Dr. WorkFlowy Dissects Stress and Anxiety


If you find the dynamics in this post useful, there’s a lot more where that came from. My WorkFlowy book is available for purchase.

My late grandmother, Florence, a sharp-minded French woman, had her own saying: “When your heart is down, carve a piece of leather”. She used to create the most intricate designs on leather, plying skillfully as she, too, worked through matters of the heart. I do the same in WorkFlowy. It’s less poetic, but it does get the job done.

I’ve outlined life-changing decisions, pinpointed causes of anxiety, given myself a kick in the pants with numerous projects both big and small and streamlined tons of workflows for way better efficiency. Outlining in WorkFlowy can and does lead to a change in perspective – be it organizational or existential – which in turn gives us the impetus to make real changes – which go beyond the realm of productivity and “busy work”.

A few weeks back I created an outline, starting like this:

  • Over the last couple of months my online work has started to cause a lot of anxiety and stress… It’s time to put on the breaks and pinpoint those (self-imposed) areas that I might need to get under control.

I then proceeded to create an outline of potential areas that were collectively putting strain on me. You can see that outline here.

WorkFlowy gives us some powerful tools with which to organize and filter exactly the information we want to see when we need it. Creating some semblance of order from a seemingly random collection of thoughts is crucial. Here’s a possible strategy for outlining your heart out – which might serve you well if you ever get bogged down and overwhelmed:

1. The heart of the matter

Start with a nice melodramatic (and heartfelt) statement. More often than not, you know the general solution from the get go… and the whole point about the outlining from here on out, is to mitigate your stress as opposed to throwing in the towel.

2. Leave no stone unturned

List all your areas of activity (or areas of whatever) that come to mind then drill down into each of those areas with more specifics.

3. Shuffle and prioritize

Shuffle your lists around and order them by priority if you must (I must). Also have a background image of a hot-air balloon if you will (I will).

4. Warming up – Preliminary thoughts

Now that you have a better idea of the scope of your activities, it’ll be a breeze to set up a separate outline with a couple of preliminary thoughts about it all. As you can see my thoughts have a strong push towards possible solutions. This will start you thinking down a more pragmatic path.

5. What to do, what to do?

Next, go through each and every one of your areas of activity and the specifics thereof (from #2 above) and write something practical about each. Perhaps something to remember or something to do. So below you will see that I finally clicked… that a 20-minute walk on the beach (just across the street) is preferable to winning others over to my way of thinking on some forum somewhere. Get as minutely specific as you can with pinpointed thoughts and actionable tasks. Try to avoid general and vague statements as far as possible. Being overly philosophical at this point will defeat the purpose.

6. Bag ‘em and tag ‘em

Last of all, you could then tag a selection of your practical and pithy pieces of insight across your entire outline with a “#do” or “#remember” tag – whatever prompts you to action or reflection. You could also tag your lists at the time of writing if that’s easier. Whatever tags you go with, also place them as “master tags” in an accessible spot somewhere near the top of your outline.

After all is said and done, you now have an incredibly potent set of motivational triggers – tailor made for your specific challenges. All you need to do to light a fire under your butt (or give yourself a gentle nudge) is hit either of your tags to filter for the advice and actions you know to be right.

When it comes down to it, I truly believe that each of us have the actionable answers we need – but often they get crowded out by the sheer number of thoughts we try to process. It’s hard to find clarity when you think the same thoughts dozens of times a day, round and ’round in a vicious circle. We think that somehow if we just push harder we’ll make it through to the other end. But often we need to put on the brakes, take stock of where we’re at, consolidate and simplify the sum total of our activities every day.

Here’s how I filter for my “#do” and “#remember” tags:

The above filtering gives you your tagged items in a hierarchical format. If you’d like to have them condensed into flat outlines (pictured below), you could use a bookmarklet that rawbytz created called FlatFlowy. It works on desktop and mobile.

Things to do

Things to remember

My takeaway and real-life results

Just the act of outlining and dissecting my workload has made me a heck of a lot more aware of my routine, my habits and the little addictive behaviors I’ve been nursing. I now reach for Twitter and other online sources of delight way less. I don’t feel the compulsion to answer emails the moment they come through. I’ve taken a good many walks on the beach which always leave me feeling refreshed and clear-minded. The list goes on. The thing is that I now have an easily accessible list to jog my memory. The end result: less stress all ‘round, the will to continue living, etc. You should try this the next time you work yourself into a bundle of nerves.

Over to you

If you’ve got any thoughts (or lists) to share, please do!

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60 thoughts on “Dr. WorkFlowy Dissects Stress and Anxiety

  1. Thanks Frank. How does anyone cope with all there is to think about and do without using WorkFlowy?

  2. I don’t know… but they probably look 10 years older than they really are.

    1. Thank you so much for this article. It is as if you knew I was having these anxiety attacks! Looking to connect with you!

      1. Hey Melvyn,

        I suspect that more people are having anxiety attacks than realize it! I hope WorkFlowy gets to the bottom of things for you… plus you might want to cut down on caffeine intake if that’s what you’re hooked on 😉

  3. I know there are other “systems” available, but WorkFlowy does it for me, while nothing else that I have run across works for me.

  4. It’s a wonderful post. I use WorkFlowy for my daiy to day work . It has made my life a lot easier and more fun.

  5. The use of #remember tag in WorkFlowy is brilliant! And this is certainly the one I need to remember:

    > Quicker responses generate increased frequency of communication.

  6. If I place something that I need to remember under a due date in my linear calendar outline, and sometimes under a prior date as a tickler using the “copy to WorkFlowy” extension a number of days before a due date, I don’t forget something.

    Your comment about all the stuff bouncing around in your head reminds me of the David Allen video that I sent you. My take away from that is “write it down, put it away out of sight and mind, and focus on the next thing that needs to be done.”

    I received an interesting article recently suggesting how to deal with emails. Simply put, give first attention to emails that help you move you highest priority projects forward. Then if you have the time and energy, give attention to emails that will help others move their highest priority projects forward.

    1. Your first strategy is spot on. We often need to be reminded about something before its due date – thus using a “tickler file” (WorkFlowy calendar) to tickle your memory at any point ahead of schedule makes absolute sense 🙂

      “… give first attention to emails that help you move you highest priority projects forward.” – This is a fantastic piece of advice.

  7. Frank, so well put. When it comes to David Allen’s (Getting Things Done) excellent maxim, “Get it out of your head”, I have gone through many tools that ended up on the trash heap of “it ain’t workin’ for me!”

    Until I found WorkFlowy.

    The simplicity of WorkFlowy is it’s brilliance. Coupled with amazing engineering and design behind it. WorkFlowy has this incredible way of getting out of my way when I need to sit down and “get it outta my head”, yet be there enough along the way to help me organize, drill down, filter and not get lost in a rain forest of distracting details and bunny trails. I love how it let’s me start in simplicity, then move forward with detail and organization. I find that work done with WorkFlowy goes VERY fast. When my mind is freed up from the crippling load of detail and “gee I gotta remember this” my mind can do amazing things (like anyone else’s!).

    I love the zoomable focus of WorkFlowy. Simple for me as a user to do, but brilliant that someone came up with it (why didn’t anybody think of that before?). It’s like the simple brilliance of wing design and differing airflow around it: the mystery that kept man on the ground, until inventors figured it out, and voila! LIFT! Flight! Easy! (now that it was figured out). The zoomable focus of WorkFlowy to me is the equivalent of the brilliance of aerodynamic lift. It works… it works easily, yet so simple. WorkFlowy is truly mental LIFT! It gets me off the ground and flying with creativity, organization and productivity!

    I love how there are lines that line up my bullets so I can more easily keep visual track of sub-points, without getting lost in figuring out what level a sub-point belongs. Again, so simple, so brilliant, so helpful.

    Being able to tag and filter is massively huge. I can find what I WANT fast. If I need to remember something when meeting with a colleague, filter on @ with their name brings up all the relevant stuff for that person.

    I love how I can make WorkFlowy work with whatever productivity system I come up with or adopt. Mine is a hybrid of GTD and the Eisenhower matrix. Along with my own tricks that fit perfectly to my brain. WorkFlowy is a tool that can easily, simply handle it all.

    I love how WorkFlowy is so beautifully ubiquitous: it’s at my desk, on my browser, on my phone and it all looks the same and works the same. I get an idea on the fly or have to remember something, I can easily add it to WorkFlowy on my Android phone. Everything beautifully synced up! Nothing lost! I don’t have to translate different platform interfaces in my head.

    Wow, I’m gushing. I’ve used WorkFlowy for 1 year now. I use it to organize everything from shopping lists, to the successful sale of our house, to home projects, personal To Do’s, work tasks, complex projects, speaking notes, writing, tons of stuff.

    WHATEVER needs to be organized — finally outta my head and laid out neatly — WorkFlowy absolutely excels and shines.

    And THAT has sharply reduced my stress. THAT has greatly improved my productivity. THAT has lent clarity of thought to what I write, what I say, conducting meetings, whatever!

    I guess this is all overdue: thank you very much to the WorkFlowy team. Thank you, thank you, thank you! Please do not let some outside party convince you to seriously change things. They don’t know what they are talking about.

    Frank, thanks for being a tremendous fellow WorkFlowian and sharing your creative and productivity WorkFlowy hacks to help us discover more of the great hidden power of WorkFlowy!

    1. Hey Mark, we’re 100% on the same page here. My “gushing” went into an entire book and still weekly here in this space, haha! We should do a blog post some time if there is any aspect, use case or whatever of WorkFlowy that you want to share with the community 🙂

      1. Hi Frank, Sorry, I just got your response. I’d love to do that. Let me know how I can help. More people need to find out about this great tool!

  8. I don’t know how to insert this in actual WorkFlowy format, this is my adaptation of GTD. I too confess to being a WorkFlowy gusher, but after reading the previous comments, I believe I am in good company.

    INBOX #
    ….WITHIN MONTH #mo
    ….WITHIN WEEK #wk
    ….TODAY #to Friday 27
    ………….NEXT ACTION # (One action goes here to help me focus)
    ………………..next action example
    ….MAY Calendar #2016
    ….2016 Months #2016
    ….2017 Months #2017

    1. I find it very useful to keep the task in the context they belong to, i.e. in the project. That way I can work on a project and do whatever is possible at the time. I just add the appropriate date tags #Jun # Jul #Aug… and #d16 (day 16) or #160612 to the task. Even calendar weeks will work #w45. Next I filter for those at regular intervals and get a filtered list with all due task, but they are still within context. This helps me with the decision what to actually do next.

      Such a filtered list would look like this (filtered for #Jun #d01)

      ° Project A
      ° Task C #Jun #d01
      ° Project B
      ° Task W #Jun #d01

      In order to filter quickly I use this at the top (the smilies are for spacing and fun):

      #d01 🙂 #d02 🙂 #d03 🙂 #d04 🙂 #d05 🙂 #d06 🙂 #d07 🙂 #d08 🙂 #d09 🙂 #d10 🙂 #d11 🙂 #d12 🙂 #d13 🙂 #d14 🙂 #d15 🙂 #d16 🙂 #d17 🙂 #d18 🙂 #d19 🙂 #d20 🙂 #d21 🙂 #d22 🙂 #d23 🙂 #d24 🙂 #d25 🙂 #d26 🙂 #d27 🙂 #d28 🙂 #d29 🙂 #d30 🙂 #d31 🙂 #Jan 🙂 #Feb 🙂 #Mar 🙂 #Apr 🙂 #Mai 🙂 #Jun 🙂 #Jul 🙂 #Aug 🙂 #Sep 🙂 #Oct 🙂 #Nov 🙂 #Dec 🙂

      1. “I find it very useful to keep the task in the context they belong to, i.e. in the project. That way I can work on a project and do whatever is possible at the time.”

        I was wondering how the creators actually set up and use WorkFlowy themselves, so I went back and reviewed the first “help” video. The video show tasks as subpoints to the projects. After viewing the video and reading your reply, in order to “keep the task in the context they belong to”, I revised my WorkFlowy outline:

        ……PROJECT A
        ………do xxx
        ………do yyy
        ………do zzz
        ……PROJECT B
        ………do www
        ……PROJECT C
        …31 Tuesday
        ……1st task of day (may or may not be related to a project – if related to a project, it is “clipped” via the “clip to WorkFlowy” extension)
        ……2nd task See: “do xxx”
        …2016 Months #2016
        …2017 Months #2017
        …REFERENCE #ref

  9. Workflowy at the beginning, for me, was a simple list of customers and a few random notes. Then I forgot about it, even though I loved it.
    Then 2 years later, I found it again. It then became a place for keeping track of things I need to remember. Then I forgot about it again, even though it was making life easier.
    Then early 2015, I was cleaning up my logins and passwords and came across the link for Workflowy. I was kind of a little sad that I hadn’t used it, since I remember it being such an awesome tool! I logged in and sure enough, it was still there, waiting for me to input more information. It still had my old lists and things I had forgotten about. I then realized it would be a good place to solve a major problem for me;
    I needed a place to write out instructions for some software that I could distribute to my co-workers.Workflowy seemed like the best tool for the job. Sure enough, it was.
    Then I started using it to track my daily work tasks and habits. Kind of like a daily job journal.
    Next it became a tool to track my logins/passwords/bookmarks/etc..
    Months went by where I was entering everything under the sun into list form.
    I started putting so much effort into brain dumping all of my thoughts into it that it soon became busy and overwhelming.

    Here is where Frank hit the nail on the head with this post…
    I actually started using Workflowy to declutter Workflowy. I then realized it was a great place to start decluttering my life, so I put Workflowy to that task too. Without fail, Workflowy has delivered exactly what I need as I need it.
    My daily life is so much less stressful knowing that Workflowy is there to accept my thoughts and ideas.

    Sorry for the long post… 🙂

    1. “I actually started using Workflowy to declutter Workflowy.” That’s one way of putting it, Richard!

    2. Passwords on Workflowy? Yikes! Why not a password manager instead? All the other use cases are great and what I use it for too 🙂

  10. What an incredibly freeing piece here! It addresses my obsessive-compulsive tendency to let the details overwhelm me, and it offers some super (and simple) steps to calm the heck down!

    1. Hey Kevin,
      Thanks for dropping by! I think to one degree or another, most of us are in the same boat. Sometimes I think it would have been better to have lived in the 1960’s… and stayed there. We’ve got a heck of a lot bombarding us these days. Information overload.

  11. Yep, another great and spot on post Frank!

    For me, I’ve found that about every 6 months or so (not a set date or anything – just when I start getting that panicky, overwhelmed feeling about my lists) I create a new bullet:

    Someday/Maybe Backlog 5 June 2016

    I then move pretty much my entire Workflowy outline under this new Someday/Maybe bullet. Everything is still there, easy to reference or review as I need it, but easy to collapse out of the way – out of sight, out of mind. I do review the list, and some things I drag back out into my “Active Project” list, but I find most stuff doesn’t. (And yes, it means that under my “Someday/Maybe” bullet I have several more “Someday/Maybe Backlog” bullets. But it works for me!)

    I find that doing this “clean slate” lets my brain again naturally re-assess my priorities and what’s important now – rather than being bogged down by things that seemed important 4 months ago, but have been displaced by more recent life. Often my overwhelm is because I don’t want to DELETE a task / project / idea etc. And when the list gets long, I have a hard time choosing what to move into Someday/Maybe. Somehow, for me it’s mentally easier for me to Archive the whole thing, and only bring back what is critical.

    Maybe a helpful idea for others like me?

    “Workflowy Gusher”… I like it! 🙂 Add me to that club.

    1. Hey Laura, thanks for that! Really interesting approach. It reminds me of a great “Inbox Zero” trick to empty your email inbox. Some people inexplicably have thousands of unanswered emails to sift through… and basically what you would do is create a folder and move all of your current emails into that. Like you say… out of sight, out of mind. 99% of those couldn’t have been that important anyways. If you need them, they’re there… but now you have the chance to manage your inbox from scratch… a fresh, clean start 🙂

  12. After I got over my initial panic for losing my entire list, (you know the long story Frank), I realized that I had lost a lot of information that I might never look at again and that anything that I really needed was replaceable, however maybe a little time consuming to search for if absolutely needed. It was actually a freeing experience experience, kind of like hauling off unused items to a donation center. I am a little more careful but what I put into WorkFlowy.

  13. I love WorkFlowy for event panning. Perfect tool for planning, organizing and running an event. I also using it to submit my weekly status reports.

    Thanks and keep up the good work.

  14. Okay, so at first I was somewhat skeptical… really workflowy dissects stress and anxiety… really..
    So the next week at work I was slammed with tasks and my mind felt so scattered and cluttered.
    I started a brain dump of everything in my head….
    I have tasks in outlook, in a ticketing system in that system in this system,,
    I started writing them down on paper, but then my scratch pad started looking so messy…
    Before you know it I copied everything to Workflowy,
    Started categorizing everything into the simple concepts that visually looked elegant.
    It REALLY did relieve my stress this week.
    Started organizing my personal tasks and life, whamo… I could quickly see I was overestimating what I can
    get done in a day, stressing my self out. Estimation of effort on how long a task and what I’d realistically get accomplished started making more sense.
    I have to express my gratitude. You made a difference. Thanks!

    1. Your experience is a great confirmation of the power of WorkFlowy that Frank wrote about.

  15. I cannot wait to dive into this brilliant thread of productivity genius. I’m new to Workflowy but already feel more empowered and productive. This article and community are so inspiring.

    1. Hi Sarah, welcome to the WorkFlowy community! Feel free to ask questions within any post 🙂

  16. Great post! Thanks Frank. Sharing this with some people who’ll love it right now…

    1. You’re welcome Felix 🙂 I hope WorkFlowy helps you to deal with stress more effectively.

  17. Frank, this is a particularly helpful post – thanks!

    The one phrase that really struck me was “a 20-minute walk on the beach (just across the street) is preferable to winning others over to my way of thinking on some forum somewhere”. I want to put this in my #remember list!

    One clarification – as it’s been a very long time since I read the book, I wasn’t sure of your statement “I can’t be the Catcher in the Rhye.” This clarifies it for me, from http://classiclit.about.com/od/catcherintherye/f/the-Catcher-In-The-Rye-What-Is-Important-About-The-Title.htm:

    The first reference in the text to “catcher in the rye” is in Chapter 16. Hoden overhears:

    “If a body catch a body coming through the rye.”

    Holden describes the scene (and the singer):

    “The kid was swell. He was walking in the street, instead of on the sidewalk, but right next to the curb. He was making out like he was walking a very straight line, the way kids do, and the whole time he kept singing and humming.”

    The episode makes him feel less depressed. But, why? Is it his realization that the child is innocent–somehow pure, not “phony” like his parents and other adults?

    Then, in Chapter 22, Holden tells Phoebe:

    “Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around–nobody big, I mean–except me. And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff – I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it’s crazy, but that’s the only thing I’d really like to be. I know it’s crazy.”
    [End quote]

    Holden says the boy was singing the song “If a body catch a body coming through the rye.” The traditional Scottish song says “meet a body”, not “catch a body”, and the content of the poem is very different from the imagery Holden creates. But that doesn’t matter. That mis-remembered phrase elicited vivid imagery that was personally meaningful for Holden, and obviously for millions of others.

    Thanks, Frank, for connecting great literature, creativity and the power of imagination to workflowy, which I think of as a practical, productivity-oriented organizational tool.


    1. Hi Margaret,

      This excerpt from the article you quote hits the nail on the head for me:

      Holden is (in some ways) incredibly naive and innocent about worldly realities. He doesn’t want to accept the world as it is, but he also feels powerless, unable to affect change. He wants to “rescue” the children (like some Pied Piper of Hamelin, playing a lute or leading a lyrical chant–to take the children off to some unknown place). The growing-up process is almost like a runaway train, moving so fast and furiously in a direction that’s beyond his control (or, even, really his comprehension). He can’t do anything to stop or stall it, and he realizes that his wish to save the children is “crazy”– perhaps even unrealistic and impossible. Every child must fall into experience. Everyone must grow up. It’s a sad, stark reality for him (one that he doesn’t want to accept).

      Holden would try to shield his 10-year-old sister, Phoebe from everything “bad”. In particular, one passage I remember from the book:

      I went down by a different staircase, and I saw another “F**k you” on the wall. I tried to rub it off with my hand again, but this one was scratched on, with a knife or something. It wouldn’t come off. It’s hopeless, anyway. If you had a million years to do it in, you couldn’t rub out even half the “F**k you” signs in the world. It’s impossible.

      Basically, the idea for using the “Catcher in the Rhye” reference is that it reminds me that I can’t right all “wrongs” in the world much less help everyone… and does everyone I come across really need my help? It’s a heavy burden to impose on yourself.

  18. Hey Am a workflowy user from Kenya. I run some tech startups and i have being suffering from a burnout for the last two weeks. I was stressed about work. Until when i sat down and decided to list all my worries on your app, this enabled me to figure the solutions and boom!! i was soo relieved. I so like your app it helps me organize my life

    1. Awesome to know Denis! WorkFlowy is great with both abstract and practical, hands-on stuff. Isn’t it interesting that an app can help to work through stress “issues” – many of which have their root in too much stuff swimming around in our heads?

  19. Rereading all these comments was very inspirational. Thanks Frank for your original post and all the contributing commenters.

  20. Ahhh, this is amazing. I have a similar tool that I used to give to coaching clients- but using this would help immensely. Currently phasing out life coaching (only doing brand consultancy now, lol) and writing a book about that sort of stuff instead – I’ll be sure to mention Workflowy in the book. 🙂

    If anyone is interested, here’s the tool (I like to call it the Obstacle Tool):

    1) Think of an issue that’s been bugging you for sometime. Something that you may not have been succeeding at for a while. Some great examples: A certain aspect of self-care, a particular home or work project, a passion project you never get around to doing.

    2) Write down all the general steps that need to be done to get you from point A (where you are now) to point B (where you want to be).

    3) Under each point that you’ve written, break it down into steps.

    4) Under those points, write down what your past excuses have been for doing those things, as well as any possible reason why you CAN’T do those things.

    5) Under each “excuse” or reason for not being able to do something, write a solution.

    6) Taadaah! You now have a to-do list. Start with all the solutions for the obstacles. Don’t even look at the “to-dos” yet, just look at all the solutions for the reasons you can’t do the “to-dos”. Once each set of excuses is solved, do the to-do you wanted to do.

    Hope this helps!

  21. Frank, you could sew a silk purse out of a sows ear. You produce so much content
    and tricks on how to use workflowy what appears to be a simple system and make it into something amazing. Thanks

  22. Good work, Frank. And I would have loved to have known your grandmother. “When your heart is down, carve a piece of leather”

    1. Thanks Ernie. My grandmother was, like most grandmothers, quite a memorable woman.

      I’m going to Shoot you a quick email today about a possible interview I’d like to do with you 🙂

  23. linking images from dropbox doesn’t work for readers behind corporate firewalls where dropbox is blocked (so no images in the article)

    1. First time this has cropped up in any comment… Let me think about whether I will change the image dynamic for future posts. For now, while at work, it is really quite readable on your mobile phone too 🙂

  24. Just learning about the word tags. Thanks. That gives me options for daily processes like meditation or EFT.

  25. I don’t want to be the negative nancy here, BUT, as much as I laud WF, I wonder at times if it’s also a “work fills time allotted” tool. I wonder if we’re “creating” more work using workflowy. I mean, if you look at your lists, my lists, and these conversations, you have to ask what humans are doing these days. I mean, what?? Step back, take a walk in nature and then let someone show you their 2017 brain (using workflowy). I wonder if we’re in a cycle of creating more stress/anxiety…to then invent the tools and systems to help us in the cycle.

    How about doing less. Is that an option, thereby removing the need for computers to manage our brains?

  26. Ha! Glad to see this post. I have done this a couple of times, precisely because I apply David Allen’s advice of ‘out of your head/write it down’. I use journaling but when I’m very stuck I use both, a lot of free flow journalling and then I get in my workflowy and go thru this process, it’s a match made in heaven.

    1. Exactly 🙂 Getting stuff out of our heads often allows us to shape it and make sense of it – instead of letting the information, thoughts and ideas ricochet back and forth.

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