The PARA Method by Tiago Forte – Summary and Book Notes

These are my personal notes on Tiago Forte’s book The PARA Method: Simplify, Organize, and Master Your Digital Life.

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02/21/2024 05:59 am GMT

The PARA Method is a book on how to organize the information (mostly digital) that comes into your life. The actual PARA method is a system of five folders – Projects, Areas, Resources, Archives, and an Inbox (which is not represented in the PARA acronym).

PARA acts as a simple, flexible, and tool-agnostic system that gives you clarity as to where each piece of information that comes into your life should go. PARA is all about action – each folder denotes a different level of actionability.

  1. What’s not active should be out of sight. PARA simply gives you a super-simple framework that makes it easy to know how to follow this principle.
  2. Organize according to actionability. Projects are the most actionable. Areas (ongoing areas of responsibility with a standard you need to maintain) are slightly less actionable since they don’t have an end goal. Resources are mostly not actionable, and Archives are not actionable at all (until a later date when you may pull something out of the Archive because it’s relevant again).
  3. Keep information flowing. There’s no one perfect place for information – the right place for it depends on your relationship to it right now, and how actionable it is.
  4. Declare information bankruptcy and do a reset by Archiving everything and starting from scratch. This eliminates baggage and helps you stay nimble and focused. What’s in the Archive is just in cold storage; it’s not gone.
  5. Organizational frameworks like PARA will become less and less important over time as search and (especially) AI continue to become more powerful and ubiquitous in our tools.

I add a lot of my own thoughts and observations to my book notes. You’ll see these in italics.

PARA is a system of four “folders” (which can also be tags, labels, database properties, etc) that capture and store all the information that comes into your digital life:

  1. Projects – Short term efforts with a defined goal and estimated timeframe
  2. Areas – Long-term areas of responsibility with a standard to be maintained
  3. Resources – Topics and interests you have, where you don’t have the responsibility to maintain a standard
  4. Archives – Inactive/irrelevant items from the other three categories

PARA is intentionally simple, because complexity introduces friction.

“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 map is not the territoryA map that is 1:1 with the territory it represents is not useful, as it would lay across that very territory like a sheet. The value in a map is in its abstraction and simplification of the territory. These are what allow us to reason about the territory and navigate it more easily.

Key principle in PARA is organizing by Projects and Goals

  1. Focusing on outcomes you want to achieve

Tiago pushes against classic, categorical organization – i.e. subject-based, like school notes, or like the Dewey Decimal System

  1. You don’t have time to rummage through a giant folder labeled “psychology” to find something relevant to the project you’re working on.
  2. This is an area that AI will completely change. The power of models that can generate embeddings and run vector-similarity calculations will fundamentally change the way that we access information in the future. Hierarchical, tree-like navigation will become far less important.

The point of PARA, from an action-oriented standpoint, is to help you gather all of the relevant information for a project in a single place – and keep irrelevant information out of sight when you need to focus on that project.

People often say “I have no bandwidth” because they don’t even know how much is on their plate. This is due to the fact that they aren’t clear on what their Projects are (and often can’t separate actual projects from Areas.

Motivation depends 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.”

  1. Related to my theory that motivation and happiness are driven by anticipation of positive change.

Much of what we call “organizing” is actually just procrastination. We’re “getting ready” or “doing research”, but in reality we’re just looking for something to tidy, which will make us feel good even though we’re not doing the thing we’re actually supposed to be doing.

  1. Being self-aware here: Me taking notes on this book is a form of tidying. I probably already know enough to finish writing my article on PARA, and probably could have made it very helpful without reading the whole book and especially without taking notes on it. But my brain is telling me that “reading the whole book will help me uncover blind spots, challenge my assumptions, and ensure I don’t skip out on really important details.” How true is that?

The point of PARA is to make organization so simple that there is nothing left to do but the next essential step.

Clear out all the old stuff. Start by taking everything and putting it into an Archive folder.

I roughly did this when I transitioned from Evernote to Notion. I didn’t try to import my whole Evernote workspace to Notion. I just started putting new stuff in Notion. Every so often, I go to Evernote to grab something that’s relevant again. The entire app functions as an Archive.

Set up PARA in three steps:

  1. Archive existing files
    1. Put everything in a folder called “Archive [today’s date]”
      1. Note that this method isn’t always right for every situation. For example, moving video project folders will cause media links to break in video editing apps like Premiere Pro. If you need to open old projects or import them into newer projects (so you can, say, re-use assets), this practice can add more friction than its worth. PARA should be implemented and tweaked on a case by case basis.
  2. Create project folders
    1. Create a folder literally called Projects
      1. Each sub-folder should be related to a short-term project with a clear end goal
      2. These should represent what you’re actively working on right now.
  3. Create additional folders as needed (ad-hoc basis)
    1. Don’t try to set up all the Area and Resource folders you think you’ll need.
    2. Tiago tells a story about an engineering firm he worked with. Later, he found that engineers were wasting time navigating through all these empty folders that had been pre-set up, but weren’t being used.
    3. Rule: Never create an empty folder (or tag) before you have something to put in it.
      1. This has parallels to JIT (Just In Time) practices. We practiced this in the IT support desk I worked at in college. New KB articles were created immediately after solving an issue for a customer that didn’t already have a KB article. This ensures that the article gets created (it was a rule), and that the article has a best chance of accurately explaining the fix, since the author had just successfully implemented it for a customer.
      2. This also reminds me of Desire Paths – a building strategy where a planner doesn’t create sidewalks right away. Instead, the planner lets people walk where they want, which will naturally lead to “deer paths” being worn into the ground. Then the planner simply has concrete paths poured along those deer paths.
        1. I’ve noticed in places where they don’t do this, you often see the deer paths cutting across grass areas because people ignore the pre-planned paths.
      3. We can also note that this is an example of a bottom-up strategy.

Digital files don’t take up physical space, so it’s easy to accumulate a ton.

Keeping everything eats away at your attention, which is worth more than physical space.

Archives are “cold storage” for your digital files and information

You should think carefully about what goes into your PARA folders

  1. I want to figure out how to make this vibe with quick-capture strategies. Should people be auto-capturing to PARA folders?
    1. In many cases yes – i.e. capturing to a “swipe file”
    2. But if done wrong, this could clutter the folder with haphazardly-captured information that you don’t actually care about long-term
    3. In Ultimate Brain, we mitigate against this by separating Notes and Web Clips. Most of what you’ll quick-capture is a Web Clip, meaning your deliberately-captured Notes are separated. You can also mark things as Favorites, so they show up in Resource Favorites.

Starting this process gives you a change to wipe the slate clean and reboot your whole digital organization system.

  1. Create an inbox
    1. Inboxes are default capture destinations that take the guesswork out of where you should capture something when you’re busy.
    2. Later, you can process the inbox – complete tasks, move items into PARA folders, etc.
    3. From my experience, you should often just bulk-archive stuff in your inboxes as well. I’ll often go through busy periods where stuff will pile up, and I do not have the energy to sort through it all. In these cases, it’s best to just archive it all. It’s still there, in the Archive folder!
  2. Number the folders – this keeps them in the correct order even when your computer is sorting alphabetically
    1. Inbox
  3. Use a naming convention. Tiago uses:
    1. Emoji before Project names → “🎥 Set Up YouTube Studio”
    2. Capitalized Area names → “Health”
    3. Lowercase Resource names → “guitar”
    4. In Notion, breadcrumbs also serve this purpose, as do database properties. I can easily set up my Notion system to show me clear labeling for each “folder”.
  4. Activate offline mode
    1. When you need to get something done, disable the internet on your device and just use your PARA assets to complete the task.
    2. This might not always be feasible (i.e. Notion is not really an offline tool), but the general idea still applies: Reduce distractions and potential sources of interruption as much as you can.
  5. Make backups
    1. If you’re using a cloud tool, it’s often doing this for you (e.g. Notion’s page history feature, Google Drive’s deletion protection)
    2. Personally, I use Google Drive for most files. I maintain offline copies on one computer (my main one at the office, which has a 4TB hard drive), and use Backblaze as an insurance policy. Since I have two separate companies in my cloud backup strategy, I don’t tend to do offline, separate-media backups anymore (e.g. backing up to an external hard drive or NAS).
  6. In this chapter, Tiago also notes that you don’t have to be super-rigid about PARA.
    1. He says it doesn’t matter that you perfectly put each file in the right place, nor that you use the exact PARA folder structure.
    2. Something Tiago told me directly in a DM:
      • There are different kinds of archives that you can create while preserving the principle of “what’s not active should be out of sight.”
      • Sometimes I’ll recommend keeping an archive within a project folder (if previous iterations of a thing need to be kept close together with the current iteration, for ex)
      • In other cases I’ll recommend creating an archive within an area folder, if you don’t want the things you’re completing in that area to be mixed in with archived projects. I do this with finished blog posts for ex
      • And sometimes there is an archive folder that is like a “super archive,” keeping together a collection of archived items that are related. For ex, every past year of taxes which you likely want all in one place.
    3. In truth, that bolded principle is the most important concept in the book. What’s not active should be out of sight. PARA simply gives you a framework that helps you maintain this principle without too much mental overhead.

5 minute, weekly process for maintaining the system:

  1. Retitle new items in your inbox – if items have generic titles, make them more descriptive
    1. There may be several inboxes to check – Notion, actual computer folders, etc.
  2. Sort new items into PARA folders
    1. Where to put information:
      1. If it will help move a project/goal forward → Projects
      2. If it will help uphold a standard in an area of responsibility → Areas
      3. If it supports an interest you have → Resources
      4. If none of these, delete the item (or send to Archive if you want).
  3. Update your active projects
    1. Change the name/description if needed
    2. Check off any done tasks
    3. Split a larger project into smaller ones if needed
    4. Unarchive dormant projects that have become relevant again
    5. Archive projects that aren’t relevant anymore
      1. But before doing this, go through and move any items that should be moved to Areas or Resources
      2. In Notion, you can easily just add extra tags or database property choices.

Start with the Archives when setting up new Projects

  1. Your archives are always a source of useful information and context that will benefit your new projects. They represent the sum total of your experiences and learnings.

“There is tremendous power in changing your organizational systems to fit your evolving needs and goals, instead of trying to force your needs and goals to fit your system.”

Project: A goal with a deadline

  1. Projects need to have a goal – something that you can confidently mark as “complete”
  2. They also need a timeframe by which you’d like the Project done.
    1. It’s ok if you can’t perfectly predict the actual deadline or done-date, but you should have an idea of a timeframe.
  3. Example: “Set up studio gym” is a project. I can give it both required elements:
    1. “Set up a gym space in the studio with a power rack, dumbbells, and accessories including bands. Have this set up by next Friday.”
    2. I can then split this project down into discrete tasks – lay down rubber flooring, get power rack and weights from storage unit, assemble power rack, set up dumbbell rack, hang gymnastic rings, mount whiteboard to wall for noting PRs and other details.

Area: An area of responsibility with a standard to be maintained over time

  1. Areas have a standard to be maintained indefinitely.
  2. Example: “Health” can be an Area with standards – e.g. I want to make sure I get yearly checkups and inoculations, maintain workout schedule, maintain a 1,000lb powerlifting total, cook at home at least 4 nights a week, etc.
  3. In business, “Customer Service” could be an area with standards – e.g. Maintain 24-hour response-time standard, aim for one new testimonial per week/per product, ensure documentation is created for all new/undocumented customer issues.

Projects are sprints; Areas are marathons. Some people are better at sprints; others are better at marathons, but skill in both is crucial. PARA helps you to distinguish which strategy should be used for specific actions.

This is simple; it depends on your relationship to the information.

If it pertains to something you’re directly responsible for, it goes in an Area.

If it’s just about something you’re interested in, it goes in a Resource.

Resources can be:

  1. New skills you’re trying to learn or hobbies you’re picking up (rock climbing, Blender, classical guitar)
  2. Topics you want to learn about (Linear algebra, machine learning, marketing psychology, octopuses)
  3. Assets you want to collect – i.e. swipe files (Example: My thumbnail gallery)

Resources should be shareable, while Areas should be private

  1. Info in Areas is related to the standard you’re maintaining, so typically it’s not info you’ll be sharing (at least publicly – you may need to share it with a team)

Best line in the chapter:

“The line between Areas and Resources is an opportunity to be completely honest with yourself: What is inside the circle of your responsibilities, which no one else is going to care of for you, and what is outside?”

Keep the system architecture consistent

  1. If you implement different organizational architecture across each platform you use, you’ll incur cognitive penalties when trying to navigate them.

PARA is designed to be platform-agnostic so you can maintain this consistency

Again, realize that this may be at odds with the specifics of your platforms and workflows. E.g. my architecture in Notion is going to be different than my computer’s folder structure to some degree, because Notion functions differently and gives me tools that my file system doesn’t have – e.g. database views that let me view files in different contexts.

Tiago has a “storage flowchart” for deciding which tool to use for each type of information:

  1. Appointments/meetings → Calendar
  2. Task → Task management app
  3. Piece of text → Note-taking app
  4. Content for collaboration → Cloud storage drive
  5. All others → Computer file system

For comparison, this is mine. The main differences are that I use Notion for both tasks and notes, and I put nearly everything in cloud storage.

  1. Appointment/meeting → Calendar
  2. Task, text, etc → Notion
  3. All files → Cloud storage drive (except for massive video files, which go on our server)
    1. Nearly all files go into Google Drive – but I have separation between folders that are shared with my team and private folders.

You do not need to perfectly sync your folders across all platforms. This would be a bad idea, because some platforms would have nothing in many of the folders.

  1. E.g. cloud storage might have a “Zoom call recordings” folder, but the task management app would not need that folder.

This chapter deals with how to maintain your PARA system long-term. The main idea: Keep information flowing.

PARA is meant to be dynamic, and where information should live at any given time is based on your current relationship to it.

PARA is about actionability – e.g. Projects are actionable, Areas less so, Resources hardly at all, and Archive items not at all.

But you can move items between folders as your relationship to them changes.

  1. Example: You might get a promotion to a new position in your job, which comes with a new project. Notes you’ve taken in the past, which are currently in the Archive, now become relevant again. So you can move them to a Project folder.
    1. In Notion, you can also simply add a Relation to your Project page! No need to actually move anything.

Four options for how you can associate existing information to a different PARA “folder”:

  1. Actually move the item to a different folder
  2. Move an entire folder of items
  3. Link items together (e.g. backlinking in Obsidian, or setting a Relation property in Notion).
  4. Tagging items

The one thing you shouldn’t do is actually duplicate items.

Take a bottom-up approach. Don’t try to impose a complex structure on your team all at once.

Related ideas: Desire Paths and JIT (Just-in-Time)

The way to implement this approach:

  1. Get clear on the way your org wants to use PARA
    1. Create a PARA playbook for your company to answer questions: What defines a project, area, resource, and archive? What’s our process for kicking off a new project and considering it active? What platforms do we use?
  2. Train your staff on how to use PARA
    1. You need to teach your team how PARA works, and also how you’ll use it as a team (what customizations you’ll make to the base system).
    2. As I’ve learned, this kind of training is a requirement when you’re working with a team, no matter what system you’re using (even if it’s not PARA). You can’t expect a team to work smoothly together without being trained on the processes and habits that will allow you to actively work as a UNIT. If you ignore this, you’ll have a group of people all trying to do things their own way.
    3. Parallel idea: I believe the book Stealing Fire has a whole section about how Navy SEALs go through incredibly rigorous training in order to work so cohesively as a unit that verbal communication is not even needed in combat situations.
  3. Keep your shared platforms limited to shared projects and information. Keep information that doesn’t need to be shared out of these platforms, and in your private accounts.
    1. This is mostly for clarity, and for not overwhelming the team. But it will also help you to ensure private information remains private. In general, you don’t want to get used to using shared platforms to capture personal information.
    2. Side note: I used to really want to build a perfect “single system” where I could manage my personal and team information all in one place. Perhaps one of the biggest ways Tiago’s work has impacted me is in getting me to abandon this desire. While it sounds good at first glance, it would also likely create too much organizational overhead and crossover for teams. In general, I now think it’s better to maintain separate systems for yourself and for your team efforts – even if that does mean occasionally having to move items between the systems.
  4. Encourage a culture of writing
    1. A document or note is essentially a message being sent through time to a recipient in the future. That might be your future self, or it may be a team member.
    2. For effective communication, the message must be high-quality:
      1. Interesting and attention-grabbing
      2. Precise and clear
      3. Empathetic
      4. Helps solve a problem
      5. Inspires people to take action
      6. Side note: Content creators would do well to think about all of these criteria when making content for a wider audience.
    3. You can encourage this in your team by:
      1. Setting the example (and making sure everyone in senior leadership does)
      2. Incentivizing high-quality writing
      3. Providing good feedback
      4. Setting aside time for writing
        1. Coming back to an earlier example: At the IT Help Desk, when a new customer problem was solved, you had to take yourself out of the phone queue so you could write the new Knowledge Base article. Our process built time for writing directly into our operations – we weren’t expected to do this writing while other work was piling up or interrupting us.
      5. Standardize – adopt standard terms and create templates
        1. Example: In our company Knowledge Base in Notion, we have documentation templates that have sections for verification by staff, detailed process information, and AI-generated summary/action item lists (that need to be verified as working by the document author).

First step to doing a digital reset is to create a project list. Go through this exercise:

  1. List all current projects going on in your life
  2. Identify a clear goal for each project (prevents you from moving forward with “projects” like “stay healthy” or “read more”
  3. Add deadlines or timeframes (you don’t have to meet these, but it’s important to set an expectation of when each project should be completed)
  4. Prioritize the list
  5. Reevaluate the entire project list (what can you realistically get done in X time period? This could be planning out a 3-month sprint or planning out your week)

Major takeaway: Most people who do this exercise with Tiago realize that they’re trying to do too much. The next logical step for them would be to choose the most important projects and either archive the rest or at least mark them as “to do” or “on hold”

  1. In my company, we make sure that truly active, prioritized projects are marked as In Progress. Our company task/project tracker shows these projects by default, with all others being in separate tabs.

Organize according to outcomes

  1. Don’t treat organization as an end in and of itself
  2. Instead, consider what will help you move forward on goals.

Organized just in time (JIT)

  1. Organize as little as possible, as late as possible, and only as much as is needed
  2. Organization doesn’t have value in and of itself. It’s only useful if it helps you move forward and accomplish your goals.

Keep things informal

  1. PARA’s main rule is that projects should have precise definitions (goals and timeframes).
  2. Everything else can be much more informal. You don’t need perfect categorization for everything.
    1. In fact, strict order and “perfect” categories can silo information and prevent you from making new connections between different things you’ve learned, which is the seed of creativity.
  3. The only things that truly matter are that projects are well-defined, that your system keeps non-relevant information out of your hair when you don’t need it, and that you’re moving forward on those projects while still successfully maintaining your Area standards.

Protect your ideas (this feels like a fourth habit)

  1. Tiago notes that new ideas are vulnerable to self-doubt, criticisms from others, and the fear that they’re not good enough.
  2. Nascent ideas needs to be protected and allowed to bloom.

Idea connection: In Lecture 1 of Y Combinator’s How to Start a Startup class at Stanford, Sam Altman stresses that good startup ideas typically don’t look very good in beginning – and that’s a good thing. If they looked great, a huge company would already be working on it and you’d have no chance to beat them.

“The hardest part about coming up with great ideas is that the best ideas often look terrible at the beginning.

The 13th search engine, and without all the features of a web portal, most people thought that was pointless. Search was done, and anyway, it didn’t matter that much. Portals were where the value was at. The 10th social network, and limited only to college students with no money, also terrible.

MySpace had won, and who wants college students as customers? Or a way to stay on strangers’ couches. That just sounds terrible all around. These all sounded really bad, but they turned out to be good.

If they had sounded really good, there would have been too many people working on them. As Peter Thiel is going to discuss in the fifth class, you want an idea that turns into a monopoly. But you can’t get a monopoly in a big market right away. Too much competition for that.

You have to find a small market in which you can get a monopoly, and then quickly expand. This is why some great startup ideas look really bad at the beginning. It’s good if you can say something like, today, only this small subset of users are going to use my product, but I’m going to get all of them. And in the future, almost everyone will use my product.”

Focus

  1. Essence of focus is “Do one thing at a time.”
  2. PARA assists in this by putting everything you need for the next task in one place, and keeping everything else out of sight.
  3. Of course, you’ll also need to do other things – like maintaining self-discipline, building your focus muscle, and eliminating distractions in your environment.

Creativity

“Value doesn’t come from the inputs; it comes from your outputs, bearing your signature and style”

  1. PARA gives you a system you can explore in order to forge connections between your inputs, which will give you new ideas

Perspective

  1. Since PARA is all about actionability, organizing your information according to PARA will help you understand which information you should be acting on right now.

This is primarily a reminder to do what Tiago suggests at the beginning of chapter 3 – if you’re overwhelmed, do a reboot again. Put everything into a dated Archive folder and start from scratch. You can always go get that information later if you need it.

We often want to “get organized” without really understanding what that means. So it becomes an impossible standard.

Organization is not:

  1. About aesthetics
  2. About control

Organization is about acquiring power.

  1. It’s about being able to draw from your second brain in order to get things done.
  2. It’s about being able to connect ideas together, inspiring you and building obsession.
  3. It’s about setting up external systems that augment your abilities without sapping your time, energy, or attention.
  4. It’s about alignment – it’s about setting up the system to reflect your life as it is, so it can help you manage that life.
About the Author

My name is Thomas Frank, and I'm a Notion-certified writer, YouTuber, and template creator. I've been using Notion since 2018 to organize my personal life and to run my business and YouTube channel. In addition to this formula reference, I've created a free Notion course for beginners and several productivity-focused Notion templates. If you'd like to connect, follow me on Twitter.

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