In my PARA Method, I teach people how to organize all their digital notes and files using a simple, 4-part system.
Your computer is your working environment for many of your waking hours. Until you take control of it and design it to support the kinds of thinking you want to do, every minute spent there will continue to feel taxing and distracting.
The PARA Method starts with the observation that every piece of information can be saved in one of four categories, based on how actionable it is:
- Projects: information relevant to your currently active projects
- Areas: information relevant to the major responsibilities of your life
- Resources: other information that might become relevant in the future
- Archives: inactive information from the previous three categories
This scheme is possible because we aren’t organizing information according to what it means, but according to how we’ll likely use it. Our current priorities and goals become the filter that helps us drastically reduce the amount of information we have to pay attention to at any given time.
I receive a lot of questions about how to implement PARA, including extremely detailed and specific questions about where a certain fact or quote or note should go. But the decision of where to put something is very forgiving, because we always have the powerful search capability to find what we need regardless of where it’s located.
The most important principle of PARA is that all the content related to each one of our most important projects is in one central, easily accessible place (whether that is a folder, a digital notebook, or a tag). Areas and resources are less actionable, and thus less important. But projects represent the frontier of our attention and the central thrusts of our most challenging endeavors.
I recently encountered a wonderful example of how this straightforward principle can be manifested in the medium of dance choreography. It is from the book The Creative Habit by Twyla Tharp, in which she describes the working habits and routines that have propelled her through a prolific career of more than 160 choreographed works, including 129 dances, 12 television specials, six major Hollywood movies, four full-length ballets, four Broadway shows, and two figure skating routines. Dance might seem like the creative medium that could least benefit from “organizing.” Yet her technique shows that creativity always emerges out of raw material drawn from other sources.
Tharp calls her approach “The box.” Every time she begins a new project, she takes out a foldable file box and labels it with the name of the project. Into the box she puts anything and everything related to the project, like a swirling cauldron of creative energy.
Any time she find a new piece of material ( such as a mix tape, a patch of fabric, a video of a dance routine, or a photo from an art gallery) she always knows where to put it – in the box. Any time she works on that project, she knows exactly where to look – in the box. It’s a stunningly simple system that reveals just how regular and mundane our creative habits can be. We don’t need complex, sophisticated systems to be able to produce complex, sophisticated works.
I compiled Tharp’s comments on how she uses the box from various places in her book. Her comments are the best possible guide on how to use “project-based organizing” to further your creative ambitions without getting bogged down in busywork. All the excerpts below are taken directly from her book, and I’ve bolded certain passages for emphasis.
Twyla Tharp and “The Box”
I start every dance with a box. I write the project name on the box, and as the piece progresses I fill it up with every item that went into the making of the dance. This means notebooks, news clippings, CDs, videotapes of me working alone in my studio, videos of the dancers rehearsing, books and photographs and pieces of art that may have inspired me.
The box documents the active research on every project. For a Maurice Sendak project, the box is filled with notes from Sendak, snippets of William Blake poetry, toys that talk back to you. I’m sure this is the sort of stuff that most people store on shelves or in files. I prefer a box.
There are separate boxes for everything I’ve ever done. If you want a glimpse into how I think and work, you could do worse than to start with my boxes. The box makes me feel organized, that I have my act together even when I don’t know where I’m going yet. It also represents a commitment. The simple act of writing a project name on the box means I’ve started work.
The box makes me feel connected to a project. It is my soil. I feel this even when I’ve back-burnered a project: I may have put the box away on a shelf, but I know it’s there. The project name on the box in bold black lettering is a constant reminder that I had an idea once and may come back to it very soon.
Most important, though, the box means I never have to worry about forgetting. One of the biggest fears for a creative person is that some brilliant idea will get lost because you didn’t write it down and put it in a safe place. I don’t worry about that because I know where to find it. It’s all in the box.
They’re one hundred percent functional; they do exactly what I want them to do: hold stuff. I can write on them to identify their contents (you wouldn’t do that with a thousand-dollar cherry file cabinet). I can move them around (which is also hard to do with a heavy wood filing system). When one box fills up, I can easily unfold and construct another. And when I’m done with the box, I can ship it away, out of sight, out of mind, so I can move on to the next project, the next box.
Easily acquired. Inexpensive. Perfectly functional. Portable. Identifiable. Disposable. Eternal enough. Those are my criteria for the perfect storage system. And I’ve found the answer in a simple file box.
That’s the true value of the box: It contains your inspirations without confining your creativity.
On developing the Billy Joel show Movin’ Out
It was one of those rare moments: an instant deal. We shook hands and he left. That’s the moment I started my Billy Joel box for the show Movin’ Out.
First in: my precious twenty-minute tape. Next in: two blue index cards. I believe in starting each project with a stated goal. Sometimes the goal is nothing more than a personal mantra such as “keep it simple” or “something perfect” or “economy” to remind me of what I was thinking at the beginning if and when I lose my way. I write it down on a slip of paper and it’s the first thing that goes into the box.
In this case, I had two goals. The first was “tell a story.” I felt that getting a handle on narrative in dance was my next big challenge, plus I wanted to find out what happened to Brenda and Eddie, the “popular steadies.”
The second was “make dance pay for the dancers.” I’ve always been resentful of the fact that some of the so-called elite art forms can’t survive on their own without sponsorship and subsidies. It bothers me that dance companies around the world are not-for-profit organizations and that dancers, who are as devoted and disciplined as any NFL or NBA superstar, are at the low end of the entertainment industry’s income scale. I wanted this Broadway-bound project not only to elevate serious dance in the commercial arena but also to pay the dancers well.
So I wrote my goals for the project, “tell a story” and “make dance pay,” on two blue index cards and watched them float to the bottom of the Joel box. Along with the tape, they were the first items in the box and they sit there as I write this, covered by months of research, like an anchor keeping me connected to my original impulse.
In the box you’ll also find my notebooks containing all the clips and images and scrawls to myself that I file away to jog my memory. There are tchotchkes in the box as well, all of which link me to some essential aspect of the project.
Eventually, the material for this show filled up twelve boxes.
That’s how a box is like soil to me. It’s basic, earthy, elemental. It’s home. It’s what I can always go back to when I need to regroup and keep my bearings. Knowing that the box is always there gives me the freedom to venture out, be bold, dare to fall flat on my face. Before you can think out of the box, you have to start with a box.
The box is not a substitute for creating. The box doesn’t compose or write a poem or create a dance step. The box is the raw index of your preparation. It is the repository of your creative potential, but it is not that potential realized.
My box is like the journalist’s notes. It’s the “reporting” routine I follow before creating a piece. If the quality of a journalist’s work is a direct function of how much background material he sifted through, how many people he talked to, how many times he went back to his sources to challenge or check up on their statements—that is, how diligent and clever he was in assembling his research—then the quality of my creative output is also a function of how diligent and clever I’ve been in filling up my boxes.
Sadly, some people never get beyond the box stage in their creative life. We all know people who have announced that they’ve started work on a project—say, a book—but some time passes, and when you politely ask how it’s going, they tell you that they’re still researching.
Weeks, months, years pass and they produce nothing. They have tons of research but it’s never enough to nudge them toward the actual process of writing the book. I’m not sure what’s going on here. Maybe they’re researching in the wrong places. Maybe they like the comfort zone of research as opposed to the hard work of writing. Maybe they’re just taking procrastination to a new extreme. All I know for sure is that they are trapped in the box.
There’s one final benefit to the box: It gives you a chance to look back. A lot of people don’t appreciate this. When they’re done with a project, they’re relieved. They’re ready for a break and then they want to move forward to the next idea.
But the box gives you the opportunity to reflect on your performance. Dig down through the boxes archaeologically and you’ll see a project’s beginnings. This can be instructive. How did you do? Did you get to your goal? Did you improve on it? Did it change along the way? Could you have done it all more efficiently?
I find the box is most useful at three critical stages: when you’re getting going, when you’re lost, and after you’ve finished (that’s when you can look back and see the directions you didn’t take, the ideas that intrigued you but didn’t fit this time around and might be the start of your next box).
A documentary on Tharp’s 6-decade career, Twyla Moves, was released in March 2021, including extensive archival footage from her past works and interviews. There are also segments on how she worked with dancers remotely during COVID. The film is only available via a PBS subscription, but that webpage includes a number of short clips that should give you a taste of her style: