Today’s interview gives us a peek into, Dr. Andus’s WorkFlowy modus operandi and why it’s such an essential, baked-in part of his life. Dr. Andus, a PhD social science academic, is based in the UK, conducting qualitative research… and has a kick-butt blog, “Dr Andus’s Toolbox” where he dissects and gives us his take on a range of research, outlining, writing and productivity tools. If you’re an academic, his “writing-process” page is an absolute must-see.
TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY
FRANK: Dr. Andus, I’ve been following your blog for quite some time now. You’re an insanely prolific tinkerer. Could you tell us how you stumbled upon WorkFlowy and what your initial impression was?
DR. ANDUS: You are too kind to associate my obsessive tinkering with insanity. It probably has just as much to do with procrastination as it does the joy of playing with my toys (tinkering with the tools of my trade has also become my hobby). I wouldn’t want to suggest that software tools are necessarily a panacea for all our productivity headaches or that I am a paragon of productivity just because I play with a lot of software tools.
As for WorkFlowy, the first time I heard about it was in September 2012 on the Outliner Software forum (which is where I learnt about most of my writing, outlining and productivity software). I didn’t get the significance of WorkFlowy the first time ’round. However, when six months later I read, again, on the Outliner Software forum that WorkFlowy had just launched an iOS app, it suddenly clicked for me: WorkFlowy might just be that cross-platform solution to my task management and note-taking problems that I had been waiting for all these years! Shortly thereafter I consolidated all my todo lists scattered across a variety of apps and media, and I never looked back… Well, until right now, that is.
FRANK: You’re a social science academic as I read on your blog… and I guess it’s to that end that you’re fixated on “software tools that can help with researching, outlining, writing, and improving personal productivity.” How does WorkFlowy fare in bringing one or more of those things together for you?
DR. ANDUS: Interestingly, WorkFlowy is probably the one tool that I have a purely utilitarian relationship with. This is not to say that I don’t derive enjoyment from using WorkFlowy: but the enjoyment results from it being so darn useful and minimalistic, rather than from playing with its features because they are cool.
But to answer your question: indeed, one of the key strengths of WorkFlowy is that it allows one to “bring things together.” As I mentioned already, the first thing I did with WorkFlowy was to consolidate my many todo lists. For whatever strange reason, I just had real difficulty with developing the discipline of keeping all my todo’s in one place before that. Actually I think the reason was partly due to the individual limitations of all those other tools (besides my own).
FRANK: You’ve really run the gamut of software tools – and you do a thorough job of giving each of them a run for their money. From your hands-on experience, what is it that WorkFlowy does that cannot be replicated in quite the same way in any of the other apps/ tools you’ve given a working over?
DR. ANDUS How is WorkFlowy different? Firstly, thanks to its minimalism, it is most efficient in displaying a list, without any distracting screen elements. Secondly, there is the ability to hierarchically organise the list. Thirdly, the possibility of zooming into an item or a branch is a very powerful way to shut out the noise of the rest of the list (and the world). And for all these reasons, WorkFlowy, as a blank slate (i.e. without much imposed structure), provides a lot of freedom for organising and processing your information. For me, depending on which section I’m looking at and working on, WorkFlowy can be a task manager, a project manager, an outliner, a note-taker, and so on, and often these functions even overlap.
FRANK: Do you think you’ve arrived? Do you think WorkFlowy might be the “chosen one”? Is that even possible? I mean, some people see or use WorkFlowy as a glorified list-maker (the gall!).
DR. ANDUS I am not a believer in the “one-tool-for-everything” approach when it comes to note-taking, outlining, writing, and productivity. I look at these types of tasks in the way a car mechanic might look at a particular engine problem and then choose the most suitable tools for each of the tasks that need to get done. Otherwise one might spend a lifetime searching for the Holy Grail or the perfect Swiss Army Knife of software, while being eternally dissatisfied with whatever tools one is using at the moment. But as far as my current software toolbox is concerned, I do think I have arrived, in the sense that I am happy with my present collection of tools, of which WorkFlowy is an essential part. For a whole range of purposes, WorkFlowy is the “chosen one,” and when it isn’t, it often holds the URL links to the tools I use it in conjunction with, such as Gingko, ConnectedText or Surfulater.
PLUMBING THE DEPTHS OF WORKFLOWY
FRANK: Could you give us an inside peek into any portion of your list? Maybe related to your academic research, the inner workings of your mind or any setup you’ve got going that could give WorkFlowy users a push in the right direction?
DR. ANDUS: The beauty of WorkFlowy is that, being a blank slate, it allows users to be as simplistic or as complicated as they wish. One doesn’t need to get a PhD in WorkFlowy Studies to be able to use it (though you, Frank, should definitely be awarded one for your book). I belong to the simplistic user category. I am no WorkFlowy power user, although I have been a daily user since March 2013. My method (or non-method) is the following: I imagine that the first (or topmost) line of WorkFlowy represents the surface of the ocean of the present. This is were the most important and most urgent tasks need to rise to in order to be seen, remembered, and acted upon. At the same time, new tasks or notes taken on the fly also start off on the surface, when they are first dropped into it. Then they are either rescued by the lifeguard (me) and get carried out (as tasks) right away, or Captain Nemo (also me) takes them in his submarine to an underwater hideaway (into the bowels of a hierarchical list), to be dealt with later; or they just sink to the bottom of the list eventually through sheer inertia, gravity, and the pressure of the water above.
What I’m trying to say is that my WorkFlowy list is a semi-structured heterogeneous mess—but there is a method to that particular madness. Some bullet points are just individual tasks, while others are de facto folders holding groups of tasks. Then there are others that denote contexts (Home, Work, and so on), while some others serve as Categories. Then I also have items that are remnants of past failed attempts to impose some structure (such as an Inbox with stuff that I haven’t looked at in months, so clearly they weren’t all that important). And I also have various meta branches that hold thoughts about how best to use WorkFlowy or how to motivate myself.
Once in a while I go through the top level branches and shuffle them around according to some new principle. But ultimately what matters is that important or urgent tasks and projects rise to the top of the sea, and that is something I work on every day. Still, it provides a degree of comfort to know that however unimportant a long-sunk task might have been, it’s still waiting for me down there somewhere under a rock at the bottom of the sea, if I ever need to revisit it again.
FRANK: I’ve run into you before on OutlinerSoftware.com. That’s basically a forum for rabid outliner fanatics, right? Do you think WorkFlowy is getting a fair audience there?
DR. ANDUS: The Outliner Software forum is my Mecca, I visit it every day. I’m pretty sure that many of its members and lurkers are WorkFlowy users. How could they not be? WorkFlowy has answered many a prayer that has been uttered there.
Get EXCLUSIVE bite-sized WorkFlowy updates: tips, tricks & news about FREE online workshops with Frank Degenaar. Sign up here.