This Note-Taking App Will Change the Way You Organize Your Life

Innovation, the Internet, gadgets, and more.
Aug. 2 2012 11:47 AM

Everything Is a List

The genius of WorkFlowy, the note-taking app that changed the way I organize my life.

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WorkFlowy, by comparison, is endlessly flexible. Because the program doesn’t impose much structure on your documents—you’re just creating text-based list item after list item—you can use it for pretty much anything. And because it’s only got a few main commands—you can indent a list item, zoom in on it, and mark it as completed; you can also search through your whole document—you’ll learn how to use WorkFlowy in under 20 minutes. Finally, since it’s online, lots of people can work in the same notepad from many different kinds of devices, including smartphones and tablets—or you can use it all by yourself, as I do.

WorkFlowy was created by Jesse Patel and Mike Turitzin, friends who took part in the Y Combinator startup camp a couple years ago.* The idea for the software grew out of Patel’s work at a nonprofit, “a job that was really overwhelming, where I had to manage a bunch of moving parts for 30 different projects,” he says. While at that job, Patel tried many different programs to help him get organized, and he found that nothing worked for him.

“The biggest problem with all of them is that they don’t support flexible data structures—they don’t let you define things how you want,” he says. “Instead they make you work in a specific way. Everything was super-janky and hard to use. So I was like, I’m just going to start creating a hierarchical interface for myself to manage this stuff.” Patel got to work, and in November 2010, he and Turitzin launched the app. It gained an instant following, and it now has 200,000 registered users, Patel says.

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Patel’s solution to the problem he had with other apps—to make a note-taking program in which the only data type is the hierarchical list—might sound extreme to you. What if you’ve got something that isn’t a list? That’s what I wondered at first, too, but as soon as I started using WorkFlowy, I had an epiphany that Patel says dawns on most users: Everything can be a list.

Some lists are obvious: stuff I have to do today, things I’ve got to remember to pack for vacation. Others are just lists by another name. The notes I jotted down during a meeting—that’s a list of stuff people said in chronological order. The notes I took while reading a book about the history of the Internet—that’s a list of my observations. The phone number I jotted down while listening to your voicemail—a one-item list under your name. Once you cotton to this basic fact about life—that everything you can think of is one small part of some bigger thing—WorkFlowy’s basic interface becomes irresistible.

WorkFlowy isn’t the first app to let you make lists, of course. Outlining programs and to-do list apps clog the Web and every smartphone’s app store. And certainly there are many that have more features that WorkFlowy does. In particular, WorkFlowy currently lacks any way to work with your documents if you’re not connected to the Web. Patel and Turitzin are working on an offline version, but it won’t be ready for at least a few more weeks. Also, offline access won’t be available in the standard, free version of the software. Instead, you can get it as part of the optional “Pro” upgrade, which goes for $4.99 a month or $49 a year.

The app’s creators are also working to create a kind of document map, which will let people with huge WorkFlowy documents navigate from one part of their list to another by using bookmarks. At the moment, the best way to navigate is by using your own tags—you can tag every urgent list item by typing #urgent, then click #urgent to see a list of everything with that tag. WorkFlowy also has a really fast search engine that lets you easily find stuff buried anywhere in your notes. Finally, the creators are building apps to access WorkFlowy on iOS and Android devices. At the moment, you can use WorkFlowy on those gadgets using their Web browsers (which I found works really well, as long as you’re connected to the Internet).

I’m looking forward to these features, especially offline access. Still, even if WorkFlowy lacks the bells and whistles of other outliners, its simplicity makes it a winner. WorkFlowy is the first note-taking app I’ve ever used that feels like it fits the way I work. It’s not perfect, but with a few small upgrades it may well become my eternal notebook.

Correction, Aug. 3, 2012: This piece originally misspelled the last name of Workflowy co-creator Mike Turitzin. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

Farhad Manjoo is a technology columnist for the New York Times and the author of True Enough.

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