For all of the time we’ve spent so far discussing various aspects of organizing your digital life, I haven’t focused much on exactly how you might choose to create the structure that keeps your data. How do you choose which folders to create? Or which labels, tags, or categories to apply to documents, emails, notes, and more? Where do you put each digital item so that you know how to find it easily later? A detailed organizational structure will always adapt to fit each person’s goals and personality, but you can save a ton of time by leveraging a tried-and-true system out of the gate. Enter the PARA method.
The PARA method is a high-level organizational system focused on giving you actionable ways to keep track of your data. It has been developed and promoted for a decade by Tiago Forte of Forte Labs as part of a larger program that he calls Building a Second Brain. I first encountered the PARA method about a year ago, and I let it simmer in the back of my mind for a while. Recently, I dug into it more and found it a compelling approach—an intuitive framework for deciding where and how to organize everything digital.
What is the PARA Method?
In Tiago’s own words, PARA is “a simple, comprehensive, yet extremely flexible system for organizing any type of digital information across any platform.” It works based on the idea that literally every piece of information in your life fits into one of four categories:
- Projects: short-term things you’re working on right now that have specific goals
- Areas: long-term responsibilities that you need to manage over time
- Resources: general topics of interest, reference, or learning
- Archives: a project, area, or resource that you don’t need to keep track of anymore
Some of you might be thinking of information in your life that doesn’t fit into those categories. But in those cases, you might benefit from re-evaluating that info. This will help you clarify why you want it and that information might truly add value to your life—or if it’s not actually worth keeping after all. The PARA system forces you to avoid complexity and instead look at your digital data through a simpler lens.
Properly identified, every email, article, newsletter, photo (more on these below), note, document, bookmark, or other digital item fits into one of those buckets. These high-level categories allow you to keep track not only of what data you have but also of that data’s purpose and immediate use (or lack thereof).
The key, as Tiago emphasizes, is to organize your information based on projects and goals, instead of just building a massive categorical system such as you would find in a library:
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.https://fortelabs.com/blog/para
How Does PARA Organization Work?
Although PARA technically comprises four categories, there are basically only three to keep track of. The fourth is just a bucket for any of the other three items that are inactive or completed. The outline below lists a few examples of each major type of information:
- Publish a new website about your cat
- Process and send the month-end accounting report
- Plant new shrubs in the front yard
- Clean the garage
- Personal health and fitness
- Management of subordinates at your place of work
- Keeping track of your finances
- Building relationships with your spouse and kids
- Productivity hacks
- Artificial intelligence chatbots
- Healthy recipes
- Python programming
Identifying Proper PARA Categories
Some things, like those listed above, fall easily into one category or another. However, certain things near and dear to Tidy Bytes readers’ hearts, like “all of my five million photos,” might seem ambiguous. Do photos belong under projects, or under areas? What about an inbox with thousands of emails in it?
Remember to think of your data in terms of projects and goals. Don’t focus on what you have, but rather on what you want to do with it. You can’t just “deal with” a huge mess; you necessarily must have some kind of end goal, a final state that you hope to reach. How do you get there?
PARA Example #1: Email Management
Consider an inbox with a huge number of messages in it. Email by itself is a tool for communication of all kinds. But what do you use it for, specifically? Personal messages, keeping in touch with friends and family, staying on top of work responsibilities, learning new things, receiving news updates, tracking online order statuses, and much more. You can’t put “email” generally into a single project. However, you can think of it as an area of responsibility with ongoing tasks for use and maintenance.
If you’re trying to dig yourself out from under a messy inbox, that (hopefully) one-time process will consist of a number of independent projects. Once you’ve reached that first big goal, staying on top of your inbox will involve repeating many of those same steps on a small scale every time new messages arrive.
Here’s how I might categorize email as a digital organization project for PARA purposes:
- Sign up for Clean Email
- Unsubscribe from unnecessary lists, promotions, and notifications
- Delete messages you don’t need or which have outlived their usefulness
- Label or move messages into a few general folders by sender or content (see below!)
- Schedule 10 minutes every morning for inbox review
However, I’ll make an important distinction here: the PARA application above concerns how to clean your email, but not really how to organize your messages into a logical structure. But of course, the PARA method works for this, too!
On an ongoing basis, you can use PARA to decide where to put your messages, broken down by Projects, Areas, Resources, and Archives. You can create labels (in Gmail) or folders (in Outlook, Apple Mail, etc.) to accommodate any number of these categories. For example:
- Kitchen remodel
- New employee onboarding
- Corporate website redesign
- Beach vacation plans
- Personal finances
- Engineering design consulting
- Home and yard upkeep
- Health and wellness
- Productivity tips
- Updates from online classes and communities
- Tidy Tuesday newsletters 🙂
- Bathroom remodel completed last year
- Product release scrapped last month
- Personal correspondence with friends
As you can see, you can apply the PARA framework at multiple levels, even across some of the same areas. If something doesn’t seem to fit right, try backing away to get a larger view of the topic. If that doesn’t work, narrow your focus slightly to exclude the things that fall outside of what feels natural and intuitive.
PARA Example #2: Photo Management
For another example, the management of a large photo collection fits best into two categories:
- Purge blurry or low-quality photos and videos
- Cull duplicate or redundant photos and videos
- Review facial recognition tagging and confirm or correct as needed
- Move tagged photos into appropriate albums by event or content
- Family memories and history
The “Family memories and history” area of responsibility will probably never be archived, because you’ll always manage it. The projects that comprise photo organization will get done repeatedly as you collect new photos, so they might simply be re-used as-is without archiving them. Or, you might eventually internalize the required steps so they no longer need dedicated projects in your PARA system.
Who Can Benefit From PARA?
Anyone willing to try the PARA method will likely improve in some areas. But you might find that it really “clicks” with your personal organization style. In that case, you can expect a significantly smoother experience staying on top of your digital life.
You might feel like it’s just too simple. That’s okay; even if you don’t apply the technique directly, just being aware of the approach will give you extra ammunition that you can use to attack challenging organization problems. And who knows—like me, you might sleep on it for a few months and ultimately decide it’s a worthwhile framework.
Do One Thing
Think about one of the most stressful or disorganized areas of your life and consider how your goals in that space might fit into the PARA framework. Make a list of projects, areas, resources, and (if applicable) archives for that part of your life.
PARA isn’t a magic bullet, but it can be a powerful tool to improve your focus and give you confidence in your data-taming goals.