stored digitally is likely to disappear in a few decades, if not sooner. A long-time power outage (these are getting more common), big weather events, and of course hacking and crashes. I defy you to recover something you put on floppy disks in the 80s and 90s! Oh, nobody is that old? I beg your pardon.

    As for lists and notes, paper is easy and you can use scraps. Doodling is fun. Traveling by public transit? Books and magazines ... a pad of paper? Heresy, I know, but it works.

    When computers first came in (I worked in production) paper use increased exponentially. "But we recycle!" Nope, recycling a couple of times doesn't compensate for the 100 times more paper you use in business now. Making it easier to revise makes people much more wasteful and sloppy.

    Yes, technology has improved since then, but judging from my mailbox, junk mail has become much easier to create with computers. And my inbox! No time to get anything done, too busy clearing it out of the 100s of begging and bullying notes from good causes.
    --
    Here's another beef: getting rid of hard cash. Do you even know that small merchants pay 6% (or more) on every purchase you make? Pay them by check or cash, it's free for both of you. No temptation to spend money you don't have, either. Pay as you go, old-fashioned but it works.

    • Rob Nightingale
      July 29, 2017 at 1:12 pm

      I take it you're a fan of paper, Susan? ;)

  2. cybernard
    July 19, 2017 at 11:06 pm

    Paper has additional cost and set backs besides fire than this article says.

    Back conversion isn't that big of a deal if you only convert what you need, and trash the rest.

    1. Document storage is usually put in the basement or attic where it is out of the way. Except the basement could flood or the roof could leak.
    2. Some documents the ink fades fast.
    3. $1000 cost more because you need to keep replacing shredders.
    4. Cost of file cabinets and/or other storage organizational devices.
    5. Opportunity costs: I could have put a whirlpool there, but no I got file cabinets.
    6. Your labor storing and organizing all the paper
    7. Whoops your document with SSN got stuck to another went out in the recycle bin, and someone stole your identity.
    8. Article says paper sends a strong messages. It sends a message to me another piece of junk to deal with and drag out to the recycle bin. Especially mail, that I never read.
    9. Where is that receipt? Time wasted searching for documents. On the computer, search, type in a couple words, and the computer finds it after a few seconds.
    10. People who use paper hoard, never clean it up, and then there children (me) have to cleanup 10+ boxes of paperwork.
    11. I can steal,burn your paperwork, but you can't do the same to my cloud.
    12. Paper self combusts at 400F, and makes house fires worse.

    I have reduced down to 1% paper and it is still way too much.
    I box for photos from family, and a small box for taxes period.

    I can make and store 1000's if not 10's of thousands of document is a single USB stick which would take many file cabinets. Duplicates and cloud storage makes this even easier. Duplicate 10k sheets of paper is a ton of extra work, duplicating USB or hdd copy and paste, DONE!

    PDF,doc, and jpeg practical guarantee future compatibility with any software.

    Worried about someone getting cloud files? Pre-encrypt them, then without the encryption key they are just worthless data to any would be hacker.

    Scan, shred, and recycle! Get that paper out of here.

    • urbane
      July 25, 2017 at 4:03 pm

      Agreed.
      Paper can take up shockingly large amounts of valuable space, lots is heavy, has maintenance issues (water and paper/ink aging, dust collection, paper damage), is a fire risk, and the more you have, the easier it is to forget about what you have and where exactly it is.

      I used a Canon DR-C225W, a compact, decent, colour, duplex-sheet scanner (flatbed scanners are dire for most paperwork) to 300/600DPI scan 99% of all my paper work to PDF and PNG on a large cube cased FreeNAS 11 box, not to security/access risky cloud. Yes, it took ages to scan everything, but I freed up 10's of cubic metres of space, can now find notes, manuals, books etc. in seconds rather than hours, days, or __never__, can index/tag them with Calibre and copy them to portable devices too! The free PDF24, for windows, also make coarse PDF editing really easy; for fine stuff I have the Nuance software bundled with the Canon scanner.

      I now prefer to obtain, and backup, e-books rather than paper books. I can carry a significant library of books and paperwork on a 128GB microSD card in a tablet. Some Android apps like EBookDroid support many views, on a 10.5" UHD tablet, which are even better than a paper book e.g. horizontally scrolling multi-page views, or vertical line scrolling, automatically keep track of view position in multiple books, and support notes. Windows PDF readers like Sumatra can also do some flexible viewing, as can the Calibre ebook viewers.

      I still prefer utility/financial statements on paper, because email attachments are now a significant malware risk, it is significant hassle logging into web sites to hopefully download each one and I often pin-up paper bills which need to be paid because direct-debit isn't always sensible; these are also scanned for archiving/later-lookup.

    • Rob Nightingale
      July 29, 2017 at 1:14 pm

      Out of interest, how do you organize all of these digital documents, so you can easily pull up what you need in the future?

  3. Pierre
    July 19, 2017 at 3:00 pm

    you mean, like trying to retrieve that eBill, that deleted from your Spam Box?.
    and you'll get disconnected, if you don't pay it??.

    as in you can afford to pay all your Bills, as soon as you get them?.
    - - Not - - like everyone else can't either.
    so, you keep a Paper version, on your table,
    - until Pay day - - when you can pay it. .. .