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


November 12, 2015


I love the tips and tricks that people are emailing me. Please keep them coming! frankman777(at) 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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Alfredo Arias
Alfredo Arias
2 years ago

i search for dates using aMD for example august 26 a826 . then i pick what i want to do first by adding .1, .2 etc to denote priority

7 years ago

Great idea! I just started using Workflowy a couple days ago and can’t wait to learn more about all the features. Thanks for the idea!

Oleg Bondarenko
7 years ago

Probably that is not a news but I’ve found out how to make ‘nested’ tags.
Set of tags #time-night #time-day let to search fo night and day. But search line ‘#time’ takes for both of them!

7 years ago

Nice 🙂
When writing, I have sets of “Editing” tags, for example: #edit-list-order, #edit-reference, #edit-icon, #edit-simplify, #edit-shared-list

Aar Kenneth
6 years ago

You can also nest tags by saving a search for all the tags under a main tag by using the search modifier OR. For example searching for “#tag1 OR #tag2” Shows all tags with either of the two tags.

I add the URL to the second line of my note.

5 years ago

For me, a prefix builds up over time for common subcontexts eg #to, from, for-x are ‘longform’ where x are services. What is referred to in a comment here as ‘sets’ but also utilized for actionable or action-ed notes on bodies of services and or people in a ‘parent’ category. @tags are used for inline notes to preserve cross-functionality, but when possible cleaned and allocated to single node parent or note/s. #tags I also use when I want to reference an @ but since it is just a mention (and all I really need is the autocomplete for longer names/descriptions..), one does not want it to come up when tag-searching the name itself.. So to do a search I can use an @ tag then edit it with its prefix (to, for, etc) for context of action.

Then there are the shorthands. For me personally, genres and languages and authors eg for books or clipped copied annotated articles. Hence tl-x tg-x ta-x where x is any designated subject. For say music, this could be extended further to include concepts like chords in a subcontext of ‘genre’ ie mg- ch- eMinor. Yes, I love the notes feature, however did you tell?

So for time contexts, you could set tn-x (allowing inclusions for number eg hour) or ti-x (truncated) or td-x (meaning day). I use two letters because I am lazy but for more readabilty with little more complication, i find repeating letters both easy to do and more importantly, remember. Hence tnn-x, tddn-x etc where different ‘levels’ mean their individual ‘context’ that is of course, as previously mentioned – swappable across sub(sub sub,..) contexts. With enough use in practice, the only thing that feels like it is computing an autocomplete would be x!

The only problem is, without an interface to edit tag changes (ie rename all in one screen, easily) over time — all these tiny steps to the level of productivity/laziness that suits you best or more naturally, is difficult to integrate over all nodes. Whether previously made or new alike.

I know simply tagging ‘genre’ and ‘chords’ separately or together (searching with AND OR) would make things more natural to recognition over time but how many synonyms can one use for ‘list’? Multiple/s, lists, many, several, batch/es, bundle/s,.. A shorthand creates a new link in your brain to just one concept/idea and the you only need to do a quick binary check of whether a new, would be item fits into it or not. As with a regular/true tags. In my early experiments, I used to interchangeably use another (true word) term when I forgot the other, or the one I was using or used the most. Especially problematic when my brain ‘decides’ to attach pedantic definitions to any one word. Because I’m an information and notes junkie, there are still many attempts at ‘cleanup nodes’ tagged, slotted and dated (by either workflowy, or manually tagged all number of different dating formats) at random times in my user history. That I will likely never visit them again. Except to create a new cleanup node. That and I like to use tags so I can have everything inline (ie a mess) but still sorted. I also like to record and track how words or understanding change overtime. This is a terrible for all minimal notetakers. Unfortunately, workflowy still works best as an outline than say, a scrapbook. Or a drop journal. But these are increasingly better organized too, so, point taken.

Then sometimes you just want both tags piped in, in one go. With a large enough taglist (and ‘orrible organization whether that be in the past or still), #fo might match #for-x as much as it does #’forum, forgo, fortitude,..’ Bad examples but you know the tags I’m talking about. In your own, eventually infinite tag-list; They are one use, one context and tag just as intended but man, are there too many of them ‘unsorted’. Workflowy’s autosort of autcomplete to last used is great but many still (used to) turn up where they were wholly unrelated. Especially with new items/tags.. If ever workflowy did add (or has?) wildcards for search, this way of subcontextual tagging would become an effortless folder-tag-type search.. Imagine, going *genre* where the asterisks are both wildcards ie anything. Or a better example, with crossgenre creators: *author* ..

Sorry, I’m too fond of accidental long-posting.

7 years ago

A little off-topic, but I’m reminded of the origin story of the # as a hashtag – started organically, then the engineer writing code turned it into a new and powerful function:

7 years ago
Reply to  scaldwell17

Not off-topic at all! Very interesting read! Thanks @scaldwell17!
What’s surprising is that the modern usage of the hashtag… or at least the way it’s used on twitter was “invented” only in 2007.

7 years ago
Reply to  frank.dg

Frank, I have been somewhat disappointed in one of your suggestions.
I started using one of your tags [ #getting-laid ]. This has not worked out well for me. Maybe you have a follow-up method or advice to “point me” in the proper direction. Thank you in advance. I am sure other old guys may benefit from this.

ps your book is fantastic!

7 years ago
Reply to  frank.dg

Haha! I might point out the Doogie Howser’s “#getting-laid” tag (as with most journaling snippets) was included after the fact. So this sort of a tag is implemented as part of one’s journaling efforts to learn from one’s attempts and musings… and for nostalgia’s sake.

Rather, you might want to make the “#getting-laid” tag part of a full-blown GTD-like project (more than one task involved). What’s more – I would suggest you get some Kanban going so you can visualize your workflow as you work towards your end goal.

Additionally, I would employ the use of a #now-or-never tag for certain tasks which are imperative, lest your project be cut short prematurely. You might want to employ date tags or even a Kanban Calendar so that you are sure not to forget about important (and frequent) pleasantries which are foundational to the end goal.

Lastly, you should use WorkFlowy to write poetry or song lyrics. Remember, it’s the thought that counts 🙂

Czarina - Rise To Your Life

I have been using this too… And this leads me to a ?? for you about the art of tagging:

Is there a difference between a tag, or just searching a term like ?? (or anything else, for example a name)?

Background: The other day, I wanted to make the tag #?? I realized that Wordflowy wouldn’t recognize the syntax of two adjacent characters. So I chose to make the tag #dudas (doubts). (I opted to not create the tag #question because in keeping with the spirit of ??, I’m not actually asking a defined question here but rather leaving the section incomplete or in need of confirmation.)

Of course ?? is faster and has always been part of my note-taking. Any disadvantages to this (or other terms) not being formatted as a tag? I’ve seen that the Workflowy Getting Started video recommends not creating too many tags, so I’m curious about the art of tagging. Thanks!

7 years ago

Hey Czarina,

You’ll see this on pg. 116 of my book (I know you have it!):


Don’t underestimate keyword searches…
• One can search for keywords in general without strategic foreplanning as far as tagging.
• One can search for groups of keywords, whether loosely associated or “quoted” strings.

In certain outlines, it may not be necessary at all to tag, since most keywords might already be unique in those defined contexts. Here’s a blog post of mine at the time of the last soccer world cup.
Here’s the shared WorkFlowy list of all match results from start to finish.


  • • A tag is basically a keyword with special powers…
      • One can tap/ click on tags where they lie, bypassing the search box.
      • Tag formatting is distinguishable from “plain” text.

    • One can customize tag styles as a unique element in Stylish.
    • Tags can be exploded (on desktop). Can you say “speed”?
    • Tags show up with the autocomplete helper

  • ——————————————————————————-

    In short, tagging automates things quite a bit. You may be a little new to the WorkFlowy thing… but you’ll get the feel of it before long.

    A huge theme throughout my book is about tags. Also do yourself a favor and take a look at the chapter I wrote on Journaling. Tagging helps to set apart your choicest entries for later purposes, as opposed to filtering for all instances of a plain keyword.

    Then there’s the ability to distinguish between”@” and “#” tags. This just gives us more latitude/ more elbow room to work with. (pg. 119).

    At the end of the day, the brilliant little “??” hack just expands things a tad more. No elaborate tagging dynamic… and it fits in well where you would have done so without thinking too much about it anyways. I wouldn’t, personally, go ahead and use question marks for more than what Richard laid out for us.

    Czarina - Rise To Your Life
    Reply to  frank.dg

    😉 Yes, I’m on p44 of your book and loving it!

    Thanks, really helpful insights from your Journaling chapter! This has clarified for me what I was doing intuitively:

    ?? for small things that come up (that I skip over temporarily to not break my stream-of-conscious writing flow by getting into Editor mode). Often I re-visit these in a more polished draft since they may be fine as is — truly me doubting myself and wanting a second look-over before pushing it out into the world!

    And #duda to highlight chunks that I really need to work through more. These are priority items for a first review of my work (still in the analysis stage) that I need to set aside more time for.

    So, in sum, the difference between tags and keyword searches I now see allows for a SUPER-QUICK prioritization of my analysis and editing tasks. I’ve just been doing this intuitively, but the tag #duda seems to tend to mark my prioritized analysis tasks (for initial drafts), and the ?? tends to mark editorial tasks (for drafts that are nearly ready for sharing).

    Looking forward to your Book Writing chapter!

    7 years ago

    Makes me wonder why I haven’t been using languages other than English to spice up my tags (#duda). Certain words in our 2nd language(s) are often jam-packed with meaning. What’s important is that you get what your tagging nomenclature means. Another case of WorkFlowy being a vehicle that reflects the way our brains are wired.

    Stefano F. Rausch
    7 years ago

    I use the similar hack “!?” too, for anything that is important to elaborate on more in depth. Excellent approach!

    7 years ago

    Looks like you’ve got the best of both worlds going there. I’m curious to see a snippet of that in perhaps a shared list.

    7 years ago

    When can we get the interrobang added to the standard keyboard‽‽

    7 years ago
    Reply to  rawbytz

    I’d like to earn ‽‽’s – that way I’d get the biggest bang for my buck.

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