I started practicing PARA and Zettelkasten two years ago. Here's what I've realized after twenty four months of practice:
Change the system, not yourself
There's a common mistake people made when following popular note taking or productivity systems, be it PARA, Zettelkasten, GTD, Bullet Journals, or anything else.
They assume each system is universal.
Those systems weren't built for mass consumption. Rather, their inventors had each felt a gap in their own abilities, where their previous systems didn't match their personalities. Like two jigsaw pieces that don't quite fit.
Those inventors could have chosen to "buckle down", to "try harder", to "be more disciplined."
But, each person decided "No."
"Change myself to match the system? I'll run out of steam trying to live my life on pure grit and will power. Instead, why not change the system to match me?"
That was the key insight that drove each productivity legend.
Each one took the system they'd been handed and started tweaking it, based on what worked for them:
- Can't make yourself cross-link notes? Stuff similar ones in a folder instead
- Large quantities of copied quotes making your notes unwieldy? Only allow written quotes.
Each person used different steps. But they found ones which worked with their personalities and their goals.
They all identified the same core challenge, "How do I remind future-me of what present-me knows when future-me actually needs to know it?", and proceed to evolve solutions that worked well with their own personal constraints.
We can do the same.
The wheel was invented, and now we customize the wheel for every application. Similarly, the popular frameworks are only your starting point. Adapt it to your own self. Skip the parts that seem convoluted, that seem tedious. Just adopt the parts that resonate. Maybe that's all you actually need. It's okay to ignore the rest.
It's not about whether you should do PARA or Zettelkasten or any of the other methodologies.
You shouldn't "do" any of them. Starting from there, and venture forth on your own journey.
My own example
The first time I tried PARA, I had to build two PARA systems. One for my work notes and one for my blogging.
Each one went in a completely different direction.
For work, I had concrete projects I was building towards. Nearly everything I did went into a Project, and almost everything sent into an Area or Resources folder was never seen again. I ended up accepting this reality and extended the Projects folder structure to meet my own needs, giving each project it's own overview section where I'd track the key documents, conversations, tickets, and even people.
I've been sticking to this PARA system for two years now, and have been getting more and more value from it with each project and it frequently evolves. I'll go deeper into how I've implemented this sometime later.
PARA for my personal notes, however, looked completely different. Over there it was the Projects section which ended up mostly neglected, since I only had enough bandwidth to have one significant personal project active at any time, and I didn't need much to keep track of that one. Instead, I focused on recording what I read and categorizing everything into Resources folders. Soon, those notes started to take on a Zettelkasten-esque vibe, as I started linking them to each other.
But linking was tedious, and the payoff far from clear. Over a few months I found myself linking less and less, dropping it completely once I went on an unintentional writing hiatus in
With both these approaches, I let my intrinsic motivation highlight the note taking which gave me the most value and dove deep on it. The personal Zettelkasten notes, which always felt like a chore, fell by the wayside (more or less) guilt free with lessons learned. (If I ever pick up Zettelkasten again, it'll be after identifying a much smaller slice that I can adopt quickly get value from)
The false binary
But I'll be sticking with the PARA structure for my work notes for a long time to come! But I'm starting to notice options for merging targeted Zettelkasten-esqe insights into my notes, but this is still the early days for this modification technique. I'll have to play around with it a lot more first
And that's exactly the point!
- Create your own workflow: There isn't no one right way to do things. There's are only ways that work for for you and ones that don't.
- Eat the elephant one bite at a time: These aren't all-or-nothing systems. Find a slice of value and incorporate it into your existing habits
- Rinse and repeat: The system is never 'done'. You'll always keep tweaking it as your circumstances change and you find new friction points