S.P.A.R.T.A. system for organizing my life and work

SPARTA is my own personal method of organising digital information — my notes, knowledge, resources, files — which make up my “Second Brain.” It is based on the concept of PARA developed by Tiago Forte, author of the book Building a Second Brain. I used PARA for a number of years but it wasn’t quite enough for the multiple contexts and types of information. Thus, SPARTA (everyone has a cool acronym, how could I not use something as cool as Sparta?) was born, combining Forte’s PARA method with some ideas from Nick Milo’s A.C.C.E.S.S. and Linking Your Thinking and Andy Matuschak’s Evergreen notes.

Before I dive into the system, let’s take a moment to talk about your system. These ideas might not work for you and that’s OK. I’d invite you to think firstly about your inputs — what types of information comes into your second brain that you need to deal with? For me, the most common inputs include:

  • Web links or web sites I want to refer to
  • Highlights from books, articles, web pages
  • Email
  • Twitter threads
  • Messages
  • Notes from courses, podcasts, books, or other media I’ve consumed
  • Quotes

Think about your inputs or how information comes into your PKM system. That will help you consider which workflows you need (and which you can discard). Some people need something simpler than PARA (borrowing only Projects, Areas and Archive for example) and others need something more than SPARTA.

S.P.A.R.T.A.

Ok, so what is SPARTA?

kick-sparta

SPARTA stands for Spaces, Projects, Areas, Research Material, Types, and Archive, and here’s how it works:

Spaces

We all have unique spaces or context that our lives and work fall into. Personally, I prefer to keep these spaces completely seperate so that I can focus on one space at a time, and not be pulled into notes or distractions from other spaces. For this to work well, I’d suggest no more than 2 or 3 spaces — for example, a personal space, work space, hobby or side hustle, or major project that will last a number of years. It will also work best if these spaces have minimal cross over, or you won’t think you’ll need to link anything from one space to another (e.g. they are very distinct realms of your life). In my case, I have a personal space, work space, and a space for my genealogy research hobby. The work space is my primary second brain. You can accomplish this by using vaults in Obsidian, spaces in Craft, or seperate folders in Finder.

Projects

Tiago describes projects as “a series of tasks linked to a goal, with a deadline” and I don’t deviate too much from this. Projects should have some sort of due date, goal, or end date but everyone’s definition of the world “project” can take on any meaning. Use whatever works for you. A list of projects can be helpful to get a bird’s eye view of what you have on your plate, but I tend to use these for things that require my attention over a period of time, usually at least a few days or longer. If it’s a small project over a day or two, with few tasks, I won’t spend time adding it here (it would take me longer to set everything up than just complete the project). These are mirrored in Craft and Things 3, my task manager of choice.

Areas

Areas are “a sphere of activity with a standard to be maintained over time” according to Tiago. I like to think of these as areas of responsibility or activity that never end (or rarely end). This could include your areas of responsibility, hobbies, or anything else you are interested in learning more about. Areas vs Resources in PARA confuses some people (and confused me in the beginning) so I like to think of areas as long-standing parts of my life and work that need attention — my notes, thoughts, and ideas — compared to interests or topics that may wax and wane (Resources) which are made up of other people’s thoughts and ideas. Another way to think about this is internal vs external. Notes in Areas are for my learning and stay in my PKM and Resources are meant to be shared with others. Examples from my work space might include Team Leader, Counsellor, Clinical Supervisor, Senior Leadership Team, etc whereas in my personal space I have Health, Finances, Home, Spirituality, Relationships, Travel etc

Research Material

Resources in PARA are a “topic or theme of ongoing interest” but I prefer to think of it as Research Material. These are items that I consult when completing Projects or maintaining Areas. I think of these as more ephemeral than Areas — they might come and go but Anything Worth Keeping go here and I’ll consult as needed. I’ll also share these readily with people who request them.

Types

I borrowed this idea from Capacities but it’s a collection of items, organised by type — all the notes from Courses, Highlights, Podcasts, Books, Quotes, Weblinks etc live here. You will of course have you own defined types for your system. My brain tends to remember things based on type, which is why this is an important part of the system. They can either be organised by folders or tags, depending on how your setup is or how much cross-over there is to the other categories. Tip: the benefit of tags is that they can live in more than one place, and you can cross link notes here to notes in any other category.

Archive

I like to think of this as the graveyard — although perhaps not where notes go to die, but to rest. These are “inactive items from the other categories” so if a topic is no longer of use to you from Research Material, or an Area is no longer part of your work responsibility, or you’ve finished a Project, toss it in here. The notes will still be available if that topic, area etc becomes relevant again.

How I tie everything together

The three workhorse tools are Craft, Things 3, and Readwise. Craft is the glue that holds everything together. As you can see, I use a combination of folders and linking — I will link related notes together, as well as create Maps of Content. Readwise is new for me and I’m experimenting but it’s been incredible so far. It’s how all the highlights get in — from physical books, web sites, RSS feeds, pdfs, Raindrop etc. The markdown export is excellent so I can import into Craft. If you use Obsidian it’s even better because there is an automatic sync. I’m still deciding on whether or not to use Finder as a filing cabinet, or to use another app like Notebooks or DEVONthink as mentioned here.

Now, I’m off to put all this into practice some more and see how it unfolds!

18 Likes

Thanks for taking the time to write this out. They’re always helpful to read and I imagine clarifying for you as well. I like your implementation of types, I think my brain works in a similar way but I hadn’t seen anyone lay it out as clearly as you have (particularly with the emojis). I think a lot of people need to slightly modify courses and methodologies to fit their idiosyncrasies and this can be where the wheels come off the bus and people feel frustrated or let down after paying out.

4 Likes

I too enjoy hearing about how other folks accomplish this. Thanks for posting! More food for thought …

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Update: I thought I’d flesh this out a bit further, with some screenshots of my implementation. The key here is to set up SPARTA in every tool or system you use.

Arc

I completely forgot about Arc! I’ve been using this since October and I can’t imagine going back to Safari. Once I got used to having the sidebar on the left and some other quirks, it’s changed how I use a web browser. The Spaces in SPARTA work well here because I can have seperate spaces for private, work, and my genealogy hobby all with their own customisation, pinned folders, profiles etc. It enables me to keep work and personal projects separate and I can focus on “deep work” without the distraction of other spaces. Here’s how my spaces look in Arc:

arcbrowser-spaces

Finder

I set up all my spaces in Finder and added shortcuts to them in the sidebar/favorites. Inside each space folder is the rest of the organisational folders for those spaces - e.g. Projects, Areas, Research Material, Types and Archive. It looks something like this:

Things 3

It should come as no surprise that I use spaces here too! I use the “Areas” function to replicate spaces, so don’t confuse that with the Areas in the SPARTA system. That looks something like this:

The benefit to this is twofold: I can keep all the spaces separate from one another – any tags applied to the space get applied to all projects and tasks in that space. The second benefit is that when I click on each space, I can see a birds eye view of all current projects and tasks within it. You can see how this setup works in my genealogy space:

Raindrop

I use Raindrop.io to organize all of my bookmarks – I like this because it stores a permanent copy of the web page if it goes offline. All bookmarks are oganized into collections by areas – and I use the groups feature to create the spaces.

Craft

Finally, we come to Craft, which is the app I use to tie everything together. First, start by creating your spaces in Craft. The benefit to this in Craft, aside from keeping distinct realms of your life separated, is that spaces in Craft have block limits (I think Pro has 150,000 block limit). I haven’t come up against this limit yet but if you have a work space, personal space etc you will have 150,000 blocks per space.

Here is how I organize the rest of the SPARTA system:

I use a combination of folder-based hierarchical organization and networked thought using backlinks. I find it gives the best of both worlds: Tiago Forte’s PARA system and Nick Milo’s Linking Your Thinking. For further organization, I use Maps of Content (MOCs) to help gather, develop and navigate notes. It helps with idea emergence and they are also helpful when I am feeling overwhelmed and need bottom-up linking to make sense of a current project or area. Then I can pin these important notes to each Area for quick access.

I’m still playing with these ideas but I’m starting 2023 more organized and hopeful than I have in some time. I intent to try it for at least 6 months and see what happens.

7 Likes

This is such a great writeup, and really appreciate the screenshots of how you have things set up in each tool. Definitely want to play around with something like this. I have often found PARA lacking as a total system, so the additional components you’ve added in here bring some clarity I’ve found lacking.

Also nice to see someone who has found Arc as transformative as I have. I will always have a soft spot for Safari as an Apple fanboy, but Arc is just too good to not use.