If you were given carte blanche to design the perfect file organization system for founders like yourself, what words would be top of mind to describe it? Would it be an intricately detailed system with lots of options and features or would you take a minimalist approach? It is an age-old question. Do we need more structure to get organized, or are all those folders, files, and labels making things worse?
Productivity consultant, Tiago Forte, has spent decades helping Silicon Valley organize their digital lives while struggling to find the perfect system to keep the bits and pieces of his own life and growing business sorted. His solution, the PARA method, may finally put the question to bed.
What is the PARA Method?
The strength and value of the PARA method rests in its simplicity. The name, PARA, is an acronym for the system’s four top-level categories or folders: Project, Area, Resource, and Archive. All of your documents, files, invoices, receipts, contracts, pictures, videos, and other digital assets will be found in one of these four folders.
The top-level categories are purposefully simple. There is no need to waste your valuable cognitive juice trying to trace back how you might have classified a particular bit of data, everything is ordered in a logical system based on importance and relevance first and substance second, providing a natural path to locating your information quickly.
Here’s a brief breakdown of how the four top-level folders in the PARA method work.
How PARA Works
The PARA method starts with the creation of four folders: Project, Area, Resource, and Archive. Some users opt to add a fifth folder to act as a temporary inbox for files that have yet to be sorted into one of the four main categories. This is not part of the official PARA method, but it may be a useful addition for busy teams who don’t always have time for even the simplest of sorting tasks.
A word of warning, if you opt to use this fifth inbox folder, you will need to exercise discipline to ensure the inbox is emptied daily and not allowed to become a collection of “to be sorted” files that never make it into the PARA system.
Let’s take a look at what goes in each of the four top-level PARA folders.
The Project folder contains all the files related to tasks and projects you are working on right now. These are short-term activities, either work-related or personal, that you are currently in the process of completing.
There are a couple of criteria that differentiate the files that belong in this folder and those that should go in the Area folder instead. The timeline is key here. The files in this folder should be related to tasks or projects that require attention now or very soon. There is a specific outcome expected to occur by a definite end date.
You are likely to have several ongoing tasks or projects that you are actively working on but there is no end point. These files will be placed in the Area folder.
The Area folder holds anything related to long-term or ongoing tasks or projects. The title “Area”, in this case, refers to an area of responsibility. These activities require regular action or attention but are never completed, or there is no deadline for completion established.
Think of areas as things that you need to be constantly aware of and may periodically need to be prepared to act on. These could be files related to business management, contact lists, tax documents, and any other item you use regularly, but are not actively using now.
The Resource folder holds all of the information that you want to keep for the future. These are generally items of interest related to topics you are passionate about or enjoy or information that will be useful for a future phase of your business or personal life.
The Archive folder holds all the information that you are no longer using, and that you are unlikely to access in the immediate future. This might be projects that you have completed, books or articles that you have finished reading, or older research on topics that you aren’t particularly interested in right now.
The idea behind PARA is that simplicity trumps complexity when it comes to organizing all the aspects of work and personal lives. The trend in organization and productivity tools has often leaned toward offering more…more categories, more features, more tags, more of everything, because who doesn’t want more?
Here’s the thing, when it comes to organization and productivity, the more time we spend meticulously sorting all our files into complex systems, the more likely we are not going to remember where we stored a particular file when we need it.
Anyone busy enough to need an organization or productivity solution is not likely to have the spare bandwidth to remember a complex organization system when they need to retrieve a file months, or even years later.
This is especially salient in the startup world. Founders are always looking for the perfect productivity tool to help them keep all the moving parts of their latest venture operating smoothly, but the bulk of these tools are not designed for the uncertainty of the startup environment, and trying to force a fit causes more harm than good.
Is PARA the solution that founders have been seeking? Maybe…
Take a look at some of the most common founder struggles, and how the simplicity of PARA could offer the solution.
Founders’ Most Common Struggles
Startup founders are business owners. Startup founders are also salespeople, marketers, tech support, customer service representatives, and order packers. Depending on the nature of the startup, it is common for a startup founder to be a one-person show. The lucky ones might have a small team of a few true believers helping out.
Most startups, at least in the earliest stages, are run entirely by one or two founders performing an intricate juggling act on a high wire without a safety net …and just for a little extra excitement, they continuously swap hats throughout the performance.
These are smart, talented people who know their business better than anyone. Still, eventually one of those jugglers is going to forget to swap hats, or they are going to lose focus momentarily and drop a ball. For an established business, a dropped ball here and there is certainly not ideal, but it is not likely to have a major impact on the viability of the business.
For a startup, the stakes are much higher. One dropped ball can be the difference between success or failure. Perhaps that’s why founders are so keen on organization and productivity solutions. This begs the question, if founders are already using all the latest productivity solutions why are they still struggling with organization?
Too Many Priorities
There are a few reasons that founders continue to have an issue with organization despite a willingness to embrace productivity solutions. First and foremost, a lot of the most popular productivity and organization solutions just aren’t designed with the start-up in mind.
The majority of organizational systems are designed to be used as part of an existing business structure. Depending on the phase of your startup, this underlying operational structure may not be fully fleshed out or stable. During these early stages, the business may have one set of clear priorities one day, and swing to a wholly different priority strategy the next, only to swing back again later in the week. These dramatic priority shifts are common. There is simply so much that needs to get done in a short period, resulting in competing priorities that make this phase chaotic and stressful… and most founders wouldn’t have it any other way. Unfortunately, most productivity solutions are designed for tasks and projects that proceed in a straightforward linear fashion. Attempting to implement a project management system in this phase will likely hinder rather than help.
Because founders are often required to wear multiple hats during the early startup days, the collaborative features of modern productivity solutions are not likely to be of significant use. After all, there is no need to worry about communicating a project status if you are wearing every hat.
It only follows that wearing all the hats and managing all the priorities is how you wind up juggling too many balls in the air up on that high wire that we mentioned earlier. Without some sort of organization, you are inevitably going to drop a ball or two.
If most productivity solutions are impractical during this period of high volatility, how are founders supposed to keep all those balls in the air?
The beauty of PARA lies in its simplicity. Because PARA requires just four folders (five if you opt for an inbox folder as well), it can easily be as simple or as robust as you need it to be. The simple structure makes PARA an ideal candidate for startup founders. The system can be used as a rudimentary file system to provide light structure during the volatile stages. The system can also be scaled up in complexity to accommodate more intricate file and project storage.
Additionally, PARA is simple to set up anywhere you need it. You can use PARA anywhere you are able to set up and store files. You can even set up PARA as part of the popular task management tools that you may already be using. Project managers like Notion, Evernote, and Asana blend particularly well with the PARA method.
Here’s a quick look at using PARA with the most popular project management solutions.
Notion is a favorite tool for startup founders and business owners alike. This is largely because Notion is not a traditional file folder utility. It is, instead, a database management system. This means that items stored in Notion are stored in dynamic databases for a truly digitized system. What’s more, items in databases can be tagged with small snippets of metadata linking them to other resources in other databases without the need to create a second copy to store elsewhere.
Notion’s database systems do present some unique challenges to be aware of as well. For instance, because Notion allows you to share one piece of content out to any number of databases it can be hard to choose a simple category at times.
If you plan to use one Notion to store and manage both your work files and personal files, you will need to take extra caution that you have your privacy and security settings set properly because you will be sharing the work-related folders with your team, and you will want to keep your personal files…well, personal.
Asana operates as more of a classic task manager platform. The functionality is pretty straightforward and there is nothing particularly groundbreaking or overtly innovative about Asana. Instead, Asana is largely a favorite because it is executed brilliantly.
Users start by creating projects, and then each of these projects can be further subdivided into individual tasks to create actionable pieces that will allow the project to move forward collectively.
This structure works very well for the Project and Area categories, but it may not be quite as smooth of a fit for the Resources and Archive sections. The setup and suitability may be a matter of your team size, the scope and complexity of your projects, and the level of file-sharing access you will need.
Evernote is the ever-popular note-based organization tool. While this was once the most popular note keeping, and organizing tool in every market, its luster has faded some with the release of newer tools with even more features.
Still, Evernote remains an incredibly useful organization system depending on your needs. Evernote allows users to create individual notebooks for different categories of notes. These notebooks can easily be repurposed to follow the PARA method by simply creating a notebook for each of the top-level categories. Individual files can easily be added to the requisite notebooks just as you would to a folder.
This is by no means intended to represent a list of the best or only tools that could be used to make PARA work even better for your startup. Ultimately, the perfect founder organization tool won’t be any one system or tool at all. It will instead be your team’s own special blend of tools, apps, systems, and software that all come together to make your startup run smoothly. In the meantime, PARA can help you keep the pieces of your fledgling venture held together long enough to let you survive one more round and keep you steadily advancing toward your goal.