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15 Steps to a Paperlight Workspace

What happens when I say the word, “Paperless”? Enter images that feel like sci-fi. Holographic voice-mails and clear tablets laced with sans serif instructional text. The brain knows to overshoot. Knows the fully paperless office is a long way off yet. For the foreseeable future, we’ll always have business cards to hang onto, brochures to hand out, and receipts to submit. Post-its aren’t going anywhere, and those meeting agendas sure are tough to give up.

15 Steps to a Paperlight Workspace
Image credit: Bigstockphotos

But we have to draw the line somewhere. You’ve probably heard tell that global paper consumption is up — in the last 30 years — by half. Simply put, and to quote Gizmodo, “we’re using way more paper than we ever have before.” And that just doesn’t seem right.

That’s where we’re at. Paperless feels absolute and distant; the trajectory we’re on feels stifling and a tad ridiculous. The answer, then, is as obvious as its newfound name is brilliant: let’s try for paperlight.

It’s easier than you think. Here are 15 bite-sized steps to get you off and running toward a more organized, beautiful, and environmentally-friendly workspace.

Steps to a Paperlight Workspace

1. Take an office inventory.

Fire up Google Sheets on your iPad and slap up a few columns as you glance around the room. What types of paper are you hanging onto and where? Jot down that the meeting minutes are in the file cabinet and your expenses are stuffed in your desk drawer. Notice what categories dominate the page and where you could cut back.

2. Decide what’s non-negotiable.

Love your wall of post-its? Keep it! Can’t live without a paper planner? By all means, hold your Moleskine close. When I was little, I just knew that my desk would boast a manila folder or two. So I treat myself to a crisp manila folder from time to time, and you should do the same. This is where you remind yourself that your favorite paper — those leaves of nostalgia you weirdly do care about — aren’t going anywhere.

3. Pick on the paper you hate.

This is where it gets fun. You’re probably going paperlight because you got one too many conference handouts or one more mailbox memo than you could stuff in your desk drawer. You may already have a paper scapegoat in mind, be it the crush of junk mail or the pile of resumes to review. So go ahead and declare war on the paper you love to hate. Then make it your mission to never deal with it again.

4. Digitize the easy way.

It’s nice to start with a clean slate. But if your workplace harbors a backlog of physical files from who-knows-when, it can be near impossible to purge. If this sounds like you, remember this: all you have to do is digitize. Forget the “keep” and “don’t keep” piles, the emails to legal about what can and can’t go. Hire someone trustworthy to devote a few days to scanning the contents of your filing cabinet and digitally replicating their exact existing order and folder structure. Poof! Everything right where you (or whoever had your office in the ‘80s) left it.

5. Chat with colleagues.

No-brainer alert! Sharing your push for paperlight with coworkers can reinforce your decision and help get others on board. But make sure to step away from the soapbox; preaching won’t do you — or your poor officemates — any good.

6. Invest in the right device.

Did your eyes just light up? Yep, I guess I’m advocating a bit of a splurge. But make it a thoughtful one. If you’re always printing out ebooks or reading through PDFs, a Kindle might give your push for paperlight a little leg up. If you’re all about notes, lists, or flipping through sites and slides for reference, an iPad could work wonders. Even a second monitor diffuses the fight for screen space around side-by-side comparisons and the like. Just make sure you purchase with your work routine — not the hot new accessory — in mind.

7. Turn off your printer.

Okay, so the “Office Space” solution isn’t practical. We can’t go around beating up copy machines or even getting rid of them some other, more respectable way. But you can make it just a teensy bit harder than CTRL+P to summon a hard copy. Turn off the printer, take out the paper, or set it up on the second floor. Pick your obstacle and stick with it. It’ll make you think twice before printing, but it won’t send you scrambling for a Kinko’s every time you truly need a printout.

8. Move your paperwork to the cloud.

In case you haven’t caught on yet, the push for paperlight is all about processes. Pick tasks that generate hard copies and tweak them so the files stay soft. The best example of this is your straight up paperwork — think employment agreements, proposals, contracts, NDAs, and the like. If you’re going paperlight, online signing is about to become your best friend. PandaDoc, for one, offers free electronic signatures plus a dashboard to keep your business-critical docs all in one place. You’ll never do that whole print-sign-scan dance again, and that’s a beautiful thing.

9. Love your whiteboards.

If whiteboards aren’t already an office staple for you, all I can say is order one… or seven. Hang them; lean them; keep them by your side. They’ll become your meeting minutes, your to-do lists, your memos to coworkers. They’ll all but eliminate scratch paper without cutting into the magic that happens when you write things out by hand.

10. Keep your phone on you.

When your phone is in your pocket, how often do you find yourself searching for a pen? I’m guessing almost never. When you can type notes, snap a photo, set a reminder, or directly enter contact information, you’re not likely to take that extra step of scribbling something down.

11. Go full LinkedIn.

True, business cards may never disappear completely. But if they don’t make the cut in your new paperlight life, a beautiful alternative awaits: the connect button on LinkedIn. “We should chat sometime,” a fellow conference-goer says. “Absolutely,” you smile, and reach for your phone. Don’t apologize for not carrying cards; just tap in their name and let them know you’ve sent an invite. Tell them you’d love to connect, and they’re yours forever.

12. Treat yourself to a workspace touch-up.

Maybe your paperlight ambitions derive from cleanly compulsions, a bit of desktop vanity, or the need to beautify your life. Good for you! Simplicity’s right there in your bones. Keep motivated with a daily dose of desk preening; little by little, do away with the papers, adding something beautiful — like plants or pictures — in their stead.

13. Keep tabs on your physical space.

Once you’ve done all the prep work and are on the road to paperlight, take a look around. Are scraps of paper straying to collect in certain eddies — maybe the corner of your desk or the box in the closet? Do you still have that same old top-drawer problem? Find a better, more beautiful use for that space.

14. Document your success.

Keep a log (try Trello!) of what’s working and what’s not. Make sure you snag current numbers regarding ink and paper spending so you can compare later on down the road. If you record your time per project as a matter of course, be sure to factor time costs into your results. There’s nothing like a dollar amount to help keep your eyes on the prize.

15. Share what works for you.

Stay the paperlight course now, and you’re poised to be the expert eventually. Once you’ve amassed a smattering of stories and tips, do’s and don’ts, and stories of success, it’s up to you to share it with your coworkers, leadership, and beyond.


The best part about going paperlight is that it just makes sense. It’s not some all-or-nothing New Year’s resolution; it’s just adopting a policy to simplify where possible. So just pick and choose the steps that work best for you, and viola! You’ll be halfway to paperlight by this time tomorrow.

What’s the single most important factor in a paperlight workspace? Share your thoughts below!

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