Imagine for a moment the perfect organizational system.
A system that told you exactly where to put every piece of information in your life – every document, file, note, agenda, outline, and bit of research – and exactly where to find it when you needed it.
Such a system would need to be incredibly easy to set up, and even easier to maintain. After all, only the simplest, most effortless habits endure long term.
It would need to be both flexible, adapting to your needs in different seasons of your life, but also comprehensive, so you can use it in every one of the many places where you store information, such as your computer’s file system, a cloud storage platform (e.g., Dropbox or Google Drive), or a digital notetaking app.
But most of all, the ideal organizational system would be one that leads directly to tangible benefits in your career and life. It would dramatically accelerate you toward completing the projects and achieving the goals that are most important to you.
In other words, the ultimate system for organizing your life is one that is actionable.
Instead of putting more obstacles in your way, postponing the actions that will make a difference, it would pull those actions closer and make them easier to start and finish.
After more than a decade of personal experimentation, teaching thousands of students, and coaching world-class professionals, I’ve developed such a system.
It’s called PARA – a simple, comprehensive, yet extremely flexible system for organizing any type of digital information across any platform.
I promise you that it will not only bring order to your life, but equip you with a set of tools for skillfully mastering the flow of information to achieve anything you set your mind to.
4 Categories to Encompass Your Entire Life
PARA is based on a simple observation: that there are only four categories that encompass all the information in your life.
You have projects you’re actively working on – short-term efforts (in your work or personal life) that you take on with a certain goal in mind. For example:
- Complete webpage design
- Buy a new computer
- Write research report
- Renovate the bathroom
- Finish Spanish language course
- Set up new living room furniture
You have areas of responsibility – important parts of your work and life that require ongoing attention. These might include:
- Work responsibilities such as Marketing, Human Resources, Product Management, Research and Development, Direct Reports, or Engineering
- Personal responsibilities such as Health, Finances, Kids, Writing, Car, or Home
Then you have resources on a range of topics you’re interested in and learning about, such as:
- Graphic design
- Personal productivity
- Organic gardening
- Modern architecture
- Web design
- Japanese language
- French literature
- Habit formation
- Marketing assets
Finally, you have archives, which include anything from the previous three categories that is no longer active, but you might want to save for future reference:
- Projects you’ve completed or put on hold
- Areas that are no longer active or relevant
- Resources that you’re no longer interested in
And that’s it! Four top-level folders – Projects, Areas, Resources, and Archives – each containing a small number of subfolders dedicated to each active project, area of responsibility, resource, and archive in your life.
It may be difficult to believe that a complex, modern human life like yours can be reduced to just four categories. It may feel like you have far more to deal with than can fit into such a simple system.
But that is exactly the point: if your organizational system is as complex as your life, then the demands of maintaining it will end up robbing you of the time and energy you need to live that life.
The system you use to organize information has to be so simple that it frees up your attention, instead of taking more of it. Your system has to give you time, not take time.
The Key Principle – Organizing Information By Your Projects And Goals
Most of us first learned how to organize information in school. We were taught to categorize our class notes, handouts, and study material by academic subject, such as Math, History, or Chemistry.
But then without realizing it, we took that same approach into adulthood. We continued to categorize our documents and files according to incredibly broad subjects like “Marketing,” “Psychology,” “Business,” or “Ideas.”
This makes zero sense in your post-academic career. In the workplace, there are no classes, no tests, no grades, and no diplomas. No teacher is going to tell you what to write down for the final exam, because there isn’t one.
What you do have, both at work and in life, are outcomes you are trying to achieve. You are trying to launch a new product, plan a family vacation, come to a crucial decision, find daycare in your neighborhood, publish a new piece of writing, or reach a quarterly sales number.
In the midst of your busy day, as you are trying to make these things happen, you absolutely do not have time to go rummaging through a vast category like “Psychology” to find the one piece of information you need.
Instead of organizing information according to broad subjects like in school, I advise you to organize it according to the projects and goals you are committed to right now. This is what it means to “organize by actionability,” a mantra I will return to again and again throughout this book.
When you sit down to work on a graphic design project, for example, you will need all the notes, documents, assets, and other material related to that project all in one place and ready to go.
That might seem obvious, yet it is exactly the opposite of what most people do. Most people tend to spread out all the relevant material in a dozen different places that would take them half an hour just to locate.
How do you make sure that all the material related to each project or goal is all in one place? You organize it that way in the first place. That way you’ll know exactly where to put everything, and exactly where to find it.
The Power of Organizing By Project
For several years, I worked as a productivity coach in the San Francisco Bay Area. It was the peak of the tech boom, and high-powered professionals from some of the world’s most influential companies were looking for any edge in their performance. I was happy to oblige.
I coached several executives at a well-known biotech firm in South San Francisco, on a beautiful campus overlooking the bay. I remember one beautiful spring day I was waiting for my next client, a Senior Director in charge of developing several new life-saving pharmaceuticals.
Once he arrived, our coaching session started like every other, with a simple question of mine: “Do you have a project list?”
When working with a client as a productivity coach, one of the first things I will always ask them is to show me their project list. I need it to get a sense of what kind of work they do, their current workload, and what priorities and outcomes they are trying to move forward.
He said “Sure!” and, after jotting down a quick list from memory (the first warning sign), handed me a list like this:
Do you see the problem? Look again closely.
Not a single item on this list is a project, according to our earlier definition. Does “strategic planning” ever end for good? Is there ever a time when you can permanently cross off “vacations” from your list? Hopefully not!
Every item on this list is, in fact, an area of responsibility. This might seem like semantics, but it’s anything but. I’ve learned that no matter how smart or driven you are, there are two critical things you cannot do until you break down your areas of responsibility into specific projects.
1. You Can’t Truly Know the Extent of Your Commitments
One of the most common complaints I hear from people is that they “have no bandwidth.” And I sympathize – how much of the time does it feel like you have way too much on your plate?
But as long as you view your work through the lens of areas, you’ll never quite know just how much is on your plate. Looking at the list above, how much of a workload does “Hiring” represent? It could be anything from a part-time hire every 6 months to filling 50 positions this quarter.
There’s simply no way to know at a glance, and that uncertainty will manifest itself as every area feeling more burdensome than it really is.
Imagine if you identified each of the projects within Hiring, and kept that list in front of you every day. Wouldn’t it be so much easier to tell how much there is left to do, and what you should do next? For example:
2. You Can’t Connect Your Current Efforts to Your Long-Term Goals
One of the most challenging (but also rewarding) aspects of knowledge work is that it requires our creativity. And creativity can’t really be sustained without a sense of motivation. You can’t keep doing your best thinking and contributing your best ideas if you’re burned out and demoralized.
What does our motivation depend on? Mostly, on making consistent progress. We can endure quite a bit of stress and frustration in the short term if we know it’s leading somewhere.
Which brings us to our second problem: without a list of individual projects, you can’t connect your current efforts to your long-term goals.
Look at the list above again. None of the items on it will end or change – that’s the definition of an area of responsibility, that it continues indefinitely. Now imagine the psychological effect of waking up week after week, month after month, and even year after year to the exact same list of never-ending responsibilities. No matter how hard you work, the endless horizon never seems to get any closer.
Honestly, I couldn’t design a better way to kill your motivation if I tried.
When you break down your responsibilities into bite-sized projects, you ensure that your project list is constantly turning over. This turnover creates a cadence of regular victories that you get to celebrate every time you successfully complete a project. Imagine how motivated and accomplished you’d feel by breaking out the broad area of “Events” into each individual event you’re running:
No matter how wide-ranging your responsibilities are, you can always break them down into smaller projects. And you must, if you want to know whether you’re actually making progress toward your goals.
Getting Organized For the Life You Want to Lead
Using PARA is not just about creating a bunch of folders to put things in.
It is about identifying the structure of your work and life—what you are committed to, what you want to change, and where you want to go. It is about organizing information in such a way that it supports and calls into being the future life you want to lead.
So much of what we call “organizing” is essentially procrastination in disguise. We tell ourselves we’re “getting ready” or “doing research,” pretending like it’s progress. When in reality, we are seeking any little thing we can polish or tidy to avoid having to face the task we are dreading.
PARA cuts through this facade, giving us a method for organizing anything that is so radically simple, there is no excuse and nothing left to do except the next essential step. It is a minimalistic way to add just enough order to your environment that you have the clarity to move forward, and no more.
There are other more complex, sophisticated, and specialized ways of organizing information out there, but PARA is the only one that stands the test of time because it gives you more time than it takes.
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