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How To Go Paperless with a Digital Filing System

You want to go paperless and need to figure out a digital filing system. In this video interview with creator Brooks Duncan, he goes through the basics of digitizing your paper.

Brooks takes us through the pitfalls of a paper based system, why go paperless, how to go paperless, and ends with his recommendation for setting up an easy digital filing system.

Dangers of a paper based system

  • Hard to search: It is harder to find a properly filed paper than it is to find a properly named and filed digital file.
  • Misfiling: If a document is misfiled, it becomes very hard to find.
  • Slower: With a paper based system you have to physically get up and locate a document, which if only take 15 or 30 seconds, is longer than what you can do digitally
  • Backup: Unless you keep multiple copies of all your files in several locations, when a disaster strikes, your only copy is destroyed.

Why go paperless

  • Fast to find: Type in the word associated with the document you want and voila, it's there.
  • Reduce clutter: With no need to store papers everywhere, this gives you more space to work with and you have less papers lying around.
  • Environment: Less trees used for paper = less waste.

How to go paperless

  • Figure out workflow: How is the paper coming in, where's my recycling, where do I put the paper after processing, etc...
  • What paper can you eliminate: Can you sign up for digital receipts from people you buy from and can you unsubscribe from places that send you mail.
  • Scanner: A decent scanner will go a long way in aiding you to quickly and painlessly go paperless. A scanner that can duplex (scan two sides at once) and has ADF (automatic document feeder) are important features.
  • Document Management: How will you digitally organize all your files. Sometimes it is as simple as storing in folders, no special software necessary. Other people may want a more advanced document management system.
  • Searchable PDFs: Make your PDFs (documents) searchable by using OCR (optical character recognition). This usually comes with your scanner software and it will digitize the text of your scanned document, making the whole document keyword searchable.
  • Name your files well: OCR is not 100%, so don't completely rely on it. Use a standard naming convention such as date_keyword. An example for a business receipt would be date_vendor_item. In Brooks' example, it would be 2011_02_28_walmart_scanner.pdf.
  • Backup!: You're playing with fire, and maybe literally, if you don't back up your files. With digital files, this is dead easy and inexpensive to do. Most modern operating systems have built in backup software. You can use an external hard drive. Even better is to store a hard drive off site as well as do secure online storage.

Brooks' easy digital filing system setup

  • Scanner: Fujitsu Scansnap is a crazy good scanner. Look at the reviews on Amazon for yourself.
  • Document Management: If you're on Windows, the Scansnap comes with Scansnap Organizer. If you're on a Mac, it doesn't come with the software, so you can use Yep or Mariner Paperless
  • Backup: Do it for free with your system's backup software. Crashplan is backup software that can help manage backups to a friend's computer (encrypted so they can't see your stuff of course), online, and to an external hard drive. It is actually free if you forgo the online storage, but even storing online is a little as $3 a month.


  • Documentsnap: Your online guide to going paperless. If you do end up buying an Fujitsu Scansnap, Brooks' gets a small portion of sales for people who buy it by clicking on the Amazon link on his site. You still get the same price but might as well through some change his way if you're going to buy it online through Amazon anyways. As an added note, the purpose of this interview wasn't to promote a scanner or even Brooks, no money's being exchanged amongst us. He didn't mention his link, but since he was nice enough to give me the interview, I figured I'd help promote it for him.
  • Amazon review of Scansnap: 300 customer reviews with some verging on worship as if the Scansnap were a deity.
  • Mariner Paperless: Oddly enough, I had a hard time finding their website when typing in mariner and document. Got sea relatede sites. But found the link in the end.
  • Yep Document Management Software from Ironic Software
  • Crashplan: One amongst many backup software providers.

Questions or comments on going paperless with a digital filing system?

If you have any questions or comments, please feel free to leave them below. I'd be more than happy to answer and I always love feedback.

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March 2, 2011, 2:18 pm

Very nice presentation. I've got a Scansnap, and totally agree with everything that Brooks says here. I was doing a little update in my research today because a friend of mine who is a doctor was interested in what I was telling him about my system, so I went to see what Brooks had to say recently and found his link to your story. Thanks–

    March 3, 2011, 4:09 am

    Thanks Jeff, glad you liked it.
    My recent post Could You Chop And Scan Your Books

    March 3, 2011, 7:26 am

    Dido, glad you enjoyed the presentation. Brooks sure has a wealth of knowledge.

March 8, 2011, 9:06 am

Hi Brooks,

I have just watched your video (seemed to have missed it on email somehow :)). I am using a Scansnap with an XP OS. I keep hearing about the search function on Windows 7 and am a little bit confused? At the moment I have to OCR everything through Scansnap Organiser before it is searchable, but I am wondering whether this step could be omitted on Windows 7? You mentioned that the more technical minded just put documents into folders on the OS. Would these be searchable (in Windows 7) without OCR'ing? Thank you.

    March 9, 2011, 2:42 am

    Hi Susy!

    In order to search the contents of a PDF file, you do need to OCR it. That unfortunately wouldn't be eliminated if you moved to Windows 7.

    If you wanted to just have your documents in folders (and not use ScanSnap Organizer) you could do it and still have them OCRed. In your settings for ScanSnap Manager, set it to scan to a folder instead of scanning to ScanSnap Organizer, and then check the box on the File Options tab that says "Convert to Searchable PDF". If you do that, it will automatically OCR the files for you right after you scan them.

    Hope this helps/makes sense!
    My recent post Fujitsu ScanSnap- How are the S1100 and S1300 Models Different

March 9, 2011, 9:37 am

Hi Brooks,

Thanks for the reply. Yes, it does make sense and as I have already started my 'filing' system in Scansnap Organizer, I think there would be no obvious benefit to move it all (should I prgress to Windows 7). Thanks again.

August 28, 2011, 2:28 am

I really think with the information age aright now that going paperless is the way to go. I also think your ideas are wonderful and it will be the best way to go for people of this age. Thank you.

August 28, 2011, 2:39 am

Hi @postadaychallenge2011,

Thanks for the comment. I totally agree, everything is going paperless. I was thinking the other day that all this scanning might soon become a thing of the past, as documents are simply sent digitally. How many people shoot with a film camera nowadays?
My recent post Business Plan Update April 2011

m clemmer
January 15, 2012, 5:48 am

Could you please tell me in your opinion what software would help me I have used neat receipts in the past the soft ware was ok but would prefer to use my own scanner canon mx 882- windows xp home edition. I need to scan alot of receipts for business expenses. Thank you

January 15, 2012, 1:34 pm

Hi @m clemmer. What are you looking for the software to do? Is it for something like a specific bookkeeping program are a more general scanner program?

February 6, 2012, 1:53 pm

i'm doing the right thing… tnx for the informative ideas sir! :) this will help us a lot! yesss! PMO will go paperless!

    February 6, 2012, 11:50 pm

    Hi Teresa, glad it helped!

February 15, 2012, 5:15 am

Hi Greg,
Thanks for the knowledge on going paperless. We are planning to make the switch now in our office to due to a recent fire and we never want to look back! We are a financial planning firm and have walls of file cabinets, mainly standard size papers which we will scan as PDF's and store along with many Microsoft documents. Our plan… purchase a scanner (not sure which one yet), scan and store to server/hard drive with Crashplan as our internet backup and use LogMeIn from remote location. We're unsure about a file management software, any recommendations? Or any other recommendations for our "plan"?
Thank you!

    February 15, 2012, 2:40 pm

    Hi Kara,

    For scanner, I'd recommend something from the Fujitsu ScanSnap series. I have both the S1300 and the S1500. The S1500 is so much better than the S1500 in terms of speed and even how it feeds the paper in, but it is also a couple hundred dollars more.

    For document management, scansnap does come with an organizer. However, I'm not a specialist in document management, so I'm not the best person to ask. For my needs, I found that scansnap and a simple folder system, backed up with dropbox and crashplan – and being able to remote access using logmein – has served my small business needs.

    The real pro at paperless it the guy I interviewed, Brooks Duncan, who has an entire website devoted to going paperless (and has lots of advice on document management). His site is

March 30, 2012, 12:28 pm

This is really great! Greg and Brooks – thanks to both of you for doing all that you guys do. I know this because I have been struggling with papers for a long-long time. I still have ways to go but hopefully I will get to paperless. I have been using Fujitsu S1500 for last 2 years. It IS the BEST. I don't use the searchable PDF option of ScanSnap because I find it a bit slow and not that great OCR – cannot quantify it, sorry. I use Adobe Acrobat to "process" OCR later. Brooks, I also would like to thank you for your emails that I receive. I look forward to them even though many times I find some info I am already familiar with but always interested in reading :-) I am curious to see your "guide" but, frankly, hesitant to buy it fearing I might be doing most of the things mentioned in it. Although, I am sure I would learn more than a few things :-)

    April 1, 2012, 4:57 am

    Cool Anil! Thanks for your kind words and I am glad you like the newsletter. You're right – it is hard to please superstars like you and newbies, so I try to strike a balance when I can. Just let me (or Greg!) know if you ever have any questions.

July 2, 2012, 1:57 am

thanks, greg and brooks. i am sold. just got a s1500 from tried to use brooks' link but it would be shipped from u.s. to me in burnaby and i would have to pay more than

    July 12, 2012, 2:07 am

    No worries James. It should have kicked you to the link if you're from Canada but maybe there's something not quite right. Thanks for the effort though! :)

      July 13, 2012, 1:27 pm

      i got the machine and have been happy scanning for the last few days. i am very impressed as i got tons of stuff scanned nicely. i saw today that staples is selling it at $575 before tax and feel good about what i paid on amazon. it's like a $100 cheaper.

July 5, 2012, 10:08 pm

I have the ScanSnap S1500 and I got an external hard drive (MyBook Essential) for backup, but it is not recognizing the things in the ScanSnap Organizer. I can't find my documents on the external hard drive. How do I get it to recognize the My ScanSnap folder under My Documents?

    July 6, 2012, 1:25 am

    Hi Kim,

    Thanks for writing in. I'm assuming you're on a PC since you said "My Documents". Without seeing your computer, it's hard to be exactly sure of where the issue lies. Here's a few things to try / look for:

    1. My Documents usually lives on your main hard drive, which is most likely lettered C. On your C drive, My Document would be found under "Users > (whatever your login name is) > Documents.
    2. Is your MyBook Essential recognized by your computer, as in, does it show up when you go into your Computer Icon?
    3. What is your end goal? Do you want to simply scan things to your MyBook Essential hard drive? If so, you can change your scan to folder in ScanSnap Organizer by clicking on the top left button (it's the a little purple folder), going to options, and changing the ScanSnap folder to that of your MyBook Essential hard drive.

July 8, 2012, 3:17 am

Hi, thanks. I am using a PC. I want to scan to the My ScanSnap folder and then have MyBook backup those files. It recognizes everything else under My Documents, just not the files in My ScanSnap, I think because it is an application. But the files within it are PDF files, MyBook just isn't finding them.

    July 9, 2012, 2:39 am

    Ok, that clarifies things a bit. Unfortunately, I don't know why your MyBook wouldn't recognize your ScanSnap folder with your My Documents. The only thing I can think of suggesting, is to move your ScanSnap folder out of your My Documents. To do that, you would:

    Click on the top left button (it's the a little purple folder), going to options, and changing the ScanSnap folder.

      July 14, 2012, 2:22 am

      Thanks for your help! I figured out something that worked. I really wanted to use the ScanSnap folder/organizer, so what I was able to do was to add a shortcut to another folder within the ScanSnap Organizer. MyBook recognized the files in the other folder and I am still able to use the ScanSnap Organizer. Thanks for all your help!

August 15, 2012, 6:29 am

What a great peresentation!!! Thank you for the guidance. Quick question… I bought the ScanSnap based on your recommendation… I run Windows7, use an iPad and use Evernote & Dropbox. Would you recommend incorporating the ScanSnap organizing software or sticking with traditional digital filing? I want to be able to integrate receipts and some docs between apps and want to not have the system become obsolete. Thank you in advance for your feedback!!!

    August 17, 2012, 2:45 pm

    Hi Toni,

    The basic ScanSnap Organizer really is basic digital filing, just making it easier to access items on your computer's folders. So, you should have no issues using it, since behind the software your files are being stored in your folders. Even if you don't have ScanSnap Organizer, your files will still be there and accessible.