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.
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.”
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. 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!
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. 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.
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.
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.
Without a robust method for routinely backing up your digital files, 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.
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 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.
For many tasks, paper is still the best tool for the job. That’s why so many people still swear by writing and journaling 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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