Our most recent Community Meet-up was all about Personal Knowledge Management. Part of this is bringing structure to the digital information we accumulate over time. This helps us find what we’re looking for, minimise information overwhelm, while also keeping it simple.
If you’re a member of our WorkLifePsych Community, you can watch the recording of our meet-up here.
The rationale for spending some time considering how we organise, process and use information is all around us if we take a moment to consider just how much ‘stuff’ we have to trawl through each day!
We cannot do our best thinking and our best work when all the “stuff” from the past is crowding and cluttering our space.
Tiago Forte, ‘Building a Second Brain‘
There are several challenges when it comes to knowledge management.
Firstly, how to deal with the sheer volume of information we come across each day, given there are so many channels through which it can reach us. News, emails, internet, articles, word of mouth, and so on. Secondly, how to deal with information that isn’t clearly a task that can be completed. What about quotes? Recipes? Maps and instructions? Thirdly, how to balance organising all of this information so that it doesn’t become a full-time job.
Whereas email overload emerged as a fashionable annoyance in the early 2000s, it has recently advanced into a much more serious problem, reaching a saturation point for many in which their actual productive output gets squeezed into the early morning, or evenings and weekends, while their workdays devolve into Sisyphean battles against their inboxes—a uniquely misery-inducing approach to getting things done.
Cal Newport, Digital Minimalism
While there are various ways you can do this, I wanted to share a method that has worked really well for me over the last year.
There are four buckets…
In his book ‘Building a Second Brain‘, Tiago Forte presents the PARA system as a fool-proof way of organising digital information into four, simple buckets. The PARA acronym stands for:
PROJECTS: Activities you’re working on how, which have a defined end-date. Writing a blog post. Organising your summer holidays. Moving house. All of these, regardless of time-scales and complexity, are projects. Each has multiple moving parts and will, at some point, end.
AREAS: These are the ongoing areas of focus in our lives. They are important to us, but don’t have an end date. Things like Family, Health, Professional Development. These are things we want to maintain over long periods of time.
RESOURCES: The information that represents ongoing interests and topics we want to learn more about. Hobbies, skills, research – all can fit into the resources space.
ARCHIVE: As the name implies, this is where all completed projects and resources that aren’t needed anymore are filed away.
Looking at any single piece of digital information – an article, a message, a photo or a snapshot of a whiteboard from the office – we can decide which bucket to place it based on how it is to be used.
Is that it?
Part of you might be breathing a sigh of relief that this implies you’ll only have four folders. While it’s unhelpful to cultivate and then maintain an endless labyrinth of folders, you may well also organise information into folder beneath each of the four buckets outlined above. You do you. Experiment and see what level of detail works for you.
But remember that a note may not live in one of these four buckets forever. A project note will almost certainly end up in the Archive. Lessons learnt from a project may end up in one of your key areas. Information gathered while researching a project can end up in Resources.
PARA is a dynamic, constantly changing system, not a static one. Your Second Brain evolves as constantly as your projects and goals change, which means you never have to worry about getting it perfect, or having it finished.
Tiago Forte, ‘Building a Second Brain‘
The goal is not to create a complex and perfectly organised library of information. When we attempt that, we get stuck in ‘organising mode’ and are less likely to actually do anything with the knowledge.
Projects vs Areas
It’s really important to understand the difference between these two buckets – something Tiago Forte emphasises quite a bit in the book. Projects have a goal, which must be achieved within a set period of time. Areas have a standard, to be maintained, without an end-point.
- So, a trip to Japan is a project. “Travel & Adventure” is an area.
- Completing your tax return is a project. “Financial security” is an area.
- Writing a series of blog posts is a project. “Creative writing” is an area.
Why is this distinction so important?
You can easily see how failing to make this distinction leads to common frustrations: if you have a project that you think is an area (for example, the book I’ve been “writing” for a couple years now, that feels like a never-ending part of my life), it will tend to continue indefinitely.
If you have an area that you think is a project (for example, a health outcome like “losing X pounds”), you’ll revert right back after it’s been achieved, because you didn’t put in place any mechanism for maintaining the standard.
PARA on all the things
As the PARA framework is a set of guiding principles, you can use to get more organised on all the platforms you might us.
In your task management app, you could (and should) group your tasks into all the Projects you’re working on. Notes associated with these projects can be organised into the same folder structure under Projects in your notes app. Files that support these projects can be sorted into the exact same folder structure in your computer’s file management system or cloud back-up solution (e.g. iCloud, Dropbox Google Drive).
Your next step
If this sounds like a useful way to bring some order to your digital content, then pick one of your apps (e.g. your notes application) and explore how you could re-organise it to align with PARA.
You can also check out our recent podcast episode all about this topic here: https://www.worklifepsych.com/podcast/115/