A guide to adopting a system of paperless notes

Being organised is like dieting.

In this article, I'm going to share some tips about going paperless for your notes at work, but first, I have to tell you why being organised is like dieting.

To lose weight, all you have to do is consume fewer calories than you expend. Simple enough, right? Fat chance! Anyone who has tried to lose weight or struggled to maintain weight knows that success has almost nothing whatsoever to do with calorie calculations, and everything to do with the hundreds of choices you make each day. It's a psychological challenge as much as a physical one. Do you eat one more bite or not? Do you eat two more bites? Should you rest now so that you can work out longer later? Does your coffee need real sugar, artificial sweetener, or nothing? Cumulatively, it's the answers and resulting actions to all these tiny choices that tip the scale.

A diet is nothing more than a set of rules to help you make choices, but you must follow those rules and act on them a certain percentage of the time for it to work.

You have to look to the rules for answers, decision-by-decision, day after day, until there are enough of them on the right side of the equation to get you to your goal. If you don't follow the diet and exercise plan to a tee, you can very well still succeed. Eating one cookie won't prevent your success, you just have to outnumber the cookie on the one side with the decisions that are in your favour on the other.

You don't have to counteract the effects of one cookie so much as you have to balance total goal-oriented actions against total contrary actions. The toughest part is designing the right rules so that they 1) help you reach your goal and, crucially, 2) are ones that you can actually live by, decision-by-decision. The rules need to be tailored to you so that you actually follow them often enough.

So what does dieting have to do with organisation and ditching paper?

The Rules

To adopt a paperless lifestyle, you need rules. The rules are everything. If you pick the wrong rules for you or ambitiously try to implement too many rules, you'll set yourself up for failure.

Here are some suggestions for rules – or more accurately, suggestions for how to craft the right rules for you – to help you go paperless with your office notes.

1. Go paperless for what?

Do not try to quit paper cold turkey. Pick one specific area where you will give up paper notes. At the office, narrow down your paperless note-taking to comprise only meeting notes, or only meeting notes for a certain project. Another idea would be to only tackle your in-office to-do list. In part, this rule serves to make your first paperless effort a trial. Before you can quit paper in all areas of your working life, you need to see what works and what doesn't. When you start to see what isn't working, you'll be able to troubleshoot it more effectively if the problems are only affecting one slice of your professional life.

Rule Number 1: "I will go paperless in/for …" and fill in the blank.

2. What will you record and when?

What notes will you record? If you were naming a file with your future notes, what would you name it? Think it through. It's as important to know what you'll be recording as the area in which these things could be categorised.

Let's say the area is in-office meeting notes. Will you record the applicable highlights from people's presentations and whiteboards? Will you make notes for follow-up actions? Are your notes about the people in the room and what they do? Be specific. Remember, these rules are designed to help you succeed.

Whatever it is you decide to record, you are making a promise to take digital notes about that thing. I recommend recording on the spot because you do not want to transcribe from paper later, as that's different from going paperless. In some cases, recording on the spot isn't feasible, so specify in your rules when you will create the record.

Rule Number 2: "When X happens, I will always make the digital note."

3. What tool will you use?

A huge point of failure when people try to go paperless is that they don't decide on one tool. They try out different mobile apps, software programs, web-based systems, and file-syncing services, and end up with notes about one subject spread out in too many places.

That doesn't work. Pick one tool, and stick to it. It must be a tool that you like and that is effective for the job at hand. Remember that we have rule number one in place in order to make this system a trial. You'll try out the one tool, dedicate yourself to using it and none other, and then see if it works for this job. There are many tools that cannot be properly assessed until you've used them for a month at least.

Regarding recommendations for tools, we’d point you in the direction of OneNote, Evernote (pictured above), Awesome Note +To-do, and Google Drive (the latter is great for real-time collaboration). By all means, cast your net wider than this, though – you should try out a tool that you feel comfortable using and that you think will solve the task at hand.

Whatever you choose, pick one and only one. Also note that your “tool” should not be your email inbox (also see our article on 5 good reasons why you shouldn’t use your email inbox as a to-do list). If you have a notes app within your email system, fine – but your inbox is full of other things. You want your notes to be isolated and all in one place.

Rule Number 3: "I will only use tool Y for the notes."

4. What will you do with your notes? How will you act on them?

What is the purpose of your notes? If you don't know, there's no reason to be keeping them. Some notes serve as to-do lists. Other notes are meant for tracking purposes. Decide on the purpose of your notes, then ask yourself how you will act on them. You need a rule that dictates when and how you will refer to these notes you're keeping. Will you review them throughout the day? During meetings? While you're commuting on the bus or train before or after work? If it's a to-do list, will you tick off the done items as they happen or at the end of a day or week? Define this time concretely; even if the answer is "throughout the day," does that mean every day or weekdays only?

Rule Number 4: "My notes will be referred to or acted on…" and fill in the blank with a time specification.

5. How will you correct slip-ups?

No one expects that you will follow your rules perfectly. Remember my earlier comparison of weight loss and organisation? The trick to both is not following the rules absolutely, but following them enough. You have two sides of a ledger – rules followed and rules broken. You can break the rules sometimes, but you have to follow the rules more often. And when you break the rules too many times, you need a way to counteract the effects. In other words, you need a rule to correct your own slip-ups.

Let's say you're in a big meeting, ready to take notes, and realise you forgot your note-taking tool and left it at home or on your desk. You grab a sheet of paper from someone's A4 pad and get through the old fashioned way. Will you have time later to transcribe the notes to the paperless system? Or could that time be better spent acting on the notes? You might have to let it go. On the other hand, if you're the kind of person who easily falls off the wagon, it might be in your long-term best interests to stick to the paperless system and take the time to transfer the notes to the digital medium.

In most cases, you'll deal with slip-ups on a case-by-case basis, but even then, you need to know what your options are. So make this final rule to define your options. You know yourself better than anyone else, so if it makes sense for you and your personality, you might also add in some parameters regarding when you'll make the correction.

Rule Number 5: "When I break a rule, my options for getting back on track are A, B, and C."

Advantages of going paperless

I'm a big fan of paperless notes, as long as the right tool is being used for the job. The worst way to adopt a paperless note-taking system is to just blindly start using some app without considering the purpose. The best way is to think through what you intend to do and define some rules for when and how to do it.

Paperless note tools have many advantages over a paper-based system, including search functions, time and date stamping, calendaring abilities, archiving changes, collaboration and sharing options, and many more. There are plenty of reasons to go paperless with your notes, but when you do, give yourself the best chance of a successful transition by setting some rules that are sensible for you and your way of working.

One final point: You might also want to check out our article on the best free note-taking and outliner apps.

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