PARA on Paper

How I adapted the PARA process and transformed my knowledge management

Photo by J. Kelly Brito for Unsplash

When I first took Tiago Forte’s productivity course Building a Second Brain (BASB) in April 2020, the concept I struggled the most to grasp was PARA. Short for “projects, areas, resources, and archive,” PARA is a system for organizing your digital notes around projects you’re actively working on. In turn, whether or not certain information inspires action becomes a filter for the kind of content you consume and save. Previously, my digital workspace consisted of tasks, files, and saved articles scattered across my desktop and various apps at worst. At best, they were grouped into arbitrary folders like business, psychology, and history—categories that resembled a college course catalogue. But my goal here wasn’t to get a degree in knowledge management or index the web. With PARA, in theory, I knew the acronym and its definitions. In practice, my attempt to perfectly set up this system for actionability was preventing me from taking action. 

What was the difference between a “project” and an “area”? Was this a hierarchical or nesting situation? How would the system scale across different tools? Which app should I build this out with? These were inconsequential problems I convinced myself I needed to solve before venturing further into the course, believing that the lack of structure was the bottleneck for my personal projects. 

It took me a while to understand that PARA was a framework that would emerge over a need and over time. I often took a case-by-case approach to my projects, customizing or adapting frameworks and workflows around specific contexts. Having experienced how too much structure early on could stifle more than scaffold, I was skeptical of systems that felt prescriptive and standardized to the point of being boilerplate. At the same time, I had felt how time- and energy-consuming it was to start every project from scratch, indecisive on how to save and resurface information for when I needed it.

Throughout the course, I noticed students often progressed through points of:

  1. Convergence - following the established frameworks and methods
  2. Divergence - forming your own frameworks and methods

In convergence, you implement the content to understand what works and doesn’t work for you. This looks like following step-by-step directions and mirroring workflows. In the process, you begin to internalize the principles behind a practice. From there, you’re free to reshape the rules, which you’ll realize were nonexistent to begin with. During BASB, I had focused on convergence. When things didn’t click, I assumed I needed to follow instructions more closely. It wasn’t until I rejoined BASB as an alumni mentor a few months later that I saw the concepts through the lens of divergence.

As I was preparing my weekly mentor sessions, I realized my earlier resistance to PARA had less to do with its instructions, and more to do with me ignoring my intuition. As I prepared my lesson plans, I thought about how I would’ve taught the concepts and the principles behind them to myself. In this way, the four-letter acronym now became the output, not the input.

That shift in perspective led me to create an exercise I’ve nicknamed “PARA on Paper.” Building on the PARA framework, this activity challenges you to write down what you need to get done on a single page. It’s a way to try out PARA at the smallest and most flexible level before scaling the system across software. From that blueprint, it becomes more intuitive to design and integrate PARA within existing workflows.

Since running and refining this exercise in BASB and outside of the course, I’ve had a chance to record the process, with the goal of showing how both personal and team knowledge management can be emergent and built just-in-time.

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