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Smart file organization - How PARA works for me after 8 months

More than half a year ago, I started building my second brain - an intent to store information digitally to offload it from your brain. Organization and structure are crucial for this system to work, even more than content collection. I can tell from past experience of dead archives that I had long forgotten about their existence. But even worse, file corpses can make it harder to find what we want. In order to overcome this problem, I experimented with a file structure system called PARA, invented by Tiago Forte.

What is PARA

The approach is inspired by the GTD methodology and its central idea is to organize files dynamically into one of 4 categories - Projects, Areas, Resources, Archive. Dynamic means, that current projects are stored in a quickly accessible Project folder and are archived once finished. This sounds trivial, but most people organize files like in a library. A job application draft is hence likely to end up in a file hierarchy like User/Uni/Applications/Interns/Company/.... But given that moving files on a computer is not as tedious, as moving books in a library and that projects have personal context, the dynamic approach in GTD has some benefits. The application document is not just a file with information (like the book), but it is a project that has a deadline and needs many sub-actions (research position and company, write motivation letter, update CV…). It is hence handy to have a central overview of all projects and respective material in a dedicated folder. And in that project folder I only want all the files that are relevant, and not have it mixed among other old applications and unrelated reference material. The latter might still be useful, but it probably just obscures your path to the important documents for the project. This is why PARA distinguishes between actionable items (Projects) and reference material (Resources) at the highest folder level.

If you want to read more about the benefits of PARA, I recommend the blog posts from the creator.

In the following, I want to share what worked for me after about 8 months of usage. Many people struggle to distinguish the categories and are unsure where to place their files. This also happened to me and I hope that this post can help to clarify it a bit. The author recommends using the system cross-platform for consistency, but I must admit that the structure only made sense to me in the cloud drive and my Notion planner. Not all categories persisted, but those that did, proved valuable.

My PARA usage

1. Projects:

Files that are part of a project (in the GTD sense). I have been mostly using it for gathering application material, bureaucracy documents, and as a place to drop files that I want to have quick access to on all my devices. I am not using it as much, since my amount of file-rich projects is mostly limited to uni and work at the moment. Also, I find it faster to store small things on my desktop and download folder, which I clean up during my weekly review. I intentionally use 01_Projects only when I want to benefit from cloud backups and version control.

In Notion, I abandoned the folder completely, because I prefer keeping a complete overview of my projects in my GTD-Planner called TickTick and maintaining them in both was too much overhead.

2. Areas:

This is the folder I use frequently on my drive. At the moment it doesn’t capture all of my life areas, but rather focus on document heavy areas such as (Career, Finance, Insurances, Uni). It mostly consists of official documents or information sheets. I realized that most of my areas don’t have a lot of associated files and I prefer to have an overview of them and add information in Notion.

In Notion, I have a complete overview of my life-areas, including those that I don’t document at all - like Family or Exercise. I do that to quickly oversee everything that asks for my attention and to evaluate their status quo in my reviews.

3. Resources:

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Update: I now use it for quick access to check-soon resources. Soon means that I plan to read them in the next 3-4 weeks. It extends the purpose of my Read-Later app (articles and videos), to PDFs and websites mostly.

Resources is intended as a place to store information that I don’t need now. I use it to store PDFs and presentations that I might want to refer to later. This can be travel inspirations, a programming book or a presentation I liked a lot and might want to share later. I try to group the material into topics, but they are generally more fine-grained than life areas. But it still happens that there also exists a folder such as Finance and this is where many people (including me) get confused in the beginning.

Should I place my file into Areas or Resources? Or even more important, where did I put it?

For me, I distinguish them according to importance. My Areas include important file that I really need (mostly because they are official documents). My resources include reference material, which wouldn’t be a catastrophe if I’d somehow lose it.

In this sense it is really just an add-on for me which allows me to access non-essential files later, without cluttering up my other directories. Because it is not essential, I realized that I also tend to forget about what is inside, which makes it a bit futile right? I believe that the best way to make good use of the resources is to review and potentially clean them monthly. But as always, only keep what serves you. If you don’t find much value from this category, then it’s maybe not worth the maintenance.

4. Archive:

This is where I put old work and documents that aren’t relevant anymore, but that I still want to keep. It includes the reports from my time in China, old learning resources and outdated documents that still need to be preserved. It is also where I put finished project folders.

Structure evolves naturally over time

My main takeaway is that it takes time to get used to this structure and that you shouldn’t overthink it too much. I think it is enough to have a rough understanding of how the categories differ and that the hierarchy is structured by usage. It is somehow like packing a rucksack - what is frequently needed is placed at the top.

I think it’s normal to be confused about the difference between Areas and Resources in the beginning, but I hope that my distinction helped to find your definitions.

Please reach out to me, when something is still unclear or if you want to share how PARA works for you :)

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