Workflowy Organization v2

A few months ago I wrote How Workflowy Has Changed the Way I Work detailing how I use the Workflowy web and iPhone app to stay organized and get things done. I continue to use Workflowy more than any other app and have made a few changes to how I use it since I wrote the original post. A few of you mentioned that you found the original write-up helpful so I thought I’d share a list (naturally) of what’s changed since then.

If you’re new to Workflowy or haven’t read my original post on it, I encourage you to check it out for context about these changes.

The template

As with the template in the original write-up, black items are fixed and gray items are placeholders for content that you create. The blue circles correspond to the changes in the list below.


What’s new in this version

1. Appointments now go in Workflowy and only Workflowy

In the past, I kept appointments in both the iPhone Calendar app and in Workflowy because I liked having appointments in the calendar for quick reference, but also liked having them in Workflowy so that I could plan tasks around them.

As time went by, I found myself only referencing the Workflowy iPhone app while I was out because it represented my true schedule (appointments, deadlines, and tasks) much better than the calendar app alone did. These days I don’t even bother adding appointments to the calendar app; they go straight into Workflowy and that’s all that I reference.

Also, and this is a very minor change, I’ve grown fond of using the em dash (—) instead of a colon to separate the time of an appointment from its description.

2. Short term tasks now include the date

Because I now solely use Workflowy for appointments, having the day of the week and its corresponding date is much more important than before. For example, instead of a Short Term list item being just “Monday” it’s now “Monday, 21 Oct”.

3. Task list timeframes are more flexible

Previously I just included the upcoming seven days or so in the Short Term list and anything farther out than that went into the Medium Term or Long Term lists. These days I’m a bit more flexible with what goes where. Short term tasks, for example, are typically up to two weeks out and things taking place beyond that usually still go in the Medium Term or Long Term lists, but the boundaries are not set in stone.

4. No more focus areas

In the last version, I kept focus areas — things that weren’t tasks but that I wanted to pay attention to during the current week — as list items in the Overall list. I no longer include a focus area; everything in the Short Term, Medium Term, and Long Term lists are tasks that can be completed.

5. Month lists to group long term appointments

I found that as I had more and more upcoming deadlines and appointments several weeks or months out, the Medium Term and Long Term lists would get cluttered with lists of dates. To remedy this, I started creating groups based on the month the appointment or deadline is slated to take place (November, December, etc) and then I collapse it so that there is only one visible list item. As the month approaches, I ungroup the dates and move them into the Short Term list.

6. Projects are no longer divided into groups

This past summer I had an unusually large number of ongoing projects which is why I organized them into groups. I’ve scaled back since then and now only have a few ongoing projects and a few more in my “Potential Projects” list making it unnecessary to organize them into groups.


It’s worth noting that this may be the second Workflowy system that I’ve written about, but this has evolved from a much simpler system that I started with in early 2012. If you’re just getting started with Workflowy, start small and improve it over time to see what works for you. Good luck and let me know how I can help.

The Virtues of Public Accountability

I’m a huge fan of public accountability, a concept I first read about on Sebastian Marshall’s blog. The basic idea is that stating your goals publicly makes you a lot more likely to follow through and achieve them.

For example, a few years ago I was working on a web-based high fidelity mockup tool and kept pushing back its launch. I decided to experiment by publicly committing to launch by a specific date that was aggressive for where I was at with the project. I wound up working like hell to meet that deadline and actually beat it by more than a week.

Why does publicly committing to something have an impact? For a lot of people, including myself, it’s important to be perceived as consistent. If I tell people I’m going to do something, I want to be the type of person who does. By publicly stating that I’m going to do something, the fear of failing and being perceived as someone who says they’re going to do something but doesn’t creates a strong incentive for me to actually do it. Even though I know there’s no real risk in failing (who cares?), it still pushes me to work faster and harder than I otherwise would have.

Another benefit of publicly stating your goals is that people will often try to help you achieve them. Maybe it’s encouragement; maybe it’s advice because they’ve been where you are and know the ropes; maybe they have resources or connections that will help you reach goals faster.

I encourage you to try publicly writing about your goals. You might be surprised by how well it works for you.

How Workflowy Has Changed the Way I Work

workflowyI’ve been using this amazing web and iOS app called Workflowy for more than a year and a half and it has completely changed the way I work. I am such a big fan of Workflowy that it is the only web app that I’ve paid for that I didn’t have to simply because I want to support their company and see them thrive (their free plan allows you to create 500 items per month, their pro plan costs $4.99/month or $49/year).

In this post I’ll share in detail how I use Workflowy in the hope that you might try it and benefit from it as much as I have. If you already use it, maybe you will pick up a few ideas for your own workflow.

Workflowy Introduction

Below is Workflowy’s official two minute introduction video. If you’ve never used Workflowy, I highly recommend watching it before continuing because it will give you a quick overview of Workflowy’s core features which I’ll be referring to in this post.


Note-Taking & Task Tracking

I’ve used a number of note-taking and task tracking tools over the years including pen and paper, Outlook, Notepad, Remember The Milk, Tooledo, and Evernote.

Workflowy is hands-down the best note-taking app I’ve ever used because of how smoothly it lets you create and organize lists. You can have hundreds of notes on dozens of different topics but keep them all tucked away until you need them. There’s also a quick search feature that you can use to locate notes if you forget where you stashed them.

For task tracking, Workflowy works well when you don’t have a lot of hard or recurring deadlines. If you do have a lot of tasks that have to be completed by certain times (you have these 6 meetings today, X is due every Tuesday at 4pm, Y is due every third Friday by noon, etc) having a todo list application that lets you sort by deadline would probably better suit you.

How I Organize Workflowy

Below is a screenshot of a template that mirrors how I use organize my Workflowy lists. You’ll find a description of each list in the next section.

Items in gray are placeholders for example content that would go within the various lists.



My Tasks list contains everything that I have to do including project tasks, miscellaneous tasks, as well as appointments and deadlines.

When I first started using Workflowy I kept project tasks as list items under projects, miscellaneous (non-project) tasks under a separate Misc Tasks list, and didn’t include appointments or deadlines at all. I’ve found that keeping all tasks, appointments, and deadlines grouped near each other works much better because you can quickly reference what’s on your plate without searching through a dozen different lists. If you prefer to keep your project tasks grouped under your projects, you can tag each task using something like #task and then use Workflowy’s search feature to view just those items.

I divide the Task list into three lists based on how soon each task needs to be accomplished. Short Term tasks are things that I need to do within the next week or so, Medium Term tasks are tasks that I need to do within the next few weeks, and Long Term tasks are tasks that I need to do within the next few months.

My GMail inbox also serves as its own todo list where unread emails are things that still require some action on my part. I generally won’t move something from GMail over to Workflowy except in cases where I respond to an email and need to remind myself to follow-up in case I don’t receive a timely response.

The Short Term tasks are further divided by day of the week. I keep today at the top of the list and it contains the tasks, appointments, and deadlines that I have going on today. For example, Tuesday might include “9am: Fence quote” and “Refactor subdomain validation method.” Each task might also contain its own list with notes about the task. For example, I might have the name and phone number of the fence company coming out to give the quote. As I finish things, I mark them as complete (⌘+Enter on my Macbook) so that they disappear from the list. If I don’t wind up getting to a task on the day I intended, I just drag and drop it to the next day’s list.

I also keep track of appointments on my iPhone’s calendar app, but add them to Workflowy at the beginning of each week so that I can plan each day with the appointments in mind.

In addition to a list for each day of the week, I have a list called Overall that contains tasks that I want to do soon but haven’t picked a specific day to do them yet. I drag tasks from the Overall list to specific days as I find time to work on them. Sometimes I also include non-specific tasks here just to keep them on my daily radar. For example, “Drink less coffee”.

I move tasks from the Medium Term and Long Term lists to the Short Term list as they get closer or as I have time to work on them. If I find myself with some unexpected free time or need a break from whatever I’m working on, I’ll sometimes just knock out a medium term or long term task even if there are still short term tasks still left to do.


My project list contains all of the projects and initiatives that I’m working on. I group similar projects together to make it easier to browse. For example, I have an Automattic group with several different projects that I’m working on (“.CO Integration”, “Domain Name Registration and Mapping Flow”), a Housework group (“Fence Replacement”, “Mulch Removal”), a Software group (“Lean Domain Search”, “Preceden”), a Hobbies group (“Poker”, “Photography”, “Reading”), and several others. I also have a Misc group for projects that can’t be grouped with other projects and a Potential Projects list for projects that I might want to work on one day.

How you organize the the individual project lists will depend on the type of project. For example, for my Lean Domain Search project I have a sublist called A/B tests which lists all of its ongoing and planned A/B tests, a Marketing list for different inbound and outbound marketing initiatives, and an Ideas list for potential development tasks.

I’d recommend for every project you have an Ideas list where you jot down ideas and potential tasks for that project. Tasks that go here are things that you haven’t committed to doing, but you might one day. If you eventually decide that you want to act on one of these ideas, move it to your Tasks list and figure out how soon you want to do it (Short Term, Medium Term, or Long Term).

You should jot down all project ideas you have, good and bad, so that you don’t have to hold them in your head forever. I’ve found that the quickest way to clearing my head is to just write it all down in Workflowy.


Finally, my Notes list contains miscellaneous notes and lists I’ve taken in the past. This includes “Command Line Reference”, “Gift Ideas”, “Startup Ideas”, “Product Keys”, “Printer Ink” (HP 564XL), “Microconf Notes” (2012 and 2013), “Server Configuration Steps”, “Recipes”, and much more. If it isn’t a task and isn’t related to a project, I throw it in the Notes list.

I’d also recommend having an Archive list within your Notes list where you can move notes and lists that you don’t need to reference often, but that you don’t want to permanently delete.

Wrapping Up

The structure I outlined above began as a much simpler one that I started with when I started using Workflowy. It evolved over time to suit my needs and you may or may not find it practical for you.

If you’re not a big list maker or note taker, I’d recommend starting very, very small and slowly creating a system that suits your needs. Regardless of what tool you use to track your tasks or take notes, the tool serves you, not the other way around. In other words don’t get too caught up in doing it “correctly” — it’s more important that you stick with it and organize it in a way that’s useful and practical for you.

If you have any questions or feedback about any of this, don’t hesitate to leave a comment or drop me an email. Thanks!

Update: See also Workflowy Organization v2.