Thursday, December 17, 2009

On Productivity: My Paper Processing Workflow

I've always been a fan of performing tasks as efficiently as possible and eliminating the drudgery of those tasks that don't add a lot of value to my work or personal life. One of those tasks which is a necessary evil is the maintenance of paper-based documents. Everyone has them...bills that need to be paid, bank statements, tax documents, owner's manuals, receipts. As much as possible, many of us have tried to digitize these things so we don't receive them as paper in the first place. I've pretty much successfully eliminated any kind of bill coming to me in the mail and have turned every monthly payment into an automated one. Technology is a great enabler for managing a lot of this "stuff", but if you are like me, you probably have a legacy of paper filed away in some part of your house. For me, my paper legacy takes the form of two file cabinets full of the paperwork that makes up my life since I started college. A great majority of the paper is content that I will never likely have to revisit, but feel the need to keep in case it is required for some reason. Financial and legal documents seem to be the most prevalent in this category. In the 10 years I've been in my current house, I've never had to go to the file cabinet and physically pull my mortgage papers, yet there they are, taking up valuable space and stuffing the drawer so it makes it harder to get to the stuff I really do need to see. Earlier in the year, I decided to start tackling the paper problem in my house. Ironically, as a collaboration architect working with Lotus technologies, I've helped many companies eliminate paper from business processes through the years, but never really took action on it in my own life. The cobbler's children and all...

Anyway, in order to get rid of paper, I knew that I would have to digitize it and then store it in such a way as to find it as easily as I could find information in my physical file cabinet. To do this, I would need a scanner. Now I've had a flat-bed scanner for many years, but I understood from using it that it was in no way up to the task of digitizing my life. The process of individually putting each page of a document on the bed would be far too cumbersome to manage in a timely fashion. No...what I needed was a scanner than provided a paper-feed mechanism and that could handle paper fast. From doing research over the years, I had one and only one device in mind and the only reason I hadn't pulled the trigger yet was cost. That device was the Fujitsu ScanSnap and let me tell you, it is the best money I have ever spent on a piece of computer hardware, bar none. My only regret was not having picked this thing up sooner. To do it justice, I don't just want to explain the ScanSnap, I want to show it to you. More on that in a minute.

So I recognized a problem: too much paper. That was the first step. Now I needed to make an actionable plan to deal with it. That's where the ScanSnap came in. I started using it to scan papers in when they came in the mail. As soon as I came across something I needed to keep (my monthly bank statement, for instance), I digitized it and stored it on my hard drive and then shredded the document. Ah...a great feeling. I've been doing this for several months now and it has been very successful. However, nagging at the back of my mind (even though it was on my Someday/Maybe GTD list) was the massive task of tackling those file cabinets. Over the Thanksgiving break, I finally took the plunge and mapped out my paper processing workflow. This is my first attempt at the process, and I'm sure it will be enhanced and refined over time. In any case, based on a couple of e-mails I received in regards to my tweets about "Operation: Paperless Office", I thought I would share a video with you on how I am doing this. This also gives me a chance to showcase the Fujitsu ScanSnap, which I think is just a phenomenal device!

First up, here is a brief note I made when I was thinking through the process. (Yes...I believe in the power of prototyping and visual rendering even when I'm not doing application development!).


It turns out that so far this is working nicely. The following videos describe the ScanSnap functionality and show you my paper processing workflow in action. A couple of notes about the videos. First, I have a face for radio and a voice for print, so try to ignore the narrator and focus on the content. Second, I used my son's Flip video for this rather than my hi-def camcorder. I was kind of giving the Flip a trial run to test some things out and after going through the entire process, I thought it flowed pretty well and I was afraid if I tried to re-record it to be more "professional" then it would just come off feeling scripted and contrived. What you get here is me just trying to describe the process as if I was talking with you face to face. Take that as you will. :-)

Paper Processing Workflow with the Fujitsu ScanSnap - Part 1 from Chris Blatnick on Vimeo.


Paper Processing Workflow with the Fujitsu ScanSnap - Part 2 from Chris Blatnick on Vimeo.


As you'll see if you check out the videos, another important component of my paper processing workflow is Dropbox. This service is an excellent way to replicate data across systems and functions as a temporary to permanent backup system. With it, I feel comfortable knowing that I can destroy a document as soon as the ScanSnap captures it. Dropbox provides a free and premium service. Check out their website to learn more and get started with a free account. If you use my referral link, you'll get an additional 250 MB of space on top of the 2 GB they give you for free (so will I...thanks!).

If you have questions or suggestions, I'd love to hear them. Cheers!

Check out DropBox and get 250 MB extra

Order the Fujitsu ScanSnap from Amazon: Windows version | Mac version

12 comments:

Eric Mack said...

Well Done. Chris. Years ago, I created something similar using an HP Digital Sender. In fact, if yoiu look at integration options in eProductivity\AutoParser in uder prefs you will see the agent that fires off. This way you can scan and drop into a project, action or reference - without touching a computer... It would be great to see your solution work with this...

Eric

Eric Mack said...

Chris, here are two links that may help you with some ideas... Happy to discuss integrating your solution into your use of eProductivity.

http://www.notesonproductivity.com/ICA/NOP.nsf/dx/paperless-filing-system-in-lotus-notes-in-5-easy-steps

http://www.notesonproductivity.com/ICA/NOP.nsf/dx/Images-for-paperless-filing-system-in-lotus-notes-in-5-easy-steps

Eric

John Smart said...

So, DropBox isn't your storage solution, it's your "I can shred the paper now even though I'm not done e-filing it" solution, and therefore the free 2Gb account is all you need?

belgort said...

Nice cymbals! :-)

Chris Blatnick said...

@Eric...I saw that post a couple years ago. It was probably in my subconscious when I started drawing this up. I remember looking into the Cobra solution, but it only works with certain scanners. However, the autoparser in eProductivity sounds intriguing. I wrote an agent to pull the OCR'd documents into my custom database, but I could see value in also being able to pull stuff right into my GTD systems as well.

Chris Blatnick said...

@John...Yes, right now, DropBox is my temporary storage and sync solution. I need way more space than 2 GB and currently I do not rely on the cloud for system backups. I am evaluating that, however, and I may move to a premium account in the future.

Chris Blatnick said...

@Bruce...LOL. Matt saved up his money and bought a pool table from his cousin. That's in the basement now too, so the drum set moved directly behind my desk. :-)

skip said...

Chris - haven't gone through your Thankgiving purge yet, but use my ScanSnap300 (should have held out for the big one!) and do my daily paperwork. I do use the OCR capability on the ScanSnap as I scan. Works well and is accurate.

Healy Jones said...

Chris, great post. All the executives at Pixily have ScanSnaps on our desks. We help a lot of people go paperless - let me know if I can get you a free trial of our service. Not only do we do the scanning, we also help you manage your paper online with our search engine for paper.
Best,
Healy

Brooks @ DocumentSnap said...

Chris that was an absolutely epic post! I like the videos too. I pointed to it on my site.

I had never thought about using Notes as a repository for this stuff, but good job working it into your existing workflow.

Erik said...

Chris,

Don't forget that many larger scanner/copiers will email the PDF as a repository option.

Rather than coding agents, you could just set up a mail in database, or better yet, just email to yourself, and set up a mail rule to throw it into a folder. Or... an agent in your mailbox that puts on your to do list... oh things can get complicated again fast!

~E

Janet B said...

It looks like some of the issues you are encountering when you file could be solved by using software to keep track of your files. You can try The Paper Tiger Filing system to help you better keep track of your files. Give it a try! We are BBB A-Rated business and are always looking for ways to help people file!