PARA Part 8: Core Principles of Digital Organization

Over the past year, I’ve seen P.A.R.A. implementations of all shapes and sizes. I’ve seen them from every corner of the globe, in languages I don’t even recognize, in at least a dozen different programs, and both digital and physical forms.

Over that time, eight core principles seem to have emerged as fundamental features. Whether you’ve taken on the particularities of the system I’ve described in this series, adopting these principles will seriously upgrade your digital organization.

Here they are, in no particular order:

  1. Organize by actionability
  2. Organize opportunistically
  3. Move quickly, touch lightly
  4. Controlled randomness
  5. Complex systems have to be grown, not made
  6. Focus on outcomes
  7. Fail gracefully
  8. Shallow hierarchies

I’ve found that all these principles can also be found in how kitchens are organized. Kitchens are the ultimate metaphor for knowledge work, because they too have to deliver finely crafted products to a demanding audience, under intense time pressure.

The three core principles of mise en place, the culinary philosophy used by professional kitchens, are preparationprocess, and presence. The goal is to arrange actions in time and space (preparation) so that the chef can follow a precise series of steps (process) while remaining fully attuned (presence) to the subtleties of each dish.

Organize by actionability

This seems to be the big one. You could summarize all of P.A.R.A. with these three words, and have a pretty good rule of thumb for most situations. The “Projects” stack is just another way of saying “most actionable.” “Archives” is “least actionable.” And Areas and Resources are somewhere in between.

Kitchens are clearly not organized by topic: imagine how absurd it would be to store fresh fruit, fruit juice, fruit preserves, and dried fruit all in the same place, just because they all happen to be made of fruit. They are instead organized by actionability: the fresh fruit is kept on the counter because it spoils fast and can be eaten as a snack, whereas the other forms are stored in various states of preservation until they’re ready to be used.

Organize opportunistically

P.A.R.A. is designed to be bottom-up, avoiding expensive heavy lifts at all costs. This is to avoid doing upfront work of questionable value, to avoid sunk costs, and to remain as open as possible to changes in direction.

The same is true for chefs: “cleaning” is not a one-time activity done late at night, with piles and piles of dirty dishes like in the movies. Mise en place is about integrating cleaning into every moment of a chef’s work, peppering the entire day with small actions that maintain the system of organization no matter how crazy things get.

Move quickly, touch lightly

Instead of heavy lifts, P.A.R.A. advises us to “move quickly and touch lightly.” This keeps the investment in any given action low, nudging our organizational systems in a certain direction while avoiding total commitment.

The placements of mise en place are similarly designed to allow precise, predictable, and economical actions. We’re not going for an idealized aesthetic beauty, but rather an environment where all our movements can be free, small, rhythmic, and automatic.

Controlled randomness

P.A.R.A. demands precision in only one very specific place: the definition of projects. Everywhere else, fuzziness is not only allowed but encouraged. It recognizes that imposing order on information doesn’t always make it more valuable. The greatest breakthroughs are usually found in bizarre, unexpected, or counterintuitive connections. This requires a system that allows diverse ideas to mix together.

This is why I don’t advise creating an internal structure for notebooks, using a standardized template for all notes, or even using a common naming convention. Perhaps there is value in these things, but they take up time that is better suited to engaging with the content itself. Allowing some randomness into the system creates opportunities for very different ideas to be juxtaposed or intermixed.

Similarly, chefs distinguish between “process time” and “immersive time.” Many foods require a quick setup, like placing a sauce to simmer so it reduces, but while that’s happening the chef is free to work on things that require their direct involvement. The notebooks of P.A.R.A. are like pots and skillets, sustained chemical reactions that eventually will produce valuable results entirely on their own.

Complex systems have to be grown, not made

This is a variant of Gall’s Law, which states that “all complex systems that work evolved from simpler systems that worked.” In other words, you can’t design a complex system from scratch and expect it to work. Complex systems have to be grown slowly over time, because their interdependencies and variables are too complex to guess correctly the first time.

This is why mise en place is a set of principles, not a universal prescription. It needs to be adapted to the constraints and exceptions of each kitchen, because “economical” and “efficient” have different meanings depending on the context.

Similarly, P.A.R.A. cannot be deployed all at once. It needs to start as a small seed that gradually unfurls and evolves to meet the changing needs of its designer. This is why I avoid showing too much of my own system – it has grown to a certain level of sophistication over years. Going straight to this level of maturity would be counterproductive for any novice.

Focus on outcomes

One of the biggest temptations with organizing is to get too precious, treating the process of organizing as an end in itself. There is something inherently satisfying about order, and it’s easy to settle for that payoff, instead of going on to share our knowledge with the world.

Everything in P.A.R.A. is subordinated to the outcome of getting things done. All upfront, extraneous tasks are stripped away, there is no routine maintenance work required, and the most actionable category of projects is closely guarded from interference.

In mise en place, everything is similarly centered around the outcome of a finished plate. Envisioning the moment of delivery and walking backward, the method seeks to eliminate everything that doesn’t advance the dish, for example:

  • tying up tasks in a state that is easy to pick up again
  • scheduling complex tasks and fitting others around them
  • communicating progress to everyone who is depending on it
  • always unblocking what is keeping you or others from moving forward

Fail gracefully

P.A.R.A. is designed around the needs of real humans, not idealized ones. It recognizes that maintaining files will not usually be our top priority, so it needs to be able to survive long periods of neglect as we attend to other things.

The fact that keeping different programs in sync requires manually retitling and resorting folders and notebooks may seem like a flaw. But in fact it can be seen as a strength: because P.A.R.A. is neither centralized nor decentralized, but federated, it doesn’t need to be perfectly maintained like a well-oiled machine. I’ve found that the folders can drift apart for months with no real impact on my productivity.

The same applies to the decision where to keep notes. Because we have multiple mechanisms for constantly flowing notes between notebooks, the decision is very forgiving. There are backup plans and safety nets at every stage. If you misplace a note for now, it is only a matter of time before it gets resurfaced.

This is where mise en place takes an unexpected turn. Despite the emphasis on process, it also strongly advocates for communication, teamwork, and treating each other with care. It advises maintaining one stream of communication in the kitchen, using a common language and double confirmations for accuracy. In the kitchen it is people who catch us when we fall.

Shallow hierarchies

One of the biggest differences between P.A.R.A. and other organizational schemes is its shallow depth. The infinite vertical nesting of file systems is replaced with the horizontal movement of project turnover, like a conveyer belt. Instead of getting shuffled to ever greater depths, where we lose sight of them, files are shuffled from actionable notebooks into the Archives.

There is a parallel here to the visual layout of dishes, which is an important part of mise en place. Chefs are advised to use any free time to clean their workstation and pre-prepare any ingredients they’ll need in the future. This is where the focus on outcomes is so important: because counter space (like screen space) is limited, knowing which dishes need to be laid out depends entirely on the dishes to be prepared. What allows us to get away with shallow hierarchies is that we can store the great majority of ingredients out of sight.

Starting over is magical

When I was in high school, I had a business fixing people’s Windows computers. I would drive around in my little Honda Civic,  applying the same solution every time: formatting their hard drive and reinstalling my bootlegged copy of Windows XP. This gave me several hours of free time, which I often spent talking to my customers and hearing how they thought about technology. I soon transitioned to teaching people how to use their computers, including tasks as simple as checking their email, visiting webpages, and creating Word documents.

A few years later, in college, I worked at an Apple Store in San Diego. I listened to customers’ needs and helped them buy a computer, and became very familiar with the thought process they went through in spending a couple thousand dollars on a machine. I later started teaching classes on how to use Apple computers, and did 1-on-1 personal training sessions.

Throughout this time, I noticed a common theme: the moment of starting over is magical. Whether it was getting a newly reformatted PC, or a brand new Mac, I sensed an enormous sense of relief and happiness as the slate was wiped clean. People often would feel a profound rush of creative energy, as they were unburdened from years of digital hoarding.

At some point I started thinking, “What would it look like to design an organizational system completely around the feeling of starting over?” The ideal time to “start over” seemed to be when completing a project, so I made projects the basic unit of organization. Areas and Resources quickly emerged as I realized there were ongoing responsibilities and interests that I wanted to remain consistent over time.

The only downside to starting over, of course, was that I lost the work I’d already done. Slowly, I realized that this could be turned to my advantage. I began finishing every project by exporting or publishing one tangible artifact as a takeaway. This was the golden era of Apple’s iLife suite of creative apps, and I pushed iMovie, iPhoto, iDVD, GarageBand and iWeb to their full potential. Every project I worked on ended by exporting a slideshow, video, audio track, photo book, DVD, or website, which were far more valuable to me than all the bits and pieces I used to put them together.

I noticed that once the final export was complete, and I’d gotten the payoff of showing it to my friends or family, I could wrap up all the constituent parts in one big folder, and move them wholesale to an archive folder. There was no need to further organize or catalogue anything in there, because it was rare for me to ever open it up again. On occasion when I did, everything was preserved exactly how I’d left it, so there was no downside.

Starting over has major costs in physical work, because it’s wasteful to destroy or set aside raw materials. But not in digital, where saving a folder forever is virtually free. As technology evolves, it actually becomes easier to search or visualize these old files.

Beyond just serving as mementos, the tangible artifacts I created started having a tremendous impact on my life, my career, and how I thought about the impact I could have. A photo slideshow set to music I made for Christmas brought my mom to tears. A movie I made of a vacation became a cherished family treasure. A website I made for fun in iWeb became a critical asset in my dad’s business.

Eventually, I gained the confidence to ask for something in exchange. I sold an ebook compilation of blog posts as a fundraiser for a project in the Peace Corps. I created a portfolio website that helped me get my first job in San Francisco. And one day in 2013, I combined all these creative production skills to launch my first online course, Get Stuff Done Like a Boss, charging $25 for the first product from Forte Labs.

Here’s a thought experiment: what would you do if all your digital files were automatically erased every year? No matter which backup solutions you employed, it would all be gone when the clock struck midnight on December 31.

I think you would start putting a lot more effort into showing your work. You would spend the absolute minimum amount of time gathering research and raw material, and more time sharing your knowledge and helping people solve real problems. I think you would get a lot less particular about your organizational hierarchies, which note-taking app you use, or the endless debates about plain text versus rich text.

I think the world would be a much better place if all these things came to pass. And I can hardly think of a downside. It sure seems like our perfect digital memory is both a blessing and a curse. It frees us from the burden of forgetfulness, only to imprison us with perfectionism.

The promise of P.A.R.A. is that it makes “getting organized” a straightforward affair to get over with as quickly as possible. My wish is that the smart, creative people of the world spend less time behind their computer screens, and more time taking direct action in the world. We need people who are empowered and propelled forward by their creative process, not consumed by it. Our talents and knowledge are sorely needed in the real world.

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