Gaps in my understanding of PARA

I started trying to use a common file structure across apps and systems the other day (macOS folders, email folders, etc.). I realized this is part of PARA, and have been looking into it, reading parts one and two of its description.

It’s a bit difficult, which I think is due to Forte’s (not piano’s) loose use of vocabulary. Hopefully someone can help my understanding.

Goals

A project is “a series of tasks linked to a goal, with a deadline.”

There are no definitions of what goals are, and where they live within the four categories. Are they an area? Or are they within an area? Or are they an or within a resource?

Areas

An area of responsibility is “a sphere of activity with a standard to be maintained over time.”

Okay, that makes sense. I also understand Projects live in Areas (perhaps multiple?).

Resources

A resource is “a topic or theme of ongoing interest.”

Why not just call it Topics or Themes? But this seems to be the place to store publically-shareable items about some interests, so there’s kind of a disconnect, either in the vocab, or my understanding. The other categories can be resources too, as discussed in part two. Areas have private items, archives have archived items.

Archives

Archives include “inactive items from the other three categories.”

Cool with that. But (as discussed above) they also seem to be Resources which could be drawn upon in future endeavors.

In seeking more info, I found that the BASB course seems to be defunct, and the focus seems to be on the BASB book, due in August, 2022.

BTW, searching for PARA here on the forum matches “parallel”, “paragraph”, etc. Fortunately, search engines help, site:talk.macpowerusers.com "para"

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I looked at this and it seemed a good idea until I started implementing it, and like you I ran into anomalies so quickly dropped it.

It sounds like you were on to something which was working for you when you started (before getting sidetracked) why not just develop your system for you rather than shoehorning your unique needs into someone else’s?

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Full Disclosure, for me PARA as an organization method makes no sense at all. It’s both too simple and too complex to work for me. So take my comments with as much salt as required.

For me they are outside of the PARA areas. They are in the higher levels in the GTD sense. Goals are dealt with separately. Goals may drive projects: For Example: Goal: Reduce body fat by 5% in 2022 Project:Get a caliper for mesuring body fat and learn how to use it, but not always. For Example: Goal:Our flock is homozygous RR at Codon 171 Doesn’t really turn into a project because progress depends on selection of breeding stock, Codon 171 test results, and changing breeding goals where some fo the best sheep for other traits are heterozygous or homozygous for alleles other than R at that codon and more. So it’s something I keep in mind when I select animals and choose mates but not a specific project.

I see PARA as a system for sorting files not as a way to organize work or life.

This is the start od where PARA falls down for me and why I put areas of focus above projects. Because most of my projects will cross several areas. So I deal with them separately.

Not to mention that Resources has a specific meaning that is unrelated to a particular topic. A resource can be anything you need to accomplish some task. So it can be reference material, physical items or even people.

Again, for me this falls apart because Archives, by their very nature, should be useful references for future iendeavors. Archives to me are documentation of what you did, results and also Reference material you may have accumulated either as pasrt of some project or for some other reason that you may want to use or refer to again.

If the goal is to use a common file structure I thinnk you’d be better served by defining a shallow tree of places that are names the same acoss all devices.

For me that tree consists of

  1. Inbox - all unsorted inputs There may be several of them or one on each device or app or physical location but the common attribute is they have not been handled yet. That processing may result in the item being deleted, or moved to another area as appropriate.
  2. Active Projects - effective folders for the things I am actively currently working on. For me this includes things I can or will work on in this 12WY or quarter but for many people it’s only things that cn be worked on in the current week or perhaps month. I am an outlier in how far my “Active Projects” horizon ranges.
  3. Reference - Everything else. This includes all the previously active projects that are ether Resting, not active but not done, Finished and I need to keep the info for future projects, Someday/Maybe things I want to do eventually or might consider eventually but that I am not currently working on. Resting and S/M sort of blend together and for me that is why I keep them all in one place. This is also the place for straight archives or reference material.

So no matter whether it’s in my email, file system on my mac, or on my iPad or physical files everything fits into a structure like this.

Then on top of that for digital data I have defined file naming schemes so I can locate individual items easily because I follow a set format for how I create filenames.

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Interesting. Also rather confusing (as you note). I tripped over the definition for the term Resource as a topic or theme. I guess PATA would entice fewer folks as a marketing brand compared to PARA. Just to clarify also that, within the PARA world-view, RESOURCE is not the same as resource as used in project management. So an ARCHIVE in PARA is not a RESOURCE in PARA, even though an archive in project management can be a resource in project management.

At the end of the day, the best, most-valuable take-home message is that one should seek to use a common file structure to store and manage information. One way to do so is to create Projects within Areas (of Responsibility).

We also are told this in the GTD or seven habits world views. So you can pick your religion accordingly.


JJW

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I share the concerns of the others who posted before me. PARA is neat in principle, but challenging in practice. @OogieM’s take on it is similar to my takeaways.

For what it’s worth, though, I wrote an article on the valuable principles underpinning PARA a while back:

(That post regrettably ends with a promise that I have yet to fulfill…)

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This.

I’ve been moving along well with my own idiosyncratic way of filing and naming things for years. Something I would never share with anyone because self-discovery is a virtue. Whenever I look at recommendations like PARA or, to my mind, the terrifyingly boring Johnny Decimal system, I feel remorse for anyone who falls for this stuff.

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Thanks for the input everyone!

That’s what I’m doing :slight_smile: In this case, tweaking things to reduce friction.

Lots of people have thought about things that I haven’t (some have replied in this thread), so I’m always open to input. I try to weigh things carefully, and extract the bits and pieces I can use.

Indeed. From their example, “Tell people where things are:”

Jayna: “Hey Kristy, where can I find the payroll schedule?”
Kristy: “Twelve dot oh-three.”
Jayna: “Why didn’t you just name it Payroll/Schedule? I wouldn’t have had to bother you.”
Kristy: :exploding_head:

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I was able to snag a discount on the BASB course because I’m a teacher. I’d been interested and hoped that the course would illuminate the free blog posts about it.

Previously, I was just a straight up A-Z guy. As a GTDer, that’s what David Allen recommends :slight_smile:

I was immediately sold on PARA but then again ran into a lot of these uhhh semantic hiccups. I would freeze up trying to figure out where exactly I wanted to put stuff and really found the Areas and Resources sections pretty blurry.

Still, I used PARA for a long time and then quit as Evernote sort of started going into the toilet and that was my main organizing tool for it. HOWEVER I keep going back to PARA. I find a lot of stuff about it is actually quite nice. While I’m looking for an Evernote replacement, I recently re-organized all my local filed (excluding pics and video) per PARA.

Here’s my mini-summary of the categories.

Projects - Resources for active projects. This is the simplest for me. Anything that I have steps for in my task manager that I can eventually complete goes here. When I finish a project, it gets moved into Archives.

Areas - This took a long time for me to grok. I don’t know if this is how Tiago thinks of it exactly, but I think of this as actively used/maintained/regularly referred to documents related to my areas of focus. I don’t have a ton of stuff like this right now, but say I was keeping a weight loss journal - I’d put it in here as long as I was actively maintaining it. Let me load up what I’ve got in there now… I have a few notes including the number to call in sick for work (lol), my inventory as an amateur prepper, a list of current cash back deals for my credit cards, and a meal plan. You wouldn’t share anything in here with people besides maybe family.

Resources - This is for all the note takey knowledge worker types to take notes on stuff and share it out. I have nothing in here right now, but as a teacher, this is where I might compile say, lesson ideas or cool articles about teaching. The idea is all of this stuff might be useful for future projects.

Archive - Anything you’re done with, don’t care about, don’t anticipate needing to look at. Resources you’re note interested in anymore, finished projects, discarded Areas or Area related content. Old and static stuff.

EDIT: I want to add that I think within PARA the idea is actually to try not to get hung up on where the perfect spot for something is. Throw it where it feels right with the understanding that you can search for it if you need it.

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That horrifies me to be honest. I can NEVER find ANYTHING via search. If I have to resport to searching I’ve clearly done something horribly wrong. I depend on clean nice buckets for stuff.

Now in Obsidian I now have the option to EASILY put something into 2 indices (my notes that correspond to the equivalent of folders in Obsidian) and I’m finding that in practice notes/items rarely end up in 2 buckets.

For me, if my file system is well defined and clean I never need or use search.

If I start having to search for things I know I have it’s a signal to me to do some investigation into whether I’ve been filing improperly or des it mean my needs have changes and I have to fine tune my filing. It’s almost always one or the other.

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You’d have nightmares if you saw how my students maintain their Google Drives… there were some great articles floating around RE college professors realizing their students don’t know how to use file systems at all these days. That’s freaky.

I don’t think in PARA you’re meant to be TOO devil may care about how stuff is organized. Honestly, most of my stuff is just A-Z in the archive. BUT if you aren’t quite sure if something is an Area or a Resource, I don’t think there’s much to be gained from marinating on it for hours before just filing!

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Here is a link to the article. I haven’t seen this with the college students I’ve taught. They understand folders. The biggest problem I’ve seen is typing commands, but that’s not a generational thing, just a familiarity thing.

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Worth noting: a lot of what’s been said in this conversation centres on different information retrieval strategies. There’s a lot out there on information retrieval—entire textbooks, in fact!—but the advice isn’t often very pragmatic.

For example, Denise Bedford’s Knowledge Architectures book has a chapter on information retrieval, but I can’t exactly recommend it. It isn’t very down-to-Earth. Nonetheless, I like some of the ideas in it.

For example, we all generally do the following “Design activities and tasks for seeking and discovery” (p. 221) with our notes and resources:

  • Activity 1. Identify the knowledge discovery needs
  • Activity 2. Develop profiles of knowledge seeking for business-critical capabilities
  • Activity 3. Inventory sources and design a discovery environment
  • Activity 4. Design an environment for discovery (yes, I know this is repetitive, that’s the book for you…)
  • Activity 5. Design logging capabilities to understand discovery patterns

(1+2.) Basically, we have different knowledge discovery needs, both between us as users and within us as different use-cases. Consider those different needs “profiles.”

(3.) For each profile, we need to understand what information we need, and where that information is stored/generated. That’s the “discovery environment.”

(4.) Designing a discovery environment means e.g., making decisions like the ones we’re talking about here. How should we file away our stuff? What techniques will we use to retrieve the things we store? Here, it’s worth noting that there’s a few well-established patterns for knowledge seeking. Here’s my roughshod personal definitions of a few. (Again, the book doesn’t exactly lay 'em out very well.)
- browsing: looking through information without knowing exactly what we’re looking for until we find it;
- grazing: looking through information to pick bits of useful info from many different places;
- satisficing: looking through information and comparing the results to find the “best” bit of info to resolve the question at hand; and
- searching: looking through information when you know exactly what you’re looking for

Marcia Bates has published about how knowledge seeking tasks are actually usually completed iteratively, using several of these kinds of techniques. This is called “berrypicking.”

(Note that the way I use “search” above doesn’t mean “manually enter text in a text box and let a search engine return matches to that text.” That kind of querying can be used to do all four of the above knowledge seeking tasks.)

(5.) This is the neatest takeaway for me: Bedford encourages us to track what we’re looking for, how we’re looking for it, and what we find. Doing so deliberately may help us realize what knowledge seeking efforts fail, which ones take too much work, and so on, in order to facilitate re-design such that our systems get better over time.


For instance, I often use ideas and definitions from other authors in order to provide background on new papers. My “need” here is therefore citing sources. I don’t usually need exact sentences, though.

So I simply want to have a sense of what the papers I’ve read contain, and I need to be able to quickly find the paper’s metadata. This is a common knowledge-seeking profile for me.

Clearly, one approach to do this would be to go to Google Scholar each time I want to re-find an article. However, that means that I need to tediously use search-querying (and the Internet) every time I want to cite someone. Instead, I create an information source—a reference library—and maintain paper metadata there.

My “discovery environment” for this purpose is therefore a reference manager plus the ways I can look into that reference manager (Bookends, still, for some reason).

However, via reflection on the use of these tools, I have noticed that the context-switching to go find the metadata for the article I’m reading can be costly. Since I am usually reading out of DEVONthink, I designed connections between DEVONthink and Bookends (simple scripts that open the relevant record in either app) so that I can quickly grab citation information and switch back to reading.

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Fun to see Bates evoked here!

For those interested, this video by Dr. Jenna Hartel covers the Bates paper nicely.

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I looked into Johnny Decimal, and it seems like something for people who never actually have to organize any serious amount of information.

They talk about using it for work stuff, for example, and it’s fine until you have to do something like track documents and such for a client’s web dev project. At that point it doesn’t just explode, but does so amazingly quickly. :slight_smile:

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I would mess up one number somewhere, throw everything off, and then spend two days frantically fixing things while neglecting all other aspects of my life.

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