Going Paperless

Ben’s old Filing System, papers piled in boxes
For my entire life my filing system has been to throw papers in a “Need to file” box.  My thinking is that someday I will organize and file everything away.  That day has not come.  So I add more boxes.  Finding a specific paper isn’t efficient.  I dump one box at a time on the floor and throw things back in until I find what I’m looking for.  Last week I decided it’s time to try going paperless…
My four step plan to getting paper out of my life:
  1. Use a ScanSnap scanner to scan and OCR every piece of paper.
  2. Upload everything to Evernote, tagging files.
  3. Keep and file important papers like vehicle title, birth/marriage certificates, etc.
  4. Shred everything else.
I bought the ScanSnap S1300 model, which is portable so I can sit it in the living room and use it from a comfy arm-chair.  ScanSnap will scan the documents and use Abby FineReader to OCR, and then upload to Evernote to organize all the files.
Here’s how my workflow was looking like:
Scan 10-15 pages in seconds, wait 5 minutes for OCR to finish.
Scan 10-15 pages in seconds, wait 5 minutes for OCR to finish.
Scan 10-15 pages in seconds, wait 5 minutes for OCR to finish… this is going to take forever.
The problem is, ScanSnap won’t let you scan a new batch until Abby FineReader finishes OCRing the last batch.  On newer computers that’s not a problem, but on my computer it can take 20-30 seconds to OCR a page.
What’s the point of a fast scanner if my computer is old and slow and takes forever to OCR.  I debated not OCRing the documents on my computer and using Evernote to do this task, but Evernote only makes the documents searchable, it doesn’t allow you to copy and paste from OCRed documents, so I much prefer to have ScanSnap/Abby FineReader perform the OCR.
Fortunately with AppleScript there’s a way to run Abby FineReader in the background so that you can continue to scan uninterrupted while queuing up documents for OCR.  Tad Harrison wrote an AppleScript to automate the ScanSnap OCR process so that it could run in the background.  It works great, except that it prevented ScanSnap from automatically uploading to Evernote since it had to save scans to a folder where OSX’s folder actions would pick it up for OCR instead of sending it to Evernote.
Teaching Elijah to write code
Since I was up at 3:00am holding my son anyway, I modified the script to upload files to Evernote after they’re scanned.  If you want to do the same here’s the code changes to make to Tad’s AppleScript:

-- bwb001 >>>
-- code should be inserted in the ocrFile function after this line:
-- logEvent("OCR file generated.")
tell me to set bwbName to getSpotlightInfo for "kMDItemFSName" from posixFilePath
tell application "Evernote"
set note1 to create note title bwbName from file posixOcrFilePath
open note window with note1
end tell
-- bwb001 < <<

This works.  Saturday morning I scanned in documents non-stop for about 30 minutes, then I enjoyed the weather outside while my computer spent the next several hours OCRing all of the documents and uploading them to Evernote.

Evernote works well as a document management system.  It automatically OCRs any PDF or JPG file that’s not been already (even OCRs handwriting in JPG files) so everything is searcheable.  I don’t even bother using intelligent filenames or note titles, I simply search for content within the files.  For my filing system I use tags and try to just use the company name.  I did upgrade my account to premium ($45/year) because of the volume I scanned. Evernote allows uploading 60MB/month for free so If I had spread it out over a few months I could have done it for free, but I wanted to be done with this project.  I scanned, OCRed, and uploaded 749 pages (most double-sided), 374MB to Evernote.

Now all of our files are available from all our devices.  iPhone, Android, Mac, and Windows.

Evernote Security, Backup, and Versioning
At some point you have to trust cloud services with your data if you’re going to embrace the future of computing.  My rule is that security doesn’t have to be perfect, but that it should cost more for identity thieves or whoever else may hack into my accounts to obtain useful information than the information is worth.  One thing to keep in mind is data is not stored encrypted on Evernote so that it can index everything.  For sensitive documents and notes I encrypt them before uploading them on Evernote and make sure the note title contains a few key words.

I trust cloud backups for the most part.  Most cloud providers can provide better backups and redundancy than I can myself.  When they lose data it’s big negative publicity.  Evernote handles about 90% of what you would want in a backup.  They of course have redundancy and maintain their own backups.  If Evernote goes dark I could still use the local cache on my computer, it automatically versions files so if I overwrite something important I can revert.  If my computer crashes everything is backed up in the cloud anyway.

Evernote backup weakness
When notes are deleted from Evernote the versioning also goes with them.  Once something is deleted from the trash and all of your devices have synchronized there is no way to get it back.  Could this happen?  Unlikely but yes.  A malicious script breaks into either your computer or Evernote account and deletes all your files, and empties the trash.  Or you, or someone using your computer selects all notes, deletes them, empties the trash, and ignores the warning that the notes will be gone forever.  So as one last step it’s a good idea to backup the Evernote library data and database files (on Mac this is in ~/Library/Application Support/Evernote).

Any decent backup tool will create versioned backups that you can store offsite.  I use JungleDisk to backup to Amazon S3, so I just made sure the Evernote folder was in my daily backup list.  If for some reason you did something stupid you could always recover from your JungleDisk backup…. so long as Evernote is not the only place you store your S3 encryption keys. |:-)

Ben & Kris’ new filing system: everything searchable in Evernote
Cost to go paperless
ScanSnap S1300: $246 at Amazon
Evernote Premium: $45
Shredding: ??

Now all that’s left is shredding.  I have a great little shredder that Bob gave me, but it can only handle a handful of papers before it has to take a rest for a day so it will either take a long time to catch up or I may see if I can find a shredding service or see how much a heavy duty shredder costs.

3 thoughts on “Going Paperless”

  1. I know this is a little bit of an old post but i am looking to organize my life by doing something of this nature. Are you still using this process today and would you still recommend it? I want it to be as easy as possible to scan/OCR the document and store it safely. Everything I have tried has seemed clunky and cumbersome to me but i need a paperless solution sooner than later. We are in somewhat the same line of work so i don’t mind getting my hands a little dirty with some of the technical setup but really want it to just work for me. TIA!

    • Hi, Paul! Yes, I’m still using the same ScanSnap scanner 9 years later and it’s still working well. I haven’t even needed to buy a maintenance kit for it. What I do is pile all the mail and misc papers and receipts on my desk, and once a week I’ll scan them all in. It’s just a one touch button on the scanner. The only difference is now I’m doing it on Windows instead of OSX. My Evernote database is now 19GB. Evernote got really bogged down as my inbox folder got more items in it, but what I do now is create a new folder in Evernote for each year and that seems to keep it running smooth. When I’m traveling or away from home I just use the Evernote app to take a photo of the document instead of scanning it. The ScanSnap scans are nicer, but the Evernote app does the job in a pinch.


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