The Paperless Puzzle

A few months ago I was given a Doxie Go scanner. I’ve been using it semi-regularly to scan in certain documents and receipts that I want digitized.

At my fingertips were all the tools I needed to set up a clever and usable workflow for a “paperless office,” but it was like having all the pieces to the puzzle without a picture of what the overall end product should look like. I knew that a scanner, an image-to-PDF converter, an OCR app, and some clever folder hierarchy was all necessary, but it all seemed like more trouble than it was worth. Therefore, the majority of the paper documents that came through my home office still get filed away in my physical filing cabinet.

It wasn’t until recently when a comment from David Sparks got me re-motivated to research a better and more consistent way. I had bought David’s ebook, Paperless, back when it first came out in July and I’d read through the first half. But I never made it through to the end which is where he lays out how he actually uses all his tools for his own paperless office. About a month ago I sat down and finished the rest of the book, and upon reading how David actually does things, it all finally clicked for me and I had a clear picture of how to put the puzzle pieces together.

After finishing the book, I spent the better part of my Sunday creating a folder structure on my Mac that mirrored my physical filing cabinet, setting up a few dozen rules in Hazel, and scanning important personal documents as well as all my tax-related documents for this current fiscal year.

Below is an outline of what I’ve set up in hopes that it gives you an idea of how you too can set something like this up. I’m assuming you’re nerdy enough to recognize the tools you may need and you’re clever enough to know how to use them.

  • QuickShot iPhone App: I use this iPhone app for saving all my business-related tax-deductible receipts into a folder on my Mac. Since I use my bank statements to manage and balance my books, the receipts themselves only need to stick around in case I get audited or confused about a particular charge.

QuickShot takes a picture and then uploads it to a Dropbox folder of your choosing. I use it to snap a picture of a receipt which then gets saved into my Receipts folder. I can then toss the physical receipt.

Any and all digital receipts I get via email also get saved as PDFs into this same Receipts folder.

For a Paperless Office the Doxie Go has a few downsides: it can only scan one page at a time, it doesn’t scan duplex, and it’s not super fast. For me, this hasn’t been a deal breaker because I’m only dealing with about a dozen documents a week. It takes me just a few minutes to scan them in.

If I was dealing with a multitude of pages on a regular basis, or if I get motivated enough to convert years worth of past documents, then David Sparks recommends the NeatDesk scanner which can handle 50 pages at once, does duplex scanning, and scans documents much quicker than the Doxie Go. (Of course, on the other hand, the NeatDesk is about twice the price of a Doxie Go.)

  • Doxie Software: The document importing software that comes with the Doxie Go has proven to be fantastic. Once I’ve scan my documents I import them to my Mac using the Doxie application.

Once imported, I can “staple” multiple scans into a single PDF file (for documents that have front and back sides, and/or are multiple pages), and then save all the scans to my Mac. I use the “Export as B&W PDF with OCR” option — this saves my scans as black and white PDFs with optical character recognition.

Saving the scans as black and white is an easy way to greatly reduce the file size, and I’ve found Doxie’s OCR to be great. All in all I’m very happy with the quality, file size, and searchability of a document once it’s traversed the path from its original physical state to its new digital state.

  • Hazel: This was the missing piece for me and this is where the magic happens.

I save all the PDFs from the Doxie into an “Incoming Scans” folder. Against this folder I have about two dozen Hazel rules watching for specific types of documents. These are documents that I commonly deal with, such as:

  • Gas, water, electric, and internet utility bills.
  • Health insurance notices of benefits received.
  • Tax deductible receipts from certain organizations we support regularly.
  • Auto and home insurance statements.
  • Financial statements.
  • Property tax receipts.
  • Etc.

What I realized was that each of the above types of documents could easily be identified by my unique account number with each company. And so I set up rules in Hazel to look at the contents of a document, and depending on which criteria that document matches Hazel renames the PDF accordingly and then files it into the proper folder on my Mac.

For example: if the contents of a document contain the words “Gas” and the numbers “555555” then Hazel renames the document to “Gas Utility Bill – 2012-09” and moves it to my “Utility Bills” folder.

Hazel Rules for Gas Utility Bill

To sum up, once I’ve scanned in all my paper documents, I simply save them to my computer and then Hazel takes care of the rest.
For the few documents that don’t match any pre-defined criteria, or for which the OCR wasn’t properly rendered, they simply are left in the “Incoming Scans” folder and I can manually deal with them. I then shred what I don’t need, or if it’s a physical document that’s important to have a physical copy of, I file it away.

This new process makes it far easier to file away documents than my previous way. It’s now a task which can be done almost mindlessly instead of having to remember where each type of document goes in my physical filing cabinet, looking for that file folder, and then stuffing the sheet of paper in.

I wish I would have taken the time to set this up a long time ago. But better late than never. Needless to say, I highly recommend paperlessness.

The Paperless Puzzle

Matt Drance on why the iPhone doesn’t have NFC and why Apple is all about iterating and solving real-world problems that most people face:

It’s not the technology that matters — it’s the utility that the technology provides.

This is very much in line with what I wrote in my iOS 6 and Every-Day Life article:

The mobile phone industry has is no shortage of impressive, whizbang features which sound great and make fun ads but which rarely get used by real people in their day-to-day lives.

The niceties shipping as part if iOS 6 are great because they’re the sorts of little things that will play big, unsung roles in our everyday lives.

See also: Feature checklist dysfunction.

Technology vs. Utility

Apple’s Weather app. (Coincidence that Dark Sky is also a weather app?)

For one, the newer layout for the taller screen is a superior layout to that which is on all previous iPhones. Secondly, the intricate artwork that depicts the current weather conditions looks even better on the new iPhone’s more saturated display. This app has become one of the nicest-looking corners of iOS 6.

Another Great Example of an App Taking Advantage of the iPhone 5’s Taller Screen

Dan Moren:

So, instead of just bellyaching over Maps’s shortcomings, how can you help improve the quality of information? Easy: Report problems to Apple as you encounter them. It only takes a little longer than composing a 140-character complaint, and it’s an investment in a better Maps in the future.

For my own home town I rarely use maps. And in my light usage of the iOS 6 maps app over the past few months I didn’t notice any shortcomings in its data. However, while in Dallas last week, the Maps app couldn’t find my hotel. In fact, it couldn’t even find the address of the hotel. I had to call them and get directions over the phone (gasp!).

I’ve since reported the missing location via the Maps app and will continue to report problems I come across.

How to Report Problems in iOS 6’S Maps

Ben Johnson’s got a nice little overview of some of the more clever animations found in some iPhone apps. These little touches are exactly the sort of thing that make iOS so great. I’ve always thought Tweetbot (and Convertbot, especially) are prime examples of apps that add fun little animations to take things over the top.

And though it’s rarely mentioned, I think sound effects can also be a key component of a highly-polished app. Of course not everyone has the sound up on their iPhone.

(Via Jeremy Olson.)

Animations in iOS Apps

Here’s one more Circles-related link. Something I got to see first-hand during the weekend was a new web service called Tagboard. My long-time and good friend Sean Sperte is one of the co-founders and was at Circles Conference, so I asked him to give me the run down of what exactly Tagboard is all about.

In short, Tagboard does live, real-time searches of hashtags across social networks. (Currently Twitter, Instagram,, and Facebook with Flickr and others in the pipe.)

During the conference all the tweets and ‘grams posted using the #Circles2012 tag were aggregated in realtime on this Tagboard search page.

What Glassboard is for group communication during special events, Tagboard looks to be for event-centric conversations. I know Sean and his co-workers have more in mind than this, but for me I see Tagboard as a great app for things like family reunions, friend get-togethers, conferences, and the like. Because not only does it collect all the activity happening across multiple social networks, but then it’s there for archival purposes if you want to go back to it and archive or save some of the links, quotes, pictures, etc. All you have to do is get everyone to agree upon a common hashtag and Tagboard does the rest.


Circles Conference

This past weekend I was in Dallas for Circles Conference. It was a fantastic event filled with equally fantastic speakers. Of course, the highlight for me was the time spent in-between the sessions spending time with the other attendees. (Isn’t that the highlight of all events like this?)

The biggest personal takeaway for me was something Noah Stokes said. Talking about his design shop, Bold, he said that 20 years from now he wants to be working on his company, not in it.

That rings true for me too. In 20 years I don’t expect that writing will still be my full-time gig. But I love the tech and design community, and I love contributing to this space.

In the average 9-5, climbing up the corporate ladder is already laid out. Showing up and doing good work will often lead you to the next step in your job because the company has already laid out what progress and promotions look like.

However, for those of us who run our own businesses (or have aspirations to) there isn’t necessarily a “career path” to follow. Not only is the destination something we have to define for ourselves, so too is the path to get there. Maybe success looks like sustaining the work we are doing today, but maybe it looks like something different.

And so, on my flight back from Dallas I found myself pondering what decisions I need to make and what steps I need take now that will begin leading me to the place I want to be in 20 years.

Circles Conference