Imagine the perfect organizational system. One that supports and improves all the work you do, telling you exactly where to put a piece of information and where to find it when you need it. Ideally this system is:
- universal and includes all kinds of information from any source;
- flexible, to be applied to any project or activity you undertake, now and in the future;
- simple, it requires minimal maintenance, cataloging, tagging or reorganization
- usable, integrating seamlessly with other task management and project management methods
- platform independent, to be used with any application existing or to be developed
- result-oriented, structuring information in a way that supports the delivery of valuable work
- modular, which can hide or reveal different levels of detail depending on the needs of the current job
- opportunistic, takes advantage of the work you already do, instead of asking for extra time.
I think I have developed a system for organizing digital information that meets all these requirements. After introducing it to a wide variety of people for a number of years, I am convinced that it really works. In this post, I'll try to show you how exactly.
PARA. stands for Projects (projects) - Areas (areas)- Resources (sources) -Archives (archives), the four main categories that encompass all types of information you may encounter in your work and life. Let's start with the definitions. These are formulated very precisely:
- A project is a series of tasks linked to a goal, with a deadline. Examples of a project are: complete app mockup; Develop project plan; Run a business development campaign; Write blog post; Complete product specifications; Attend a conference.
- A area is a field of work with a set standard that must be maintained over time. Examples include: Health; Finance, career development; To travel; Hobbies; Friends; Apartment; Car; Productivity; Direct reports; Product development; To write.
- A resource is a subject or theme that is of constant interest. Examples are: habit formation; project management; transhumanism; coffee; music; gardening; online marketing; SEO; interior design; architecture; take notes.
- Archives contain inactive items from the other three categories. Examples are: projects that have been completed or have become inactive; areas you no longer want to maintain; sources you are no longer interested in.
Let's go to a visual metaphor:
We spend our days completing tasks, which are naturally grouped into projects under responsibility.
For example, you may find yourself writing the first draft of a blog post, which is associated with the 'Product X Launch' project, which falls under the 'Product Development' area of responsibility. This may be just one of several areas of work you will be responsible for in your role, along with 'Business Strategy', 'Hiring / Human Resources' and 'Financial Reporting'. In your personal life you have even more areas, such as 'Parenthood', 'Hobby' and 'Apartment'.
PROJECTS VS. AREAS OF RESPONSIBILITY
These definitions seem fairly straightforward, but I want to focus on the difference between projects and areas of responsibility. After much trial and error, and seeing many people struggle to tell them apart, I have come to believe that even the slightest confusion between these two categories is a deep rooted cause of many personal productivity issues.
Let's split the definitions for these two categories into two parts each:
A project has one target that must be achieved - a discrete event that will occur, allowing this item to be checked off completely and dropped from the list. And this goal would be one specific moment in time must take place. It has a deadline or time frame, externally or self-imposed.
An area, on the other hand, has a norm it must be maintained. And there is no end date or end result. your performance in this area may wane and wane over time, but the norm comes first undetermined time through and requires a certain level of attention at all times.
Projects always fall into areas. Some examples:
- Running a marathon is a project, while health is an area
- Publishing a book is a project, while writing is an area
- Saving three months in expenses is a project, while Finance is an area
- A holiday to Thailand is a project, while Travel is an area
- Planning an anniversary dinner is a project, while Husband is an area
In all these examples, the projects have an end date. They are complete or incomplete. The areas of responsibility, on the other hand, have performance standards that must be maintained indefinitely.
Now that we've laid the groundwork, let me show you how even subtle confusion between these two categories can cause so many problems.
When I work with a client as a productivity coach, one of the first things I will ask them is to show me their Project List. I need this to get an idea of what kind of work they do, their current workload and what results they are actively working towards.
They usually give me something that looks like this:
Do you see the problem? No item on this list is a project. Do “vacations” ever end? Is there ever a time when you can strike “productivity” off your list once and for all? No - these are ongoing responsibilities, not projects.
So? This is just semantics, right?
I do not think so. There are three absolutely crucial things you cannot do unless you divide your areas of responsibility into clearly articulated projects.
The first is that you cannot really know the extent of your obligations:
I often get questions that fall under the 'capacity / occupancy' category:
- How do I know if I need to reduce or increase my workload?
- How do I know how many projects I should have at any given time?
- What is the right mix of short and long term projects (or research versus production, or planning versus execution, or analysis versus synthesis, or any other dichotomy)?
But I cannot answer these questions for a specific person until I have an idea of their current workload and project mix.
Look at the list on the left in the image above - does “recruiting / staffing” give you any idea of this person's workload or obligations? No. That can be a few minutes a week, all the way to a full-time job and everything in between. It's a black box that doesn't give me any information.
Now look at the list of matching projects on the right. Doesn't that give you a much better idea of this person's workload, and even the nature of the projects they are working on?
You can only know what to change if you know what you are committed to. And what you are committed to is not a collection of vague responsibilities, but a short list of tangible results. In other words, projects.
Second you cannot link your current efforts to your long-term goals:
I often say that the biggest bottleneck for knowledge workers is always getting up in the morning. Knowledge work requires not only our time and effort, but also our involvement and creativity. For that reason, personal motivation is the main problem that transcends all other problems.
Now imagine the psychological effect of waking up to the list on the left, day after day, week after week, month after month, even year after year. Responsibilities rarely if ever change, remember? No matter how hard you work, no matter how many years of service you put in, the list of never-changing commitments will only get heavier and longer.
I can't think of a better method to nullify personal motivation.
Breaking these responsibilities down into bite-sized projects (as in the list on the right) will keep your project list changing almost every week. This creates a rhythm and momentum of project completion to maintain your motivation. It generates the constant novelty that according to the latter investigation is essential to satisfaction.
And you can manage your responsibilities always split up into smaller projects. Even for research that can take years to produce a new product (as in the example above), there is a clear sequence of experiments that lead to results, even if they are merely 'hypothesis confirmed' or 'obtained results'. Remember there are no inherent structure or unit of work is. You don't have to accept your manager's, teams or organization's definitions of what a project is!
Thirdly can't tell if you're making progress toward your goals:
Have you ever had the experience to prepare for your annual performance review and not be able to imagine what you have accomplished in the past year? This is demoralizing and puts you in the wrong mindset of walking into your manager's office and calling your accomplishments proud. Not to mention negotiating a promotion or pay rise.
Now imagine splitting this “events” area into each individual event you have planned and run. Not only would this show the marked progress and growth you have gone through, with each event building on the previous one, it would also easily provide you with a catalog of results you achieved to include in your performance review at the end of the year. And you would have much more than a list - you would have separate folders for each completed project, with tangible notes, resources, and lessons you created for each.
A final note on projects versus areas: they require completely different ways of thinking, approaches, tools and methods. Projects require you to be laser-focused, work relentlessly towards a result, overcome or circumvent obstacles, and ignore distractions (ie, people with requests for help). Areas, on the other hand, require mindfulness, balance, flow and human connection. This is the realm of customs, routines, rituals and intentional communities. Areas require introspection and self-awareness, because determining whether you are up to your standard is an intuitive exercise, not an analytic one.
You can easily see how not making this distinction leads to common frustrations: if you have a project that you think is an area (for example, the book I've been 'writing' for a few years now, that feels like a never finish any part of my life), it will tend to go on indefinitely. If you have an area that you think is a project (for example, a health outcome such as 'lose X pounds'), you will return immediately after it is reached, as you have not put in place any mechanism to keep the default.
There is a very enlightening exercise you can do once you have taken the time to create a clear Project List. Place it next to your Goal List and draw lines that match each project with the corresponding goal:
What most people think is that they don't quite match. This is problematic because a project with no associated purpose is known as a 'hobby'. If you don't commit to the outcome you want, or have not articulated it in full, you should just do it for fun.
And when you have a goal without an associated project, it's called a 'dream'. you can yearn for it with all your heart and soul, but without an active project you are actually not making progress at the moment.
Now there is nothing wrong with hobbies and dreams. They give life meaning and purpose. But please don't confuse them with projects and goals. To be clear about what you're making progress with, you need to be clear about what you're not doing. To feel comfortable saying no to what's not important, you need to be crystal clear about what is.
START DEFINING YOUR PROJECT LIST
What matters here is: define your projects, or they will define you. You are constantly being dragged and pushed into others' projects, and you will find that even when others offer to help you with yours, you don't even know what they are.
What this means in concrete terms is that you have to define your projects independently of a particular program or tool. Write them on a piece of paper or in a blank document, away from the hints, incentives, limitations, and assumptions of any software program.
What you can do through this is expand and manifest these projects across any program you choose:
Here's why this is important: you should always use multiple programs to complete projects. you can use a centralized platform like Basecamp, Asana, Jira or Zoho, but the technology is moving too fast on too many fronts for a company to best perform each function.
Rather than fighting the tide and looking for one platform to rule them all, you formulate your Project List and then replicate that list for every single tool you use, now and in the future. I recommend doing this with the exact same spelling, punctuation, and capitalization so that your transitions between programs are as seamless as possible.
I've found that people tend to use different organizational charts in every program they use. They try to adapt a different schedule to the capabilities of each program, forcing their brains to 'recharge' and remember a different schedule every time they switch programs. This creates a friction to learn new tools that may be better suited for specialized tasks, hindering innovation.
In the example above, the list of projects in each program is identical and can be further expanded to any number of other programs. This takes advantage of the unique capabilities of each program, while keeping the project layer unified across different interfaces.
PARA. gives you the best of both worlds: the consistency of centralization, with the adaptability of decentralization. It works on three core principles:
The first principle is that it is the number 4 as a signpost used. The whole hierarchy is four categories broad (projects, areas, resources, archives) and no more than four levels deep (using Evernote as an example, the levels would be: application> stacks> notebooks> notes).
The number four is called 'magical' because investigation indicates that it appears to be the natural limit of all sorts of cognitive processes, from working memory to object tracking to quick enumeration. In more speculative findings, some primitive tribes appear to have specific words up to the number four, and many animals seem to be able to distinguish up to four individual objects.
Whether it is a real limit or not, it is a useful restriction for avoiding the two major sins of organizational over-engineering: too many categories and too many hierarchical levels.
The second principle is that PARA perfectly reflects your task management and project management systems. The relatively young field of personal knowledge management (PKM) has a lot to say on the topic, but I believe that any PKM approach that doesn't tie in with execution tools will be put on the back burner forever.
The third principle is that PARA actually preserves and reinforces the most important distinction that any productivity system must make: between useful and non-useful information. By making this distinction, you can set 95% aside from the information that comes your way, so you can focus on the 5% needed for the task.
How does it improve usability? By recognizing that manageability is not black or white. Instead, it's a gradient, a spectrum to be hidden or revealed depending on the context. This follows a known design technique called progressive disclosure - only shows the user as much information as he needs at that moment. This helps to minimize the cognitive burden that knowledge workers always face.
When you are in the trenches every day getting things done, you could focus on the first column and look at material that pertains only to the active projects. This likely includes your task manager (or at least the “Today” or “Next” section of your task manager) as well as the “Projects” stack in a note-taking program like Evernote:
Over a broader horizon, for example, while conducting a weekly review, you would expand the scope of information you are considering into areas of responsibility. This is a deeper level of introspection: are you currently living up to the standard you have set for yourself in each of the areas you are committed to? If not, are there any new projects, habits, routines, rituals or other practices that you would like to start, stop or change?
Over an even broader horizon, perhaps during a monthly review, you can expand the scope of what you're looking at with resources. Are there any new interests you want to pursue more seriously? Are there things that you have stalled that you want to reboot? Does any of your current projects give you an excuse to pursue a related interest as well?
The resource stack is also where "research" lives. The notebooks here usually contain the most objectively valuable information, which you may want to use when looking for material to use in a blog post, to recommend someone, or for a work project. My own collection, below, gives a pretty good indication of my interests, with the number of notes to the right of each notebook title indicating how many notes I have collected on the topic:
And finally, the archives are your portfolio of completed projects, each inactive but ready to offer potentially useful material for reuse and recycling in future projects. I often find that the ability to reuse my notes on a topic, a well-designed slide, a portion of a proposal, or other assets saves me a huge amount of time, which is especially crucial in a freelance business where I do everything myself. It's also easiest to remember where an item is based on when it was created and what project it's associated with, if the search doesn't work:
In addition to reusing project material, the Archive can also be used for project retrospectives, annual retrospectives and resumes and proposals in which you have to show your work.
I really appreciate your feedback, especially with regard to the following questions:
- What is most convincing about this system?
- What seems least clear, attainable or desirable from your perspective?
- What challenges or obstacles would you expect to encounter if you tried to implement PARA in your digital life?
- Do you have ideas to explain or communicate this system in a practical way?
You can reply directly to this post or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
All images are from Forte Labs.