Make lists, not war (WorkFlowy review)

with tags productivity review workflowy -

Slightly over a week ago I decided to attempt to organize my somewhat chaotic note taking and planning process. After looking around for a tool that would support my (quite) haphazard note-taking philosophy, I settled on trying WorkFlowy.

Some years ago I developed a habit of keeping a work diary. While I do love the immediacy of paper and pen, having the possibility to easily to search the history is more important, and so all my note taking has been electronic for the past many years. This is also the reason why I will not fall into the Bullet Journal trap.

However, different projects have different notes, and since notes are just plain text files, they’re scattered around. At this point however, I do use git repos to keep everything synchronized across hosts, but I’ve found that having them synchronized to the phone is also important (I’m not spending 247 at the computer screen nowadays, but I always have the phone close by).

Since plain text supports unstructured input, that’s what my notes have been mostly. A crazy mix of bulleted (with asterisk) intended lists interspersed with longer sentences.

Since WorkFlowy is built around the concept of outline editing (very similar to what you’d start building your presentation material with), I thought that it would be a good fit and force some structure into my chaos.

So, at the outside, what WorkFlowy offers is:

  1. Content is stored “in the cloud”. This translates to having to mind what kind of information is written down. For now, I stick with the “don’t put secrets on the cloud”-rule. I.e. if the information would become public, it wouldn’t cause large harm.

  2. Since the content is on the cloud, all clients are synchronized (once they get Internet-connectivity). I’m currently using the Chrome application version, the Android app and a browser session on another computer.

  3. There is no fluff. In fact, when starting, there is a weird feeling that something is missing. However, following the suggested built-in help videos demonstrate couple of ways to start, and it’s easier than A, B & C.

  4. Only outline structure is supported. This might seem somewhat limiting, but after one week, I’ve actually found this somewhat liberating. As long as the editing/mutation experience is well done, I think I can easily live with this. I seem to remember that using Markdown and color is also possible, but I’ve yet to need it. There is support for tags and I’ve added them in some cases preventively when a “thing” does not clearly belong only into one sub-hierarchy in the outline tree.

  5. WorkFlowy uses the freemium model in where you can start without paying anything (you’ll want to register for obvious reasons). With the free tier you get no extensions and you can create 250 items per month (so, if you start your test drive at the end of month, you’ll get a bump to items soon). I plan to continue the test drive to the end of the month before going with the yearly subscription. Yearly subscription is not exactly cheap, but it’s probably worth it.

    At this point, perhaps it’s prudent to note that I also started to make my own system for all of these things couple of times. Needless to say, compared to that, the yearly subscription fee is cheap :-). I have to confess that WorkFlowy looks like nothing what I was doing, but I’m ok with that.

So, after 10 days, I have the following to report:

  • I love it. The keyboard shortcuts make mutating the outline tree a breeze.

  • I’ve yet to change fonts, or anything in the editor. The defaults (black on white) work for me.

  • Since I started almost at the start of the month, I’ve now accumulated 217 entries (out of 250). I could’ve easily dumped more entries, but I find that I’m throttling down a bit, so that I can avoid running out.

  • I’m using a structure where I have immediate focus daily list (each day separate) as well as multiple long term sub-trees which include different subjects. I’m not yet 100% sure that this system will work in the long run, but perhaps I can return to this in couple of months.

  • Marking stuff done with a keypress (Ctrl+Enter) is quite liberating. I know this feels somewhat redundant since you can mark tasks as done with any system, but actually having the entry being changed visually (strike-through with contrast reduction) does something psychologically. I also move completed days into a separate “past” sub-tree, to keep the immediate future “clean” and so that it only contains things that are relevant “next”.

  • I used to use google calendar on the phone to jot down notes and ideas when not at the computer (yeah, I know). The phone is quite slow, so getting from standby into a mode where I can write the note was important. I’m happy to report that switching the application to WorkFlowy is not much slower than switching to calendar (there seems to be some hit to not being preferred software written by Google).

  • I still sometimes do wrong edits on Android. I think this is mainly caused by not having a full keyboard (my physical screen is quite small) and also by lack of using the app on the phone much. Using WorkFlowy on a proper computer is much easier, but I really don’t have any ideas on how it should work better on Android. Perhaps the phone is just a crappy environment to be effective in inputting data, or I have sausage fingers, or both.

  • There’s a book on various productivity processes using WorkFlowy, and a blog as well. I haven’t really spent any time with either, so can’t say whether there is something Heureka-like that I’m still missing.

So there. All reviews should end with some kind of grade, and since this is my first week, I’ll just give “thumbs up” for now. Perhaps in a month after the cloud has eaten all my data I will be ready to give stars.

Verdict: yes (works for me)

Written by Aleksandr Koltsoff
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