Using Workflowy’s Mobile and Desktop Apps to Streamline Grocery Shopping


September 14, 2021

I use Workflowy to manage many things in my life. From work, to writing, to movies I’d like to see one day–it usually ends up in Workflowy. But there’s one area of my life that I mange there that’s more important than all of those things: Food.

After years of using painful paper lists, I finally made the switch to Workflowy to manage the food our family eats. From the menu to the act of going to the store and picking things out–I do it in Workflowy. And I use both the desktop and mobile apps to do it.

Here’s a rundown of how I manage that process.

Tips and Tricks

Save Recipes and Ingredients

There are 2 things that drive what you get from the grocery store: your explicit meal plans, and staple items you just need to have on hand. And for the former category, chances are good that you reuse the same recipes over and over. So if you do both the meal planning and grocery shopping for your household, it helps to minimize duplicating work.

Have a list in Workflowy of the recipes you plan to use. Keep a separate list within that recipe for the ingredients you’ll need to have. It’s helpful to have an amount (usually lbs. or oz., but sometimes “packages” or “cans”) next to each item. Nothing’s more frustrating than buying the tomato sauce that was on the list, only to find out you didn’t buy enough for both the marinara sauce and the enchiladas you were going to make.

So wherever you grab your recipes from, put the instructions in one section, and the ingredients in another. Then you can simply duplicate that ingredients list to begin building your grocery list.

an example of laying out recipes in Workflowy

Use a Physical Layout (Home & Store)

I do a weekly shopping trip to the same grocery store each week. It’s a great store, it’s employee-owned, the prices are great, and it’s had the same layout for years and years. So my grocery list is built to reflect that. I hit the sections in a certain order during my trip. So the list reflects that.

If you have a preferred store, it pays to arrange your list in order of your journey through the aisles. It will take some time to remember what items are where. Is the Spaghetti before or after the beans and corn? After a few weeks of trial and error, you’ll get there. Then it’s all about keeping a staple list of foods you need on hand all the time, and keeping them ordered by where they are in the store.

You can also arrange things in your kitchen to match up with categories that roughly match the bigger sections of the grocery store. I’ve been able to do that, to an extent, which helps streamline both making my list and shopping.

Laying out Items by Store Section and (kind of) House Location

Practice Ubiquitous, Real-Time Capture

Is this really a third preparatory section on making a grocery list? Yes.

I get it, we’re all big boys and girls, we know how to grocery shop. This seems like a bit much, right? But how many times have you made your list, and gone shopping, only to realize later that you forgot something? And it’s something you noticed you were out of days ago!

The way to prevent this is by making your list in real-time. David Allen (the creator of GTD) calls this ubiquitous capture. Whenever you discover you need something, put it on the list–right then. Since I have my phone with me at basically all times, when I notice we’re running low on dish detergent, I take out my phone, open the Workflowy app, and make sure that’s on my staple list.

If my wife and I are talking and she casually notes that we’ll need plastic silverware, 2 cases of soda, and extra paper towels for the party next weekend, I whip out my phone. Can this seem like a bit much? Maybe. But I don’t much like either forgetting to put something I need on my shopping list or thinking about how I’m going to need it more than once.

I’m not perfect at it. But the better you can get at capturing needs on a real-time basis, the more efficient you’ll be at grocery shopping.

The Process

My basic process for shopping each week is as follows:

  • capture items we need as I discover them
  • review the inventory in our house of staple items
  • review the list of items from the meal plan for the week, and add that to the list
  • go shopping!

The Staples List

There are some things that you always need in the house. Salt, ketchup, paper towels, toilet paper, toothpaste, maple syrup–you name it. Each household has its own list. But this staple list is my starting point.

On Sundays, when I go grocery shopping, I start by looking at the pantry, fridge, freezer, medicine cabinet, bathrooms, and laundry closet. For this portion of the list-making, I use the mobile app.

I open the staple list and make sure all the items are marked as completed. Then I adjust the Workflowy app to show the completed items. While I look at our shelves and around the house, I swipe any item we don’t have enough of, so it’s now not complete in Workflowy.

Once I’ve made my rounds of the house and marked anything we need from the grocery store as not complete, I swipe left on the entire “Staples List” and duplicate it.

Then it’s on to incorporating the things that are unique to this week’s meal plans.

This Week’s List

No matter how excited I am about using Workflowy (or perhaps *because* I’m so excited about it) I can’t get my wife to jump on board with it. She uses Google Docs for everything. So when she plans the meals out, she sends me the grocery list for the week in a Google Doc.

At this point, I have to put the phone down, and move to the laptop. I open up her Google Doc and my duplicate Staples List. Then I rename that duplicate “This Week’s List”. I then copy over the items that my wife has put on her list. I consolidate any items that she put in there that are on the staple list–usually by putting a quantity by something (because now we need 10 apples, instead of the 5 I’d try to keep in the fridge).

Once I’ve copied over the items from the Google Doc to this week’s list, I’m done. I’m ready to go shopping.

The Shopping Trip

Once I’m at the store, I simply open the Workflowy mobile app on my phone. I start at the beginning of the list, which is laid out in physical order. As I pick up each item, I swipe right to check it off. It’s that simple.

Any items I wasn’t able to get remain on the list. When I get home, the items that remain on the list are put into a task on my task list to pick them up from whatever store I choose to go try to find them.

Keep It Simple, But Not Too Simple

I’m a firm believer in the value of simplicity. But I also believe that simplicity isn’t valuable if it doesn’t serve your goals. So, while my grocery shopping process may be a little involved, it’s worth it. The processes of figuring out what we need, recording it, and getting it from the store are easy. I can edit lists no matter what machine I’m on and can snake through the store with the greatest of ease using my phone.

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1 year ago

Your system maps pretty closely to mine. I have an kludgy hack for ubiquitous capture. I’ll verbally add items to my Alexa grocery list while I’m standing in front of the open refrigerator and that gets updated on a google doc with IFFT. When it’s time to build the grocery list I copy the contents of the google doc to workflowy. It would be so great to get Alexa to workflowy integration. Even if it landed in a generic catchall and got sorted from there.

2 years ago

Brilliant idea! Thanks for the tips here. I’ve been using Google Docs + Apple Notes and this is a much better workflow.

Dr Gavin Smith
Dr Gavin Smith
2 years ago

Thank you. That’s really helpful

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