Are you a piler or a filer?



Every month a plastic wrapped wad of paper, sometimes 300 sheets thick, used to land on my desk. This wad contained the ethics committee paperwork, usually around 20 applications and supporting documents, for me to review.

This pile of paper drove me nuts. Not only was there so damn much of it, it was hard to manage. Ethics committee is your classic ‘baking powder’ job; generating an increased workload with no corresponding time compensation. Consequently I read ethics committee paperwork on the train, tram, in cafes, queues and on the couch at home – almost never at my desk. I was always losing sheets, spilling coffee on it or tearing corners as I stuffed the wad in my bag. By the time the meeting rolled around it looked like a truck had driven over it.

I enviously watched my colleagues bring iPads (or as Mr Thesiswhisperer so charmingly calls them: ‘fondle slabs’) to ethics meetings, but never actually use them. I was amazed that people could own such a desirable piece of technology and continue to scribble furiously on paper. I would gaze longingly at these lonely iPads, imagining stealing one and transforming it from a fashion statement into a workhorse.

Finally, late last year, after complaining long and loudly about the ethics paperwork to anyone who would listen, I was given an iPad of my very own (thanks Denise!). As I pulled my new toy out of its box and admired its shiny shiny-ness I made a promise to myself: I would not be one of those people carrying my electronic friend on top of a pile of paper. I would henceforth try to mend my papery ways and go completely digital.

As it turns out, going paperless is not easy.

In their book “The myth of the paperless office”, Sellen and Harper talk about the many studies of the paper problem which have been conducted over the last 40 or so years. Sadly, all this research effort doesn’t seem to have curbed our appetite for the white foldy stuff. Despite the explosion of digital media and devices, paper is more deeply entrenched in our working lives than ever, partly because printing is so easy. Paper consumption world wide has supposedly increased 400% in the last 40 years; offices account for some 30 – 40% of this consumption and – here’s the kicker – Sellen and Harper estimate an astounding 80% of documents which are printed are never used again.

This paper habit of ours is clearly unsustainable, but it’s not easy to go paperless or we would all be doing it. People don’t use paper because they are too lazy to do something different; they use paper because it’s useful. Since work habits tend to be habitual, going paperless is a bit like giving up smoking. It’s easy to make a short term changes but hard to sustain them. I managed to kick smoking and I’m happy to report that I have managed to drastically reduce my paper use, from around 600 sheets a month to about 50.

Here’s the thing: the iPad does not really behave like paper and therefore does not replace it. You could probably still substantially reduce your paper use without one, but you must change the way you work. One of the key steps I had to take was to admit I had a piling problem.

I came across this term while doing research for my upcoming book “The Connected Academic”. In “The Pile of Least Effort: Supporting Lived Document Management Practices“, Buttfield et al claim that most people are ‘pilers’. You are a Piler if you print out and stack documents on your desk as a way of keeping track of your work. Buttfield et al point out that piles tend to serve multiple functions and are a remarkably efficient management system for many people. As Buttfield et al put it: Piles remind. Much like three dimensional ‘to do’ lists, piles serve as place holders for tasks not completed

Pile mess is my workplace bete noire. Despite efforts to detox my desk last year, it quickly become covered in piles of journal articles again… for good reason. Buttfield et al describe piles as a low effort way to ‘file’ documents which are related to each other while keeping them accessible. The problem with filing journal articles in cabinets and folders, aside from forgetting what you have, is deciding what category something goes in and remembering where you put it when you come back later. Piles work, but documents can easily get lost in them and searching can be messy.

I’ve come to the conclusion that complex knowledge work just resists most filing strategies. Having files with large, loose categories can help, but then you might as well pile and save yourself the trouble of moving the paper about. You can’t solve the problems by filing by author either: names are not easy to remember unless they are distinctive and / or famous. Indexing your collection is a great idea – but who has the time?

By way of proving I have largely kicked my journal piling habit -I present exhibit A: the photo on the right of my workstation. Actual desk surface can be seen!

Solving this problem has involved finding ways to continue piling, but virtually – in my writing and bibliographic software. I faffed about with Endnote, Mendeley and Zotero before trying Papers 2 for the Mac. I don’t love Paper’s to death, but I’m happy enough because it allows me to drag and drop ‘collections’: which are really just virtual piles. Scrivener, a word processing program which I am inordinately fond of, has an embedded, non printing ‘research’ section. This feature enables me to create ‘piles’ of articles within the documents I am writing.

Scrivener and Papers reduced my paper piles by about 80%, however I found I was still printing out many articles. I realised that, like other people in our recent #phdchat on note taking, merely highlighting and typing short snatches of text didn’t feel natural – I was itching for something more. I enjoy underlining, drawing and make other marks on articles; I believe it helps me to think better. After some research I found ‘Goodreader’ – an app that allows you to draw on top of PDFs – and a stylus. This seems to scratch the itch – for now.

I’m still working on how to get that 50 print outs down to zero, so I’m wondering: What about you? What tools have helped you reduce your dependence on paper? Or do you desire to go paperless, but find it difficult? I hope you will share your experiences and insights in the comments!