GTD “Paperless” Hack

I’m seriously getting into GTD. If there’s one thing I need to do, it’s clear my brain to process more important tasks. Call me a geek, but when David Allen used the whole “computer, RAM, hard disk” analogy, it just resonated with me.

There’s just one thing: I hate paper documents. They’re not easily portable and frankly, you can’t google for them. One option is to have a sheet feed document scanner to turn paper documents into digital files but they cost money and you may not always be in a location where you have access to one.

Solution: jConnect Free Fax service + Spotlight (Mac) + QuickSilver (Mac; optional)

First, visit and get yourself a jConnect Free fax number.

It doesn’t matter if it’s in your area code, just as long as you won’t incur phone charges when faxing to it. I have unlimited local and long distance calling in my home office, so the number doesn’t matter to me.

When you’re Processing a paper document and you’ve determined that it needs to be stored for Reference or for a specific project, stick it in the fax machine (no cover sheet required) and fax it to yourself. It will arrive via email as an image file.

(If you have access to a copier with a scan-to-email option, this also works. I sometimes use this option when I’m at work, but only when I need higher quality scans.)

Important Note: jConnect faxes arrive with the file extension “.jfx“. However, these are just plain ol’ TIF files. If you change the file extension to “.tif” the files will open easily in Preview on the Mac. You’ll have same the same results on the PC, I just don’t remember what app is bundled with XP (I think it’s called Photo Viewer).

However, this wouldn’t be a good hack if all we did was change file extensions, would it?. Oh noooo. We’re going to create an Automator action to make this as efficient as possible.

1. Launch Automator

2. From the “Library” column, open the “Applications” directory and select the “Finder

3. From the “Action” column select “Rename Finder Items” and drag it to the Automator workspace.

By default, this Automator Action workflow inserts a “Copy File” command so that you don’t accidentally hose your file. I recommend using it.

I put a subdirectory in my “Downloads” folder called “_Paper Docs“. (The underscore at the beginning of the file name ensures that it will appear toward the top of the alphabetical sort.)

The second step in this Automator Action actually performs the search and replace of the file extension:

4. Find “.jfx” and replace it with “.tif“. Be sure to select the “Ignore Case” checkbox.

5. Be sure to save the Automator workflow as an “Application”. I put mine in my “Downloads” directory, where my jFax files automatically get saved.

Here’s a screenshot of my Downloads folder. Notice that I’ve also named the Automator Application (“_jfx2tif“) with the same underscore so it appears toward the top. Also, notice the newly downloaded “.jfx” document.

6. To rename the file extension for this or any number of the same type of files, select and drag them on top of your Automator Application.

The renamed file will appear in the specified directory. In this case, “_Paper Docs“.

Now that you have the document in TIF format you can tag it so that you can find it later using your favorite desktop Search tool. I’m on a Mac, so I use Spotlight for search and retrieval. On a PC, you could use Google Desktop Search or Windows Search.

For a single file, you could just right-click the file and select “Get Info” (Command + I) on the Mac and insert the tags into the “Spotlight Comments” field.

I use QuickSilver as a launcher and general-purpose workflow tool. Using the method described here, you can quickly add relevant tags to the Spotlight Comments field for multiple documents.

You can (optionally) rename your files so that you can identify them by name…

Of course when you’re all done with this process, you should store the files in relevant folders on your machine or external drive, like a USB key.

[tags]GTD, Getting Things Done, David Allen, Hacks, Hack, Gadgets, Quicksilver, Spotlight, Mac, Macintosh, Productivity, LifeHacker, Fax, OS X, Apple, Google Desktop Search, Windows Search, MetaData, Tagging, Tags[/tags]

7 thoughts on “GTD “Paperless” Hack”

  1. Hi, This is a really neat idea!I think you could even further streamline the process though… (NOTE: I haven’t tried this!) Save the automator action as an applescript.Create a new rule in (Assuming you are using it) by going to Mail > Preferences > Rules. Tell it to look for emails from jconnect and then to run the applescript you saved earlier.Someone want to try this out? I think it would work… (But a fax to a us number would be international for me and very expensive.)


  2. Hi, Greg.Good idea – thanks!I can give this a try in Entourage and see how it works.Of course if you wanted to try it, you could just change the extension of any TIF file from “.tif” to “.jfx” and give it a try yourself in Apple Mail.Regards,-jf.


  3. John,You know how much I “love” the fax machine and here you promote another use for this wretched machine. Just what the world needs 😉 You’re propagating evil. As I’ve said on a few occasions…, why not take this idea up to the 21st century and use a 2+ mega-pixel camera phone (i.e. your Treo) then either email or SMS the document image to yourself? Same idea, one device (that isn’t a fax machine). Best,Steve


  4. Steve,The camera phone concept doesn’t work all that well – it barely works for capturing the text of white boards. Individual paper documents would be completely illegible using that method – not to mention the fact that it would take forever to capture a multi-page document.And about that “evil” thing…Unlike people who are still using faxes to turn paper-to-digital-to-paper again on the other side, I’m promoting this hack to help rid the world of paper. You should be thanking me.;)-jf.


  5. I love this tip. I don’t have a scanner, but just read the article for fun. Yeaha I am a numba . I just got a mac and I am looking at all the cool programs that it comes with, automator sounds like something that could save me alot of time I have never seen a ultitly like that on windows. The whole fax idea was pretty good you guys at lifehacker keep up with the good tips and this might just be my favorit computer fan site other then digg


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