How and Why I Use Workflowy to Keep Organized

I’ll admit it; I’ve looked high and low for just the right tool to keep me organized, on task and up to date on all my to-do lists and projects.

There are seemingly hundreds of tools and systems that have been created to address this obvious challenge and I’ve tried at least a dozen of them. You’ve got some great ones like GTD, Evernote and Basecamp. I’ve heard from readers about Remember the Milk, Wunderlist and Asana. And, of course, sometimes the good old analog pen and notebook does the trick.

I’ve tried any number of digital tools and found that nothing quite stuck. I would use them for a while and then return to my notebook. I never quite understood why I couldn’t get used to using systems and tools evangelized by many until I can across a tool called Workflowy.


The stark outline interface is the beauty of Workflowy


I have to admit that I encountered it almost a year ago, but dismissed it because it seemed so different and too simple.

As it turns out that’s the magic of Workflowy. It’s so simple that you get to design how to use it based on how you think and work and that’s what makes it so powerful. So many other tools I had used required me to think a different way, spend time entering data or adopt new habits to get them to work.

You want a tool like to get out of the way and not turn into another thing you have to operate.

Workflowy is at its core a giant notepad with a few simple features for navigation, hierarchy, search and sharing and nothing else. In fact, the challenge some people have, including me originally, is that it doesn’t seem to do much of anything.

But, it’s the clear and uncluttered work environment that allows you to design how you organize, think and work in the way that fits your style and not the tool designer’s idea of how to work.

Why Workflowy

Workflowy allows me to keep a present picture of all of my projects and tasks and manage this picture with a couple keystrokes. Frankly, I can keep a picture of anything I want in my view – goals, centering thoughts, meeting notes – it’s just a big giant outline of my life. I’ve even added a section for personal and home-related projects.

The tool is web based, but iPhone and iPad apps allow you to sync, add and edit across devices.

In addition, you can share any element with other Workflowy uses so you can use the tool as a team or even just make one item available to client for collaboration.

How Workflowy

To me, and of course this could differ from person to person, the key is the structure of the outline. While you can change this anytime you like, getting it right was one of the keys getting more out of it.

I started globally with Work and Personal as my two primary catch all bins.

The work is then structured by the kinds of work I do. For me it’s speaking, writing and projects. Nested under these items are the notes for each speaking event, blog post ideas, outline and notes for my next book and all the various projects that need my attention such as product creation and promotion.

I don’t know about you but my work and personal lives intersect quite often and having a view of personal home projects, exercise, vision, goals and even vacation planning intertwined with my work view is a powerful thing.

As your list grows you can expand and collapse views as well as search for any word or phrase. You can also create hashtags that make list making very simple. For example, I use the tag #soon after any task I want to be on the immediate radar. That way I can click on a #soon tag and get what amounts to my daily to-do list. What I love about the outline structure is that my to-do list now is made up from and related to my ongoing worldview and not just from what’s barking loudest or on deadline.

Every staff meeting runs from Workflowy and every phone call with a client or meeting planner runs there as well. You can also create checklists and common outlines and duplicate them as needed.

It took no time at all to get Workflowy into my routine, partly because there are only about a dozens commands and functions and mostly because I could adapt it to the way I already thought about organizing my life.

I do still use Google Calendar for appointments, but Workflowy stays up and ready throughout the day and into the night as my planning, organizing and doing tool.

There is a free version of Workflowy that will work for most users. You can upgrade to pro for $49 a year if you really want to use the team and sharing functions with lots of people.

How and Why I Use Evernote

Like all business owners I know, I’ve got more to do than time to do it. Without a system to stay productive I would get very little done. I’m often asked to reveal what tools and tactics I use to get more done and that’s what today’s post is all about.

Evernote iPhone AppI use an app called Evernote as my primary productivity tool. I’m not the first to write about Evernote – the techies and hackers have been raving about Evernote since its inception in 2008 and the adoption and growth numbers seen by Evernote speak to its mainstream like acceptance.

But, like so many great tools without a system and logical way to bring them into your everyday reality, they can become just another distraction. So, I want to give you a little of the logic of how I use Evernote.

Like millions of people my thinking on productivity is influenced by David Allen’s Getting Things Done. One of the core premises of the book and teaching is that by getting everything into a system that you know won’t fail, you can relieve a great deal of the stress that comes from trying to make sure you don’t forget something important. Listen to my interview with GTDs David Allen here for a good overview.

Why I use Evernote

I have adopted some the principles of Getting Things Done, but have greatly simplified them and that simplification is where Evernote really shines. Evernote has grown from humble roots of a stripped down note taking tool to powerhouse suite of software services and applications that can be used to run entire organizations, but the simple roots remain.

Evernote is my giant file cabinet for anything I want to capture. It is simple, yet brilliant and most important, perhaps, is that all my activity in Evernote syncs over the air to every device I use. This allows me to work on my laptop, iPad, iPhone or any computer I happen to stumble upon and know that the data is the same everywhere.

In simplest terms what I do for a living is consume, write and share information – oh, and I also delete a lot of email and attend the occasional meeting – so my system is built largely around making it easy for me to discover, retrieve, produce and distribute information.

The function that makes Evernote so easy to adopt for this purpose is the ability to add and capture information in numerous ways.

I can send Evernote an email with content and files attachments

  • I can upload text, voice messages and images
  • I can drag files from my computer to Evernote on my desktop
  • I can save a file to Evernote from the print dialog command
  • I can clip any web page or web content directly to Evernote while I surf
  • I can write text notes directly to Evernote
  • I can add photos directly from a camera
  • I can add scans with ability to search them

So, you see there really isn’t any form of content analog or digital that I can’t capture. By adding tags to items you can file them in folders and make them fully searchable.

Again, just because you can do these things doesn’t mean you will. Evernote won’t be that useful to you unless you devise a system that makes it easy and logical to use and you start using it habitually for a month or so.

Here’s my system for using Evernote

  • I create separate folders for things like blog post ideas, research for my books, and each project I identify and then happily clip, take notes and email ideas to Evernote as I visit my RSS reader, read my email, meet with clients and surf throughout the day so that I know everything gets captured.
  • I use Evernote as a tickler file by creating folders for each month of the year and adding reminders of future actions into each. So, now when I need to file some report quarterly I find a reminder when I review that month and add it to the to do list. Every time I have something that I know I want to follow up with in the future I stick it in that month’s file and add a date to the front of it so it comes up when I review the folder. (We’ve all been asked to follow up with someone in three weeks and this keeps it and the email exchange in the system)
  • Because I can get info into Evernote in so many ways and some many forms I also create and maintain lists of things I want to track of find later, like gift ideas, books to read, vacation ideas, wines and music. If I have a great wine I snap a photo of the label and shove it into that list.
  • I have folders for random thoughts and when I hear, see or read anything that I want to capture I use my iPhone to capture it or a service called Jott to quickly record a voice message that’s transcribed and added to Evernote.

Evernote has become the central nerve center of my work and its usefulness has spilled over into every facet of day to day life.

I check in every morning to create a list of action steps and to dos and then routinely add content throughout the day. The secret (once more for emphasis) is that its so integrated into every tool I use so it is easy to create a routine to use it.

The one thing I don’t put in Evernote

While I could easily create to do lists with check boxes and all in Evernote I choose not too. I fire up Evernote and most days draw up my to do list from a combination of appointment commitments, project commitments and information from inside Evernote folders and then I record them in ink in a Moleskin notebook.

I’ve intentionally kept this step analog as I feel a very strong pull to keep some aspects of my work and life rooted in things that are non digital and offline. While it is easy to get sucked completely into the appeal of an entirely digital world, I can honestly say that I can’t be as creative or inspired unless I employ all of my senses and the act of writing on paper somehow connects and fuses my human particles with those of the digital world in a way that I can feel. (Wow, hope that didn’t scare anyone, but there’s something in my brain that needs paper.)

I work through my to do list each day and fuse my actions and sparks of brilliance into Evernote in real time and as they enter my thoughts. The more I put into Evernote the more I focus on being creative, knowing that I come there and find everything that I want to keep.

Some additional resources

So, how are you using Evernote

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