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How I filled two dumpsters and went paperless with the Fujitsu ScanSnap S1500


Posted in Goals, Misc, Personal, Posts, Reviews, Technology by

I just threw away a small dumpster worth of shredded paper, which was the second half on my journey toward going completely paperless. I’m probably as close as I’m ever going to get at this point: all of my paper records consist of a small box of tax records, organized by year, and a very small stack of original documents like passports and birth certificates, which I keep in a safe. I’ll toss the tax records by year once I’ve passed the IRS’s recommended 7-year mark. Organizing, scanning, and shredding all this paper took me the better part of three weekends over the course of this year, but I think it was worth it. In this post, I’ll cover some of my reasoning, methods, and tools that I used through this process.

I should also note that my paperless efforts don’t just stop at recordkeeping; I’ve gotten rid of more than 95% of my books over the last year, replacing the ones I really like with digital versions on my Kindle. My paper books now all fit on one small shelf in my office. Even then, a significant portion of those books are technical books that I need for current projects, and can be disposed of once the projects are complete.

Why go paperless?

Minimalism - I had box after box of paperwork; I rarely throw out documents, and between jobs, freelance work, moving four times in the last five years, and owning multiple real estate properties, the paperwork was really piling up. It feels so good to have an empty closet and office again, instead of having to pick my way through boxes of old paperwork I’ll never look at again (probably!).

Convenience - Organizing and trying to find things in all that paperwork was a huge pain. Additionally, it can only be accessed when I’m at home. What if we’re abroad and someone needs a document that’s only in my office? Finally, there’s the issue of never needing to think about whether I should keep something. I scan and keep everything. Why not? Storage is so cheap it’s ridiculous.

Security - Many people wouldn’t want to convert all their documents to electronic form because of security concerns but I see it just the opposite. A break-in to my house is more plausible to me than a break-in to Amazon’s S3 storage service. Not to mention the fact that there’s only a single copy of most of these paper documents, which could be destroyed by fire, flood, earthquake, etc. It’s actually a lot less risky to have multiple copies on secure servers in different parts of the country.

Isn’t scanning (and shredding) all that a huge pain?

Yes. And no. It’s not fun, but I use an amazing sheet-fed scanner called the Fujitsu ScanSnap S1500M (or S1500 for the PC version). It’s not cheap, but this thing is amazing. It’s very fast, does double-sided scans, detects blank pages, handles different sizes of paper, and creates PDFs that look just like the document you just scanned. But best of all, it very rarely jams. You can put in a stack of 50 pages and push the button and away it goes. Very highly recommended, but don’t just take my word for it; check out all these reviews.

For shredding, I picked up the Fellowes Powershred W-11C Cross-Cut Shredder. Also not super cheap, and pretty noisy (what shredder isn’t), but it’ll chew through a thousand pages in about 10 mins. Very gratifying to watch all your boxes of paper slowly turn into confetti after going through the scanner and then the shredder.

How I keep it all organized

Ok, so I’m scanning thousands of pages and I’m going to need to find things again later, right? So how do I keep all these many thousands of pages organized, grouped, and sorted? I don’t. One of the amazing features of the ScanSnap is that it does very high-quality Optical Character Recognition (OCR) on the documents, converting all the images of text into text that can be indexed and searched by OS X. This feature works amazingly well. For example, here’s me searching for “Marc New York” in a PDF scan of the little care booklet that came with my leather jacket (yes, I scanned this).

jacket-care.png

As you can see, it works very well. This scan probably took less than 5 seconds to run through the ScanSnap and analyze for OCR. And this indexed text is available for Spotlight to search as well, so if I type “Marc New York” into Spotlight, this care booklet PDF pops up, as does the receipt from Macy’s where I bought the jacket. If I want to find my GMAT score report, I type “GMAT” and up pops my official score report from 2005, reproduced perfectly.

This focus on search over filing took some getting used to for me, but it’s been so reliable, I’m feeling good about it. Obviously, I need to know what I’m looking for, so I’ve had the occasion once or twice where I’ve had to search for something more general that’s related, then go through all the results to find what I need. To solve that, I’m keeping all the PDFs in different folders by year. And I also try to group all my scans together into related batches. So I have PDFs for utility bills that have over 100 pages, instead of 100 separate documents for each utility bill. This means that despite scanning many thousands of pages this year, I’ve got less than 500 PDF documents. Still a pain to go through manually, but much better than 10,000 documents. And the reality is that I will never, ever need to refer to 99.9% of this again.

What about backups?

Now that all my documents are safe and sound on my computer, how do I ensure that I don’t lose them? I have a two-pronged approach: Time Machine backups on an external drive, and Dropbox. Time Machine keeps a versioned of my scans folders, so I know I can always recover copies if needed. But that won’t help me if the house burns down, so I also keep all of the scans offsite in Dropbox. The extra bonus here is that I can now access them from my iPhone and iPad from anywhere. Of course, searching them from mobile doesn’t work really, but hey, it’s better than nothing. I may actually setup another form of offsite backup as well, just to be on the safe side. We’re talking less than 10 GBs here, so it’d be pretty cheap. Any recommendations?

What paper I did keep, and why

Pretty much the only things I kept were tax records and important original documents. The original documents are obvious, and the tax records thing is a couple of different factors:

  1. Receipts are actually a bit of a pain to scan, IMO. There’s a carrier sheet for the scanner, but arranging all the receipts is a pain. Much easier to stick in an envelope and be done with it. I have very few receipts for tax stuff anyway.
  2. My tax documents fall across a wide spectrum of types, companies, etc. Since I don’t organize everything into folders when I scan (relying on search instead), there’s no clear way to pull out all the documents related to my 2007 taxes, for example. I’d have to search for all the different types of documents that make up that set. This is the major weakness of the system I have in place, but tax documents are the only clear example that I have of this being an issue. And I solve it just by stashing everything in a small box in my office, which I’ll shred by year as I exceed the minimum length you have to keep such things.

The whole process took longer than I thought, partly because I ended up having a lot more paperwork than I thought I did, and partly because I split it up into several sessions throughout the year. But now that it’s all done, I feel a lot better. If anyone else out there has gone paperless and has tips, please do share them. And if you’re interested in going paperless but haven’t taken the plunge, let me know if you have any questions. It’s a good feeling, and I’m looking forward to keeping my office paper-free from here on out.

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47 Responses to “How I filled two dumpsters and went paperless with the Fujitsu ScanSnap S1500”

  1. Dave says:

    I put my receipts into my account at Certify.com using my iPhone's camera. IRS is cool with picture receipts. Now if I could just do the same with my drivers license I wouldn't need a wallet at all.

  2. Throwing away all those documents you will rarely, if ever, need again is something I would do, too – When I get a scanner that work as fast as the Fujitsu.
    But throwing away your books? I think books are the best things to decorate your walls, remembering you of all those stories when you look at your bookshelf. This excludes outdated technical books of course :)

    • ryanwaggoner says:

      Yeah, I used to feel this way as well, but I keep logs of my books and I can always read those if I want some nostalgia for stuff I've read.

  3. Chad says:

    Does that scanner have a duplex mode (scan both sides)? I have some appliance/consumer electronic devices I would like to scan, and it would be nice if I could get the pages to line up.

  4. @sharc says:

    You have exactly the same workflow as me – scan to DropBox and rely on Spotlight to find documents. However, I don't have a ScanSnap but just an all-in-one printer/scanner from Brother. I tried really hard to find a software for OSX that does exactly what the ScanSnap software seems to do for you (scan and ocr in one step) – but couldn't finde one… Any hints from other commenters?

  5. forsyth says:

    @Chad Yes, it does duplex scanning. In fact, that's default, and it automatically discards the blank side of a leaf if only one side (page) is used. It does automatic orientation, balancing, sizing, and so on. The OCR to detect searchable text to index in PDF is really good as well.

  6. forsyth says:

    I should add that I did something much the same as described in the article. I used the Fujitsu scanner to scan many years' worth of filed research papers, technical reports and data sheets (if they weren't available online), and my notebooks. I downloaded any research papers I still found interesting that were now available online. I put everything on a Kindle DX (with a copy of scanned material saved elsewhere). There are over a thousand PDF files. Now when I travel I needn't spend any time thinking what to take with me, and having to lug them round with me.

    As in the above article, I had to keep tax documents and receipts, because the tax authorities are a little old-fashioned.

    • ryanwaggoner says:

      In the US, the IRS will accept scanned receipts. I just find it's more of a pain than it's worth, since those aren't records I want to keep for any other reason, and I can dump them after a few years.

  7. Ravi says:

    I went through something similar earlier this year – I spent a few weekends going through about 10 years of schoolwork and figuring out what was really important. Now I just need to scan what’s left! (no ScanSnap here, so much more time-consuming unfortunately)

    Also, Dropbox is terrific, but I would recommend also using a true online backup service, like Mozy, Carbonite, or Backblaze for peace of mind. Personally, I am a paid user of Mozy (only about $4/month for unlimited backup), but their Mac app is a little slow and bloated so I’ll probably switch once they actually bill me again (I prepaid for a year and later won another year of free service).

    Regarding receipts – I try to do most purchases online now and save them as a PDF. The Mac’s print dialog window has a menu in the bottom left to ‘Save as PDF’ and one of the options is to directly save the file into the ‘Web Receipts’ folder. Don’t know what I would do without it!

  8. I started this process recently. Cleared out 1/3 of a 5-drawer filing cabinet and a pile of large binders.

    Books are nice and all, but I’d rather have the extra space and not have to dust all those bookshelves.

  9. ryanwaggoner says:

    Glad you enjoyed it!

  10. Healy Jones says:

    Wow, nice job going paperless! I started along the process a couple of years ago, and ended up joining a startup that helped me along the way. I'm now with OfficeDrop – we more focus on businesses vs. individuals, but have a mail-in scanning service for people who don't have time to do their own scanning + desktop software called ScanDrop that connects scanners (and desktops) with our online digital filing system and other popular services like Google Docs and Evernote. Sadly, we don't have a Mac version yet, but would love to have a paperless guru like you try it out when we've got it ready! It's like a search engine, document viewer and organizer all combined into one. Jet me an email if you are interested in being a beta tester on it when we've got it ready!

    Best,
    Healy Jones http://www.officedrop.com

  11. Adrian Bye says:

    ironically i was just buying that same scanner when i saw your article.

    this guy talks about using a stack cutter to cut books – you can cut 200-400 pages at once out of a book so you can run it through the scanner. so i bought one of those too
    http://www.vesco.us/2009/03/technology/scanning-t

  12. ryanwaggoner says:

    Oh nice…yeah, I got rid of all my books pre-scanner. Plus, I like having the books in the native Kindle format, and buying the occasional book for $10 that I want to read again isn't a big deal.

  13. Adrian Bye says:

    i did that a few months ago. but some books i need aren't on the kindle

  14. Joel Esler says:

    I put Receipts into neat receipt software, and everything else into Evernote.

  15. Chris Moylan says:

    Great article. I can't imagine giving up my books though.

  16. nathan t says:

    have you ever tried earth class mail?

  17. marcus says:

    and when you are gone there will be no trace

  18. Alex Muir says:

    Ryan, I owe you a beer. Bought the S1500 and started my scanning. Found £450 in cash stuffed into a folder in my archive box. I've got all my papers archived and I'm £150 in profit.

    • ryanwaggoner says:

      Awesome. That's a great feeling, though I don't think I've ever found that much stashed somewhere that I forgot about.

  19. Dave Pascua says:

    Q1: If you scan 50 sheets at one time, can you then easily separate the scan into separate PDFs?
    Q2: Can you stack different size paper and scan them in one try?
    Q3: Is the OCR operation automatically done, or is that a manual step?

    • ryanwaggoner says:

      1. Yeah, you can do this with Preview on OS X (I think) and the scanner comes with a copy of Acrobat Pro. However, I never do this. Scanning separate 1-3 page documents is faster than scanning them all together and separating them later, imo. Seriously, putting a couple sheets of paper on the scanner and letting it scan and OCR them probably takes about 20-30 seconds, depending on how long the OCR takes. And when I have a ton of related documents (like phone bills or something), I just scan them all together leave in the same PDF.2. Yes.3. Automatic (though you can turn it off if you want). The scanner literally just has 1 button. You can tweak all the compression, naming, destination, etc settings in the software side, but it's designed to be a 1-button operation and it works really well.

  20. [...] documented his reasoning, methods and tools that he used to get him through the process in a recent post. Find out why Ryan suggests everyone take the paperless plunge and get some tips on where to [...]

  21. Nick Hagoort says:

    I scan to to PDF’s in PaperPort with a Xerox Documate 252. Will the ScanSnap scan directly into PaperPort? Or must I use Acrobat to store the scans. Is other software required?

  22. Nick Hagoort says:

    That’s why I asked my question, Greg. PaperPort allows me to insert my WordPerfect file structure into the program. My scanner scans directly into the WP folder in PaperPort. Thus, I can find the PDF’s in WordPerfect as well as in PaperPort. I assume Acrobat does the same but have never used it. So, where does ScanSnap put the scans?

  23. For backups you could also try crashplan. They have this great service that they will send you a hard drive if your first upload is too big. I haven't been in need to really use it, but it feels sane to know that you have a backup on your time machine and on the web.

    • ryanwaggoner says:

      I'm currently using Backblaze and really like it. So now I have dropbox, time machine, and backblaze. I feel safe :)

  24. Babs says:

    Hi,
    Good Article! I use Evernotefor Everything along with the ScanSnap S1300. Now that Evernote has Stacks, I created Notebooks in Stacks related to Business & Personal use. I created a Receipts Notebook and then some individually named places where I do a lot of business. Now, I just scan as I go and send it to the correct place. Just print out the correct notebook for Tax Time. I, scan in the Current Tax Year and toss the year I no longer need. Having a hard time letting go of the BOOKS, though. How do you use the Kindle for books you already own? Would hate to have to buy them over again!

    • ryanwaggoner says:

      I don't re-read books very often. When I do, I just grit my teeth and shell out the $10. It's worth it to me to spend $50 – 100 / year on that to avoid having paper books. Plus, Kindle books are generally cheaper, so I'm saving money overall on a per-book basis. I read a lot more now, so it balances out :)

  25. Susie says:

    Do you have, or plan a Windows version?

  26. jmufdi says:

    Help! I am a scansnap virgin! I just got the s1500 and can make it scan but don't know what to do once I've scanned the stack of papers. They seem to save as one document and I need them to be separate. For instance, there are pay stubs, insurance papers, recipes, etc., and I want to file them individually. Please help!

  27. Skip Pulis says:

    I think going totally paperless is something that may take some time to happen, if at all. However, the aim should be to reduce your 'paper world' to as close to 100% as possible.

    It's getting alot easier nowadays with online services such a Certify.com, Dropbox etc.. and especially because of the fact that more and more institutions, businesses etc.. are now accepting digital copies of original documents.

    Being able to touch phisical paper is something that a lot of peope still feel comfortable with but in the next few years this will soon be something of a 'luxury' rather than a necesity in my view. Bring on the future.

  28. larzze says:

    Publishing papers and E-book need PDF Burger to convert Word processor files into compressed file which take less time and space.

  29. ahzatsa10 says:

    go green with paperless. beside that digital product increase significantly. Amazon launch their all New Kindle Fire HDX 7 inch Tablet and New Kindle Fire HDX 8.9 inch Tablet

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