my digital filing system

Several years ago I took the advice of some friends and purchased a Fujitsu SnapScan scanner. It's pricy, but it's awesome and it includes a full copy of Adobe Acrobat which accounts for at least half of the price. It was enough to push me over the edge into a paperless life and keep it that way. I love the machine and have never regretted the purchase.

My system isn't complicated and really doesn't even warrant a detailed explaination. I scanned all paper as PDF's into my dropbox account and shredded the paper. I do keep a box where I throw the paper that I think I might need, but I have a fixed one year expiration on that. The week after Christmas I have a ritual where I shred everything that box that's more than a month old. I'm pretty stingy about what goes in that box, but there are things (such as reimbursement checks from my HSA account) that's just easier to keep the hard copy for a while in the off chance something derails.

That's about it - buy the scanner and gradually pay down your paper debt (a stack per day is what I did) and within a few months you house should be much lighter.

One thing that does deserve some explaination is the physical filing system in the digital world. At first I was taking the time to individually scan each document, name it, and throw it into a meaningful folder. That took a lot of time and effort, and I quickly realized it wasn't yielding much of any value. For me, I'm rarely using this information. I just need to keep it in case I need it. I do use it from time to time and it's all worth keeping, but a search-to-find model is a much more efficient approach that ritualistically categoring things as it comes in. So, here's what I do now:

This is what my dropbox looks like:


Scanned is where everything goes by default and the name of the PDF is the default timestamp - so something like 201411040842_59.pdf. Everything stays there until I find myself looking for something. I do that by using Windows Search (more on this in a second). When I find what I'm looking for, I then take the time to rename the PDF, and move it into one of the subfolders above (I have subfolders within those that are meaningful to me, but I'm not going to that). So, I defer the cost of categorizing things to things that I know will pay off. When I look for something once, there's a good chance I'll look for it again. Those things are the things that warrant the effort of categorizing, but again... I only do it for the things I've looking for once. Why not just always search? Well, searching is slower because I often have to sort through a few hits and some times knowing what terms to use to find what I'm looking for isn't extactly trivial. I only want to pay that price once.

The other thing to think about is Windows Search Indexing. I'm running all of this on Windows and have the built in search enabled. By default, with PDF's all you are going to get in search capabilities on the file names. It's not going to index the contents of your PDF's. For me, that's simply not good enough. When I'm looking for something, often the term I have to work with is simply an account number or order number. And, I typically scan things in bunches, so a single PDF (again with a near meaningless timestamped file name) has many documents within. I need Windows Search to Index the text within. To do that, you must first instruct the SnapScan to enable OCR and convert to a searchable PDF:

It will righly warn you that this will result in longer scan times. That's fine - it's still a massive overall workflow efficiency improvement. Next, you'll need to instruct Windows Search to search the contents of your files. I do this at the Dropbox folder level. Navigate to your Dropbox folder and click the "Organize" button -> "Folder and search options" then click the Search tab. You'll then want to check the "Always search file names and contents" option:

Lastly, you have to tell Windows how to search PDF's. By default, it doesn't know how to do that. You can specify how to do this on a file type by file type basis. Go to Start -> Indexing Options -> Advanced -> File Types tab:

Notice Windows is telling you that there is no iFilter registered for PDF. In other words, it's not going to do anything with these. To remedy this, you need to install the iFilter from Adobe. After this is installed, that same dialog will look like this:

Now, you should be ready to roll.

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