GTD, PARA and Fully Integrated Systems
I’m always watching discussions in productivity channels about approaches to personal performance methodologies. As a designer of such systems, I’m encountering a lot of confusion over the various categories and how terms applied to one category can mean something different in another.
Let’s run through the three primary categories here so we’re all on the same page, then highlight the big shift I see occurring in the personal performance software space.
1. The first category, and the one that comes to mind immediately for many people is the management of Goals, Projects, and Tasks. This is the realm of the most well-known productivity system of all, GTD — Getting Things Done, created by David Allen. GTD has been a big influence on me and my work, as it has with just about every performance system and productivity advocate since its inception. Popular software for this category include Todoist, Things, Omnifocus and any other task/project manager.
2. The second category falls under the general heading of Habits & Routines. This is a massive segment with endless books on the subject, the most recent big one being Atomic Habits by James Clear (this is also the most accessible and easily digested, so it’s my recommended starting point). Software for this category tends to be mobile apps or classic spreadsheets — all focused on tracking daily behaviors and personal data. None of these apps have a leading market share, though some fitness devices with accompanying apps are central to many people’s routines — most notably Apple Watch, Fitbit, and Oura Ring.
3. The third category is Personal Knowledge Management, known as PKM in productivity geek speak. This category is the least established, though has tons of excitement and energy behind it.
The most well-known and most discussed system for PKM is the PARA method (Projects, Areas, Resources, Archives). PARA has introduced many people to the importance of Personal Knowledge Management. Its creator, Tiago Forte, has written an extensive collection of super thoughtful articles about learning and converting information into valuable assets.
The software typically used for PKM is note-taking apps such as Evernote and OneNote. More recently a new generation of software tools ideally suited for PKM work has emerged, led by build-your-own platforms including Notion and Coda, and networked-thinking tools such as Roam and Obsidian.
The New Fully Integrated Systems
Many people seeking to learn better personal processes see all these acronyms tossed around without recognizing the context across the three categories.
Previous-generation PKM tools such as Evernote and OneNote were limited and two-dimensional in their scope. The new platforms, particularly Notion, are multi-dimensional and endlessly dynamic. As a result, we now have the ability to combine all three categories above into a single software environment.
But the discussion on each of the three categories is muddled in the context of new systems with all three segments combined in a single interconnected platform.
The conversation becomes confusing when a PKM system such as PARA has a category labeled “Projects” yet does not manage the action-oriented progression of projects (rather organizes research and information resources). Or it has “Resources” as one of its four categories when all of the four categories are actually research/resources. Or the line between “Areas” and “Resources” is a subjective gradient rather than a clear logical distinction.
I have been building and teaching a Notion-based system called Pillars, Pipelines & Vaults (PPV) that integrates the full spectrum of all three categories above. Other Notion creators have also been pursuing innovative interconnected approaches — including Marie Poulin, William Nutt, Khe Hy, and Conrad Lin among others (these are examples of the system designers, beyond that there’s also a strong group of Notion functionality innovators doing impressive work). Though some of them started with and refer to elements of prior PKM methods, these full-range designers have taken comprehensive approaches that have far outrun their PKM-specific origins.
I do not believe any of these three segments can be taught in isolation. I don’t think building in one area will solve someone’s personal performance needs. A holistic systems approach is required to excel. Success in one segment will fuel success in the other two. And the more integrated the system design is between them, the more effective it will be.
Despite the confusion, the evolution to software systems that can encompass all three areas is a massive step forward. As we’ve discussed in previous issues, all systems are part of larger systems
and everything is interconnected. Causality is running in all directions. The success or failure of any one of these three categorizes will impact the others.
We seek emergence across the entire behavioral and software spectrum.