The P.A.R.A. system and the importance of folders

The conscious and active pursuit of a productive and healthy life invariably includes reflection, self-examination, and experimentation. From time to time we should look at our systems and tools and evaluate them for just how well they are serving us in our work. And if a hot new life hack lands and takes the town by storm, why not try it?

When our phones began to feature App Stores with millions of apps that purported to improve lives—for free—I went absolutely wild with downloading. Pages and pages of apps, some of them dumb, and most of them total flops. But it didn’t matter—they were free. And if I found one needle in that haystack of apps, it would have been worth it.

Billionaire entrepreneur Mark Cuban took this a step further. He described growing up and loving to walk through bookstores, picking up anything that caught his eye. As he says, “30 dollars to get one idea that could propel me…it was a bargain.”

You should apply the same mentality to your work and the way that you carry it out.

So that’s what we’re going to talk about today. A new method for organizing your files, and the new philosophy it’s based on.

The system

feeling time anxiety - laptop in dark room

Contrary to what you might think or hear, there is no “one size fits all” approach to organizing your life and approaching your day-to-day activities. But there are a lot of smart and thoughtful people out there who have spent their time designing different structures for these wild insanities we call our lives.
Today, we explore one such system: the PARA method.

PARA is a concept developed by Tiago Forte, author of the book ‘Building a Second Brain’.

PARA stands for Projects, Areas, Resources, and Archive. Their purposes are relatively simple, as he describes them:

  • Projects— “a series of tasks linked to a goal, with a deadline”
  • Areas— “a sphere of activity with a standard to be maintained over time.”
  • Resources— “a topic or theme of ongoing interest.”
  • Archive — “inactive items from the other three categories.”

To my understanding, PARA is solidly based on a theme that I’ve been developing in previous articles on this site —organizing your digital domain. I keep returning to the same idea, sometimes even unintentionally: everything centers around folders.

Bill Clinton and his advisor James Carville used to have a saying in their political messaging, “it’s the economy, stupid.” Whenever I’m overwhelmed with my organizational systems, especially on my computer, I try to say to myself, “it’s the folders, stupid.”

I don’t care what you call your folders or how you organize and stack them on each other. The PARA system is a great starting point for feeling the power that folders can bring to your workflow. Just having a place to put things, and having everything else look clean in the meantime gives you a feeling of satisfaction.

I just don’t see a way around it—folders seem to be the first and last part of every worthwhile digital productivity system I’ve come across.

I don’t know exactly why, but for me it feels like this approach has everything. There’s the intentionality behind exporting or otherwise removing the resource from its source. There’s light pressure from the idea of it taking up actual disk space on your computer when it didn’t necessarily have to. And there’s the unique and lovely access of having it squared away so perfectly inside a few folders at once.

Applying it

Unpaid digital labor lead

I’ve found the most success applying PARA to my digital domain, and I believe it’s a good place to start.
So, just as an exercise, create four folders on your computer, and number them. You can augment these names in a little bit to fit your particular use cases:

1: “Projects and Pending” — This is where, obviously, your projects live. And your definition of the word “project” can take on any kind of meaning in your particular workflow. Projects might be clients, or team initiatives, or divided sections of your workload. As long as there’s something behind that little folder icon that you can point to, and understand what is there and why it’s there and the logic behind your choice, you’ll find it helpful. And as long as it has any sort of due date, or goal, or expiration date, it can be considered a project.

2: “Areas of Interest” — On the flip side, I like to designate this pile as the destination for “the things that never end.” If you’re like me and have an infinitely-expanding folder simply called “Photos,” toss that in here. Your hobbies live here, along with anything you are interested in learning more about.

3: “Research Material” — This is the part of the setup that drew me to PARA in the first place. I struggle immensely with opening far too many tabs, and leaving them open. Long, ambitious articles to “read later”, or resources, or “important discoveries”—there’s a nearly infinite pile of Things Worth Keeping, and it only continues growing.

I never knew where to put the Things Worth Keeping. I’ve tried emailing myself with long lists of links, as if that solves anything.  The only thing that accomplishes is cluttering my inbox, where the materials will gather digital dust. There are services like Instapaper and Pocket that nicely sort and store articles you feed them, but again, you’ll probably forget they’re there or forget why you saved them.

But the act of taking your research materials and placing them into a folder, where they’re labeled and squared away—separated cleanly from your daily work—changes the way your whole digital world feels while you’re working.

4: “Archives” — The dusty old stuff. The stuff you’re not currently using, or use at all, but want to keep around. To a healthy extent, you can indulge your digital packrat here. And if you maintain the system long enough, you’re in for the satisfying feeling of moving a project from active folders into the archive. Give this as much meaning as you’d like.

From there, put everything that isn’t immediately useful into “Archives,” and start working. When you run across a file or click ‘Save’ on a project you’re finished with, you’ll be prompted to pick a folder on your computer to put it in. Trust your gut and put it somewhere. Don’t worry about having to move files between folders if you decide you like it better somewhere else – that’s why that process is easy and the whole system is flexible.

What it means for you

Now we get to the fun part: what are the possibilities that something like this could open up for you in your work and life?

The way you ingest information might change. You’ll see various materials, digital and otherwise, less as floating ethereal elements and more as specific items that can be plucked, utilized, then filed away.

When you encounter something interesting on the internet, your first reaction no longer has to be one of burden. “I don’t have time to read this now, but I know it’s important—what do I do with it?” Just put it where it’s supposed to go.

The way you plot your projects and structure your days might change. You’ll have Project folders that, if you filled them up right, will be sitting at attention and prepped, waiting for you for you to dive in with purpose. Your materials will all be within arm’s reach.

And at the most basic level, adhering to a system like this, especially if you hadn’t up to this point, can really imbue you with a helpful and refreshing sense of direction.

You have nothing to lose, so try it out. Try something—anything—out, and see how it changes the atmosphere. Never be afraid to switch things up, or add something new to your repertoire. You might surprised by what happens to you.

(Many thanks to RescueTime user Fernando Ulisses dos Santos, who suggested this system and inspired this article!)

Sign Up for the Newsletter

Want to learn more about spending your time well and doing more meaningful work? Get our latest blog posts in your inbox every week.

Robin Copple

Robin Copple is a writer and editor from Los Angeles, California.

15 comments

  1. that sucks, this accumulation is a lure, you know that if you don’t do it now you’ll never do it. Forget all this folders and concentrate on desire and action now !

    1. I’d like to know more of your views on this!

      I agree – desire and action are beautiful and vital things, but you need the system underneath to support them! Also, we all know desire and action are in limited supply; keeping the structures around your goals staying steady will keep you moving forward when motivation wanes.

  2. Hi Robin, thanks for the citation.

    I’m using the P.A.R.A system for some years now. I didn’t researched the original author when I first found it, glad you did it, but looking for in my Archive of saved articles (in Pocket), all of them was from Tiago Forte.

    I like the idea that the system can be expanded beyond folders in the computer, using it in others Apps seems to complete the system.

    I.E. I use it on Email, I have the Inbox, a 0_Pending folder for emails that I received and couldn’t solve when I first read, and an Archive folder, sometimes I create a temporary email folder for a specific Project, but the email client is not the optimal tool to organize a project, when the Project is over, I just archive all emails and delete the folder.

    Since the search feature on email client is very good, I don’t mind in organizing the emails in Archive folder.

    My email client allows to Archive emails on folders organized by years, I use this feature so I don’t have to synchronize all emails from my life in my notebook for offline search, just the current and previous year, and I usually delete emails older than 5 years.

    I think that the concept of “Inbox Zero” from Merlin Mann is very helpful in handling emails, the concept of Delete, Delegate, Do, Defer (move to Pending) is very good, and unsubscribing for every newsletter helps keeping the Inbox clean.

    For articles, I actually like the way that Pocket works, you have an Inbox (My List) and an Archive “folder”, the search feature works very well, and for articles that was really helpful it’s possible to add Tags and Favourite them for future reference.

    I even automatized the way that articles from my favourite blogs goes to Pocket, using Zapier, I use a task that subscribe to multiple RSS feeds and automatically import new articles to Pocket, there are few exceptions of newsletter that I still subscribe because they don’t have a RSS feed.

    I think that the last helpful tip is compromise with your team which tool should be used in which communication need, some people just send message on WhatsApp/Telegram/SMS with requests that it are not possible to handle in a Smartphone, it’s important that such requests comes in the right tool, if it’s an task for a project, it should be on the Project Management tool, if it’s a task that needs a long answers, maybe email, if you exchanged 10 messages on a IM app and didn’t solve it, maybe you should make a call.

    And the compromise with the right tool should come with the right expectations, compromise in read emails twice a day (I.E. in the middle of the morning and the end of afternoon), and tell everyone in your company that if they need an email to be read and answered immediately, they should send a message in a IM app or make you a call, learn to say no sometimes, and all should be good.

  3. You might like to check out the TMI Key Area method of organization. I’ve been using it for 30 years. The techniques should easily overlap and combine with PARA.

  4. For #3, I highly recommend Pocket. I also meander though dozens of articles a day. Some are just click bait while others I do want to read. For the latter, if I get busy by work I can just click the pocket icon on my browser and it will save to an archive. Pocket is also great because it allows you to tag articles under categories. For example I have: Self-Help, Career, Health, Finance, etc (Link here: https://getpocket.com/en/)

  5. It makes sense, because while I am good at completing projects, with so many ideas floating around in my head and so many interesting ideas to keep, the one thing that weighed down on me was storing all this. I have started using folders, not as suggested above but labelled and it does help a bit. It is good as a backbone system, however what worries also me is what Emmanuel shared above in his comments, I like to call that the Digital Void. There is a lot that we store for future use that does get forgotten because the volume of new information is increasing everyday. However maybe a partial solution is better than none for now. Research helps a lot, there are ideas and solutions out there that help stimulate our own so when I feel it looks like I have reached a wall, start digging again.

  6. I’m not sure I understand the difference between areas of interest(“anything you’re interested in learning more about”) and research material. (Possibly because research is one of my areas of interest? 😃)

    Is it just “I read this already” vs “I didn’t read it yet?” Or is “Areas of Interest” for things that are demonstrably relevant and “Research Material” is specifically for that aspirational stuff we know we will never actually get to?

  7. Quick question: how do you categorize each subfolder or not all, i.e. do you put all pdf, excel files, charts, business models, images, etc. in one folder like resources and tag files after… or not at all?
    Thank you!

    1. It’s up to you! You can go as detailed and granular as you like. Some people are fine with just making big main category folders and dumping all sorts of items in them, unorganized.

      I’m the opposite! I personally love to make individual folders for each category you mentioned here. That way everything is clean and separated. And the insides of the folders look all pretty too 🙂

Leave a comment