Remember filing systems? Even if you still have a filing cabinet, a large part of your important documents is probably now digital. While separating hard copies into the appropriate folders is fairly easy, organizing digital files from a range of applications and platforms is a little more difficult.
No matter who you are, you probably have a wealth of digital information stored that would be more useful if it were better organized. Then you can clearly see what you need to work on and what resources you need to do it with.
Enter the PARA method: a simple digital filing method that organizes your digital information. Developed by a leading productivity expert, Tiago Forte, this method concerns organization and not productivity.
What is “digital information”?
Even if you still use old-fashioned organizational methods like filing systems or office planners, you probably also have a lot of digital information that you use every day.
This can include everything from interesting articles you’ve saved in various tabs or lists, to project planning on an app like Evernote. Basically anything that you have digitally saved because it is useful or important counts as digital information.
The PARA method specifically helps you organize this information, so that it is not distributed randomly across countless applications and platforms. However, we think you can extend this method to include hard copies as well.
Overall, the PARA system helps you manage things more effectively at work and in your personal life. Basically, it helps you organize everything you have to do and all the relevant information related to it. The method allows you to see clearly what you need to accomplish, when it needs to be done, and how each task relates to your larger goals.
This can turn an overwhelming list of hopes and dreams or projects into a manageable system that you can take step by step and achieve your goals.
Breaking the PARA system
Let’s see how this organizational method actually works.
PARA is an acronym for projects, areas of responsibility, resources and archives. Under this system, you place each piece of digital information in one of these categories. Then you use the four-category ranking system on all digital platforms. This allows you to easily track and find everything you need, regardless of the application or system on which you saved it.
According to Forte, a project is a “series of tasks linked to an objective, with a deadline”. Your projects may or may not be work related, but they must be specific, with specific endpoints.
For example, writing a white paper for your employer is a project, just like family vacations. You divide each project into tasks or steps necessary to complete it.
An area of responsibility is an “area of activity with a standard to be maintained over time”. Each of your projects falls within an area of responsibility. These areas are not, however, specific tasks based on deadlines; these are essential aspects of your life.
For example, the plan to write a white paper for work may fall under “marketing”, an area of responsibility related to work. Your family vacation plan could fall into “family”, an area of personal responsibility.
Everyone will have different areas of responsibility depending on their life, their goals and their values. You will have several areas of responsibility at work and in your personal life.
A resource is a “subject or topic of permanent interest”. These can support your projects and areas of responsibility, or may simply relate to your interests. Your resource topics may include things like photography, travel or cooking.
Finally, Forte classifies the archives as “inactive elements of the other three categories”. When you finish a project, decide that an area of responsibility is no longer relevant or lose interest in a resource, you transfer this information to your archives. It is no longer useful to you, but you may want to refer to it in the future.
How to implement PARA step by step
If you want to try the PARA method, here’s how you can implement it.
Separate projects from areas of responsibility
The Resources and Archives areas are fairly simple. One thing that makes people travel, however, is to understand the difference between a project and an area of responsibility. So a good place to start is to make sure you have a clear idea of what each of them is.
Again, a project is something specific that you are working on that requires tasks and time. An area of responsibility is something important in your life or work, but it does not have a deadline.
Once the deadline for one project has passed, you can move on to the next. An area of responsibility, however, is never completed unless you decide it is no longer important.
For example, creating a budget is a project, but personal finance is an area of responsibility. Redecorating your living room is a project, but the house is an area of responsibility. Update your LinkedIn Profile is a project, but social media is an area of responsibility.
You can break down a project into specific tasks with a specific endpoint, but you cannot do it with an area of responsibility. It is an umbrella under which various projects are inscribed.
If you divide your projects and areas of responsibility, you can clearly see how each individual task relates to a larger goal. This can help keep you motivated while you are working on a tedious project.
Build your list of projects
Now that you understand better the distinction between projects and areas of responsibility, you can start building your list of projects. You may already have an idea of your areas of responsibility and your resources. Otherwise, they might become more apparent when you start writing your projects.
According to Forte, writing your projects is the best way to start. You can include items on your list that you need to do, and you want to to do it.
You then include this master list of projects in any applications, programs, or other digital tools you use.
Add the other sections
Then you also add sections for areas of responsibility, resources and archives to your digital tools. If necessary, you can organize your projects according to their areas of responsibility. Then you can store interesting information or ideas in a Resources section, so you can quickly locate them if you need them for a project. And, of course, your records are where you send information after you’re done.
This way, even if you are using multiple digital platforms for a project, the information will be organized the same for everyone.
When you divide your information into four PARA segments on each digital platform, you don’t have to remember a different organizational system each time you connect to a different platform. This allows you to focus on the task at hand rather than trying to remember where your information is.
How to use your PARA system
When you start using this system, you can approach your daily tasks in a much more organized way.
Because your projects are defined, you will only attack those that are necessary on a given day. Once you finish them, you can think about the areas of responsibility in which these projects were located. You will be able to see if your projects match your goals and values, or if you need to change things for them to do so.
During this time, your list of resources will keep everything that interests you fresh and available, even if it is not directly related to your current projects. This allows you to store any research or information that you don’t use immediately.
Finally, your records will ensure that you don’t lose any old information that you may need to reference later.
If you use a lot of digital information on many different platforms in your work or everyday life, the PARA system can help you stay organized. It won’t work for everyone, but it has a lot of potential.
In addition to helping you stay organized, the PARA method also makes you think about your life. Just taking the time to write down your plans and areas of responsibility will reveal what is really important to you and what you should focus on. So whether you decide to use PARA for the long term or not, just give it a shot.
If a simple boost in productivity is all you need, be sure to check our list of techniques.