How to be (almost) paperless

The paperless office has become the poster child of a stagnated IT revolution. I won’t say “failed”, because there are ways to get rid of almost all your paper, and gain a lot of efficiency at the same time. It works—Virtually the only time I print is when someone requires a written signature.

I believe there are two big reasons why people print: Comfort (you’ll be able to read it, bit by bit, anywhere and any time, without eye strain) and safety (it can’t disappear as easily as a file). What follows are paperless solutions for these and other issues.

Read comfortably

A good screen is paramount, but how to choose the best? LCD (aka. flat / TFT) screens are generally much more easy on the eyes than CRT screens. To get the proper “paper feeling”, you should get a big screen with a high resolution (don’t worry about the text being too small, that can be adjusted) and high contrast.

Turn on proper anti-aliasing for a huge improvement in text readability—In Windows, go to Start ? Control Panel ? Display ? Appearance ? Effects, tick Use the following method to smooth edges of screen fonts, and select ClearType. You should also use the free ClearType Tuner to perfect the settings.

Read anywhere, any time

For this, the best solution is a laptop or PDA with a good screen. In addition to the attributes already mentioned, you should also make sure the screen has a high maximum brightness—This helps a lot in bright surroundings, such as daylight or a well lit office.

Take quick notes

For quick, small notes, you can use A Note. For more organized notes, you can use GTDTiddlyWiki. They are both free, open source, and easy to use.

Keep control of what to read

By using an online bookmarking service, you can dispense with paper copies of things you need to read. Here’s what works for me (using del.icio.us):

  • Add the tag “toread” for anything that should be read.
  • Change it to “read” when finished.
  • To indicate that you broke off at chapter 4, just add the tag “at:4”.
  • You might also want to add priorities to the bookmarks, by adding tags like “important” or “pri:1”.
  • Install the Firefox extension – It’s indispensable.

Add notes / corrections to documents

It’s easy to annotate paper documents—Just add a scribble in the margin, an arrow here, some underlining there, and so on. But this method has several flaws (in addition to wasting paper): Hand-written notes are often hard to read, they are not part of the document, they can’t be distributed to several persons easily, and they are limited by the space available. Fortunately, modern word processors (like Word and OpenOffice.org) support adding notes and corrections directly in the document. Just take a moment to learn how, and you’ll save a lot of time in the long run.

Keep document versions separate

The common method to do this is to have some manually updated version number in the document, and keeping printed versions of the document for each version. This is horribly inefficient, and can be completely avoided.

First, you can insert a version number which updates automatically. In OpenOffice.org, press CTRL-F2, go to the DocInformation tab, and double-click Revision number. In Word, press CTRL-F9, select the field name RevNum, and press OK. AFAIK, these numbers should increase every time you save the document.

Second, word processors can show you the difference between two files if you keep them separate, by using a version control system (explained below) or separate file names. In OpenOffice.org, go to Edit ? Compare Document. In Word, go to Tools ? Compare and Merge Documents.

Third, using a version control system complements the other techniques nicely, while being a great way to handle plain text files and code. By using version control for collaborative documents, you can avoid concurrency issues: You and someone else copy the same document to your hard disk, edit it, and then upload it. If you’re unlucky, all the changes of one of you are overwritten by the other, without warning. Version control systems also keep track of who changed what, and why.

The previous two points are also handled very nicely—Most version control systems support keyword substitution (like $Version$), and “diff” tools are plentiful and free (I recommend KDiff3 or WinMerge).

Version control also enables you to keep separate copies of the same files on several machines without having to worry about files becoming obsolete. This is very useful for application settings which are not stored in the registry.

If you work in IT, there’s probably a CVS or SVN server available. Setting up your own server can be a bit of work, but it’s probably best for your personal documents. In any case, I recommend using TortoiseCVS or TortoiseSVN (both Windows only) to work with the repositories.

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