Remember filing systems? Even if you still own a filing cabinet, much of your important paperwork is probably now digital. While separating hard copies into the appropriate folders is easy enough, organizing digital files from a range of apps and platforms is a bit more challenging.
No matter who you are, you probably have a wealth of saved digital information that would be more useful if it were better organized. Then, you could clearly see what you need to work on and what resources you have to do it with.
Enter the PARA method: a simple digital filing method that keeps your digital information organized. Developed by leading productivity expert, Tiago Forte, this method is about organization, not productivity.
We’ll break down what the PARA system is, and how it works. Productivity methods and hacks aren’t for everyone, but if you want more details, you can check out Forte’s original explainer.
What Is “Digital Information”?
Even if you still use old-fashioned methods of organizing, like filing systems or desk planners, you probably also have a bunch of digital information you use daily.
This could include anything from interesting articles you’ve saved in various tabs or lists, to project planning on an app like Evernote. Basically, anything you’ve saved digitally because it’s useful or important counts as digital information.
The PARA method specifically helps you organize that information, so it’s not randomly spread out over countless apps and platforms. However, we think you could extend this method to include hard copies, too.
In the bigger picture, the PARA system helps you tackle things more effectively at work and in your personal life. Essentially, it helps you organize everything you have to do and all relevant information connected to it. The method allows you to clearly see what you need to accomplish, when it needs to get done, and how each task relates to your larger goals.
This can turn an overwhelming list of hopes and dreams or to-do projects into a manageable system you can tackle step by step and achieve your goals.
Breaking Down the PARA System
Let’s take a look at how this organization method actually works.
PARA is an acronym for Projects, Areas of Responsibility, Resources, and Archives. According to this system, you put each piece of digital information into one of these categories. Then, you use the four-category filing system across all digital platforms. This allows you to easily track and find whatever you need, no matter which app or system you saved it on.
According to Forte, a Project is a “series of tasks linked to a goal, with a deadline.” Your projects might be work-related or not, but they must be specific, with specific endpoints.
For example, writing a white paper for your employer is a project, but so is a family vacation. You break each project down into the necessary tasks or steps required to complete it.
An Area of Responsibility is a “sphere of activity with a standard to be maintained over time.” Each of your projects falls into an area of responsibility. These areas aren’t specific, deadline-based tasks, though; they’re overarching aspects of your life.
For example, the Project of writing a white paper for work might fall under “marketing,” a work-related Area of Responsibility. Your family vacation Project could fall into “family,” a personal Area of Responsibility.
Everyone will have different Areas of Responsibility depending on their life, goals, and values. You’ll have multiple Areas of Responsibility at work and in your personal life.
A Resource is a “topic or theme of ongoing interest.” These might support your Projects and Areas of Responsibility, or they might simply relate to your interests. Your Resource topics might include things like photography, travel, or cooking.
Lastly, Forte classifies Archives as “inactive items from the other three categories.” When you’ve finished a Project, decided an Area of Responsibility is no longer relevant, or lost interest in a Resource, you move that information to your Archives. It’s no longer useful to you, but you might want to reference it in the future.
How to Implement PARA Step by Step
If you want to give the PARA method a try, here’s how you can implement it.
Separate Projects from Areas of Responsibility
The Resources and Archives areas are pretty straightforward. One thing that trips people up, though, is figuring out 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 these is.
Again, a Project is a specific thing you’re working on that has required tasks and a deadline. An Area of Responsibility is something that’s important in your life or work, but it doesn’t have a deadline.
Once a Project’s deadline has passed, you can move on to the next one. An Area of Responsibility, though, is never finished unless you decide it’s 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 home is an Area of Responsibility. Updating your LinkedIn profile is a project, but social media is an Area of Responsibility.
You can break a Project down into specific tasks with a specific endpoint, but you can’t do that with an Area of Responsibility. It’s an umbrella under which various Projects fall.
If you divide your Projects and Areas of Responsibility, you can clearly see how each individual task relates to a bigger goal. This can make it easier to stay motivated while you work on a tedious project.
Build Your Project List
Now that you better understand the distinction between Projects and Areas of Responsibility, you can start building your Project list. You might already have an idea of what your Areas of Responsibility and Resource topics are. If not, they might become more apparent as you start writing down your Projects.
According to Forte, writing down your Projects is the best way to start. You can include things on your list that you need to get done, and that you want to get done.
You then include this master Project list in any apps, programs, or other digital tools you use.
Add the Other Sections
Next, you add sections for Areas of Responsibility, Resources, and Archives to your digital tools, as well. Where appropriate, 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 it if you need it for a project. And, of course, your Archives is where you send information once you’re done with it.
This way, even if you use more than one digital platform for a Project, you’ll have the information organized the same way for each one.
When you split your information into the four PARA segments on each digital platform, you don’t have to remember a different organization system each time you log in to a different platform. This frees you up 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 tackle your daily tasks in a much more organized way.
Because your Projects are mapped out, you’ll only tackle those that are necessary on any given day. After you complete them, you can reflect a bit on the Areas of Responsibility those projects were in. You’ll be able to see if your Projects are aligning with your goals and values, or if you need to change things so they do.
Meanwhile, your Resources list will keep everything you’re interested in fresh and available, even if it’s not directly related to your current Projects. This gives you a place to store any research or information you’re not immediately using.
Lastly, your Archives will ensure you don’t lose any old information you might need to reference later.
If you use a lot of digital information on many different platforms in your work or daily life, the PARA system might 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 causes you to reflect on your life. Simply taking the time to jot down your Projects and Areas of Responsibility will reveal what’s truly important to you, and what you should focus on. So, whether you decide to use PARA long-term or not, just giving it a shot can be helpful.
If a simple productivity boost is all you need, be sure to check out our list of techniques.