I ended up reading Tiago Forte’s book, Building a Second Brain, solely to understand how to use PARA across many systems. Ultimately, I figured out the best thing is to just try anything to discover what works for me, then adapt the system. PARA is not where I landed, but it still has some good lessons.
Excerpts from TF’s book
- Projects: Short-term efforts in your work or life that you’re working on now. Projects are most actionable because you’re working on them right now and with a concrete deadline in mind.
- Areas: Long-term responsibilities you want to manage over time. Areas have a longer time horizon and are less immediately actionable.
- Resources: Topics or interests that may be useful in the future. Resources may become actionable depending on the situation.
- Archives: Inactive items from the other three categories. Archives remain inactive unless they are needed.
Projects: What I’m Working on Right Now
Projects include the short-term outcomes you’re actively working toward right now. Projects have a couple of features that make them an ideal way to organize modern work. First, they have a beginning and an end; they take place during a specific period of time and then they finish. Second, they have a specific, clear outcome that needs to happen in order for them to be checked off as complete, such as “finalize,” “green-light,” “launch,” or “publish.”
The book was unclear on what goes in projects. In places, it sounds like only current working projects are stored in projects. Potential future projects are kept within Areas. When the time is right, they are promoted out of Areas and into Projects. In other places, he makes it sound like all current and future projects are kept in Projects. In a YouTube video, it looks like the a combination. Most projects are in one list outside of any areas, but a few are organized by area.
Areas: What I’m Committed to Over Time
As important as projects are, not everything is a project. For example, the area of our lives called “Finances” doesn’t have a definite end date. It’s something that we will have to think about and manage, in one way or another, for as long as we live. It doesn’t have a final objective. Even if you win the lottery, you’ll still have finances to manage (and it will probably require a lot more attention!).
While there is no goal to reach, there is a standard that you want to uphold in each of these areas.
Resources: Things I Want to Reference in the Future
The third category of information that we want to keep is resources. This is basically a catchall for anything that doesn’t belong to a project or an area and could include any topic you’re interested in gathering information about.
Under resources I have folders for each of the topics I’m interested in. This information isn’t currently actionable, so I don’t want it cluttering up my projects, but it will be ready and waiting if I ever need it.
Archives: Things I’ve Completed or Put on Hold
Finally, we have our archives. This includes any item from the previous three categories that is no longer active.
The archives are an important part of PARA because they allow you to place a folder in “cold storage” so that it doesn’t clutter your workspace, while safekeeping it forever just in case you need it.
What PARA Looks Like: A Behind-the-Scenes Snapshot
PARA is a universal system of organization designed to work across your digital world. It doesn’t work in only one place, requiring you to use completely different organizing schemes in each of the dozens of places you keep things.
Instead of organizing ideas according to where they come from, I recommend organizing them according to where they are going—specifically, the outcomes that they can help you realize. This order gives us a convenient checklist for deciding where to put a note, starting at the top of the list and moving down:
- In which project will this be most useful?
- If none: In which area will this be most useful?
- If none: Which resource does this belong to?
- If none: Place in archives.
So… that said… I found what works for me is…
Don’t waste time looking for the perfect system. It doesn’t exist. Use something (GTD, Forte’s, whatever) and adapt the system when your needs don’t fit it.
Every system is likely going to have these same components.
- inboxes (email, Slack, meeting notes, etc)
- notes where most of the thinking is recorded
- task lists to prioritize what needs to be done
- calendar for scheduled appointments and time blocks
- file folders to keep necessary files (unfortunately, I cannot get away from using many - DropBox, iCloud, OneDrive and Google Drive)
Each of these easily overflows and so needs to be organized.
Tiago Forte’s CODE (Capture, Organize, Distill, Express) framework is analgous enough to David Allen’s CCORE (Capture, Clarify, Organize, Review, Engage), though I prefer the latter.
Information usually comes in through email, but it can arrive via Slack, conversations, meetings, phone calls or any other means. At this point, this information needs to be clarified and properly stored. Then the input can be archived. We hopefully won’t be looking at that input again.
If the email requires no further work, archive or delete it. If it does require more work:
- store initial ideas in a note (named for the project)
- make a project in your task manager for it (link the task to the note)
- save any files somewhere easily found (put a link in the note)
- store the email (we may need to come back to it, but probably not)
ORGANIZE (Simplified PARA)
Projects, Domains, Library and Archive
Tiago Forte recommends storing everything in analagous organization systems within email, tasks, notes and files. This is where he uses the PARA system. Not every system (email, tasks, notes and files) needs each element of PARA.
- Emails are archived into appropriately named folders within areas. There’s no need for projects or reference here.
- Tasks are created within areas. Once done, they are not archived nor stored for reference. If needed, they are available in the log of completed tasks (though Things makes searching this harder than it needs to be)
- Notes are stored within folders named for areas. Old notes of completed projects can be moved to an archive, but in practice I keep it all together
- Files are all basically there for reference and stored within folders named for projects within areas. Old projects (and their files) can be archived but in practice I just leave it all in one place to keep things simple.
So then there is no need for a separate projects folder. Put everything in its area and the task manager will tell you what’s up next. Areas contain all the projects and reference material. Archive stores old emails and old projects.
||everything is organized by area
||all is archived
||all is reference, old stuff archived?
||all are projects/tasks
||all project & reference notes stored together, old stuff archived?
All I really need are areas with nested projects.
Tiago Forte has several great videos on how he completes his weekly review. Deciding what to do next.
- Clear email inbox
- Check calendar (-2/+4 weeks)
- Clear physical inbox/notebook
- Clear computer desktop/downloads
- NAB budget review
- Process Evernote inbox
- Prioritize and file new open loops
- Review Waiting For list followup
- Review Photos for images
- Choose Today tasks
Go do stuff! Don’t waste time organizing my pens… just start writing.