Do you have an email strategy? What messages do you keep? How do you organize your inbox folders? Can you find what you’re looking for when you need it? What gets deleted?
One of the first things I did the week I started a new job was organize my (empty) inbox in preparation for the email coming my way.
As part of a course taught by Tiago Forte, I learned an organization method that has changed how I use every digital tool that requires organization: email, Google Drive, Dropbox, Box, network drive, a to do app, Evernote, and any other I need to start using that collects information.
It’s called PARA, which is an acronym for:
The system of PARA is meant to “encompass every type of information you might encounter in your work and life,” Tiago writes. And after more than three years of using PARA to keep myself organized, I’m proclaiming its benefits and extolling its virtues, and going even a step beyond to say:
Get organized. It will make you more effective. It will lead to less stress. It will help you make (more) change happen.
Projects and Areas
PARA “works” because it means every piece of information you create or receive has a place to go and—this is important—is findable when you need it.
One virtue of PARA is its universal applicability. It’s usable across all the digital tools you use in the exact same way, whether they are organization-sponsored or personal to your productivity preferences. Being organized across all the tools I use helps me to be more effective.
It’s simple to get started and email is a perfect first step and the ideal proving ground for deliberate organization. Here we go.
Under your Inbox folder in Outlook, create four folders (including the numbers—some tools sort items alphabetically automatically and the numbers ensure the folders are in the correct order):
Each project you work on, or area of responsibility, or resource you collect gets an individual folder under one of those three headings. When a project is ended, a responsibility is concluded, or a resource no longer relevant, the folder is moved to the Archives.
Create a folder in Outlook when you receive the first email on that topic, and not before. PARA is designed to help you organize in your normal workflow and only when necessary.
So when you receive an email from the finance department outlining the 2021 budget process, create a folder under the “1. Projects” folder and title it something like “2021 Budget.” There you go. Now any email you receive from finance, your boss, or whomever you’re collaborating with on the 2021 budget project goes in the “2021 Budget” folder so you can find it when you need it.
Sometimes, of course, your inbox isn’t the best place to keep something—the file is too large, it’s a PowerPoint deck you need to edit and send along, your IT department limits file storage, etc.—and in that case, move the contents of the message to the most appropriate digital tool.
As an example, let’s say the finance department distributed a PowerPoint template for the purposes of presenting your department’s 2021 budget to the executive team. Knowing you’ll need this template in the near future for the purposes outlined in the email, now would be the opportune time to move over to your personal file storage and set it up for use in the PARA System. Create four folders:
And, you probably saw this coming, create a folder under the “1. Projects” folder and title it “2021 Budget.” It should use the exact same name you used for the folder in Outlook. This practice is what lends the system its universality.
Save the PowerPoint template to the just-created folder. You’re well on your way.
It’s here we should cover required definitional clarity around the four folders of PARA. Tiago believes many a productivity challenge is a result of confusion, especially between projects and areas, so I’ll turn to him for explicit definitions:
- 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.”
- A resource is “a topic or theme of ongoing interest.”
- Archives are “inactive items from the other three categories.”
So “Budget 2021” is definitely a project. It has a deadline, though in some of the organizations I’ve worked for, that deadline may be many months from the first email I received. There are a set of tasks that must be completed to receive approval for your department’s budget.
After approval and the start of the fiscal year, monitoring the budget, on the other hand, is quite decidedly an area. There may be tasks from time to time, such as explaining variances above a certain percentage, but tasks like these don’t amount to a project.
What could amount to a project is a response to something like, and I don’t mean to give you bad dreams with this example, not meeting a departmental revenue goal midway through the year. I’m not sure what that project would be in your world, but a folder like “Plan B – The Increase Revenue Project” probably covers most possibilities.
Differentiating between projects and areas requires a bit of organizational ruthlessness on your part. You’ll probably miss the mark every now and again, but that’s okay, and practice is good.
Deadlines and maintenance usually are the distinguishing characteristics for me.
Another example of distinguishing between projects and areas is in the meetings you attend. If the meeting is a monthly management meeting, or a weekly staff meeting, or a committee meeting, you’re definitely saving items to Areas because these are maintenance meetings, a fact made evident by their perpetuity. Those meetings may cover other Areas (e.g., tips for more effective meeting management) and they may produce Projects.
If you receive a directive with an associated deadline then you’ve likely just started a new project.
If an email, or an attachment to an email, is something you want to keep but doesn’t fit in Projects or Areas, it belongs in Resources. Resources is a broad and all-encompassing catch-all for, as Tiago stated above, “a topic or theme of ongoing interest.” The timeframe of an ongoing interest can extend far, far into the future.
So it’s critical to name folders in the “3. Resources” folder in a way that promotes findability for when you need it. For example, a folder named “Leadership” may seem the most appropriate name, but after a few months, there will be so many resources in the “Leadership” folder, you’re going to be overwhelmed when trying to locate something. Consider going a step further, such as “Crisis Leadership” or “Leadership Myths” or “Leadership and Systems” or …
Not every topic is given a folder in every tool (and this goes for Projects, Areas, and Resources). A topic only requires a folder when there’s something to put in that folder. That way you don’t waste your time needlessly organizing things that don’t exist.
Unique to Resources, at least in my usage, is how different topics are usually organized into different digital tools. In Outlook, for example, Resources generally are related to the goings-on of the organization. It may include things like instructions for accessing different technology systems, shared log-in information (don’t tell IT), and memos from the executive team on of-the-moment topics. My enterprise Box folder (the modern-day version of your network drive) holds a broader array of subjects related to my job responsibilities like strategy documents, research reports, survey results, etc. Evernote—a digital note application—is where I keep everything else: meetings notes, reflections, articles, blog posts, etc., etc., etc.
A bit of an aside: Taking digital notes, whether in Evernote or Microsoft’s OneNote or some other digital tool, was such a productivity enhancing breakthrough that I am going to write about it more completely in a future post. I’m not even a productivity guru—and much prefer the notion of effectiveness over productivity—but it’s life changing and I can’t recommend it enough.
Continuing the aside: You know all of those shared files on your team? And how you never can find what you’re looking for? Well digital notes are very helpful in this scenario because you can save the URL of the file in Box, Dropbox, or on your network drive into a personal note to have an easy way to find what you need and it’s within your complete control.
So what about all those printed materials you receive at in-person meetings? If you have a file cabinet, you could PARA them in physical form. I’ve never done it. I imagine it requires a lot of effort. But if it works for you, go for it. The best option, in my opinion, is to get the file in a digital format. Ask the meeting organizer for a digital copy or scan the file and convert it into a PDF.
An alternative option, and I use this in combination with the digital format advice just above, is to create a pile on my desk of the printed materials that I’m not interested in converting or won’t convert because the loss of fidelity is too high. I put the date and the name of the meeting (or wherever I received it) in the upper right-hand corner of the material. At the end of a month or quarter—I place the entire pile into a tan file folder and label the folder with the date range of the contents. I can find what I need when I need it.
This is where everything goes when it’s no longer in use. I prefer to archive over deleting. Your email storage restrictions may require more deleting, or if you think something could be helpful in the future, moving the contents of a folder to other digital tools may be worthy.
The point of the Archives is to hang on to things in the event something from a Project, Area, or Resource makes a comeback and, instead of starting over, you have the opportunity to start from where you last ended. Or perhaps there’s some work from a previous year that could inform what you’re working on this year. You just never know. That’s the reason to hang on to digital things. You may need it again and you can put it where you don’t see it and where other people don’t see it, so there should be no fears of being labeled a pack-rat.
Getting Started and/or Reorganizing
You’re unlikely to be starting a new job with a fresh and brand new inbox like me. Don’t let that deter you from making the jump.
Create the four PARA folders in your Inbox, right now, or on Monday when you’d rather do anything than respond to what’s in your inbox, or any other moment this week when you have ten free minutes.
Done? Great. Start using them for the emails in your inbox as you read the emails in your inbox. Create folders under the appropriate folder for each Project, Area, and Resource as you go. Move the message as you need.
If you’re making progress, and your inbox is emptied—because, really, that’s the point: move stuff out of your inbox and into folders where there is more context and can become usable—address the existing folders (if you have any) by moving them to one of the four PARA headings, deleting them, or moving individual messages into the appropriate folder.
You’re going to be tempted, because I know I was, to make modifications to the system. Most of those didn’t work out for me, so my advice is to strictly use the PARA approach, at least as you’re getting started.
Also: if it feels daunting to reorganize everything in Outlook right at this moment, don’t do it. Start with the new four PARA folders and go from there.
To be sure, going from there means committing to the process of organizing new emails into one of the four PARA folders, moving the relevant contents of a message to another digital tool like a network drive folder (also organized using PARA), or deleting the message altogether. Not doing so reduces the benefit of being organized because those frustrations of being unable to find something will persist.
Additionally, “going from there” also means organizing the folders that feel too daunting to organize now when you “touch” them in the future. As you’re in this transition state, commit to organizing the folders and emails “outside” of PARA into PARA as you use them. This approach allows you to chop up one daunting task into many little manageable tasks as you go.
I believe being organized, whatever your organizational method, is essential to being more effective at work and making (more) change happen.
I also believe being organized requires getting organized. That’s a basic fact with a deeper truth: being organized requires you give your organizational system thought.
A lot of us, at least for me, become “organized” as a result of the people we work with, the social norms of the department we work in, a system that just develops, and any number of other factors that can be labeled as happenstance. I’ve found it helpful to be more deliberate in how I work.
In Tiago’s introductory blog post about PARA he helps us get started with the thoughtfulness required to become organized: “Imagine for a moment the perfect organizational system. One that supported and enhanced the work you do, telling you exactly where to put a piece of information, and exactly where to find it when you needed it.
“This system would have to be,” he explains:
- universal, encompassing any conceivable kind of information from any source
- flexible, able to work with any project or activity you take on, now and in the future
- simple, not requiring any time-consuming maintenance, cataloguing, tagging, or reorganizing beyond a bare minimum
- actionable, integrating seamlessly with task management and project management methods
- cross-platform, able to be used with any application, now existing or yet to be developed
- outcome-oriented, structuring information in a way that supports the delivery of valuable work
- modular, allowing different levels of detail to be hidden or revealed, depending on the needs of the current task
- opportunistic, in the good sense, taking advantage of work already being performed, instead of requiring dedicated overhead time
I’m not saying these must be your organizing principles, but they’re a heckuva good start, and they’ve worked wonders in my world. To me (and certainly for me), an organizing system exists not for the sake of being organized, but for the purpose of improved effectiveness.
Being more effective comes as a result of making (more) change happen, which occurs through productive action, which comes by improved thinking and learning, which is made possible by … being organized.
That’s my set of dominoes, anyway. I think they’ll work for you, too.