I’ve spent a ridiculous amount of time over the years trying to find some sort of system of staying organized at work. I’ve tried everything from the simplicity of paper lists to complex tools like Asana to barebones solutions like todo.txt and about two dozen different to-do apps. And while I’ve had varying degrees of success with all of them, none of them have really stuck.
And then along came Workflowy.
I’ve been using Workflowy for a couple of months now, and I have to say it’s the stickiest of the lot.
What is Workflowy?
At the risk of over-simplifying, Workflowy is a straightforward, extremely flexible web-based outliner.
You need to sign up to use it. It’s free for up to 250 list items per month. This is not the total number of items, but how many you can add per month. A pro account gives you unlimited lists and more features for $4.99 a month or $49 per year. I’m currently using the free version and haven’t found myself near the limit, but I could easily see myself giving them my money.
I mainly use the web app, there is a chrome app (which I also use) and there are mobile apps for it on both Android and IOS.
This post is not a tutorial or an attempt to review all of the features of Workflowy. It’s just a brief description of what it is, and how I’m currently using it.
When you sign in you’re greeted with a blank document. From there you simply build your lists or outline, no preparation needed. Just start typing.
If you’re at all familiar with outliners, the typical navigation will make you feel at home. Tab for indenting, shift-Tab for outdenting.
While there is a plethora of keyboard shortcuts, I also find the clicking and dragging aspects of the web app to be remarkably useful. They seem to have really concentrated on making mousing super-effective. You can drag items up and down the list and the great visual feedback makes dragging items into different levels of your outline easy and intuitive. You can even highlight groups of items and move them around as a unit or do group indents and outdents with the tab and shift-tab keys when a group is highlighted. There are also palettes that pop up when you hover your mouse on item bullets giving you options to do things like Complete, Share, Export, Duplicate, Delete, or Add a note to an item.
There is a search box at the top, a button to make completed items visible or hide them, a help menu, save status indicator and settings dropdown. Not much fluff. Lean and mean. Indicative of how well thought out it seems to be.
Tags and Things
Simply adding a piece of text with a # prefix makes that text a tag. Think of it as a flexible filter tool. There are plenty of blog posts out there showing some creative use of tags and such. Currently I use them very sparingly, but I’ll get to that in a minute.
Entering a web address (no http prefix required) will automagically make that a clickable link. Entering an email address will turn it into a mailto link. I don’t use these very often, but they’re definitely worth noting.
A Useful Palette
Hovering your mouse over a bullet will bring up a small palette of options which will act on the current item and its child items. You can complete an item (which will grey out the item and mark it with strikethrough). You can export the item in plain text, formatted and OPML formats. You can also share an item which will give you a link that you can send to people to view the item (and its subitems) without them having to have a Workflowy account.
How I’m Using Workflowy
I’m a structural engineer managing many active projects. Some of them are large, some small. But all of them require some amount of management. My use of Workflowy is dead simple. Lots of people out there have much more well developed and robust systems, but simple is what works for me – at least right now.
I use Workflowy for keeping track of to-do items, fleshing out planning, making notes and holding miscellaneous bits of information. It’s always either open in a tab in Chrome or I have the Chrome app open in a separate window. I use the Android app, but mostly for reviewing things and not usually for editing or adding items, but you can do that with the app, and from time to time I have.
Here is what I see when my Workflowy list is almost fully collapsed:
Clean. Empty. Nice.
Here’s a closer view:
Under the Work list, you can see I have a few sub items. The key one for me, the one that gets the most love (or hate) is the Active Projects list. I have an item for each project I’m working on. We use project numbers so that is what you’re seeing in the list below.
Then inside each project I have to-do items, along with other nodes in my outline that may hold project notes, meeting notes, or whatever else is important to me. You can visually tell that nodes are holding more sub-nodes by the fact that they’re shaded (notice the ‘notes about soils report’ node in the screenshot below). It’s flexible – which I love. I don’t need to know what’s going to go in there. I just add things as necessary.
Some people swear by priorities and ranking things. I’ve tried it. I hate it. For me, it always devolves into me having a list of 200 high priority items. So instead, what I’m currently doing is far more manual.
Each morning I’m reviewing my items and picking the 3 or 4 that I want or need to get done today. I’m not picking ten items. Just 3 or 4 (or even 2 if they’re tough). And for each one, I’m simply adding a #today tag to the end of them. That’s it.
Back in that first screenshot, you might have noticed I had a top level item simply titled #today. Clicking this item will bring up a list of every item that has a “#today” tag. It’s a quick way for me to filter the items I need to focus on between the 20 phone calls and 90 incoming emails that threaten to steal my workday from me.
When I click that tag, it actually just puts #today into the search box, so when you want out of that list view and back to all your items, you need to clear that tag from the search box.
So I bring that #today list up in front of me and try my best to get those things done. When I get one of them done, I mark it completed.
And here’s the key. At the end of the day, I remove those #today tags from the uncompleted items unless I absolutely KNOW I can get them done early the next morning. Otherwise, I’m into the same boat of an evergrowing high priority item list. What I want is a clear simple list of the two or three things that I need to do to make progress. This method seems to be getting me that.
As far as completing projects, once they’re done (the building is built or our scope of work is complete, inspected and signed off) I simply drag them up and into the completed project list.
So there you go. It’s a dead simple system, but with enough power and flexibility to be useful and time-saving.
Kudos to Workflowy. They’ve built something really nice here.