Knowing your competencies and understanding when to let go.
Most of us have asked at one time or another what we should do with the flood of paperwork that continually arrives in our mailboxes. Decades after the promise of a paperless lifestyle we still find ourselves drowning in dead trees. Even after the junk mail is removed there still remains a weekly pile of important papers all marked “Keep for your records.” One popular option is to stuff all of this printed pulp into a big metal filing cabinet, sometimes in one or more Manila folders, other times in a disorganized and crumpled mess. Other options include various piles distributed across many desks and surfaces or simply short-circuiting the process and just throwing it all away.
After several different starts on an electronic filing cabinet I have finally decided upon Evernote as the system of record for all of our paperwork. In these modern days of the paperless dream, we still find ourselves drowning in dead trees as part of our day to day lives. Even after the junk mail has been removed there remains a pile of paperwork that should be kept every time we check the mail. One option is to stuff it all in Manila folders in a big metal filing cabinet. Another option is to simply shred it or just throw it all away.
Wanting to do a little better, I’ve been scanning all of our paperwork prior to running it through the shredder. I would then take the scanned images and sort them into various folders using a made-up-on-the-fly file naming scheme that provided a weak attempt to index the data. For backup, I would periodically add newly scanned paperwork into an encrypted volume ready for BackBlaze to send to the cloud. This system was paperless, but not great. It contained too many manual steps for indexing, encryption, and offsite storage, and was almost as troublesome to search as its metal filing cabinet predecessor.
That’s where Evernote enters the picture. Their core competency is secure data storage, indexing, and retrieval. That’s what these guys do, day in day out, from the moment they get to work to the time they leave in the evening. As a result they’ve solved problems that my crude system hasn’t even begun to think of yet. Furthermore, they have security systems that would put many local bank branches to shame. The single most important revelation is that data such as this is actually safer stored in Evernote than it is on my own computer at home. I don’t have a concrete compound wall around my house, closed circuit television cameras, or a security checkpoint. I don’t perform network security reviews, or monitor server access. It’s just a PC sitting in my living room under my desk.
Beyond providing better security, Evernote provides a fantastic indexing system using notebooks for encapsulation, tagging for metadata association, as well as a bunch of other "smart" indexing services such as location tracking and searching text within images. When considering scanned paperwork the latter of those is indispensable. Consider searching for a four year old piece of paperwork by typing words you remember being printed on the page. It’s much easier to type "brake service Toyota" and have your automotive service receipts pulled up in seconds than to perform the equivalent search through a metal filing cabinet and set of Manila folders. In the case of fire, flood, theft, or cat pee, Evernote is again the clear winner.
Evernote follow their own three laws of data protection and while there is always room for paranoia when it comes to sensitive data, I revisit the realization that my information genuinely is safer when stored by Evernote than when at home on my own machine. It’s similar to how money is safer in a bank vault than under a mattress upstairs. I just needed to make the mental transition to being ok with “letting go.”
Now that I have a system in place, I spend a short time twice a week scanning and then shredding the newest paperwork. I tag it in Evernote and it syncs with their servers. I’ve even started taking photographs of all of our receipts with my Android smartphone and uploading those. The beauty of Evernote is the fact that they have dedicated web, desktop, phone, and tablet clients to I can access from a browser, my home PC, my smartphone, and even my iPad. It takes 20 seconds to photograph a receipt, tag it, add a short description and upload it. Now I have all of my receipts indexed, stored, and backed up securely. One of the most useful tags is “tax deductible.” At tax time I can query Evernote for all receipts with that tag and I’m ready to go.