The “paperless office” we were promised never seems to arrive for many people. The reality, however, is that a paperless office is here today if you want to take advantage of it.

If you’re still someone who prints emails, web pages, and other documents, you can stop now. There are better ways to keep track of your information and access it more quickly — you can’t search for words on physical pieces of paper, after all.

The Case Against Printing

Printing is costly and inconvenient, requiring often-expensive ink cartridges, printer paper, and new printers when that cheap inkjet printer inevitably fails. All that paper becomes clutter that must be properly organized, or you’ll never be able to find what you’re looking for. You can’t access it when you’re away from your office, you can’t search across it, and you only have one copy so you’re in trouble if anything ever happens to it.

Printing was necessary when computers were heavy bricks that sat attached to desks. We now walk around with computers in our pockets, tablets that can approximate the size of a piece of paper, and cloud services that can back up and sync all your documents across all your devices. You can search for documents you’ve saved by the words they contain so you don’t have to set up and master a complicated filing system.

How Not to Print

We geeks may have stopped printing long ago, but there are many people out there who still print emails and web pages regularly. We’ll try to offer some tips to guide you away from the printer and into a new way of saving and organizing information that makes sense.

  • Create a Digital File Cabinet: First, you’ll want to decide where you’ll save things instead of printing them. It helps to have one consistent location where you save everything. We’d recommend some sort of cloud service that syncs across all your devices so you can access them on smartphones and tablets as well as your PC. Many people use Evernote as their archive for all their notes and documents, but you could also opt to save to a cloud storage service like DropboxGoogle Drive, or Microsoft OneDrive. If you really prefer local storage, you could save your files to a single folder on your PC — but be sure to back it up. This will be less convenient as you’ll have to manually copy files to your other devices if you want to view them elsewhere.
  • Print to PDF: Anything you might want to print — whether it’s a receipt, document, email, or web page — can be printed to a PDF file. First, you’ll need to install a PDF printer on your Windows computer. You can then go through the printing process as normal, selecting the virtual PDF printer. You’ll get a file that you can store in something like Evernote or Dropbox.

  • Printing Emails: Emails can be printed to PDF in the same way. You could also try starring them (if you use Gmail) or adding them to a special folder or label where you can refer to them later. You can access these emails later from any device with an email client — no need for printing.
  • Printing Web Pages: If you print web pages to refer to later, you can print them to PDF instead. You could also bookmark them to view them later (your bookmarks can sync across all your devices). If you want to read the web page later, use a service like Pocket or Instapaper to create a list of stuff you want to read. Services like these take a web page, convert it to a readable, text-only article, and even store it offline on mobile devices so you can read the web page later without having to print.
  • Printing Maps: You shouldn’t have to print maps if you have a smartphone with GPS. If you’re using Google Maps, you can sign into the Google Maps app and view a list of searches you’ve made on the Google Maps website on your PC. You could also just print the map to PDF, of course.
  • Faxing Documents: Some calcified old businesses still demand faxes. You can use a service like HelloFax to send faxes over the web. HelloFax offers five free faxes per month — this should be more than enough for home users that only occasionally need to fax a business.
  • When Someone Insists on Printed Documents: Sadly, some organizations still insist on printed documents. There’s just no getting around this. If they won’t take a PDF by email, you may have to print.
  • What to Do With Your Old Paper Documents: It’s easier to start going forward in a paperless way instead of deciding to methodically convert all your old paper documents to digital versions — that can be a lot of work. Nevertheless, you can scan your old documents to PDF files with a scanner.

Using Your Digital Files

Your digital workspace now has a number of advantages that paper doesn’t have:

  • Backup: Your files are backed up if you’ve stored them with a service like Evernote, Dropbox, Google Drive, or SkyDrive. If your house burns down, you won’t lose your important documents.
  • Search: You can easily search across all your electronic documents to find the documents you need without sifting through mountains of paper. Evernote, Dropbox, Google Drive, SkyDrive, even Windows — they all have full-text search features.
  • Access Everywhere: Your papers can be accessed anywhere you are from a PC, smartphone, or tablet. If you’re out and need to look something up, you can do it from your smartphone rather than going home and digging through your papers.
  • No Clutter: You don’t have to worry about storing, organizing, making space for, and decluttering your documents.
  • No Printing Costs: If you don’t need to buy expensive ink, cheap printers, and piles of printer paper, you’ll save money.

Of course, some documents may be too sensitive to be stored online. In situations like this, you can always use encryption — create an encrypted container and store it in a service like Dropbox, Google Drive, or SkyDrive. People will need the password before they can access your documents.

Image Credit: Sarah Kolb-Williams on Flickr, cellanr on Flickr, jeremyfoo on Flickr

Profile Photo for Chris Hoffman Chris Hoffman
Chris Hoffman is Editor-in-Chief of How-To Geek. He's written about technology for over a decade and was a PCWorld columnist for two years. Chris has written for The New York Times and Reader's Digest, been interviewed as a technology expert on TV stations like Miami's NBC 6, and had his work covered by news outlets like the BBC. Since 2011, Chris has written over 2,000 articles that have been read more than one billion times---and that's just here at How-To Geek.
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