PARA Method and Zettelkasten: What’s The Difference?

Written by Matt Giaro (Creative Note-taking Expert)

You may have heard about the PARA method and Zettelkasten.
But you don’t know exactly the difference between them and how to implement them in your daily life?
If that’s the case, this article will help.

Before getting started, let me introduce myself.
I’m Matt Giaro, entrepreneur, content creator, and passionate about working smarter, not harder.

I’ve been an avid note-taker and Information hoarder for years until I realized that I wasn’t doing much out of my notes.

I felt wasted potential and the profound conviction that I could do better.

This brought me to the Zettelkasten method of taking notes. Naturally, I also stumbled across Tiago Forte’s Second Brain and PARA methodology, too.

These discoveries changed my life so much that I started helping others manage their information more effectively.

After coaching and helping dozens of people take better notes and manage their information workflow, I realized that many people are lost between diverse methods and methodologies.

One of the main misconceptions I see is that people can’t differentiate between PARA and Zettelkasten.

If you think about it, it’s because many people read about it from people who don’t really know what they’re talking about (or weren’t able to articulate the differences clearly.)

See, if you want to be precise and a sharp thinker, you need to get the semantics right.

So let’s start with the basics:
What is PARA? And what is Zettelkasten?

What is PARA method?

PARA is an acronym for Projects, Areas, Resources, and Archive.
It’s a way of organizing all digital information.
Re-read this sentence again.

Did you notice? I said it’s a way of organizing digital information.
(Not only notes.) This will play a major role when it comes to differentiating between PARA and Zettelkasten.

PARA allows you to not only sort out your notes, but also your files on your cloud or computer.

PARA has been designed to work everywhere.
While this it’s is its biggest strength, it’s also its biggest weakness.

Why? Because this versatility also comes with limits.
I’m not going to go deeper into that here because I’ve written about it intensely in my article about PARA method alternatives.

What is Zettelkasten?

Zettelkasten is a German word that means slips box. The Zettelkasten methodology has gained a lot of popularity in the last years thanks to Sonke Ahrens and his book “how to take smart notes” where he describes the note-taking system of the German sociologist Niklas Luhmann.

Truth is, that the Zettelkasten is a note-taking method. it focuses on links between notes and how to think in associations.

When dissecting and studying the Zettelkasten method, you see that all notes are contained within ONE slip box, and are linked between them.

There is absolutely no structure.

PARA vs. Zettelkasten

Now that you understand that PARA is a way to organize digital information (notes, files,…) and that the Zettelkasten is a note-taking methodology you start seeing the differences and the similarities.

Note-taking: PARA or Zettelkasten?

Again, Zettelkasten is a note-taking method. PARA is not.
The Zettelkasten focuses on how to think and come up with associations.
PARA focuses on actionability. (More on that in just a few)
So while you could use PARA to organize your notes and files, the Zettelkasten method only works with notes.
Some folks structure their notes using the PARA method. This could work for some people who just save and curate information. But in my experience, it limits the effectiveness of the Zettelkasten.

Can you use PARA method in your Zettelkasten?

There is a difference between “should you” and “could you”.
Can you use the para method in your zettelkasten? Or should you use the para method in your zettelkasten?
You can. But should you?
Before answering this question, it’s important to understand that PARA gives you a structure towards actionability. The Zettelkasten, on the flip side, is not meant to have a structure. In fact, the structure is meant to emerge by itself.

When creating a note in your zettelkasten, you don’t necessarily have to think to which project a note belongs.

Why? Because this is the essence of this way of taking notes. You don’t know what will emerge and what not.
It’s a kind of organized chaos.

Add to this that the PARA method has been designed to sort information based on how actionable it is. Project is the most actionable, while Archive is the least. This is not a wonder at all. In fact, the PARA method has been heavily influenced by Tiago’s productivity mentor: David Allen, founder of the GTD method.

Sorting information based on its actionability is absolutely not the case when it comes to the Zettelkasten. There are no action items, only thoughts and information that are linked together.

So people who look to implement the zettelkasten methodology using PARA didn’t get the point of both methodologies.

You could, as an example, use PARA for sorting your files, creating a project, and then use a zettelkasten to start using this information for the project.

Let me explain:
Let’s assume I want to write a book about permaculture.
I already took a lot of notes about it, since I’ve been interested in this subject for a while.
I’m going to start a new folder inside the “PROJECTS” folder called “the beginners’ guide to permaculture.”
Then, going to use my notes to start creating an outline, and writing the chapters. Etc.
Then, I’ll probably need to design a cover… all this resides when it comes to the files inside a PARA structure.
But, the raw material of thoughts and ideas pours out of my Zettelkasten, which has no structure at all.

Do you start understanding the key differences between PARA and Zettelkasten?

Instead of thinking that one should beat the other or that you should use both inside your notes, start understanding the big picture and what they are supposed to do.

If you’d like my help to set up your Zettelkasten to think better and become more creative, sign up for my free 7-day email course below:

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