Automation: FileThis May Be the First Step to Paperless Wonderland

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One of the things I have been interested in for a long time is creating an efficient paperless workflow, that will allow me to easily obtain, process, file and access virtually all of my important documents, in digital paperless format.  I’ve been doing this a long time, and most of my documents, from bills to bank statements to press clippings to user manuals, all reside in a specified folder on my Mac, and in redundant, secure backup locations.

I’m going to do a series on the podcast on how to set up and manage a paperless workflow, but generally speaking my documents find their way into a dedicated Document Inbox folder on my Mac, where they are converted to readable pdf format, named pursuant to a logical and consistent naming convention and moved into the appropriate folder in my digital file cabinet (e.g., the “Scanned Documents” folder and subfolders on my Mac).  Then they are backed up, once locally via Time Capsule and once to Amazon Glacier, Amazon’s unbelievably cheap cloud storage.

The biggest hurdle to getting started with a paperless program is getting your historical documents in place.  There are three ways to do it.  Download them from the applicable website (e.g., go online to your bank, find the Statements tab and download them all one at a time); scan hard copies you may already have (this is amazingly quick and easy with a ScanSnap scanner); or figure out a way to have much of this done for you, automatically.  That’s where FileThis comes in.

I’ve known about FileThis for a long time, but for a while I was resistant to giving a third-party service some of my passwords.  That was, in part, because I used one of a small set of common passwords for many different sites.  That’s not a good plan for many reasons.  Last year I finally set up LastPass (you should too; it makes password management very simple and much more secure).  In addition to better password management, LastPass also results in a different password for every site.  This has the added benefit of making it less scary to give out some of them to FileThis, which in turn creates some time-saving internet magic.

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In a nutshell, FileThis collects your user names and passwords for any number of sites (you pick the ones you want to add, from a long and growing list of sites that work with the service) and automatically downloads your statements and bills to the location of your choice: your computer, the cloud or Evernote.  I have mine sent to Google Documents, where I have a script to move them into the aforementioned Document Inbox.  More on that later, but the important thing is it automates the process.  For example, I have not been good at keeping my Amazon receipts.  FileThis accessed and downloaded 231 of them when I set it up.  Awesome.

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There are free and paid plans, so you can start with the free plan to see how it goes.  I went from the free plan (limited to 6 “connections,” or bills to manage) to the intermediate paid plan ($20 a year for 12 connections) within 24 hours.  I was that impressed.

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Now, I don’t use FileThis for my super-sensitive stuff, like bank statements, credit card statements and investment accounts, but I do use it for utility bills, insurance notices, and lots of other less sensitive things.  And so far, I’m very impressed.  I suspect I will rely on FileThis more and more as time passes.

At the end of the process, you have folders, in your designated location, of as many historical statements as your utility company, etc. permits you to access online.  For some, that’s only the past 12 months’ worth.  For some, it’s more.  So you may still have some scanning to do, but FileThis will put a dent in it.  And of course it makes obtaining and filing current and future statements a breeze.

I’ll have more on the ideal paperless workflow later.  But if you want to dip your toe in the pool, FileThis is a great place to start.

Four Mac Apps to Instantly Boost Your Productivity

I’ve already talked about my most useful IOS applications. Let’s move to the desktop and discuss a few apps that materially add to my flow and efficiency.  These apps increase my productivity and make my life easier, and they can do the same for you.

nobifLet’s start with one app that’s already on your Mac. Automator, which can be found the Applications folder, can automate repetitive tasks and save you a lot of time. For example, I created a process in Automator that automatically monitors a specified folder for image files, renames them to the convention I use for my blog, and resizes them to the desired size. Another service I created in Automator automatically combines selected PDF files with a right-click. Far too many people don’t use-or even know about Automator. That’s a shame, because it is possibly the single biggest timesaver on my Mac. And you don’t need to be a programmer to use it. You can set up all kinds of time saving processes by dragging and dropping.

A related app that I rely on heavily is Hazel, the automation program from Noodlesoft. While similar to Automator, Hazel is even more powerful and can automate an almost infinite number of tasks (it can also incorporate Automator into its actions). For example, as part of my paperless filing and storage system, Hazel monitors my Document Inbox folder for PDFs, converts them to searchable format, renames them based on their contents, and moves them to the appropriate folder. In other words, all I have to do to file my papers is scan the file, and Hazel does the rest.

Another efficiency boosting app is Bartender. It allows you to manage your Mac menu bar, and to arrange the resident applications in your desired order. The ability to reorder menu bar applications is well worth the $15, without consideration of all of the other useful Bartender features.

Probably my favorite new Mac app is Unclutter by Software Ambience Corp. Unclutter places a virtual storage shelf (they call it a digital pocket) at the top of your screen, where you can store clipboard contents, files and notes. Dropbox and iCloud integration allows you to sync this content across your various computers. This has become my go-to way to share individual files between my iMacs.

And, as a bonus app, there’s Dropbox. While Dropbox is awesome, just as a way to back up, sync and share files between desktops, laptops and mobile devices, its true power is its integration with and/or use beside other applications.  This allows you to create a lot of extremely powerful automations. For example, bills and other documents scanned at the farm are scanned into a folder monitored by Hazel. Upon receipt, Hazel moves the files into a specified Dropbox folder, where they are synced to my home computer. When they reach my home computer, the Hazel app on that computer performs the searchability, renaming and moving functions described above, to place the files in their permanent folder. Mostly all I do is scan them. I say mostly, because sometimes Hazel has a hard time figuring out what the document is, so it can appropriately rename it.  In that case, all I have to do is rename the files, after Hazel converts them to searchable format. Dropbox also integrates with the wonderful IFTTT, which allows a ton of automated flow.  For example, I use a combination of Dropbox and IFTTT to place automated farm rain logs, photos, locations and other entries in my DayOne journal.

All of this is like a giant erector set for adults.  Jump in, build something, create some free time.  I about to watch the Walking Dead with some of mine.

Tell me some of your favorite time savers.