Collaborating in WorkFlowy – The Proof is in the Pudding


July 28, 2016


You might be collaborating quite satisfactorily with one tool or another – but until you start collaborating directly in WorkFlowy, you’ll never know how miserably one dimensional everything else is.

The uniqueness and power of collaborating in WorkFlowy – as opposed to tools like Email, Google Docs, Slack, Trello and Evernote – is this: Not only do we (1) get to organize our collaborative efforts any which way we choose in one infinitely nest-able outline – but we also have the ability to (2) comment and input information concurrently into any part of our outline and (3) filter for any “updates” anywhere in a snap. These are just the broad strokes.

Here’s a must-read comment from Ksenia. She puts it better than I ever could!

I still use Email and Slack. Of course. But WorkFlowy has become indispensable to me over the last year since I started blogging in this space and collaborating with scores of WorkFlowy users. This is no small thing. The proof is in the pudding. It’s time to climb aboard this train and try some collaborative pudding in the dining car.

What’s in a name?

At its simplest, collaboration is a dialogue. Here’s part of a dialogue (in WorkFlowy) which might ring a bell:

You’ll observe 2 things from the above snippet:

  1. Each participant uses a name tag. Logical.
  2. Each new response is indented/ nested under the previous one. They don’t have to be… but you’ll see shortly that this helps to form a thread when filtering for new responses… i.e. you can follow the conversation.

What’s new?

When you’re adding to a collaborative WorkFlowy outline in an organic way, new entries could, of course, be added anywhere within an outline. So how do we painlessly find all new entries that someone else has purposed to bring to our attention – wherever they might be? The concept is child’s play…

If I were Romeo and I wanted Juliet to see any new entries of mine… I would also include Juliet’s short name tag (#ju):

… That way, when Juliet filtered for her short name tag (#ju), she’d see the 2 freshly squeezed entries below. To respond, she would include @juliet and Romeo’s short name tag (#ro):

… Juliet would then explode (Alt+Click) her short name tag(s) once she’s read and/ or responded to my most recent entries:

Above, you’ll see that when doing a further search for Juliet’s name tag, she’ll come up empty-handed. That’s because she’s all caught up with her correspondence. No more mail.

Tit for tat

On the flip side… let’s (1) filter for Romeo’s pending updates by hitting his #ro tag, (2) respond to Juliet and (3) explode the remaining #ro tags to get to “inbox zero”:

At the time of writing

On my home page, tucked away in a note… I have a saved search which allows me to filter for any new #fr tags others might have used in one of my collaborative outlines. Here’s a real-life example of an update I’m filtering for at the time of writing. I’m in cahoots with the Japanese team that brought us HandyFlowy and MemoFlowy. Sometimes, rawbytz and I give them feedback on apps they’re developing… thus you will see @michi (Michinari, the team leader) has tagged an update for both myself (#fr) and rawbytz (#ra). Once I’m done reading, I explode my #fr tag and I’m all caught up:

All in the same boat

The main reason I came up with the short (#) name tags is precisely for larger groups. You might want to bring a new update to several team members’ attention. In the shared list for the Japanese team, we have 6 people participating… so for some updates I post, my tagging convention might go something like this: @frank #mi #ir #ru #go #fr #ra. Individuals can then manage their own “notification” tags and explode them… or not. If I wanted to bring something only to Michinari’s attention, I would do this: @frank #mi

Above you’ll see a list of project areas each with their own outlines. Of particular interest is the bulletin board:

The newest entries are posted on the top, each with the date, tags and a topic. Below we have the inside of one of these entries:

Tucked away in the note of one of the lists, we have a couple of useful goodies: (1) a few saved searches which utilize WorkFlowy’s “last-changed:” search operator. This helps to isolate anything within the list that was changed within the time frame filtered for. (2) A couple of tags that help locate some key information throughout the shared outline. I always encourage the people I’m collaborating with to go wild and use their own tags where they feel it will be helpful.

Here’s the tag index for a slightly larger team of game developers I’ve been meaning to squeeze an interview out of:

Showing others the ropes

I’ve collaborated on quite a few interviews for WorkFlowy blog posts – right within shared WorkFlowy lists. My interviewees thoroughly enjoyed the process. Part of getting people comfortable, as with anything, is to show them the ropes. So I set up a basic interview template which walks them through some of the dead-easy guidelines:

Here’s that interview template if you’d like to take a peek.

I’ve found that onboarding people to thresh out a project in WorkFlowy is a piece of cake. Even for those who are just right now catching their very first glimpse of WorkFlowy. Heck, people don’t even need to have a WorkFlowy account to collaborate in WorkFlowy: you simply give them a link to a shared, editable list you’ve set up.

Of special interest: even if I do happen to chat with someone on Slack or via email, I often pull any important correspondence right into a WorkFlowy outline that we’re collaborating on… you know, consolidate stuff. A simple copy and paste will suffice.

Thusly, you bring the power of WorkFlowy to collaborative projects. This is really quite something. Nice in theory… but much nicer when you’re actually trying this out for yourself!

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[…] in WorkFlowy can be as simple or as complex as you want to make it. Here’s a full-on post I wrote thereon – the dynamics of which serve myself and many others incredibly […]


[…] Because WorkFlowy is such a DIY program, you need to devise a collaboration ‘system’ or ‘code’ yourself: for a very well-considered one which has been through considerable testing, check out Frank’s offering here. […]

7 years ago

Hi Frank, this is a beautiful system. Thanks for sharing. You mentioned slack a few times and perhaps implied that workflowy is better than slack for certain kinds of collaboration. But I’m not sure I understand why you might think so. Especially, if a team is already on slack, what benefit is there in using multiple tools? I’d appreciate your thoughts.

7 years ago
Reply to  asif

Hey @asif,

You might find these 2 links helpful:

Plus… like I said, you’ll really have to try this collaboration pudding… because, after all, the proof is in the pudding.

P.S. I think especially the 2nd paragraph of this post deserves a re-read.

TL;DR: WorkFlowy is an outliner. Slack is not. Both have their place in my heart. WorkFlowy just does a whole lot better in many of the abovementioned departments 🙂

7 years ago
Reply to  frank.dg

Thanks Frank. After reading the 2nd paragraph again, I think I’m starting to see it. The main advantages of workflowy seem to be (1) it’s not constrained by chronological linearity, (2) its flexibility allows a team to organize its communication according to the team’s needs and style.

Halsted M. Bernard
7 years ago

Thanks, Frank, for another ridiculously useful Workflowy tip! This will especially come in handy when collaborating with other writers on projects, or even when tracking dialogue in rough drafts of stories.

Dee Jay Doc
7 years ago

I love the complete control I get with Workflowy. Collaborating is super simple! Sometimes I have too much fun creating workflows!

One feature I’d love to see is the ability to share a tag search within a list. I know this is not the best way to approach team collaboration, but on some projects I want to assign team members certain tasks. I only want them to see the nodes they need to see. This would be an easy on-ramp for non-workflowy users, or even non-any-kind-of-cool-app users. I have some on my team that do not like using their phone or computer at all for task lists. It’s just the way their brains work I guess. Maybe you know of a way to accomplish this?

7 years ago
Reply to  Dee Jay Doc

Hi Doc,
If it’s for simplifying what people see, all they’d need to do is filter for their own short name tag within the shared list and scan for search highlights.

If it’s because you don’t want them to see what others are doing, you might just as well copy their specific tasks over to a new list for their eyes only. To make your life easier, there’s a bookmarklet Rawbytz came out with called FlatFlowy… it condensed everything into a flat list (no hierarchies) and only shows the tasks you are filtering for. No more, no less. You could toggle the bookmarklet and then copy a specific person’s tasks over to a separate list.

If, OTOH, you’re worried that people might be confused with locating their own tasks within a shared outline via a filtered search… have a little faith… Don’t underestimate their abilities! You’re introducing them to WorkFlowy… so give them the unabridged thing 🙂

Rawbytz’s bookmarklet works on desktop and mobile browser… so it’s good to go anywhere:

7 years ago

Hi Frank, great article. I love the way you explain things. As you know, I adore Workflowy. I’ve only experienced collaborating in Workflowy once in this way (with you) and it was easy to get onboard with. I got a bit confused with the idea of ‘exploding’ tags but that’s the only issue I had. I need to play with it more – for some reason it does not feel quite as “linear” and organised as I’d like. This is probably because I need to tweak the set-up to suit my needs. Of course that is the beauty with Workflowy – you can tweak it as much as you need 🙂 I’m very much about using the best tool for the job – Workflowy is something of a multi-tool isn’t it?

7 years ago
Reply to  Martine

Aaah… we’ve barely gotten started young lady 🙂

7 years ago

@ksenia #fr Hey Frank, thanks for introducing this collaboration technique to me some time ago! Definitely one of my favorite ways to collaborate. The simplicity of this approach is only rivaled by its usefulness. It’s very refreshing for once to be able to collaborate away without needing to worry about collecting all the great insights somewhere later, wondering if you’ve missed anything, and needing to organize over and over after the fact (because, well, things do get messy and misplaced). The organization is built-in with this approach, and it’s easy to categorize with tags on-the-go, so very minimal housekeeping, if any, required. Also, it allows to collaborate on multiple ideas with the same person/group in one place at the same time but without mushing everything into one big giant discussion pot.

As Frank mentioned in the previous comment, it is very real-time. It is really cool to see the words appear in front of your eyes, then disappear, then the whole sentence gets re-written – you become a witness to the thought process of the other party, which, in turn, can spark up some more ideas. In those instances, I feel, the conversation becomes very close to being face-to-face without actually being that.

Something I found it useful to create a text-completion shortcut with your preferred software for your full name tag along with the short name tag for whomever you collaborate with the most (whether a single person or a team of people). That just eliminates any human error in typing out the most used tags and further insures that nothing gets missed. The shortcuts can be created as needed on a per project basis. And “@FullName #” generic collaboration shortcut is always convenient to have (it’s up there with my email address and my name shortcuts).

7 years ago
Reply to  Ksenia

@frank #ks You hit the nail on the head Ksenia!

7 years ago

Wow, these are some really awesome techniques for asynchronous collaboration. Thanks 🙂

(Personally I’m antsy for real-time collaboration. Right now the sync is just a liiiittle too slow for that to feel smooth. And you can’t see where other users are working in the app. I’m imagining both being able to see what node they’re editing, and also maybe a little colored border in the top-left of the node they’re zoomed in on.)

7 years ago
Reply to  Malcolm

In practice: you’ll see words and phrases appearing 2-3 seconds after any team member types them out (and vice versa)… which makes for pretty amazing real-time collaboration (not covered in this post). In that sense, one sees team members correcting and editing stuff in real time… which is unlike, say, Slack (and is pretty weird to see). Slack is “instantaneous” only insofar as you’ve hit Enter. It does take time to write stuff out, though… so interestingly, I find the relay of information to be much quicker in a shared WorkFlowy list – since you see the unfolding of a thought or idea before it is finished. Experienced this first hand on many occasions… although the thrust here is not real-time collaboration.

… Also, the idea is not necessarily to be working on the same list/ node/ bullet at the exact same time or even the shared list itself (In fact, one will invariably never be working on the same bullet. There’s no reason to edit another’s bullet. You simply create your own responses in your own bullets). The idea is that one filters for any new updates (your own short name tag – #ma) periodically by refreshing your search once you’re done with any current data to be reviewed.

Nothing slips through the cracks, provided that you use someone’s short name tag. I’ve collaborated on tons of shared lists… and I haven’t yet found anyone who had difficulty remembering to include a “#” name tag. That would be the equivalent of the “Prime Directive”. That’s the secret ingredient here… and people simply get around to seeing what’s new when they’re ready.

In short, I haven’t come across a single challenge to collaborating in the way outlined – whether someone happens to be working on the same list (outline) simultaneously or not… nor locating new lists that were meant to come to my attention. The thrust of it is not to try and see where someone is working in the app… they let you know the moment they create anything new.

Like I said, the proof is in the pudding. Experiencing this first hand is unlike anything I’ve seen in other apps. Especially when, by coincidence, you might happen to see text appearing as a member of a list is typing it out.

The only dynamic I think might be missing here is that of auto notifications of new tags that were meant for you. I usually check for new updates once or twice a day… and that seems to work. If anyone has anything urgent they want to convey… they shoot me an email or a Slack message, something to this effect: “You have tags to explode!”

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