Despite the digital revolution, desks still look much the same. Ivory towers of bills, letters and magazines rise high while Post-it notes and scraps of paper line any remaining empty spots, making them look more like a city skyline of paper than a place of work. We let paper cling to horizontal surfaces the way we hold on to our old boring, but secure, jobs. We procrastinate, finding any excuse not to make a change for the better, so time ticks away as our mind sinks deeper into internal chaos.
I’ve found that paper is the one thing that, by far, messes up my living space and disorganizes me the most. When I started living a transient lifestyle, I’d drive around in my little car, the trunk half full of books, magazines, notebooks and important notes necessary in my job as a writer. These weights clung to me like soaking wet clothes, a burden that slowed me down when I wanted to run fast and roam free.
I didn’t want to drive anymore, so as the technology became available, namely e-book readers, I shifted to a nearly paperless life by digitizing all the paper, photos and other media I owned. Paperless living doesn’t just save trees from getting chopped down, it saves the mind from getting stressed. As information crowds every square inch of our minds, our lives become increasingly complex. With complexity comes more of everything—including paper.
How I Got Started Going Paperless
When I went back to my home town for Christmas a couple of years ago, I set aside a week to organize all my possessions in preparation for the massive task of digitization. I looked through old boxes of stuff I had laying around in storage. I had a bunch of bulky items, like furniture and clothing, that were no problem to give away, but paper was the real issue since a lot of it was important to me and I just couldn’t toss it at the Goodwill along with the other stuff. No, this stuff needed to be kept. My mom diligently saved old school photos, art work and other mementos from my childhood. I couldn’t just toss them, so I scanned them.
After stage one of the scanning job was complete, I moved on to my work-related documents, important magazines I wanted to save, financial documents, bills I needed to keep, and personal documentation. Then on to my photos. As I unstuck every yellowing page of my photo albums, I thought about how rarely I actually looked through these massive books. Yet, there they were collecting dust in all these boxes. Each physical album got transformed into a digital PDF album. I felt my information-crowded mind exhale with a big breath of relaxation. If I wanted to spend time scanning each individual photo as a JPG I could have done so, but it would have taken too long and I can always return later to separate them. So for now, each individual album page sits in a folder as a PDF.
Other Clutter that Can Go
With the visual trip down memory lane completed, I attacked the auditory realm. In a half-assed attempt at cutting down on clutter, years ago I’d pulled all my CDs from their jewel cases and popped them into two 4-inch thick binders. One by one, I plucked them from their sleeves and popped them in my computer CD player to rip them onto my computer. This part was the simplest, though most time-consuming, of all the tasks. All I needed to do was press the open button on the CD player and the computer took care of the rest. In the odd case, I had to name the files, which didn’t take long at all. I even sold my entire collection on eBay for nearly a couple of bucks per CD.
I reduced my life to two small cardboard boxes of mementos, a suitcase and a backpack. The only way I could have done this other than tossing everything is with the aid of digitization technology. Now all my documents, photos, music, and videos sit neatly stored on my computer and backup hard drive. Since this is my whole life’s worth of stuff, I didn’t want to risk both getting stolen or lost, so I sent a second backup to the cloud to access whenever I want, wherever I want. I have no need for storage anymore and live with only my 88-litre backpack sitting on my shoulders.
Organization is the fun part. I’d always dreaded organizing my life. I was such a mess. Messy room, messy desk, messy closet, messy mind. No more. I’ve done a complete 180°. Organizing digital files into folders is so easy I actually find it fun. With the time consuming and energy draining task of digging through piles of notes now history, I’m far more productive. I know where everything is and can access it easily. I can easily get twice as much work done now with the excuse to procrastinate gone. It’s a mind game that digitization helped me defeat.
Staying Paper- and Clutter-Free
Moving forward, I’ve made a pact with myself not to accept any more junk into my life, particularly paper. I’ve switched all my billing to paperless except for the stubborn two that refuse to allow it—government and credit card.
I will either scan and email a document to those wanting a faxed signature or use an online faxing program if they still prefer the old school methods. Rather than actually signing my signature, I’ve scanned it as a JPG and insert it into files routinely, eliminating the need to print forms that would just end up getting scanned and tossed.
In the rare circumstance, I’ll buy a paper book or magazine only when I can’t access a digital copy. But I’m reluctant to make these purchases. After doing so, I’ll give them away. With the explosive growth of e-book sales, few publishers do not offer digital versions of their books and the non-digital are becoming a rarer breed by the day. I sometimes email publishers to request they digitize their books. In some cases I’ll return to the online store a few months later and see it there in digital format.
I added my name to the no-junk mail list, which reduced mailings significantly. When someone offers me a paper flyer, I ask for a web address. I usually take notes on my computer instead of on paper or when I do use a paper notebook, I recycle it right after typing up the notes on my computer or scanning it. In general, I just refuse paper in every way possible.
For the paper that does enter my life, I’m quick to scan it (or take a digital photo of it) and get rid of it. The same goes for CDs or DVDs. If I buy them, I’ll rip them and give them away within days. So the only paper in my life is one thin notebook. All my media sits on my computer and external hard drive. And I don’t ever see a need for that to change.
Do I miss having physical photos to look at? Not really. I’ve gotten so used to looking at images on a screen that to hold one in my hand has become a novelty. For that novelty factor I held back a handful of my favorites, though I don’t expect I’ll ever look at them much. The threat of going paperless is that more time is spent looking at a screen. That’s definitely one of the few drawbacks. But as for myself, when I balance that with having to move, store and organize all this dead weight, it’s well worth it.
Paperless living does more than just reduce clutter, it frees the mind. For me serenity is simplicity. The less I have the more peace I find. Once getting rid of collections of books, magazines, CDs, DVDs, bills, documents, and the like I find I’m not ever itching to get them back. Because quite simply, if I have no collection, what would I be adding to?