Posts Tagged PARA

My notes on “The PARA Method”

The PARA Method is “a universal system for organizing digital information”. As such it forms part of Tiago Forte’s online course, Building a Second Brain (sign up for the course here, watch a short introductory video here, read an overview here).

The links above give information by the creator of Building a Second Brain (BASB) himself, so I won’t summarize it here. I’ll just briefly point out a key element of the PARA system as I understand it just from reading some articles and watching a few videos. I’ve been putting it into practice and finding it very useful.

P.A.R.A. stands for Projects — Areas — Resources — Archives

Archive is self-explanatory, as should be resources, though in PARA it seems to be more encompassing than “project support materials”.

It’s the distinction between Project and Areas of Responsibility that I found most enlightening and useful.

If you’re a GTD-er, you’ll be familiar with Areas of Responsibility – the 20,000 ft level or horizon, just above “current projects” – which forms part of the Horizons of Focus: ” The GTD Horizons of Focus is a framework for how to align your daily actions with your visions, goals, and life-purpose. Done right, it will place you in the captain’s seat for controlling the most important aspects of your life.

Forte’s Areas of Responsibility seems to me the same as the GTD one.

A project is “a series of tasks linked to a goal, with a deadline. An area of responsibility is “a sphere of activity with a standard to be maintained over time.” even the smallest confusion between these two categories is a deeply rooted cause of many personal productivity problems.

A project has a goal to be achieved… by a specific moment in time. It has a deadline or timeframe. …

An area of responsibility, by contrast, has a standard to be maintained. And there is no end date or final outcome. Your performance in this area may wax and wane over time, but the standard continues indefinitely and requires a certain level of attention at all times.

The PARA Method: A Universal System for Organizing Digital Information

People often mistake their areas of responsibility for projects. They’re not. Projects have defined deadlines; areas continue indefinitely and require attention and adherence to standards.

There are three absolutely critical things you cannot do unless you break out your areas of responsibility into clearly articulated projects. The first is that you can’t truly know the extent of your commitments.

Second, you can’t connect your current efforts to your long-term goals

Third, you can’t know if you’re making progress toward your goals.

The PARA Method: A Universal System for Organizing Digital Information

The other useful tip I learned from this article was, once you’ve setup PARA in your note-taking application or your To-Do app, recreate that same setup across all your relevant digital programs. This takes time, but I’ve made a start syncing my YT playlists with my bookmarks and my Evernote notebooks. It makes so much sense and saves time in the long run.

“The exact same project list is replicated across every program”.

Here’s why this is important: you will always need to use multiple programs to complete projects… but technology is advancing too quickly on too many fronts for any one company to do every single function best.

Instead of … looking for “one platform to rule them all,” formulate your Project List and then replicate that list across every single tool you use, now and in the future… down to the exact same spelling, punctuation, and capitalization, so that your transitions between programs are as seamless as possible.

…people tend to use different organizational schemes in every program they use… forcing their brains to “load up” and remember a different one every time they switch programs.

The PARA Method: A Universal System for Organizing Digital Information

The article ends with a simple exercise that helps to understand the importance of clearly distinguishing projects from areas:

There is a very illuminating exercise you can perform once you’ve taken the time to formulate a clear Project List. Put it side by side with your Goal List, and draw lines matching each project with its corresponding goal.

The PARA Method: A Universal System for Organizing Digital Information

I recommend the following digital products: WP GDPR Fix, a WordPress plugin that quickly and easily helps you make your WP blog GDPR compliant. Brett Kelly's "Evernote Essentials", Dan Gold's $5 guides to Getting Everything Done with Evernote and Springpad, and DocumentSnap Solutions' Paperless Document Organization Guides. Be sure to try DocumentSnap's free email course on going paperless first before buying his products. Sign up for it on his homepage.
Disclosure of Material Connection: My recommendations above are “affiliate links.” This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive a commission. Your cost will be the same as if you order directly. I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will add value to my readers. This disclosure is in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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More on PARA and Building a Second Brain

I recently got interested in an app called Notion that many have been touting as the new Evernote but better, and I wrote about it here. Several of the most prominent Notion users on YouTube also mention PARA and Building a Second Brain as principles on which they build their Notion system.

So what is PARA? What is Building a Second Brain? Here’s my Notion notes on the subject.

Here’s what I learned about Building a Second Brain

The next Building A Second Brain course is not yet accepting applicants, so I signed up instead for Tiago Forte’s email newsletter, and read and took notes (see the link above) on one article in the first email, One-Touch to Inbox Zero: How I Spend 17 Minutes Per Day on Email

There are 9 other enticing articles in that first newsletter and I’ll write about some of them in future articles. The “Throughput of Knowledge” and “Progressive Summarization” sound particularly intriguing.

I followed along with his suggestions for Inbox Zero. Took me 40 minutes! My work Gmail account won’t let me use the keyboard shortcuts he recommends (tho I learned that there are some for Thunderbird), nor functions like “Auto-advance”.

Tiago also has a YT video introducing his course. Apparently, “Building a Second Brain” was coined by Evernote. Go figure.

This point in the video got my attention as being key: Level 1 is where most people get stuck (me too). And this is one of the problems Building a Second Brain (the course) is apparently designed to unstick. Which is why I’m interested in it.

Tiago recently posted a written overview of his course here: Building a Second Brain: An Overview

My key takeaways:

  • Building A Second Brain is a methodology for saving and systematically reminding us of the ideas, inspirations, insights, and connections we’ve gained through our experience. 
  • not only for preserving those ideas, but turning them into reality
  • We spend a significant portion of our careers creating snippets of text, outlines, photos, videos, sketches, diagrams, webpages, notes, or documents. Yet without a little extra care to preserve these valuable resources, our precious knowledge remains siloed and scattered across dozens of different locations. We fail to build a collection of knowledge that both appreciates in value and can be reused again and again.
  • The Building a Second Brain methodology will teach you how to: Consistently move your projects and goals to completion by organizing and accessing your knowledge in a results-oriented way
  • It is tempting to turn on our mobile device or computer and immediately become immersed in the flow of juicy information 
  • Instead of organizing your files primarily by topic (for example, web design or psychology), which is time-consuming and mentally taxing, organize them according to the projects you are actively working on. This ensures that you are consuming information with a purpose
  • Keep only what resonates

I recommend the following digital products: WP GDPR Fix, a WordPress plugin that quickly and easily helps you make your WP blog GDPR compliant. Brett Kelly's "Evernote Essentials", Dan Gold's $5 guides to Getting Everything Done with Evernote and Springpad, and DocumentSnap Solutions' Paperless Document Organization Guides. Be sure to try DocumentSnap's free email course on going paperless first before buying his products. Sign up for it on his homepage.
Disclosure of Material Connection: My recommendations above are “affiliate links.” This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive a commission. Your cost will be the same as if you order directly. I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will add value to my readers. This disclosure is in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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Learning Notion

Hi! In this blog post I talk about some new discoveries I’ve made in the world of productivity apps: Notion, (a way to organize digital information, part of “Building a Second Brain“), Active Recall and Timeblocking.

  1. Notion as an alternative to Evernote,  (Here’s my Notion tutorial playlist on YT.)
  2. PARA (only in passing, no details in this blog post as I’m still figuring out what it is – here’ s my PARA YT playlist)
  3. Active Recall and the Cornell Note System as a more effective way to learn new material than highlighting (here’s my Active Recall YT playlist), and
  4. timeblocking – a truly awesome yet simple way to make sure that those things you’d like to do actually get done (all those “Important but not Urgent” items). Link to my yt playlist

After watching a video by a veteran Evernote user on why he was thinking of moving over to Notion, I decided to check it out.

Particularly useful and helpful I found were the videos by Keep Productive (Francesco D’Alessio), Rebecca Ford and Marie Poulin (tho Marie is a power user and sometimes goes a little fast and sophisticated).

The key thing about Notion is, as Marie, Rebecca and Everyday Apple say, that it allows important info to re-surface and come to your attention more easily and effectively than Evernote. Evernote, of course, has its reminders, but in Notion you can created a calendar and put all your to-dos in there, and then created a daily calendar that filters only the tasks you have for that day. This is a huge advantage and though the learning curve for Notion is a little steep, the tutorial videos I found are very helpful.

“Unlike other apps that force me to silo different parts of my planning and task management system between different apps, Notion allows me to keep all of the parts of my system.”  (Rebecca Ford, “Task Management in Notion“, 23 Oct 2018)

Notion basically uses blocks, like the new WordPress interface (the artist formerly known as Gutenberg), but in a much more powerful way than you can in WordPress.

Keep Productive and Marie Poulin also offer Notion mastery courses which I plan to sign up for later this year.

Marie, Keep Productive, Rebecca Ford, GroovyWinks’ Maria Aldrey and super-productive Cambridge (UK) doctor Ali Abdaal have all mentioned another organizing principle which I am currently learning about: PARA (part of a larger concept called Second Brain). Marie Poulin and Maria Aldrey have both done videos on this. It’s different from GTD which I’m a little familiar with, so I’m finding it a little hard to get my head around these concepts, particularly Areas (is that like GTD’s “areas of responsibility”? And,“A resource is “a topic or theme of ongoing interest.” Say… wha???)

Dr. Abdaal also did a video on a study and review method he has used very successfully called Active Recall (video 1 and video 2). Shu Omi also did a neat and brief video on this.

Shu Omi’s video on timeblocking also helped me get over a major stumbling block: saving videos and websites and articles to watch or read later then never getting to that “later”. The simple solution: schedule a time or date to do just that. Well, duh!

So, today, I went through my “Read-Review” notes (because I’m dividing them into “ToReview” and “ToRead”), then I realized what’s going to happen: I’m going to re-tag these and then… probably never read them because I don’t have a way for those to pop up again right under my nose so I can’t miss them. They’ll be out of sight, out of mind. When am I going to review them? As I was already in Evernote, I decided, as well as re-tagging these, to use Evernote’s reminder function to fix a date and time to actually do these. I fixed a day for –

  • doing my weekly review (which will now include reading articles and notes on this topic)
  • working on my business (which will include reading my Evernotes related to business, marketing, etc)
  • working on a new website I’m building, which will include reading my Evernotes tagged with marketing or website
  • learning Notion, which mainly means watching Notion tutorial videos and reproducing that in my Notion sandbox
  • learning more about Active Recall which I’m using to study assignment design.
  • learning more about other memory techniques such as the mind palace (yup! I recently watched again BBC’s Sherlock.)

Each of the above now has a time slot and a day allocated to them, and that will pop up in both an Evernote reminder, and a calendar item in my Notion Master To-Do list.

I also watched Timeboxing: Elon Musk’s Time Management Method. Shu Omi said timeblocking is also used by Cal Newport, author of Deep Work. Here’s a blog post Cal Newport did on it: Deep Habits: the importance of planning every minute of your workday.

“Atomic Habits” author James Clear makes a similar point about the importance of intention (which timeblocking facilitates) in this clip.

Cal Newport’s new book is called Digital Minimalism.

On Newport’s blog, I found this article about learning and how these days, the hard work of developing good study habits seems to have gone by the wayside.

To Olser, it was clear that training a new generation of thinkers required teaching students how to actually put their mind to productive use, which is hard, and requires “bull-dog tenacity” before it becomes a “good habit.”

We don’t teach this any more.

Modern educational institutions care a lot about content: what theories we teach, what ideas students are exposed to, what skills they come away knowing. But we rarely address the more general question of how one transforms their mind into a tool well-honed for elite-level cognitive work.

He repeats this in this interview here: Don’t follow your passion (Do this instead.) |Cal Newport | Top 10 Rules. And at the end of that same video, rule #10, is timeblocking.

Dr Ali Abdaal in his video on Active Recall and particularly the part where he talks about why it works, why it’s effective, says it is the hard work, the difficulty of the task (trying to remember the answers to your own questions) that makes it valuable and helps the information to stick.

As it happens, Notion has an active recall template: Cornell Notes System. Active recall is very similar to a system of note-taking developed by a Cornell University professor in the 1940s.

There are 3 parts to the active-recall/Cornell Notes system:

  1. Read or watch or listen to the original, taking notes as you go. E.g. I’m now learning about how to design effective assignment sheets to teach academic writing to college students. As I read, I make the following notes:
    1. Your assignment sheet should:
      1. Link the writing task with specific learning goals
      2. Describe rhetorical aspects of the task, i.e., audience, purpose, genre
      3. Make explicit any constraints such as word count minimums and maximums
      4. Specify formatting requirements
  2. Create your own recall questions. E.g., for the above notes, my recall question is “What 4 things should an effective assignment sheet do?”
  3. Recalling, which involves looking at the questions only and trying to recall the original notes or answers.
    1. In his video “My favourite note-taking app for students – Notion”, Ali shows how to use Notion’s toggle-list function to hide your notes or answers to your recall questions. 
    2. It also involves, if you’re really trying to master a body of knowledge, repeating the recall step again after some interval of time. Here’s how Ali Abdaal used this technique to revise for his medical exams at Cambridge University.

This blog post briefly introduced the following productivity apps or ideas: Notion, PARA (a way to organize digital information, part of “Building a Second Brain“), Active Recall and Timeblocking. Thanks for reading!


I recommend the following digital products: WP GDPR Fix, a WordPress plugin that quickly and easily helps you make your WP blog GDPR compliant. Brett Kelly's "Evernote Essentials", Dan Gold's $5 guides to Getting Everything Done with Evernote and Springpad, and DocumentSnap Solutions' Paperless Document Organization Guides. Be sure to try DocumentSnap's free email course on going paperless first before buying his products. Sign up for it on his homepage.
Disclosure of Material Connection: My recommendations above are “affiliate links.” This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive a commission. Your cost will be the same as if you order directly. I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will add value to my readers. This disclosure is in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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