13 min read

The PARA Method: How I Organize my Digital Information

For years I struggled to find a system for organizing my digital information that met all of my needs. It wasn't until I stumbled upon the P.A.R.A. method of organizing digital information that I was able to settle on a system that was just right for me.
The PARA Method: How I Organize my Digital Information

In my quest to optimize my productivity, I've spent a lot of time thinking about the best way to organize my digital information. For years I struggled to find an organizational system that worked for me. I read countless books and articles on the topic, tried a variety of different iterations of systems, but couldn't find one that met all of my needs. A perfect organizational system would need to be:

  • Universal — able to receive all types of information from any source
  • Flexible — able to adapt to any project or activity I would take on now or in the future
  • Simple — requiring as little maintenance, cataloguing, tagging, or reorganizing as possible
  • Cross Platform — compatible with the variety of different applications I use as part of my productivity system
  • Outcome Oriented — structured in such a way that helps move my work and projects forward
  • Modular — allowing me to both zoom out for a big picture view and zoom in for the details when necessary
  • Opportunistic — taking advantage of work already being performed instead of requiring dedicated overhead time

It wasn't until I stumbled upon Tiago Forte's P.A.R.A. method of organizing digital information that I was able to settle on a system that was just right for me. P.A.R.A. stands for Projects—Areas—Resources—Archives, which are the four top-level categories in the system which all information is categorized under.

While learning about and implementing the system, I naturally wrote down summary notes for myself on how to use the system. I thought these notes might be helpful to someone else trying to get "digitally organized", so I decided to clean them up and share them. I've also included a link to the creator of this system's blog which is helpful if you'd like to dive deeper into the topic.

Summary of the P.A.R.A. System

  • Four Primary Categories (all information is organized into one of these categories, which are listen in order of actionability)
    1. Project: A series of tasks linked to a goal, with a deadline
    2. Area of Responsibility: A sphere of activity with a standard to be maintained over time
    3. Resource: A topic or theme of ongoing interest
    4. Archive: Inactive items from the other 3 categories
  • Projects vs. Areas
    • Projects → Goals to be achieved by a deadline
    • Areas → Standard that has to be maintained indefinitely
    • Projects always fall into Areas
    • Breaking down your areas of responsibility into clearly articulated projects allows you to
      1. Know the extent of your commitments
      2. Connect your current efforts to your long-term goals
      3. Know if you're making progress towards your goals
    • Reasons for separating projects and areas instead of using areas as the top level of your hierarchy
      1. It is important to separate the very small amount of actionable information from the much larger amount of non-actionable information
      2. It reduces visual clutter
      3. It is important for projects to be stored all in one place
    • It is more important for projects to be associated with their specific goals rather than the areas they fall under
  • Areas vs. Resources
    • Keep in mind that Areas are Areas of Responsibility—There is a very clear line between things that you are responsible for, and things that you're merely interested in
    • Areas of Responsibility include:
      • The roles you take on in life and the hats you wear (Spouse, Mother/Father, Team Leader, Soccer Coach)
      • The ongoing standards where the buck stops with you (Product Development, Company Newsletter, Legal)
      • Things that take a certain amount of constant attention (Exercise, Finances, Apartment, Pets)
    • Resources include:
      • Interests (web design, crowdfunding, woodworking, frisbee golf, bio-hacking)
      • Themes (psychology, politics, leadership, integrity)
      • Assets (stock photos, typography links, marketing swipe file, product testimonials, code snippets)
    • Another useful guideline is to put personally relevant information in Areas, and generally useful information in Resources
      • This allows you to share notes from your resources without having to comb through for any personal information
    • You can connect two categories by inserting links in Area notes pointing to Resource notes
  • Don't confuse hobbies and dreams with projects and goals
    • A project without a corresponding goal is a "hobby"
    • A goal without a corresponding project is a "dream"
  • Define your project list apart from any specific tool and replicate it across every single tool you use rather than looking for "one tool to rule them all"
    • This approach gives you the consistency of centralization and the adaptability of decentralization

Three Core Principles of P.A.R.A.

  • Principle #1: The magic number four
    • Hierarchy is four categories wide (projects, areas, resources, archives)
    • Hierarchy is no more than four levels deep (application → stacks → notebooks → notes)
    • Prevents the two primary sins of organizational overengineering: too many categories, and too many levels of hierarchy
  • Principle #2: Mirror your task management and project management systems perfectly
    • This allows you to leverage the strengths of different applications rather than constantly searching for the one perfect application for your productivity system
  • Principle #3: Separate actionable from non-actionable items
    • This allows for progressive disclosure—only showing the user as much information as they need in that moment—to minimize cognitive load

Flows and Upkeep

  • P.A.R.A. is a dynamic system (information flows between the four categories)
  • There are different reasons for a given piece of information (line of text, image, complete note, or entire notebook) to flow between any two of the four primary categories
    • TO AREAS: A project can become a long-term, ongoing responsibility
    • TO RESOURCES: Scan the "intermediate work" (brainstorms, notes, background research, diagrams, interview notes, etc.) generated during a project that may be useful for future projects
    • TO ARCHIVES: Moving completed or inactive projects to Archives for future reference
    • TO PROJECTS: Information you've been collecting may be useful to a new project you started
    • TO RESOURCES: If you realize a note that you thought was only relevant to you can also provide value to others
    • TO ARCHIVES: Archiving an area that ceases to be active (this applies to relationships)
    • TO PROJECTS: An interest can become a full-blown project (one of the primary use cases for resource notebooks)
    • TO AREAS: When you realize a piece of information in a resource notebook could apply to an area of responsibility in your life
    • TO ARCHIVES: If you lose interest in a topic over time, archive the information to avoid cluttering your workspace (don't delete it in case the interest becomes active again)
    • TO PROJECTS: Restarting an inactive project, or transferring useful information from past projects to use in current and future projects (one of the primary reasons to keep archived projects)
    • TO AREAS: When information you collected a long time ago becomes relevant for a new responsibility you're taking on
    • TO RESOURCES: When a past project becomes an interest (moving relevant notes from the archived project to a new resource section)

Just-In-Time Organization

  • Perform organizational work opportunistically, as opportunities arise, instead of pedantically, or "just because"
  • Don't schedule reorganization on a strict timeline at set intervals (daily, weekly, or monthly)
  • Make changes to your organizational structure in small batches, as you go along and happen to notice incremental improvements, not in big batches as part of a dedicated effort
  • "Organizing things" represents time-consuming overhead work with no clear return or impact
    • Can't do it during a project as you're racing towards a deadline
    • Can't do it after a project because it's off to the next one
    • Therefore, overhead work gets postponed again and again, until it reaches a breaking point where all systems start breaking down
    • Breakdown is blamed on "lack of productivity"
  • Instead, use the time when you're already perusing your notes to also move a note that you notice would be a better fit elsewhere—given the amount of time on our devices, there are more opportunities to do this than you realize
  • Don't worry about flowing notes from one category into another with perfect precision
    • There is no "done", so you don't have to worry about what "done" looks like
    • You always have search as a backup tool to find whatever you've missed or misplaced
  • Once you start using this system with regularity, you will be interacting with the 4 categories with such frequency, that you will start to notice all sorts of small optimizations and changes to make information more discoverable for you future self

Setup Guide

  • 5-Step P.A.R.A. Setup Process
    • Step 1: Move existing files to a new folder called “Archive [date]” (with today’s date)
    • Step 2: Create folders for each of your current projects
    • Step 3: Move all the project folders into a new folder called “Projects”
    • Step 4: Create a new “Archives” folder and move the existing one into it
    • Step 5: Create new folders only if and when you need them
  • Consistency across platforms
    • Perform the above process for any platform where you store knowledge
    • Remember to use the same titles for your projects and areas across different platforms for consistency and ease of use
  • Some good questions to ask yourself when considering whether to save something
    • Is this something that could inspire or help me if it surfaced at some point in the future?
    • Is this potentially a useful source, building block, or tool for future projects?
    • Is this unique, personal, or hard-won knowledge worth revisiting over time?
    • Is this something that I’m unlikely to find in the future when I need it?
  • Where to save a given piece of information
    • Save things in your digital notes app by default
    • Exceptions to this rule include:
      1. Sensitive information: Notes apps don't have great security, so things like passwords, medical records, or financial data should be saved elsewhere
      2. Large or specialized files: Notes apps don't handle large files well, so save them in a dedicated app (such as cloud storage)

Project List Mindsweep

  • The Project List Mindsweep is a step-by-step exercise to help you properly identify every project in your work and life
  • A project in this context is defined as: "Any outcome you’re committed to that requires more than one work session to complete"
  • Project List Mindsweep Procedure
    1. Do a brain dump of everything you think could be a project
      • Your mind
      • Calendar
      • To Do list
      • Agendas
      • Briefcase/bag/wallet/purse
      • Physical environment
      • Computer
      • Processes or procedures
      • Creative opportunities
      • Competence building
    2. Organize and refine your list
      • Delete anything that is obviously not a project
      • Combine projects that are tied to the same outcome
      • If a project can be substituted by a calendar entry, add it to your calendar instead
      • Move "someday/maybe" projects to the bottom of the list
    3. Define the desired outcome of each project
      • Write desired outcomes in the present tense to project yourself forward in time to when the outcome you are describing has come true (For example, Project: Schedule doctor's appointment ⇒ Outcome: Back pain is resolved and I can sleep through the night without discomfort)
      • Add a date
        • Every project on your list needs to have a specific deadline or timeframe that leaves no room for confusion (such as “by June 30, 2017,” “by the end of 2017,” or “by the end of Q3 2017."
        • This is the true test of whether it is actually a project
        • Even if the deadline seems arbitrary, it serves as a reminder for you to check on your progress and reevaluate your approach
        • If there is no real deadline, add a target completion date instead
      • Use action verbs
        • We're looking for a verb that describes DONE: finalize, submit, deliver, complete, send, clarify, organize, update, implement, resolve, submit, reorganize, design, roll out, install, set up, publish, or complete
        • If you are using verbs such as manage, oversee, ensure, or maximize, it is probably an ongoing Area of Responsibility, not a Project
        • Something must be able to happen in the near term so that you can mark the project as "done"
    4. Prioritize your list by project
      • Prioritizing by task doesn't work since priorities are constantly shifting throughout your day and week (time spent prioritizing tasks is therefore wasted)
      • Projects move more slowly, and don't change priority even if there is an emergency, and thus is unlikely to change over the course of a week
      • Rearrange your Project List from most to least important for the current week
      • Reprioritizing this list is as simple as moving projects up or down on the list
      • Make an intuitive judgment of how much of your mental bandwidth each project should be taking up this week, and sort your list accordingly
    5. Evaluate your Project List
      • Look at your whole list from a bird's eye view to see if it accurately represents your current priorities, interests, values, and long-term goals
      • Look for areas you have too many or too few projects
      • Look for outcomes that are important to you that don't have projects targeted at them
      • Look where you are spending time or attention with no clear outcome or goal
      • For any that are simply unclear, take a step back and ask “What am I really trying to accomplish here?” or “What bigger goal is this connected to?”
      • With this whole inventory in front of you, which projects should you cancel, postpone, renegotiate, or clarify?
  • Any time you feel you are lacking clarity and don’t know where to focus, you can run through this checklist to gather up and prioritize all your commitments
  • Even better, you can make this exercise into a “Weekly Review” – a standing appointment with yourself to reflect on the week and update your Project List (If you do this review from a more calm and balanced perspective, away from the chaos of the workweek, you’ll find it easier to maintain balance throughout the week)

Small-Batch Projects

  • Small-Batch Project (n.): 1) A tightly scoped, short-term commitment with 2) clear desired outcomes that describe end states and 3) a deadline or delivery date (which becomes a review date when passed)
  • Formulating a Project List is one of the most important yet difficult exercises for most people to complete
  • A Project List calls for "small-batch projects"
  • Characteristics of Small-Batch Projects
    1. Tightly scoped, short-term commitment
    2. Clear desired outcomes that describe end states
    3. Deadline or delivery date (which becomes a review date when passed)
  • The importance of clean edges
    • Clean edges enable focus
    • Clean edges enable creativity
    • Clean edges enable perspective
  • You can only focus on something that is distinct from its surroundings

Formulating Desired Outcomes

  • The process-first era of productivity and our obsession with habits has led to the belief that goals are bad
  • From prescribing means to desired ends
    • Instead of throwing away the concept of goals, we need to reinvent them and how they are formulated
    • The key shift we need to make to formulate desired outcomes is from prescribing means to describing ends
      • Deliver a training manual is a means
      • Accelerate employee onboarding or mitigate legal risks is an end
    • Characteristics of desired outcomes as desired means
      1. Desired outcomes should be a description of the success criteria—the standards or metrics by which success will be measured
      2. The desired outcome should describe an unambiguous end state
      3. The outcome should have many ways of NOT coming true, allowing you to surface assumptions
  • Desired outcomes as hypotheses
    • Precise outcomes reveal assumptions as quickly as possible, meaning they are actually hypotheses—designed to be falsified
    • The fundamental nature of goals has changed, from forecasting an outcome to formulating a hypothesis that will yield maximum learning
    • Articulating and examining your assumptions allows you to learn from your projects
    • The goal isn't to foretell the future or be overly rigid, but to be able to look at the difference between what you aimed for and where you hit, and be able to ask and answer "why?"
    • Being precise, even at the expense of accuracy, will yield the learning you need to change reality to fit your intentions.
  • Projects form a network, with interfaces defined by outcomes
    • As you become more fluent in formulating desired outcomes, you begin to formulate a personal productivity network
    • The network is a map from where you are to where you want to be
    • The waypoints along the path are not "things that you have to do", but instead "things that must be true"
    • There are many ways for those statements to flip from "not true" to "true" that don't require direct effort
    • Mapping out the necessary conditions for a new reality to emerge means positioning yourself to benefit from unexpected opportunities
    • Projects are the nodes in the personal productivity network
    • Desired outcomes are the interfaces between these nodes, allowing projects to work together and become more than the sum of their parts
    • The guidelines and recommendations in this article are designed to make those interfaces as clean as possible
    • Clean interfaces—clear desired outcomes—are what allow a project node to rely on its neighbours
    • Like Legos, not having a clean edge means it can never become a piece in a beautiful new creation
  • It's worth adopting a standardized definition of "desired outcome" (even if you don't accept this one) because standardizing and semi-automating the way you formulate projects allows you to ascend to a higher horizon: managing portfolios of projects rather than individual projects

Core Principles of Digital Organization

  1. Organize by actionability
    • Projects are most actionable
    • Archives are least actionable
  2. Organize opportunistically
    • Avoid heavy lifts at all costs to avoid doing upfront work of questionable value, to avoid sunk costs, and to remain as open as possible to changes in direction
  3. Move quickly, touch lightly
    • Keep the investment in any given action low to nudge your organizational system in a certain direction while avoiding total commitment
  4. Controlled randomness
    • Precision is only required in the definition of projects
    • Everywhere else, fuzziness is encouraged
    • Don't create an internal structure for notebooks, use a standardized template for all notes, or even use a common naming convention
  5. Complex systems have to be grown, not made
    • An organizational system can't be deployed all at once, it needs to start as a small seed that gradually unfurls and evolves to meet the changing needs of its designer
  6. Focus on outcomes
    • Don't treat the process of organizing as an end in itself
  7. Fail gracefully
    • Folders can drift apart for months with no real impact on productivity
    • Given the multiple mechanisms for constantly flowing notes between notebooks, the decisions where to keep notes are very forgiving
  8. Shallow hierarchies
    • One of the biggest difference between P.A.R.A. and other organizational systems is its shallow depth
    • Infinite vertical nesting is replaced with the horizontal movement of project turnover
    • Files are shuffled from actionable notebooks into the Archives, rather than into greater depths where we lose sight of them.

The Magic of Starting Over

  • People often feel a profound rush of creative energy when they get a newly reformatted PC or a brand new Mac
  • P.A.R.A. is an organizational system completely designed around the idea of starting over
  • The ideal time to "start over" is when projects are completed, so projects are the basic unit of organization
  • This ties into the idea in the "Setup Guide" of taking all of your old folders and throwing them into a dated "Archive" folder

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Do you need to create corresponding notebooks or folders across platforms even if you have nothing to put in them?
    • You don't need to create a corresponding notebook for every project, area, and resource across every platform to avoid cluttering your workspace
    • Do so opportunistically, when you actually have something to put in it
    • The exception to this is if the friction involved in creating a new notebook or folder will make it less likely for you to capture information at all
  • How do you decide where to put information?
    • The decision on which platform to put a given piece of information in depends on the constraints of each platform, and the features you need
    • Digital Note-Taking Platform → Default place to store text and images
    • Cloud Storage → Default place to store large files or files which require real time collaboration
    • Otherwise, make ad hoc decisions to use other platforms for their unique capabilities
  • Why should you break out areas so specifically?
    • The advantage of breaking out areas specifically is that it allows you to better determine whether or not you're meeting your personal standard in a given area
  • Do you need to keep the folder structure perfectly aligned at all times?
    • You don't need to keep the folder structure between platforms perfectly aligned at all times
    • Fix the folder structure opportunistically or take some time to fix it when you notice the divergence is getting so bad you have trouble finding something or it is starting to impact how you work
    • It also sometimes makes sense for certain types of folders to only exist on one platform (example: Zoom Recorded Calls)