Going Paperless

One year ago I came to work for a company where the entire development team is 100% “remote”; we’re spread over 3 time zones and each of us works from home. This seems to be an increasingly popular way for people to work and there are many articles and blog posts out there enumerating the advantages and disadvantages of working this way. I had read a lot about telecommuting before accepting this job and felt as if I had a pretty decent idea of what I was getting into, but I’ve encountered a few things over the past year that I did not expect. Among the most surprising by-products of working from home for me has been a dramatic reduction in the amount of paper that I use on a weekly basis.

Hoarding In The Workplace

office_space_red_staplerPrior to my current telecommute job I worked in what most would consider pretty traditional office environments. I sat in cubicles furnished with an enormous plastic(ish) modular desks, had a mediocre (at best) PC workstation, and had ready access to a seemingly endless supply of legal pads, pens, staplers and paper clips. The ready access to paper, countless conference room meetings, and abundance of available surface area on my desk and in drawers created a perfect storm for wasting paper. I brought a pad of paper with me to every meeting I ever attended, scrawled some brief notes, and then tore that sheet off to keep next to my keyboard to follow up on any needed action items. Once my immediate need for the notes was fulfilled, that sheet would get shuffled off into a corner of my desk or filed away in a drawer “just in case”. I would guess that for all of the notes that I ever filed away, I might have actually had to dig up and refer to 2% of them (and that’s probably being very generous). That said, on those rare occasions that I did have to dig something up from old notes, it was usually pretty important and I ended up being very glad that I saved them. It was only when I would leave a job or move desks that I would finally gather all those notes together and take them to shredding bin to be disposed of. When I left my last job the amount of paper I had accumulated over my three years there was absurd, and I knew coworkers who had substance-abuse caliber paper wasting addictions that made my bad habit look like nail-biting in comparison.

A Product Of My Environment

conference roomI always hated using all of this paper, but simply couldn’t bring myself to stop. It would look bad if I showed up to an important conference room meeting without a pad of paper. What if someone said something profound! Plus, everyone else always brought paper with them. If you saw someone walking down the hallway with a pad of paper in hand you knew they must be on their way to a conference room meeting. Some people even had fancy looking portfolio notebook sheaths that gave their legal pads all the prestige of a briefcase. No one ever worried about running out of fresh paper because there was an endless supply, and there certainly was no shortage of places to store and file used paper. In short, the traditional office was setup for using tons and tons of paper; it’s baked into the culture there. For that reason, it didn’t take long for me to kick the paper habit once I started working from home.

In my home office, desk and drawer space are at a premium. I don’t have the budget (or the tolerance) for huge modular office furniture in my spare bedroom. I also no longer have access to a bottomless pit of office supplies stock piled in cabinets and closets. If I want to use some paper, I have to go out and buy it. Finally (and most importantly), all of the meetings that I have to attend these days are “virtual”. We use instant messaging, VOIP, video conferencing, and e-mail to communicate with each other. All I need to take notes during a meeting is my computer, which I happen to be sitting right in front of all day. I don’t have any hard numbers for this, but my gut feeling is that I actually take a lot more notes now than I ever did when I worked in an office. The big difference is I don’t have to use any paper to do so. This makes it far easier to keep important information safe and organized.

The Right Tool For The Job

When I first started working from home I tried to find a single application that would fill the gap left by the pen and paper that I always had at my desk when I worked in an office. Well, there are no silver bullets and I’ve evolved my approach over time to try and find the best tool for the job at hand. Here’s a quick summary of how I take notes and keep everything organized.

  • Notepad++ This is the first application I turn to when I feel like there’s some bit of information that I need to write down and save. I use Launchy, so opening Notepad++ and creating a new file only takes a few keystrokes. If I find that the information I’m trying to get down requires a more sophisticated application I escalate as needed.
  • The Desktop – By default, I save every file or other bit of information to the desktop. Anyone who has ever had to fix their parents computer before knows that this is a dangerous game (any file my mother has ever worked on is saved directly to the desktop and rarely moves anywhere else). I agree that storing things on the desktop isn’t a great long term approach to keeping organized, which is why I treat my desktop a bit like my e-mail inbox. I strive to keep both empty (or as close to empty as I possibly can). If something is on my desktop, it means that it’s something relevant to a task or project that I’m currently working on. About once a week I take things that I’m not longer working on and put them into my ‘Notes’ folder.
  • The ‘Notes’ Folder – As I work on a task, I tend to accumulate multiple files associated with that task. For example, I might have a bit of SQL that I’m working on to gather data for a new report, a quick C# method that I came up with but am not yet ready to commit to source control, a bulleted list of to-do items in a .txt file, etc. If the desktop starts to get too cluttered, I create a new sub-folder in my ‘Notes’ folder. Each sub-folder’s name is the current date followed by a brief description of the task or project. Then all files related to that task or project go into that sub folder. By using the date as the first part of the folder name, these folders are automatically sorted in reverse chronological order. This means that things I worked on recently will generally be near the top of the list. Using the built-in Windows search functionality I now have a pretty quick and easy way to try and find something that I worked on a week ago or six months ago.
  • Dropbox – Dropbox is a free service that lets you store up to 2GB of files “in the cloud” and have those files synced to all of the different computers that you use. My ‘Notes’ folder lives in Dropbox, meaning that it’s contents are constantly backed up and are always available to me regardless of which computer I’m using. They also have a pretty decent iPhone application that lets you browse and view all of the files that you have stored there. The free 2GB edition is probably enough for just storing notes, but I also pay $99/year for the 50GB storage upgrade and keep all of my music, e-books, pictures, and documents in Dropbox. It’s a fantastic service and I highly recommend it.
  • Evernote – I use Evernote mostly to organize information that I access on a fairly regular basis. For example, my Evernote account has a running grocery shopping list, recipes that my wife and I use a lot, and contact information for people I contact infrequently enough that I don’t want to keep them in my phone. I know some people that keep nearly everything in Evernote, but there’s something about it that I find a bit clunky, so I tend to use it sparingly.
  • Google Tasks – One of my biggest paper wasting habits was keeping a running task-list next to my computer at work. Every morning I would sit down, look at my task list, cross off what was done and add new tasks that I thought of during my morning commute. This usually resulted in having to re-copy the task list onto a fresh sheet of paper when I was done. I still keep a running task list at my desk, but I’ve started using Google Tasks instead. This is a dead-simple web-based application for quickly adding, deleting, and organizing tasks in a simple checklist style. You can quickly move tasks up and down on the list (which I use for prioritizing), and even create sub-tasks for breaking down larger tasks into smaller pieces.
  • Balsamiq Mockups – This is a simple and lightweight tool for creating drawings of user interfaces. It’s great for sketching out a new feature, brainstorm the layout of a interface, or even draw up a quick sequence diagram. I’m terrible at drawing, so Balsamiq Mockups not only lets me create sketches that other people can actually understand, but it’s also handy because you can upload a sketch to a common location for other team members to access.

I can honestly say that using these tools (and having limited resources at home) have lead me to cut my paper usage down to virtually none. If I ever were to return to a traditional office workplace (hopefully never!) I’d try to employ as many of these applications and techniques as I could to keep paper usage low. I feel far less cluttered and far better organized now.