The Portable Document Format (PDF) is a file format I use very frequently. One of its key properties is that it is readable and printable on almost any platform you can think of, while maintaining the look-and-feel of the original document.

Besides receiving and reading a lot of PDFs daily, I also create and distribute a lot of PDF files. It is a common misconception that creating PDF files is complicated and expensive. In fact, I’m using very easy to use, open source software to create my PDFs.

For today I want to share a few useful productivity tricks with you concerning PDF files!

Useful Productivity Tricks with PDF Files

Before you get started, make sure that you can create PDF files on your platform. I’m mainly using Windows and Ubuntu. On Ubuntu (and other Linux flavors) many applications support saving as PDF natively. It shouldn’t be a problem on Mac OS X either (or so I’ve heard). In Windows, I’ve found PDF Creator (open source) to be the best, free solution. It’s basically a printer driver that acts as a virtual PDF printer. So, instead of printing your document to a normal printer, you print your document using the PDF printer which effectively creates a PDF file for you.

1. Save paper, go digital
To be honest, I print quite a lot because I like to read from paper. I also have an extensive paper-based reference system (archive). However, if you would like to save serious amounts of paper, I highly recommend creating a digital reference system with PDFs. Instead of printing your documents to paper, you simply print (or save) them as PDF.

PDFs are usually quite compact and searchable and most importantly, they keep the look-and-feel of the original document. Your digital reference system containing PDFs will be accessible and readable on most major platforms as well.

One word of caution though. PDFs are technically editable (with the correct software) but it’s best to treat them as read-only. It goes without saying that you have to keep your original documents if you ever intend or need to edit them!

Let me give you an example of what works really well with the method described above. Suppose I receive an e-mail with a couple of large attachments, say, 1 Excel spreadsheet, 1 Word document and 1 PowerPoint presentation. Suppose also that this e-mail was sent to me FYI, I’m actually interested in keeping it and I don’t ever need or want to edit the attached files. Here’s what I would do. First, I print the main body of the e-mail as a PDF. I then open each interesting attachment in the appropriate application. Note how the sender of the e-mail assumes that I have the appropriate applications installed! After selecting the appropriate layout options (font, landscape vs. portrait, margins, zoom factor, et cetera) I print each attachment to a PDF file. Note how the resulting PDF now represents my preferred way of viewing a spreadsheet, text document or presentation. I don’t have to repeat these layout and formatting steps every time I want to look at the document now!

After this, there is no need to keep the original e-mail. I store the PDFs in my digital reference system, or if required I could always print them later and store them in my paper-based reference system. The most important thing is that the information I wanted to keep is no longer embedded in an obscure e-mail somewhere, buried in an attachment that needs Program X on Platform Y to be opened and read correctly!

2. Distribute your documents without worrying about compatability issues or modifications

Here’s another great use for PDF files. I almost never distribute (i.e. e-mail them or put them up for download) my original documents verbatim. I distribute PDF versions of them instead!

First of all, I simply do not want other people to see/have my original documents (which usually contain meta information, comments, speaker notes or other private information).

Second, usually my main purpose of distributing documents is to share “read-only” information with other people. For that purpose I do not want to send them original documents that could be easily modified and redistributed without me knowing about it.

Third, I don’t like making assumptions about whether the recipient of the information has Program X on Platform Y installed to view the information I sent. If I send a PDF instead I know that they are readable and printable and they are usually much less bulky than the source material.

3. Save time and effort, create a PDF printer queue
This productivity trick is my personal favorite. Here’s the situation: I always work on a laptop, at home, at the office and on the road. This means I don’t always have access to a real printer. So, I cannot usually print all the stuff I want to keep right there and then.

Here’s my solution. I have created a PDF printer queue on my laptop, which is just a fancy word for a regular folder containing temporary PDF files. Instead of populating my next action list with items like “print post X from blog Y”, “print e-mail from Jeff, attachment #2″ or “print article X from URL Y, paragraph #4″, I just print to PDF right away and save the resulting PDF to my PDF printer queue. This way I do not need to keep track of the source material (e-mail, website, etc) for later printing and I do not have to add a lot of “print”-actions to my next action list. Whenever I get close to a real printer again, I can then easily print all PDFs in one batch. Or, alternatively, I could store them permanently in my digital reference system.

Note how nicely this fits in with the general GTD philosophy of not thinking about stuff twice. Using a PDF printer queue allows you to forget about the source material right away. You have already processed and printed the source document in your preferred way of viewing it and when you hook up to a real printer again you only need to crank widgets!