The PARA method: a universal system for organizing digital information

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PARA method

The PARA method: a universal system for organizing digital information

Imagine the perfect organizational system. One that supports and enhances all the work you do, telling you exactly where to put a piece of information and where to find it again 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 reorganizing
  • usable, seamlessly integrate with other task management and project management methods
  • platform independent, to be used with any application that currently exists or has yet to be developed
  • results orientedstructuring information in a way that supports the delivery of valuable work
  • modular, allowing different levels of detail to be hidden or revealed depending on the needs of the current task
  • opportunistic, takes advantage of the work you're already doing, rather than taking 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 several years, I am convinced that it really works. In this post I will try to show you how exactly.

PAR. stands for Projects (projects) — Areas (areas)— Resources (sources) -Archives (archives), the four main categories that encompass all kinds of information that you may encounter in your work and life. Let's start with the definitions. These are worded very precisely:

PARA method definitions

  • A project is a series of tasks associated with a goal, with a deadline. Examples of a project are: complete app mockup; Develop project plan; Run a business development campaign; Write blog post; Finalize product specifications; Attend a conference.
  • A area is a field of activity 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 constantly in the spotlight. 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:

PARA method area of responsibility

We spend our days completing tasks, which are naturally grouped into projects under responsibility.

PARA method area of responsibility 2

For example, you may find yourself writing the first draft of a blog post associated with the "Product X Launch" project, which falls under the "Product Development" area of responsibility. This may be just one of several areas you will be responsible for in your position, along with 'Business Strategy', 'Recruitment/Personnel' and 'Financial Reporting'. In your personal life you have even more areas, such as 'Parenting', 'Hobby' and 'Apartment'.

PROJECTS VS. AREAS OF RESPONSIBILITY

These definitions seem fairly simple, 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've come to believe that even the slightest confusion between these two categories is a deep-rooted cause of many personal productivity problems.

Let's break down the definitions for these two categories into two parts each:

PARA method projects vs area of responsibility

A project has a target to be achieved – a discrete event that will occur, allowing this item to be completely checked off and removed from the list. And this goal would be specific moment in time must take place. It has a deadline or a time frame, externally or self-imposed.

An area, on the other hand, has a norm which must be maintained. And there is no end date or final result. your performance in this area may decline and decline over time, but the norm takes precedence undetermined time by 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.

CREATE LISTS

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 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're actively working towards.

They usually give me something that looks like this:

PARA method project list

Do you see the problem? No item on this list is a project. Do “holidays” ever end? Is there ever a time when you can cross “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 can't do unless you split your areas of responsibility into clearly articulated projects.

The first is that you can't really know the extent of your obligations:

PARA method area and project list

I often get questions that fall under the category 'capacity / occupation':

  • How do I know if I should 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-term and long-term projects (or research versus production, or planning versus execution, or analysis versus synthesis, or any other dichotomy for that matter)?

But I can't 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 “recruitment/staffing” give you any idea of this person's workload or obligations? No. That could be a few minutes a week, all the way to a full-time job and everything in between. It's a black box, which gives me no 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're 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 can't link your current efforts to your long-term goals:

PARA method area and project list 2

I often say that with knowledge workers, the biggest bottleneck is always getting up in the morning. Knowledge work requires not only our time and effort, but also our commitment and creativity. For that reason, personal motivation is the most important 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 obligations just keeps getting heavier and longer.

I can't think of a better way to destroy personal motivation.

Breaking down these responsibilities into bite-sized projects (as in the list on the right) ensures that your project list changes 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 latest investigation essential for satisfaction.

And you can fulfill your responsibilities always split 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 just 'hypothesis confirmed' or 'obtained results'. Remember that there no inherent structure or unit of work is. You don't have to accept your manager, teams or organization's definitions of what a project is!

Thirdly you can't know if you're making progress toward your goals:

PARA method area and project list 3

Have you ever had the experience of preparing for your annual performance review and not being able to imagine what you've accomplished in the past year? This is demoralizing and puts you in the wrong mindset to walk into your manager's office and call your achievements proud. Not to mention negotiating a promotion or raise.

Now imagine splitting this “events” area into every single event you have planned and run. Not only would this show the clear progress and growth you've gone through, with each event building on the previous one, it would also easily provide you with a catalog of results you've achieved to include in your performance review at the end of each event. the year. And you'd have much more than a list — you'd have separate folders for each completed project, with tangible notes, resources, and lessons you've 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 toward a result, overcome or circumvent obstacles, and ignore distractions (ie people asking 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 meet your standard is an intuitive exercise and not an analytical one.

It's easy to 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, it feels like a never finished any part of my life), it will tend to go on indefinitely. If you have an area you think is a project (e.g. a health outcome like 'Lose X Pounds'), you will return right after it is reached because you haven't put in any mechanism to keep the default.

There is a very enlightening exercise that you can do once you have taken the time to prepare a clear Project List. Put it next to your Goal List and draw lines to match each project with its goal:

PARA method project list and goals

What most people think is that they don't quite match. This is problematic because a project with no associated goal is known as a 'hobby'. If you don't commit to the desired result, or haven't fully articulated it, you should just do it for fun.

And if you have a goal without an associated project, it's called a "dream." you can long for it with all your heart and soul, but without an active project you are actually not making any progress at the moment.

PARA method project list and goals 2

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 on, you need to be clear about what you're not doing. To feel comfortable saying no to what isn't 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 swept up and pushed into others' projects, and you will find that even if 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 separately from a certain 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 extend and manifest these projects across any program you choose:

PARA method across different programs

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 moves too fast on too many fronts for a company to best perform each function.

Instead of 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 noticed 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 "charge up" and remember a different schedule every time they switch programs. This creates a friction to learn new tools that may be better suited to specialized tasks, hindering innovation.

In the example above, the list of projects in each program is identical and can be expanded to any number of other programs. This takes advantage of the unique capabilities of each program, while keeping the project layer unified across various interfaces.

PAR. gives you the best of both worlds: the consistency of centralization, with the adaptability of decentralization. It works on three core principles:

Why the PARA method

The first principle is that it number 4 as signpost used. The whole hierarchy is four categories wide (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 'magic' because investigation indicates that it appears to be the natural limit of all kinds of cognitive processes, from working memory to object tracking to quick enumeration. In more speculative findings, some primitive tribes seem 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's a real limit or not, it's a useful constraint to avoid the two main sins of organizational overengineering: 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 veld personal knowledge management (PKM) has a lot to say on the subject, but I believe any PKM approach that doesn't align with execution tools will forever be on the back burner.

PARA method in different programs 2

The third principle is that PARA actually preserves and reinforces the most important distinction any productivity system must make: between useful and unusable information. By making this distinction, you can set aside 95% of the information that comes your way, so you can focus on the 5% needed for the job.

How does it improve usability? By recognizing that manageability is not black or white. It is instead a gradient, a spectrum that must be hidden or revealed, depending on the context. This follows a well-known design technique called progressive disclosure – only shows the user as much information as he needs at that moment. This helps minimize the cognitive load that knowledge workers always have to deal with.

PARA method action orientation

When you're in the trenches every day getting things done, you might focus on the first column and look at material related 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:

PARA method cohesion

Over a broader horizon, for example, while conducting a weekly review, you would expand the scope of the information you are considering to 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?

PARA method cohesion 2

Over an even broader horizon, perhaps during a monthly review, you can expand the scope of what you're looking at with sources. Are there any new interests you want to pursue more seriously? Are there things that have left you stagnant, that you want to restart? 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've collected on the subject:

PARA method portfolio

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 being able to reuse my notes on a topic, a well-designed slide, a section of a proposal, or other assets saves me a huge amount of time, which is especially crucial in a freelancer 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:

PARA method archives

In addition to reusing project materials, the Archive can also be used for project retrospectives, annual retrospectives, and resumes and proposals to showcase your work.

CONCLUSION

I really appreciate your feedback, especially with regard to the following questions:

  • What's the most compelling thing about this system?
  • What seems least obvious, feasible 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 to this post directly or email me at tiago@fortelabs.co.

This article was first published on Medium and written by Tiago Fortea

All images are from Forte Labs. 

 

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