Part 2 of an Interview with Mike & Jesse: WorkFlowy Features Present and Future

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This is the 2nd of a 2-part interview with Jesse Patel and Mike Turitzin, WorkFlowy’s co-creators. Mike and Jesse talk about WorkFlowy features, the inspiration behind it all and big dreams for the future. Get the first part of the interview here.

FRANK: Is there anything you can tell us about your inspiration for or any epiphany concerning WorkFlowy’s zoom? Would it be an overstatement to say that the ability to zoom into lists is WorkFlowy’s superpower?

JESSE: Zooming is definitely Workflowy’s superpower.

I tried a bunch of outliners before starting to work on it, and they all had the same problem: If you start a huge project in it, that has many big sub projects, which have many significant sub sub projects of their own, you quickly get to a point where the page feels overwhelming. In most, you can’t zoom, so you can’t infinitely keep drilling down as something gets more complex, or as some small part of a bigger project explodes into a big project of its own. Those where you can zoom, it is usually clunky and unintuitive, so you don’t do much and it is a hassle.

And that is what I was after. I am a bit scatterbrained, so I like to write down every little step of what I’m doing. So my documents tend to get super big and unwieldy really quickly, and I just knew that I needed to be able to zoom in and treat any part of my bigger document like its own little document.

MIKE: I do think the particular way WorkFlowy handles zooming is a big part of why the product clicks for people. A number of the outliners of yesteryear support a feature called “hoisting”, but it doesn’t feel like a primary way of using them, and the way of interacting with it is clunky.

I was familiar with outliners before WorkFlowy, but I never used them. I think that in a way was an advantage in my work with WorkFlowy, because normal outliners (at least the ones in use circa 2010) were not compelling to me – I wanted to make a hierarchical list-making app that was a joy to use.

 

FRANK: Could you give us some insight into how difficult it actually is to roll out any new feature? Take, for instance, one of the relatively recent additions… the ability to select multiple, arbitrary lists (Alt+Click).

Continue reading “Part 2 of an Interview with Mike & Jesse: WorkFlowy Features Present and Future”

WorkFlowy Co-Creators, Mike Turitzin & Jesse Patel on WorkFlowy’s Early Days

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This is the first of a 2-part interview with Jesse Patel and Mike Turitzin, WorkFlowy’s co-creators. Today’s post is a throwback to the early days of WorkFlowy’s ideation and inception… while the next post will take a look at some tougher questions about WorkFlowy’s vision and behind-the-scenes development. 

FRANK: I went fishing for WorkFlowy’s genesis and unearthed the following from a 2012 blog post elsewhere on the ‘net:

The idea for [WorkFlowy] grew out of Jesse Patel’s work at a nonprofit, “a job that was really overwhelming, where I had to manage a bunch of moving parts for 30 different projects.” While at that job, Patel tried many different programs to help him get organized. “The biggest problem with all of them is that they don’t support flexible data structures—they don’t let you define things how you want,” he says. “Instead they make you work in a specific way. Everything was super-janky and hard to use. So I was like, I’m just going to start creating a hierarchical interface for myself to manage this stuff.”

I’ve got a bunch of questions from that alone. For instance, how many man hours/ days, roughly, went into getting your first prototype up and running? And could you give us something… anything… more about those early days?

JESSE: I remember where I was when I decided to make WorkFlowy. It was in 2008 at some point. I was sitting at a red desk in the attic of a beautiful apartment, and I’d been trying and searching for a hierarchical, zoomable solution to my project management needs.I was teaching myself to program at the time, and tinkering with a lot of little thing, and decided to just try to make a hierarchical, zoomable interface to manage all my info and projects.

Given the fact that I didn’t know how to program very well, it took me a long time. It was in June, when I was living in Berlin for a month, working out of the Soundcloud offices (they had maybe 13 people at the time? They’d just raised $1M) that I really started working on WorkFlowy a lot more.

I think I got to something super basic I could use pretty quickly, but it literally stored the html in a big blob in the database and rewrote it every time I saved an edit. For those who know web development, you’ll understand how insane this is. It was also a pretty clever hack that let me, as a really inexperienced programmer, make something usable for myself pretty quickly.

I thought of this as my learning-to-code project because while I desperately wanted something like it, I thought it was a stupid idea that was bound to fail. After all, every programming tutorial starts with a todo list or note taking app, and everyone seems to think they can make a better one. Therefore, I viewed it as extremely unlikely that the idea I had for WorkFlowy was really novel or interesting, and that I was deluded in the same way everyone who made a notes/todo app was. So I thought, “This is a good starter project, because I am terrible at programming and I won’t be ruining a good idea with bad code.”

By around September or October of 2009 I had quit my job and was working on WorkFlowy full time, and had made something other people could use. So I guess it was about 6 months until I had made a real thing, but it would have been a lot faster if I actually knew how to program at the time. I had been teaching myself on the side for years, but still hadn’t put a ton of hours into it.

I named WorkFlowy in about 10 minutes, because I didn’t think it was important and didn’t think the product was going to be a real thing. If I’d known I’d spend this long working on it, and this many people would use it, I would have thought a lot harder about the name. I literally wrote down five names, asked my girlfriend (now wife) which she liked best, and registered the domain.

I was living in Geneva at the time. My first user was a friend name Shafqat Islam, who was working on his own startup, Newscred, which is now a pretty big success, hundreds of employees, offices in NYC, etc.. At the time, it was him and a friend working out of his apartment or mine, I ran a little co-working space for a bit. He used the first version of WorkFlowy religiously for a few months, then his usage petered out. His enjoyment of it was the first real sign that the zoomable hierarchy was interesting.

At the time, WorkFlowy looked dramatically different than it does now. I hadn’t yet arrived at the single piece of paper metaphor, and was instead using a column oriented approach similar to what you’ll find when exploring folders in a Mac finder. Here’s a screenshot of my actual account in an early version:

As you can see, even from this early stage, the development of WorkFlowy, which from this screenshot I guess I was calling “WorkFlow” at the time, was managed within itself. So, it really has been since the very beginning that WorkFlowy has been built in WorkFlowy.

Before I moved back to the US from Geneva, I rewrote WorkFlowy in about a week, using the single page interface that you see it in now. It had gotten kinda complicated and I wanted to make it simpler, get rid of my unbelievably crappy code and replace it with something better based on my learnings, which was still terrible code. You couldn’t click to edit, so it didn’t feel like a word processor, but that’s when it made the basic shift to looking like a text document, and that metaphor has driven much of the product direction in the years since.

At the end of 2009/Beginning of 2010, Mike and I started talking about working together on something. I had started to go slightly insane working by myself and was reading all sorts of stuff on Hacker News about how solo founders didn’t do as well. I also realized I wasn’t a good enough programmer to do something real alone.

Anyway, we started working together, but not on WorkFlowy. Got into Y Combinator, and ended up flailing around a bit as various projects didn’t seem to have legs. A few people in YC started using WorkFlowy at the time, and around half way through, we decided to make WorkFlowy our main project, so at least we would have something to show on demo day.

Then we finally launched it in November of 2010. Because we were part of Y Combinator, we got an article in Techcrunch automatically. Then Lifehacker wrote about us the next day, and after a day we had over 10K signups, and people seemed to really love the product. They stuck around and kept using it over time, told other people about it, and filled our email inboxes with nice emails saying how much they liked what we’d done. Although we had just launched it at that point, this was really the end of the beginning, because we now had a real product out in the world.

MIKE: I had worked as a programmer on the search engine at Google for a few years after college. I left that job wanting to strike out on an adventure, and I spent a year doing all sorts of interesting non-technical things.

I got back into the tech world in early 2010 when I worked with my brother Chris on some entertaining viral Facebook apps that reached over 10 million people in a matter of days (those were the days!)

Jesse and I had lived in the same residence in college. We started working together in 2010 because we had similar interests and both wanted a collaborator. We worked for several months on stuff that was completely and totally unrelated to WF.

As Jesse said, WF began as his “teach myself to program” project, which is obviously funny in retrospect.

As he said, midway through Y Combinator, we didn’t know what we were going to do next, and we needed something for demo day. The deadline loomed!

I had tried Jesse’s WF demo a bit, and in particular I thought the zoom feature was cool. I was already making multi-level bulleted lists in Google Docs all the time (and we did a lot of this when planning out earlier projects).

From my perspective, WF could completely take over my usage of Google Docs for project management and note-taking if we adopted an interface that was just as easy to use for adding and editing bullets as Google Docs (or any word processor) was. That became our first project when we started on WorkFlowy – to make editing as seamless as possible.

We discussed directions for WF, and we had similar visions of where it could go, so we decided to make it a collaboration. It felt like a fairly insignificant decision at the time, which is funny in retrospect.

FRANK: When you were conceptualizing everything and hammering out the WorkFlowy dynamic, were you really *confident* or really *hopeful* that the whole concept of WorkFlowy would catch on? Did you know right from the inception that along the way you’d pick up a crowd of crazed fans whose workflows depended on WorkFlowy?

JESSE: I am a person who dreams really big, about everything, to a ridiculous extent. Even if I’m making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, I’m thinking, “This new peanut butter technique I just invented is going to revolutionize PB&J”. So basically, I always think everything I’m doing will be revolutionary and important, which is absurd and silly. I’ve been like this since I was a kid.

However, I’m also aware of this tendency to fantasize about the huge potential of things, so I have a big part of my brain that tries to be a realist. There’s kind of a balance in my mind between the realist keeping things in perspective and the fantasizer saying, “This is going to revolutionize everything.”

With regard to WorkFlowy, I simultaneously felt two contradictory ways about the project. First an enthusiasm around, “This is going to be huge, it is going to become the universal way people think things through, organize their work and communicate complicated ideas.” Second, a more realistic, “This is a throwaway project that will never see the light of day. I’m just learning to code here, and everyone makes a to-do app as their learning project.”

When we launched WorkFlowy, we were definitely surprised by the enthusiasm and usage that it got, and I still am. At the same time, I am honestly still disappointed that we haven’t succeeded in reaching a larger audience, because I think we really have made a better way to organize one’s thinking and one’s life.

MIKE: I was personally confident that our vision of where we wanted WF to go would produce an awesome product that I would love to use myself. So I was fully behind the idea, and a lot of my motivation has come from a personal desire to use the product.

Like Jesse, I did have some skepticism that the project could become a big thing. A lot of this has to do with the general crowdedness of the “space” that we are part of – there are so many note-taking, task management, and collaboration tools available that it’s easy to get lost in the noise.

We were both very happy to see all the positive feedback when we released the first version of WF to the world in November 2010. It was great to hear so much good stuff about something that both of us were aware was still very crude.

FRANK: What does your 2-man team look like, practically? Do you guys work in the same space in a 2-desk office or do you collaborate remotely? What do the 2 of you each focus on? How do you divide all that is the behind-the-scenes of WorkFlowy? Do you just slog away at a bug or a feature with dogged determination until it’s done?

JESSE: Mike lives in NYC and I live in San Francisco. We used to both live in San Francisco, until 2014 when he moved. We collaborate remotely via email, Slack and WorkFlowy.

Mike has traditionally done what I’d refer to as the parts of the product that require more hardcore coding. I work on the product a lot as well, but also on a lot of things that aren’t product related: payroll, taxes, forms, finding contractors, etc.. I have also done all the stuff that requires use of Photoshop and the like.

We both do customer support, with Sasha taking care of all the stuff that doesn’t require one of us to do something on the backend.

MIKE: For the first few years of the company, we both lived in SF and worked most days in the same room together. We are now remote, as I am in NYC. We both are very involved in designing new features and UI concerns.

I have generally been the one who wakes up in the middle of the night to respond to server outages and fight fires. Things have been pretty stable recently, but there have been periods where we’ve faced a lot of difficulties, many of which were growth-related or due to people using the product in ways we hadn’t anticipated.

FRANK: Are you sometimes surprised at what many WorkFlowy users squeeze out of your brainchild? I mean… do you see people using WorkFlowy in a way you never personally imagined or intended? I know this might sound a little over-the-top for an organizational tool… but have you ever felt like this creation of yours is bigger than you?

JESSE: Yeah, I’m really impressed and humbled with what people do with it. Especially the things people accomplish with it, that is what I find most exciting. And the fact that people take their valuable time to write scripts and styles and stuff to modify WorkFlowy is insane. And that you wrote a 250-page book about it, and that people actually wanted to read that book – that really blew my mind.

MIKE: I am blown away at all the things people use WF for. That’s one thing that I find very gratifying – we wanted to build a product that gets out of your way and lets you do whatever you want with it. So it’s neat to see people doing everything with it, which is exactly how it should be used 🙂


In Thursday’s post Mike and Jesse will be spilling the beans about  the WorkFlowy they envision. Don’t forget to share some love below…


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The “??” Filtering Trick Many Have Been Implementing All Along Without Knowing it

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I love the tips and tricks that people are emailing me. Please keep them coming! frankman777(at)gmail.com. Today we have a no-brainer from Richard Bird, who we’ll be hearing more from in future posts.

Richard Bird is an application engineer for a transportation company where he builds custom scripts and applications to automate user processes… and he drives a Ford Mustang.

Richard tells me:

I started using this latest tip by accident. I have this odd habit of typing “??” in sentences where I didn’t know what else to write at the moment or where I needed more info. LIGHTBULB… why not just search for “??” to find all of the places where I left the reader hanging? Super simple, no frills. Just works. After a while I had a ton of them in there. Now I am slowly working my way through tidying them up. So it is kind of like a mini todo list. You know like …Define this, what is this?, get this info, etc.

Below is a snippet from my current outline that has the “??” hack. Any time I need to go back and define what a term means, or leave better notes on a subject, I type “??” with a brief note on what I intend to replace it with. Then later I can go back and make the proper changes by simply searching for “??”:

I went ahead and tried out Richard’s tip by typing “??” into my search box and found all of those entries with 2 or more question marks – which returned an interesting mix of head-scratchers that had either automatically been solved over time… or were even still valid items that needed my attention. I’ve got a feeling that this might be a similar case for many of you. The more question marks you add to your search, the deeper you delve into your past (and present) confoundedness.


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Dee Jay Doc’s “Action Flow” Demonstrates WorkFlowy Tagging Magic 101, Bringing Together what Many Find Elusive

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Today’s post is an encore of Dee Jay Doc’s interview last Thursday. I’m incredibly impressed with how he put together his “Action Flow”. Dee Jay Doc is going to run us through the basics, but you absolutely have to zoom in, hit some tags and tinker with his shared list to see how all of the moving parts of his system integrate seamlessly.

It is well worth highlighting that Doc does a fantastic job of consolidating to-do items within individual project workflows and those in fixed daily schedule lists. He also uses a hybrid of date/ month tags – everything coming together in his tag indexes. You’ll most certainly want to take a page or two out of his book, since many people have found what he’s achieved in his Action Flow to be painfully elusive. There’s also a lot of magic here for those of you GTD fans. Here’s last week’s question I saved for today:

FRANK: Do you have any of your own home-grown tips and tricks which you wangle out of WorkFlowy – anything that you’ve been dying to shout out aloud? Because now’s the time to do it!

DOC: My life can get complex because I run the Fresh Camp, create my own Dee Jay Doc music and help my wife with her handmade jewelry business.

I’ve been tinkering for years with WorkFlowy as well as other task management systems. I really appreciate your new book, Frank. It got me into the next dimension of WorkFlowy use. Here’s a few things I’ve been doing to help manage my own workflow:

AREAS

I can filter my whole system by area. This helps me focus on one aspect of my life:

FAMILY (#fam)

FRESH CAMP (#fc)

OCEANNE.NET (#oce)

(My wife’s handmade jewelry business)

Goals

#goals” is a shortcut that expands all my yearly, seasonal, monthly and weekly goals. This is very important so I can check in with my deepest, most essential goals and make sure I’m doing what’s most important. Sometimes I get so caught up in the matrix of tasks, due dates and stuff that I can’t seem to perceive the most important objectives of the week and stay up on what I need to get accomplished this month.

Contexts

I use a lot of GTD principles, in that I collect in an inbox (Reminders on my iPhone). I process them. I organize in WorkFlowy and assign contexts. I will check my @office context when I’m in my office, but I can usually only do a few things on any given day, so I spend more time in my Day views than in my context views. I try to schedule my week out this way and take work in chunks.

TODAY

Inside the Today node, I have three buckets, “Priority”, “Call”, and “If I Can”. Each of these operate the same way. I can write my priorities for Friday in the Priority node with a tag @f. I can do this ahead of time and/or on the day of. They can be in any order because I don’t spend time just looking at the priority node. Instead, I click @f on Friday. This filters all the @f tags from the three buckets. It also filters out my schedules for all days except Friday. I love this view. It gives me an overview of my day.

If I am zoomed all the way out to “Action Flow”, and I click @f, I can see my Friday along with any other task from any PROJECT or NEXT BUCKET that is tagged @f. I can leave it there or drag it into my days PRIORITIES, CALL, IF or SCHEDULE.

Another cool thing that I could NEVER do in a Calendar program is click on the context tag of the context I’ve scheduled myself time in. For example, at 1pm on Friday I’m schedule to go into the studio. If I click @studio, I’ll see any task with the @studio label (I do need to click on @f to remove it from the search, or else I’d only see the tasks with @studio and @f).

Once again… do yourself a favor and go and play with Dee Jay Doc’s Shared list:

https://workflowy.com/s/bIHQ50h7q3


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An Interview with Dee Jay Doc who Takes us on a Behind-the-Scenes of his Hip-Hop Projects with WorkFlowy

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I recently touched base with Doc Harrill, AKA, Dee Jay Doc, a raving WorkFlowy fan and founder of Fresh Camp, “A youth leadership institute cultivating youth voice and neighborhood health through community-focused hip-hop-in-action projects.” If that sounds like a mouthful, wait until you see what they’re producing and serving up. Pun intended. We’ve had a bit of a chat about the life-transforming projects he’s involved in… and how WorkFlowy fits in behind the scenes.

You’ve absolutely got to watch this award-winning 12-minute film to see first-hand how Fresh Camp is transforming neighborhoods through fresh, upbeat hip-hop performances and hands-on projects that bring about real lifestyle changes:

FRANK: Doc, the RE {FRESH} video is incredibly inspiring (I mean, how could it not be!?) And you get to be a part of that real-life change – right there in the thick of things. Could you tell us about how you came up with the whole vision? And who would have thought hip-hop and growing your own veggies would be such a brilliant fit?

DOC: It is such an honor to be a part of young people’s lives in my own neighborhood using my art form to cultivate their voice, health and leadership. The mentoring process is life changing for me as well as the students. They challenge and inspire me weekly. My vision is to create a process whereby inner city youth and young adults in our community can grow their ideas to fruition, gaining skills and character along the way. At our first summer camp (in 2011), we went for a neighborhood walk. I asked the students to write down all of the FRESH things they noticed in our community. This important word, FRESH = unique, inspiring, growing, healthy and/or being rejuvenated. Several students pointed out the brand new community gardens built by neighbors and Famicos Foundation (our neighborhood’s community development corporation). Some students rapped about the gardens set-up in abandoned land and how it helped our neighborhood become safer and healthier. The next summer, we decided to plant our own food at one of these gardens. After that we built our own. Many hip-hop songs have been written to document our learning and new found message of FRESH food and the process of coming together to make our neighborhood better. “Come Together” by Fresh Camp students:


Hip-hop is the language of our youth. I give them opportunities to raise their voice and become the change they want to see.

FRANK: One of the most impacting things for me that I got out of the video was where you said, “I don’t operate off of what I believe something can be 20 years in the future. I just put a seed out there now… I didn’t know what it would be at the beginning when I planted it – but as we’re tending it we’re excited to see all the fruit that’s coming from it.”You’re talking both literally and metaphorically… and best of all you’re not just talking about it, you’re doing a whole lot. Could you run us though the practicalities of what gets done on the fly and what takes some figuring out in terms of pen-to-paper?

DOC: Wow, great question! This all starts with small seeds of faith, which must contain the logical action and obedience represented by them. It’s being responsible with the relational garden I’ve been given. I must reach out to the students I meet on my street. I know they have tremendous potential. I must use my art form of hip-hop to inspire, challenge and move us toward health.

More than a program, I’ve created a process. It’s a process of empowering youth to interpret their experience through a lense that focuses them on becoming the change they hope to see. We tap into their struggles and nurture their ideas for a better tomorrow. We help them develop a strong message. Then we empower them to take real action. This requires a tight system. To prepare, we must write grants, fundraise, develop creative community-driven projects, purchase equipment, and create programs where a safe environment can nurture students in a way that creativity and productivity can thrive. I guess you can see why Workflowy is so important for me. I have TONS of projects and details to track. I need quick access to all of it!

Once the funding, the equipment, our team and our process is in place, we give the students a fully professional song writing, beat composition, studio recording and performance experience that is accessible for beginners but challenging for the advanced. Our whole aim is not just to make music, but to make music that will serve our community. The prize is when the students perform around Cleveland and inspire the young and the old. I see them growing creativity, confidence and character. And that’s what is REALLY  FRESH!!!

FRANK: I’m going to jump right in here now with a couple of big WorkFlowy questions for our readers: What aspects of your projects get hashed out in WorkFlowy? Would you mind showing us a few of your WorkFlowy outlines which house lyrics, CD recording projects and lesson-plan content?

DOC: Here’s just a few. . .

LYRIC WRITING AND TEACHING LITERARY DEVICES TO MY STUDENTS

I love writing lyrics in WorkFlowy because you can free flow a bunch of lines, then easily re-order them later. This helps to create song order and track measures. Plus, I can get rid of lines I didn’t like by completing them or moving them to their own node. I can still access them later if I need to go back to previous ideas.

Another cool thing is that I can tag literary devices for use in teaching. As I challenge my students to use more #alliteration, #allusion, #hyperbole, #imagery, #metaphor or #simile in their rhymes, I can go straight to them to use as examples. The funny thing is that this helps me remember to add more literary devices myself which improves my writing:

Here’s the shared WorkFlowy list of the above outline.

Here’s the actual sound file, “Garbage in the Trash”:

LESSON PLANS

For our summer camps, after-school programs and in-school residencies, I need to overview the whole program/project as well as plan out each class or work session we’ll have each day.

Here’s an example from a residency I did last Fall:

MC Residency Pic 1 Overview
In this outline you’ll see that I write the title, artistic output, goals and other details about the overall program.

MC Residency Pic 2 Teachers and Students
I keep track of teacher’s names and contact info as well as what my unique goals are with them to help engage students in learning each subject.
There are a lot of students to remember. I can keep notes that will help me know how to uniquely engage certain students that I see who have special talents or special challenges.

MC Residency Pic 3 Chinese
The class tags (#math, #chinese, #history, and #english) help me when I’m speaking with one teacher. I can focus only on what I need to speak with them about.

My @mc2 tag (Pic 3) lets this task show up in my master task management system to remember to do this on Monday when I’m at the school. Or I can use any of my personal tags like, @home to remember what to do when I’m at home. Or @officemax to remember to pick up supplies when I’m at Office Max.

MC Residency Pic 4 Next
The #next tag helps me quickly go to the next class plan.
This is the view I use during class as I teach. This is one day’s simple class plan. I love WorkFlowy because life doesn’t alway go as planned. It’s so easy to adjust the next class session’s plan based on how this day went. I like to write a journal and keep it there for reference later or next year. The #journal tag lets me go back and just read through my journal quickly.
Sometimes I must export the class plans if I need to turn them in to the school or for a grant report.

Here is the album created by the students.

FRANK: If you would indulge us here for a bit… would I be pushing my luck if I were to ask you to write and/ or perform a few WorkFlowy bars?

DOC: Easy. . . .

In the very next post, Dee Jay Doc will be answering the following question I put to him:

“Do you have any of your own home-grown tips and tricks which you wangle out of WorkFlowy – anything that you’ve been dying to shout out aloud? Because now’s the time to do it!”

In fact, I’m already sitting on that answer – which deserves a whole post of its own. He’s done a bang-up job of laying out what he calls his “Action Flow” for us… but it’s a wrap for today.


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An Interview with Dr. Andus on how WorkFlowy Stacks Up Against other Organizational Apps

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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

Captain Nemo’s Nautilus – like WorkFlowy – a sum of its parts

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.


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An Interview With Writer Halsted M. Bernard on Her Work, Using WorkFlowy for Fiction and Writing a Novel in a Month

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In today’s interview I pick the brains of one of my favorite bloggers, Halsted M. Bernard. You can find and follow her blog at cygnoir.net. Originally from Northwestern Pennsylvania and currently living in Edinburgh, Scotland, Halsted is heading back stateside in January – where she’ll be getting her bearings in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her fiction publications are listed here.

FRANK: Here’s your twitter bio:

What would it take on WorkFlowy’s part for you to ditch your nicest of pens? Or is that a habit that’s here to stay?

HALSTED: Great question! Recently I have wrestled with this very issue, because I used Workflowy as a daily planner for a while. A couple of months ago I made the switch back to a paper-and-pen system because I missed using my nice pens. The tactile experience of ticking items off a to-do list is simply too compelling for me. However, I use Workflowy for plenty of other important things!

FRANK: This tweet of yours caught my eye:

Do you have any skeletons in your WorkFlowy closet? I mean, do any of your private thoughts make it in? Also, I’m curious as to where your wormhole would take you.

HALSTED: Workflowy is a creative space for me, but only for fiction. I don’t use it as a journal because I am too in love with fountain pens and creamy paper to give those up. However, I think Workflowy could serve very well as a journal, especially for those of us who make lists of events or feelings we want to remember. And my wormhole would take me to New York City in 1776. (I’m reading Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton right now.)

FRANK: Here’s how you describe your early writing days: “When I was four years old, I wrote a story about a giant rabbit with no eyes or mouth that haunted my dreams. The rabbit went away, but I kept writing.” Could you tell us about any piece of your work out there in the wild, and how you’d characterize your writing style?

HALSTED: As a writer at the beginning of my career, I’m not sure I can characterise my writing style; I’m still figuring it out. Most of what I write is slipstream fiction, sliding between fantasy and science fiction, and I’m starting to write some interactive fiction as well. Here’s a post about an interactive fiction piece I wrote. I write stories that make me uncomfortable in some way, that prod and pry at the edges of understanding. Memory and forgetfulness play a large part in my writing because I’m so fascinated by what we remember and why we forget. Here is an (audio) excerpt of a story I wrote called “Leftovers” about a chef who can flavour her dishes with her own memories.

FRANK: At this time of year there are a lot of writing apps that join in the NaNoWriMo buzz on social media. I’ve also seen you getting hyped about it. What, basically, is NaNoWriMo… and are you considering using WorkFlowy to get the job done?

HALSTED: NaNoWriMo is this bizarre, wonderful, horrible, inspiring, demoralising, joyous challenge to write a 50,000-word novel in the month of November. I found out about it over a decade ago and tried it. I failed spectacularly, only managing 1,329 words. I’ve tried it several times now but have never made it past 10,000 words. This year, though, I have a secret weapon: Workflowy. I admit to skipping ahead to the book-writing chapter in “Do Way, Way More in Workflowy” for exactly this reason. Recently I devised a Workflowy template to help me sort through some structural problems I am having with one of my stories. I’d like to share it with your readers in case anyone else finds it useful. Here’s the template – in a shared WorkFlowy list.

[Here’s a screenshot of just the collapsed (sibling) lists which Halsted has shared with us. It is an incredible resource (with additional references) that you absolutely have to take a look at. Go ahead and embed the list into your WorkFlowy document!]:

FRANK: Do you have any personal writing tips for those who are thinking about taking the plunge this year? Is it even possible to write 50,000 words in a month?

HALSTED: It is absolutely possible to write 50,000 words in a month. Someone I know wrote 50,000 words in a third of that time, although she does not recommend it and won’t be repeating that performance. The key to NaNoWriMo is quantity, not quality. I’m hoping that the breakneck pace will help to shut my inner editor up, as there is simply no time to worry about writing well. My only tip for NaNoWriMo is to write. Don’t listen to the voice in your head that says it is preposterous to attempt such a feat. It is preposterous, which is exactly why we should try. Writing should not be a safe enterprise.


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