Free Yourself from the Paper Trap

Computers were supposed to free us from the paper pile-up. Instead, we print out more than ever, generating huge stacks of files and investing record amounts of money to store our paper. We buy paper, file folders, labels, and file cabinets; and still the paper stacks overwhelm us. Home organizing is big business, and TV shows showing you how to clean up your act abound. But you can free yourself from the paper trap by using your computer to get organized.

Let your computer be your filing cabinet. Larger hard drives, cheaper scanners, and digital cameras give you the tools you need to convert your paper messes into digital order. Take a look at the piles on your desk and the overstuffed filing cabinet. You probably have financial documents, letters, hobby papers, magazines, old college research papers, and the like. Most of these can be converted to digital files, leaving you with more physical space in your home.

You can scan copies of bills, social security statements, bank statements, check stubs, old tax returns, magazine articles, letters, children’s artwork, equipment manuals; in short, anything on paper.

Don’t stop there! Once you have your paper files scanned into the computer, get rid of them. But don’t toss them into the trashcan and make yourself vulnerable to identity thieves; shred them instead. Paper shredders are available at all price points at office supply stores. Then put the shredded paper outside in your compost pile.

Stop using scraps of paper to write notes: Windows Vista comes with a notepad right on the desktop. It looks like and functions like sticky notes. Or buy yourself a small notebook to keep at your desktop and use it to jot down notes and catch all the pieces of paper that enter your life.

A great way to unstuff your files and your mailbox at the same time is to sign up for paperless billing with your utility companies and paperless statements with your bank and investment companies. A notice that your statement is ready will be delivered to your email inbox. Then you access the company’s website and download your data to your hard drive.

Sort your files into folders on your computer. Make folders for Finances, Photos, Children, Genealogy, Current Projects, or whatever fits your circumstance. Then make subfolders in each with subcategories like Quicken Files, Bank Statements, Utility Statements, Home Inventory, etc. Don’t be too specific or too general – you want to have a reasonable number of files in each folder.

Make use of those boxes of photos you have saved up over the years by scanning them and putting them on your computer. Once digitized, you can create personalized greeting cards, calendars, or memory books at sites like Shutterfly, Snapfish, My Publisher, or Kodak Gallery. Then use your hard copy photos for scrapbooking or simply throw them away. Save your negatives, however, and store them in a cool, dry location away from photographs. And never toss out old family photos – these should be scanned and the originals kept in archival sleeves and boxes. Too many photos to scan? Use an online service like or If you still regularly use print film, ask your photo developer to give you a disk of your photos as well as your hard copy prints.

Organize your photos on your computer using software like Adobe Photoshop Album Starter – it’s free. ( If you are comfortable with databases, you can use Microsoft Access or another database software system to organize and retrieve photos. Your scanner or camera may come with software, as well.

Sort your photos into folders by subject and date. Organize new digital photos by the date taken: 2008-03-24-a, 2008-03-24-b, and so on, and place them into subject folders like Pets, Vacations, Family, etc. Name your files by date in this format: 2008-03-31. This way they will be easy to find and will be arranged in chronological order, which is usually the way by which you want to retrieve them.

Now that you have worked so hard to digitize your paper files, be sure to keep them safe. Back them up manually onto CD’s, DVD’s or other media, and keep a copy in a safety deposit box, at the office, or at a friend’s house. You can also buy one of the new media hubs. These are external hard drives which store your music, photos, and video files. Or you can back up files online using any number of online backup packages. Two good ones are (especially useful for file sharing) and The latter is inexpensive, safe, easy, and best of all, it’s automatic. Once set up, it completes backups on a regular schedule.

Be sure to protect your valuable files from viruses and hackers. Activate your computer’s firewall and install and run virus software. Hint: if you use Comcast for Internet access, you are eligible for free virus scan software from McAfee ( Download the free Spybot from to search for spyware on your computer and remove it.

Now that you are organized, change your habits! Think twice before using reams of paper to print articles and other info from the web. Instead, use a PDF utility to capture text from any website. One that is free and easy to use is Cute PDF Writer at Be on the lookout for other ways to cut down on paper.

Getting yourself out of the paper trap will take time and effort, but once your systems are set up, you will reap the benefits of more space in your filing cabinet and a cleaner, neater desktop.

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