This post is one of a series: Get started with digital notes (post one), Create little systems to collect digital notes (post two), and Use digital notes to do creative work (post three).

A man named Hermann Ebbinghaus attempted to illustrate what we’re up against in our battle with remembering with what has become to be known as the forgetting curve. Various academic studies have attempted to quantify the rate at which we forget, yet I believe it’s sufficient to know we’re good at forgetting, and we’re good at forgetting quickly.

It’s natural for our knowledge to degrade unless we give it attention and that natural forgetfulness has certain species-adaptation benefits. But forgetfulness in the workplace can be inefficient, frustrating, embarrassing, perilous, and generally disadvantageous: To be forgetful is to be ineffective.

When we don’t take notes, we forget. Actually we’re likely to forget whether we take notes or not, so it’s more appropriate to say digital notes transfer the burden of remembering to a software application such as Evernote. 

Along with our best ideas, digital notes make more accessible the knowledge we’re responsible for knowing, such as what was discussed at last month’s meeting, where the last conversation left off, important deadlines for the budgeting process, and the long list of “working memory” responsibilities all of our jobs include.

As I’ve written elsewhere: “Amid overflowing inboxes, packed-to-the-hilt calendars, and lists of priorities all of equal priority, the healthcare administrator’s job is the same as it ever was: keep things running smoothly, and as different as it will ever be: make change happen.” 

It’s a dichotomous reality pulling us in contradictory directions. That’s the challenge of working in complexity

And digital notes help to make it possible through strategic forgetting. 

Have you been in an interaction (meeting, 1:1 with the boss, annual review for an employee, etc.) and have limited memory of something you wished you recalled more completely?

A note would have helped.

Have you found yourself searching Google for a resource, something you know exists because you’ve used it previously, and found no luck in finding it again? 

Have you had a thought during a meeting, in the middle of the night, or in the shower only to forget an important point when it came time to use it? 

Has your memory of an influential series of events differed from someone else’s memory of that same series of events?

Strategic forgetting is the practice of transferring the burden of remembering to our digital notes because digital notes are memories stored outside the brain.

Transferring this burden of remembering, writes Building a Second Brain creator Tiago Forte, “allows us to outsource our memory, instead of trying to keep every detail of our work and lives in our heads. It is like having a brilliant collaborator, thought partner, and personal assistant always available, ready to serve up our best ideas at a moment’s notice.”

Imagine arriving at a meeting well-prepared and well-informed on the topic because you’d been collecting information, stored in notes, for the past two weeks, six months, or even ten years—and reviewed that information before the meeting.

Imagine taking notes on the interesting things you read related to your job, or the job you might want to do in the future, and having that information available in the moment you need it.

Imagine taking notes about the thoughts you have, as they come, on whatever it might be, comprising thousands of notes, and then being able to consult them as they’re useful in support of your creativity.

The thing about taking (and collecting) notes is the value notes bring in having them. We (almost always) don’t know what information is going to be valuable until we’ve realized we don’t have it. Then we’re lucky if there’s a trace of a memory at all. 

So if you read something and it captures your attention—why not take a note? If you’re already attending a meeting—why not take a note? If you have a thought in the shower—why not take a note?

If you’re already doing the work—why not take a note?

While the details of the February 17, 2016 department staff meeting may or may not be important to you right at this moment, there’s a heck of a good chance that the blog post you read and have been thinking about all day is something that should influence your thinking in the future. Because that’s work, too. 

And in my estimation, if you’re already doing the work then it’s worth knowing what you’ve already learned. You just have to remember it.

It’s easy to get started with digital note taking. Here’s a guide to get you set-up.

Once your set-up is complete, you can create little systems to make note collecting easier. “Your job is to collect good ideas,” writes artist Austin Kleon in his book Steal Like an Artist, “The more good ideas you collect, the more you can choose from to be influenced by.” Here’s a guide to do just that.

The point of taking and collecting digital notes is to use them, something we’ll do more and more as our jobs continue to shift toward creative work. So here’s a guide to using and improving notes for the creative (and tactical, too) healthcare administrator work you’re already doing.

Tiago Forte is the closest person to a digital note philosopher—if such a philosopher can exist—as there is. His philosophy on note taking is worth adopting:

Notes are personal, informal, quick and dirty. They are not for public consumption, but for your own personal use, like a leather notebook you keep in your backpack.

Notes are open-ended and never finished. “Taking notes” is a continuous process, in which you can noodle on ideas without an immediate purpose in mind.

Notes have low standards for quality and polish. They are easy to jot down, because it’s fine if they are messy, incomplete, or totally random.

Notes naturally mix diverse types of media. Just like a paper notebook might contain drawings and sketches, quotes and ideas, and even a pasted photo or post-it note, notes naturally combine different kinds of media in one place.

This post is one of a series: Get started with digital notes (post one), Create little systems to collect digital notes (post two), and Use digital notes and strategic forgetting to be more effective at work (post four).

In many ways, at least for me, notes have become a primary work activity, perhaps even the primary work activity. 

That’s because our jobs are changing. This Harold Jarche visual representation gets to the point in a straightforward manner: our work is steadily becoming creative work.

It’s creative work in the sense that creativity is required for solution finding when working in complexity. Applying creativity to solve problems in complexity requires skills like intuition, empathy, curiosity, and sensemaking.

Creativity has always been valuable in organizations; but it wasn’t necessary for everyone to be creative because business context changed so infrequently. 

Now we’re realizing context, the conditions of a business decision, is always shifting and depending on the setting it has as much to do with an interaction between employee and boss as it does with changing market dynamics.

Responding to market shifts caused by competitors, regulators, cultural shifts, innovation, yes even pandemics, and especially in response to the response of a pandemic, among a multitude of other examples … requires creativity. So does, on an equal level, organizing a team to do their best work, leading a project, navigating bureaucracy, creating a financial model, conducting a training session, leading a staff meeting, and on and on.

This importance of context requires creativity from everyone in order to respond to all the contextual changes happening across the organization, at any given moment, and in any given moment. 

So it’s good news that we’re all capable of creativity. And a foundational element of my creative (healthcare administrator) work, and now perhaps becoming a foundational part of yours, are digital notes because digital notes store what’s at the foundation of the creative skills on the right (up above) until we’re ready to use it: input.

Using and Improving Notes

The point of having notes is to use them.

That seems an obvious statement, but using notes, at least for me, has been more of a challenge in changing habits than collecting notes was in establishing one. I’m very good at collecting notes. I’m getting better at using notes. 

It sounds trivial, but after decades of starting every knowledge-seeking activity with an innocent search engine search, reminding myself I likely already had what I was looking for was difficult. For certain, there are resources on the internet better than what I have in my notes, but what I already have has been curated for my interests, is likely to meet my contextual needs, and doesn’t contain all the flim-flam of a search-engine-optimized Google search result. 

So if you find yourself having the same problem, here’s what worked for me: change your browser’s default search engine to something more useless than Google. That should do the trick. 

Once you establish the habit of using your notes, there are at least three reasons to use them: in consultation, in preparation, and in creation.

In consultation is to rediscover what I “know” about a subject. This is as much about reminding myself what was discussed in the committee meeting two weeks ago as it is about refreshing myself on a topical subject in the midst of a team meeting.

In preparation is to prepare for a work activity. Whether it’s a meeting or an interaction, and those two categories cover much of what we do at work, I look to my notes to prepare for knowledge reasons (here’s what I know) and process reasons (here’s how I’m going to do this).

In creation: To inform a creation. It might be a PowerPoint slide deck, financial model, framework, project plan, memo, team development activity, etc., etc., etc., my notes help me in the process of creation.

Using a note in consultation, in preparation, or in creation happens in the flow of work and in that flow there is also an opportunity to improve a note and make it even better for the next time it is used. It’s called progressive summarization and it’s an exceptional feature of digital notes.

Progressive summarization is a tool to do just what it describes: progressively summarize a note you’ve collected previously, as you’re using the note, so that you can make it even more useful for the next time you use it. 

For example, there’s an article I constantly reference because it’s changed the way I think about work. I saved the entire article as a note. I’ve bolded passages, highlighted key ideas, and even summarized it. So when I return to the note, which I do with some level of regularity, it’s easy to find what I’m looking for without having to spend 15-minutes re-reading the article. That’s progressive summarization.

Tiago Forte, inventor of Progressive Summarization and creator of the Building a Second Brain course, describes progressive summarization as “a method for opportunistic compression — summarizing and condensing a piece of information in small spurts, spread across time, in the course of other work, and only doing as much or as little as the information deserves.” 

Progressive summarization works through five layers with each layer building on the previous layer.

The first layer is creating the note. That’s easy. 

The second layer is bolded key points. The third layer is highlighted best points (which come from the bolded points). The fourth layer is creating a summary of the note in your own words. 

And the fifth layer, which in all honesty I haven’t quite figured out yet, is to remix notes. I imagine it to be a mastery-level use of digital notes and something I’ll figure out when it becomes useful to my digital note taking practice.

Progressive summarization doesn’t have to occur all at once. In fact, it shouldn’t. And not every note deserves or requires all layers of progressive summarization—stopping at the bolding layer is common for me and summaries should be reserved for only the most impactful notes. 

Notes are intended to be useful. Using progressive summarization to make notes more useful as you’re using them to do the work you’re doing absolves digital note taking from tedium. We’re all too busy for tedium. 

More Creativity at Work

At work we commonly depend on our creativity as we write the email, as we compose the thought in a meeting or interaction, and as we create the spreadsheet or presentation. Let’s call it creativity in the moment.

Equally (and perhaps more) important is considered creativity. The creativity that emerges from well thought out preparation, consultation, and creation in thoughtful consideration of context.

I’m not sure that distinction serves all that much importance beyond this: it calls attention to the need for creativity in all moments, in all areas, and by everyone when working in complexity.

Digital notes help us in constantly shifting contexts because digital notes provide a system to collect, process, and remember the information and knowledge required for being creative—and importantly: while we’re being creative in preparation, in consultation, and in creation.

This post is one of a series: Get started with digital notes (post one), Use digital notes to do creative work (post three), and Use digital notes and strategic forgetting to be more effective at work (post four).

Have you ever tried drinking from a fire hose? 

I suspect it’s possible. But not in the way we all suggest to new employees when we tell them their first few weeks on the job are going to be just like … well you know.

At best, at best, if you attempt to drink from a fire hose you’ll only manage to consume a few drops of water because the only sensible way to attempt to drink from a fire hose is to stand to the side of the gushing stream and slurp from the spray.

An onboarding experience that captures a tiny fraction of the whole is not a successful onboarding; nor is capturing a tiny fraction of any of the information we come across in any activity at work, whether we’re a new employee or not. 

But that’s just what we’re doing when we attend meetings, webinars, and trainings; when we read articles, books, and emails; when we converse with coworkers, bosses, and employees; when we think of solutions, next steps, and risks; and everything else; and … we don’t take notes.

Digital notes give us the ability to 1) redirect the fire hose of information coming at us all the time into a gigantic collection … tank, where the information is stored until it’s needed and, if it is needed, is findable and 2) collect what we know (knowledge!) in an accessible fashion so it can be used.

And to be findable and usable, digital notes must be collectable. 

Little Systems for Collecting Notes

Making digital notes collectable is about implementing little systems to optimize note collecting. This is where the digital in digital note taking makes note taking so much easier. The internet abounds with useful tools, applets, software, subscriptions, and etcetera to make collecting digital notes easier. 

Here are two tools and a set of rules to make digital note taking easier for you.

Instapaper Highlights to Evernote

Just about everything I read on the internet is filtered through Instapaper. Instapaper makes it easy to save anything (articles, blog posts, videos) for later consumption. This is helpful for several reasons and most especially because Instapaper has a highlight feature that when paired with a recipe at IFTTT automatically saves those highlights to my Evernote inbox.

It’s magical.

IFTTT, also known as If This Then That, is a simple integration service allowing you to connect different services through simple applets. More on that in a moment.

Here’s how to save Instapaper highlights to Evernote:

  1. Create an Instapaper account.
  2. Install the “Save to Instapaper” browser plugin (Firefox) or bookmarklet (other browsers). If you have more than one computer or use more than one browser, it’s helpful to install the plugin or bookmarklet across all of them. Anything I want to read, now or perhaps in the future, is saved to Instapaper.
  3. Create an IFTTT account
  4. Connect the Append Instapaper Highlights to Evernote applet. Just click the link. IFTTT will provide step-by-step instructions.
  5. (Check to ensure your .Inbox is the default notebook in Evernote.)
  6. Save this blog post by using the “Save to Instapaper” plugin or bookmarklet. Visit Instapaper. Highlight this phrase with your cursor. Then click “Highlight.”
  7. Wait for the highlight to appear in Evernote. Voila! 

Reading on the internet in this fashion has been helpful to me because I usually add something from what I read to Evernote, I have a searchable archive of everything I’ve saved and archived in Instapaper, and instead of having a hundred open tabs or emailing myself things to read when I have the time, Instapaper provides an inbox of worthy reading when I want to do it.

Entire Articles to Evernote

Sometimes an article I read is so good, or is foundational to my understanding of a topic, or is one I return to again and again, or is something I share over and over that I just want to save the entire piece to Evernote. 

So I do using the Evernote Web Clipper plugin. Install it. Click the “Clip to Evernote” button. Look for a moment at the “Options”—the plugin has what it calls “smart filing,” where the software decides which notebook to use for saving the clip. I’m sure this is a helpful feature, but to me it’s proven annoying, so I changed the setting to “Always start in .Inbox.” Click “Save.” Wait for the clip to appear in Evernote.

Here’s a “Quick Start Guide” if you’d like to know more about the features. 

Direct Entry to Evernote

Most of your notes are bound to be direct entry right into Evernote. I rely on a few simple heuristics for deciding when to take notes. Most of my notes are work related, and I also use notes for things in my personal life. 

If something captures my interest or attention, online or IRL (like a book!), it gets a note. Also, if something should capture my interest or attention because of a project I’m working on or something I have responsibility for (e.g., employee documentation, reminders to aid during annual reviews, etc), it gets a note.

Thoughts get a note. These thoughts can range from the thoughts that come while on a run, or in the shower, or when I should be paying attention to something else … to the applied thinking I do in preparation for a meeting, or the individual work as part of a project, or the effort in solving a problem. 

Every meeting gets a note. My definition of meetings is broad, so this includes everything that comes by way of a calendar invite, the interactions that aren’t pre-scheduled but amount to what would happen in a meeting if it had been, webinars, trainings, etc.

I use a template for all meeting notes. Each note is dated and titled the same as the meeting in my calendar. I note:

  • Meeting Purpose
  • Attendees
  • Commitments (Who/What/By When)
  • Notes (!), this is the meat of the note, often just an attempt to capture what seems important in the moment
  • Resources; I make note of anything distributed in hard copy form or attach any digital resources
  • Agenda; if available I copy and paste the agenda 

Taking notes about things that capture your attention, the thoughts you have, and the meetings you attend are a good start but may not cover everything you want to take notes about.

For example, in addition to the above, I rely on (and take some notes in this way) notes for reminding me of things I want to be reminded about, skills I’m practicing to improve, and a PDF to read list, among other things. 

Finding What Works For You

My digital note taking (and collection) practices have evolved as I’ve found my way into new jobs and experienced the value digital notes provide.

So there’s no right way nor a reason to comprehensively classify all the different types of notes worth collecting. Instead, taking digital notes is about developing and improving the approach that works for you while relying on PARA as your organizing idea.

You’ll find what works for you and your note taking needs as you take more notes, of course, which happens to be the point: to understand the value digital note taking provides, you must start collecting (and taking) digital notes so you can start using your digital notes to help you be more effective at work.

Wouldn’t it be amazing if there were something you could start doing at work that would immediately make you more effective at your job?

Good news, because I believe there is: Digital note taking.

A Foundational Work Practice

For most of us, note taking amounts to an activity we do when we attend meetings—we record information we definitely need to know or share, commitments we make, instructions we’re given, and perhaps a few additional thoughts depending on your personal preferences for information capture.

Note taking can be so much more.

If you take your way of capturing notes in a meeting, improve it, and expand the activity to everything else you do at work, digital note taking will help you be more effective at what you do.

That’s because our jobs amount to turning 1) information into 2) knowledge and 3) applying it. That’s it. That’s all of our jobs. And digital note taking can help us with all three.

Taking digital notes is a foundational work practice that will help you think, help you focus, create a record, document your learning, and direct your work. 

That’s what note taking has done for me, at least, because digital note taking makes collecting, remembering, and using the enormity of information we consume every day at work … possible.

Getting Started

So if you haven’t already, pay for a digital note-taking app such as Evernote or any of the many other available options and install the application. I use Evernote and recommend it—it’s accessible across operating systems and, for reasons that will become clear, is usable with other components of a digital note taking system.

(Evernote is also accessible via your browser. I prefer the functionality of the desktop and mobile device apps.)

Create a notebook and name it “.Inbox”. Set it as your default notebook.

Evernote uses notebooks as its organizing metaphor (think of a notebook like you think of a folder on your computer); the period at the beginning of inbox is important because it will keep the notebook at the top of your notebook list as you add more and more. 

Start adding notes to your .Inbox … about everything: thoughts, observations, meetings, employee interactions, highlights from what you read, and any other information that seems relevant. 

Taking notes about … everything is likely to be different from your usual approach. This change in behavior, and the comprehensive collection of notes that will follow, is part of what lends digital note taking its utility. 

Once you have a few notes, create new notebooks to organize those notes by topic, for instance:

  • Team Staff Meetings
  • New Clinic Opening
  • 2021 Strategy Thoughts
  • 1:1 Tools

(I believe) It’s imperative you organize your Evernote set-up using the PARA method. If you don’t know about PARA, spend ten minutes becoming acquainted over here

Earlier I mentioned how Evernote uses notebooks instead of folders. This makes setting-up PARA a bit more difficult than it should be because instead of using folders to implement PARA we must create four “stacks” of notebooks. To create a stack requires two notebooks. Here’s how to do it. Once you have two notebooks that fit into one of the PARA categories (an easy work-around: create a nonsense notebook to create a stack, then delete the nonsense notebook and the stack remains). Your set-up should look like this:

.Inbox

1 Projects

2 Areas

3 Resources

4 Archive

Now whenever you create a new note, and that new note doesn’t have a home, create a new folder and add that folder to an existing stack. 

Team Staff Meetings and 2021 Strategy Thoughts, as an example, would both be added to the Areas stack. The 1:1 Tools, because the folder contains examples of how to improve 1:1 conversations, would be added to Resources. New Clinic Opening is a project. When any of these folders (and the notes within them) lose their relevance, they are moved to the Archives stack.

An Essential Part of the Job

Taking digital notes is a bit of work, not in a burdensome way, but in a way that it adds an extra task to what you’re already doing. This is a non-trivial reality for an overburdened administrator and, speaking from experience, once I started taking notes it was always tempting to not take notes … for a variety of reasons. However, not taking notes when you should be taking notes defeats the purpose of note taking. The whole reason to take notes is because when you want to use the notes you’ve taken, those notes exist.

In my estimation, a better way to look at digital note taking, which is the view I’ve adopted, is that digital note taking adds significant value to the work we’re already doing. Digital note taking is an essential part of the job because digital notes help us collect, remember, and use … knowledge.

Knowledge is essential to the work we do as knowledge workers in a knowledge economy. The things you know, the knowledge you have, is the stuff you learn from experience and education. 

Yet most of us don’t do a very good job collecting our knowledge, not in a systematized fashion anyway; which makes it difficult to remember knowledge; and that all but makes it impossible to use our knowledge.

Make more knowledge more usable by taking digital notes.


I learned about digital notes from Tiago Forte and his Building a Second Brain course. It was very helpful to me and I believe it could be just as helpful for you.

This post is one of a series: Create little systems to collect digital notes (post two), Use digital notes to do creative work (post three), and Use digital notes and strategic forgetting to be more effective at work (post four).

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: 

  • Projects
  • Areas
  • Resources
  • Archives

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. 

email-signup-cherry-offwhite

YOUR WORK IS HARD WORK.

GET A PEP TALK IN YOUR INBOX EVERY WEDNESDAY.

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):

  1. Projects
  2. Areas
  3. Resources
  4. Archives

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:

  1. Projects
  2. Areas
  3. Resources
  4. Archives

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.

Resources

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.

Archives

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.

Keep going. 

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.

Getting Organized

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.