How to Do The Impossible: Create a Paperless Life, Never Check Voicemail Again, Never Return Another Phone Call…


“I must create a System, or be enslav’d by another Man’s.”
-William Blake

Forget the paperless office — it’s aiming too low.

Let’s take a look at the bigger picture: a paperless life. While we’re at it, let’s also eliminate three other nuisances: answering the phone, checking voicemail, and returning phone calls.

Is this possible? It is. The key to finding means to accomplish the “impossible” is asking the right question: “How would you do ____ for a week if your life depended on it?” Most things considered impossible just haven’t been looked at through the “how” lens of lateral thinking. Here are a few exercise questions for Paperless Life 101:

What would you have to do to never again touch mail?
What would you have to do to never touch another check?
What would you have to do to never touch another dollar?

Consider these questions as real questions. If I offered you a million dollars to do each of these things for a month, could you do it? Here are a just a few potential strategies for doing all three, then we’ll move on to phone games:

1. No more mail:
First, we need to cut out the crap — reduce volume. To begin, get removed from junk mail lists and common commercial mailing lists. There are a few ways to do this: 1) Get remove from the most common junkmail lists (this costs a few dollars in some cases) and check alternative strategies at, 2) Use LifeLock, or another identity protection service, which automatically removes you from large mailing lists, one of the most common vehicle for identity theft. Last, we’ll have your mail forwarded to special processing centers, where it is all scanned and emailed to you. One popular service is called Remote Control Mail, and there are two big benefits to the time-focused and mobile-minded: relevant postal mail is funneled into e-mail, so you can check both email and postal mail at once (“batching” both at the same time); you can travel freely whenever and wherever without ever missing a letter.

2. No more checks — this is the easiest and most familiar:
-Set up online banking so you can issue checks directly from your bank, and set up automatic recurring payments
-Give your accountant power of attorney to sign specific checks (for tax documents, etc.) on your behalf. Power of attorney is no joke, so do your homework, but it can be used — as I do — with little risk. This approach not only cuts down on checks but also finance-related mail, which you can then forward to your accountant for handling start-to-finish.

3. No more cash — easier than you think:
I hate cash, and I hate coins even more. Why don’t men’s wallets have pockets? In all cases, getting rid of physical wampum is more about breaking personal habit than overcoming external resistance. For the last several months, I’ve replaced a brick of a wallet with a razor-thin money clip holding four credit cards (Business Platinum AMEX, business Chase Continental Mastercard, personal AMEX, personal Mastercard), one debit card for emergencies, and health/car insurance. I haven’t had a single problem. Some smaller shops will prefer that you cover coffee with cash, for example, but credit is accepted.

Paper cuts fingers and kills forests, but what of the damn 9-to-5 headaches? How can you eliminate the need to answer the phone, check voicemail, or return phone calls? Here are a few quick fixes:

1. No more answering the phone:
Use a service like GrandCentral to listen to voicemail as they’re being left. Each caller is required to announce their name before the call is dialed, and you are able to preview the name and send them to voicemail, where you can listen to their message as they leave it. If you want to speak with them, you can jump in. If not, let them leave a voicemail and — at the set times when you batch — go to step 2.

2. No more voicemail:
Get your voicemail delivered to your e-mail inbox, which then serves as your single communications “funnel”. This would be our single “bucket” in the parlance of David Allen, and our remote control postal mail joins the voicemail here: e-mail, postal mail, and voicemail all in one place. GrandCentral can e-mail audio files, but for those who want text, Simulscribe is a popular option with near 90% transcription accuracy. Stop managing separate inputs from office phone voicemail, cell phone voicemail, and multiple email accounts. Consolidate. To further encourage all people to communicate with you via e-mail, there are two approaches that I’ve used effectively: indicate in your voicemail greeting that people must leave their e-mail address, and respond to them via e-mail; use Jott to send a voice message to them as an e-mail.

3. No more returning calls:
Pinger enables you to send voicemail to people without calling them. Why would you want to do that? From their website:

We’ve all been there-you make a call and think to yourself, “please don’t pick up”, or you call and think “I hope I’m not interrupting…” With Pinger you leave the message at your convenience, and they get it at their convenience. Unlike voicemail, there is no ringing, no annoying prompts, no lengthy greetings — just your message.


None of these strategies are perfect, but they do demonstrate that none of our impossible questions are impossible to answer. Once you frame the question in terms of “how would I…?”, it is entirely possible to stop tolerating most of life’s annoyances and eliminate them altogether.

Did you like this? Please take a second to Digg it here and I’ll focus on more of doing the impossible, tech lifehacks, etc.

Posted on: June 14, 2007.

Watch The Tim Ferriss Experiment, the new #1-rated TV show with "the world's best human guinea pig" (Newsweek), Tim Ferriss. It's Mythbusters meets Jackass. Shot and edited by the Emmy-award winning team behind Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations and Parts Unknown. Here's the trailer.

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181 comments on “How to Do The Impossible: Create a Paperless Life, Never Check Voicemail Again, Never Return Another Phone Call…

  1. Dude, you’ve been to Latin America, you KNOW that you can not function down there with cash–I want to say something like 80% of all Colombians do not even have a bank account, and the percentage that actually have a credit card is far fewer, and this is generally representative of most Latin American countries, I believe.

    Now, there aren’t very MANY places left in the U.S. that only take cash, but there are a few so I still contend that it’s a good idea to keep on you.

    Regardless, it was still and interesting and informative post, keep it coming.



  2. Great tips! I’ve been already trying to reduce input in some of these areas…

    -Postal Mail: I’ve been making an effort to call individual vendors (catalogues & charities mostly) to stop sending me stuff. It’s a bit time-consuming, but the bulk mail stop services can’t stop these.

    -Biz Voicemail: I started using a virtual PBX about 6-months ago for my biz, and LOVE it ( My clients only have to remember one #, and all my messages/faxes get sent to my blackberry.

    Now you’re making me think about consolidating my personal voicemail to an email sevice too. One small step I made was to turn my cellphone v.m. off, and have it forward to my home v.m. instead. (So I’ve got one inbox for personal vm.)

    So while I’m off to a good start, you TOTALLY raised the bar with having postal mail emailed out. You are definitly ‘ninja’ with reducing information input!


  3. Hey Tim,
    In Switzerland men’s wallets do have pockets for change. As far as I know we are the only ones to have this. I also hate loose change. Curious to hear whether there are other countries where men’s wallets come standard with a coin pocket.

    Cheers, Lukas


  4. Hi Andrew,

    I need a few more gallons of coffee. LOL… you are absolutely right. I should have qualified my post: these recommendations are definitely targeted at the post-industrial knowledge worker economies (North America, Western Europe, Japan, etc.). Broadband-enabled, credit-based, cell-phone-wielding populations. Trying to use a credit card at a kiosk in Ecuador or restaurant in rural Armenia will get you a nice laugh. “Where’s the closest Bank of America ATM?” will get you an even bigger laugh ;)

    Very good observation. Thanks for pointing that out!



    • Hey folks,

      but even in Armenia and Ecuador, there are cash-machines. My bank granted me a Mastercard-special that enables me to get money from any cash-machine in the WOLRD without charge! If fees arise, they’ll pay it. Get a deal like that with your bank too, I simply love it. And yes, I also use my Amex wenever cashless is possible, but here in good old Europe it’s not the same, many places will only take cash…

      Cheers out


    • Hi Tim,

      I’m obsessed with the 4HWW and I love your way of living. I’ve implemented a lot of your strategies and am outsourcing almost everything. 1 issue I don’t seem to be able to outsource is that I am on call 24/7. I run a holiday home management business and guests need to be able to get a hold of me at any time during their stay. I would love to know if you have any ideas in regards to this.

      Next time you’re in Australia (Margaret River, Western Australia) come stay in one of our homes! I will only come and pick your brain for 1 hour max :)




  5. “How would you do ____ for a week if your life depended on it?�

    WOW! THIS IS HUGE! This is a powerful way to break any habit.

    I used to be a total PDA nerd. My last unit broke in France and when I returned to Canada I was curious to see how long I could go entirely without a celphone, since it had already been 7 days incident free.

    6 months later I still don’t have one! And I run 2 companies with several employees. If someone would have bet me $1,000 if I could go a month without my phone, I wouldn’t have taken the bet. It just seemed impossible. Today I wonder why I ever needed one. My wife loves it too!

    So in my own words “Challenge yourself to [adopt new behavior] for 7 days… then just see what happens. You will have to find new solutions to cope. You might surprise yourself with what you come up with.

    Thanks for the repiphany Tim! (re-epiphany)


    80/20 rule Web 3.0 tools Outsourcing = 4HWW . Discuss, collaborate, partner up! 4 hour workweek? . Is it Possible? . Do we need $1M/yr to live the millionaire lifestyle?


  6. Tim,

    Love the sentiment. I think the best tip though is your challenge “How would you do ____ for a week if your life depended on it?� it is this sort of thinking that is required for us to turn conventional lifestyles on their head and build the life we want. Asking yourself this question can unlock a world of possibilities.


  7. Tim,

    I don’t mean to be an arse. But I believe that even in Western Europe it’s not always easy to get by with only a credit card. I’m living in Berlin for example and a lot of bigger places accept debit cards. But a lot of smaller shops, like corner shops, small cafes, ice cream shops only accept cash.

    I agree though, the no-cash way would be great. Also because that way it’s easier to track at the end of the month where all your money is went.


  8. Good stuff, Tim. Like the previous poster, I think the big this is the structural question: “Could I live without this?” The reality — which you’ve so aptly described in your book — is that *most* of what we read and *most* of the e-mail we send/receive and *most* of the conversations we have from day to day (. . . et cetera) are fungible. If it’s fungible, try doing without it altogether.

    Just to throw a wrench in the works: you can even do without e-mail, if you have some other key replacement for communications. Example: Hank Paulson has never used e-mail in his life, but when he was running Goldman he would sometimes make 400 calls in a day, many of them to the v.m. boxes of Goldman staff. They knew how to reach him, he knew how to reach them (or just leave a message without talking to them), and lots of stuff got DONE.

    We proceed with our cast-iron assumptions until something comes along that shakes them up. More power to you as you *keep* shaking up our assumptions.


  9. Hi Tim,

    I’m a big GTD fan, so I’ve been implementing some of those for a while now, but the whole “no phone calls, everything by email” just doesn’t fly with most clients, at least in my field (design & web design/development). It doesn’t matter if you answer their questions they left you on voicemail by email religiously, they just *want* (not need…) to talk to you. You can definitely get your point across by forwarding all your calls straight to mailbox and answering most of them by email, but somehow it doesn’t satisfy them…

    If you have a secret recipe for this case scenario, I sure would love to read about it :)

    Thanks for the book, take care.


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  11. Tim,

    Thanks for changing the RSS feed options so that it sends the whole article and not just the teaser. (At least, I think you changed it…we’ll see with the next post whether it comes through in its entirety too.)

    I enjoy your blog but it was driving me nuts to only get the teaser and I was about to ditch it as I refuse to keep the “teaser feeds.” Having to “click through” to the site doesn’t help my batch processing of the blogs I like!


  12. I have a Vonage VoIP phone which I use for all things non-personal. Voicemail goes to one of my e-mail inbox’s. Last month I did not check it once. It turned out all the messages left were completely unimportant!


  13. BRILLIANT! Tim, you are my new guru – LOL. My hubby and I just sold our beach home in San Diego (after 14 months on the market, I might add)… and we’ve decided to sell off all our belongings, buy an RV, and take a sabbatical (mini-retirement!) for 6, maybe 12 months or more! We’ve got our sites set on Alaska… then the whole of Canada & US. YAH! Sooooo, this blog post on going paperless was perfect timing – we’re getting set up with all these fab resources. Thanks a gazillion!! (And we’re busy devouring your book and CDs too!!) – this is totally changing our lives. :)


  14. I’m backwards on the cash thing. I prefer to use cash at most restaurants, as I’ve had my credit card number swiped three times by waiters moonlighting as identity thieves. I tend to reserve my card for the situations when I know it’s not going to leave my sight.

    Like you, however, I hate change. Any I collect usually gets dumped immediately in some donation jar (there’s always one around for some cause or the other).

    I have a bank branch in my local grocery store, so no ATM fees and no extra trips needed.


  15. Tim,
    I have been thinking some of these things for a long time but have never really come across someone who doesn’t think they are insane – until now. I love the outsourcing ideas. And I have been taking mini retirements for my whole adult life – in fact it is a very Australian thing to do. Loads of people in Australia plan their lives around these.
    Good on ya for taking these ideas and trying them out,