Wai Hon's Blog

Implementing the PARA Method in Org-mode

2022-12-31 #emacs #org-mode #pkm

This post first talks about the PARA method and then my Org-mode implementation for organizing tasks and notes.

The PARA Method

The PARA Method is a modern system for organizing digital information. It stands for Projects-Areas-Resources-Archives, the four categories of all digital information.

  • Project: a series of tasks linked to a goal, with a deadline.
  • Area: a sphere of activity with a standard to be maintained over time.
  • Resource: a topic or theme of ongoing interest.
  • Archive: inactive items from the other 3 categories.

Project vs Area vs Resource

“Projects” and “Areas” are inherited from GTD. “Distinguish Project and Area” is a common challenge for GTD and PARA adopters, including me. I once had many unimportant projects without deadlines that cluttered my agenda. There are many discussions and articles on it1 and the model answer is to check (1) the nature of the task and (2) if there is a deadline.

  • A project has (1) a specific outcome/goal and (2) a deadline.
  • An area has (1) a standard to be maintained that (2) is continuous over time.

In addition to the model answer, I have my interpretation,

Need my focusYesNoNo
Have to doMaybeYesNo
Want to doMaybeMaybeYes

These three questions help decide which PARA categories a task should go to:

  1. Does it require my focus within a timeframe? If yes, make it a project.
  2. Is it something I have to do? If yes, move it to an area
  3. Is it something I want to do? If yes, move it to a resource.

PARA is Pragmatic

On one hand, I organize my tasks. On the other hand, I know it is not necessary to get it perfect.

Firstly, it takes a lot of effort. I move forward and do the actual work when the tasks are by-and-large in the right places that help to prioritize. The end goal should be the actual outcomes instead of organizing.

Secondly, it is impossible. PARA is a system of single classification. Everything is either a project, an area, or a resource. In practice, a task or note can fall into multiple projects, areas, or interests. For example, “planning a trip for the 10-th anniversary” could arguably belong to either area “spouse” or area “travel”.

Organizing should be forgiving. It is okay to organize wrongly as long as it works. PARA is not a system for perfectionism but for pragmatism.

Let’s talk about my implementation!

Org-mode Implementation

I organize my tasks with PARA using a single todo.org file.

Tags and Categories

I use tags for the actual areas and resources. I assign each of them a specific tag to the corresponding subheadings. This gives me a set of controlled vocabularies for tagging projects and notes. For example, I know I should use writing instead of write or blogging for area “writing”. I don’t create tags for projects (which are short-term and grow over time) to keep my tag set small and useful2.

I use categories for the PARA top categories, Project-Area-Resource. When looking at my org agenda view, I immediately know which tasks are my top focuses (Project), which are things I need to do (Area) or interested to do (Resource). I also know which exact area or resource they belong to with the tags on the right.

Tip: I can filter tasks by category and tag by pressing / (M-x org-agenda-filter) and clear filters with | (M-x org-agenda-filter-remove-all).

Organizing my Notes

For project notes, I add or link them directly under the corresponding org subtree in todo.org as I avoid adding project tags. When a project is completed or canceled, I convert the reusable part into the area or resource notes, and archive the project subtree to todo.org_archive.

I place the areas and resources notes under ~/note. I tag them with the tags defined in todo.org and reserve the directory hierarchy3 for the note types. This gives me the flexibility to have multiple tags for a note.

Here is a simplified version of my org directory:

├─ todo.org
└─ note
   ├─ 20221125T211904--org-attach__emacs.org
   ├─ ...
   ├─ meta
   │  ├─ ...
   │  └─ 20200202T222222--using-org-mode__emacs.org
   └─ reference
      ├─ article
      │  ├─ ...
      │  └─ 20221226T150449--creating-family-rules__parenting.org
      └─ book
         ├─ ...
         └─ 20220907T134123--building-a-second-brain-tiago-forte__pkm.org

So far, I don’t archive notes under ~/note. If I need to, I might use the tag ARCHIVED and write some elisp to filter them.


Defining how I am going to organize my digital information reduces the cognitive load when working with tasks and notes. I can add or retrieve the information without thinking too much.

I love to learn how other people works and I hope this post could be interesting and helpful to you, too. If you like it, you probably also check out these:

  1. Search them yourself or read this great article: Project People vs. Area People - Forte Lab↩︎

  2. It is suggested to use a self-defined set of tags and keep them as few as possible↩︎

  3. That is why using denote with subdirectories is important for me. ↩︎