Everything Is a List
The genius of WorkFlowy, the note-taking app that changed the way I organize my life.
Photograph by Thinkstock.
For as long as I’ve been using computers, I’ve been searching for the perfect way to take digital notes. In theory, computers should be a natural place to keep all of the to-dos, reminders, meeting notes, ideas, grocery lists, and other ephemera that come streaming into our lives every day. But notes defy organization. When I get a brilliant idea or need to jot down a phone number very quickly, I often don’t know where that data will fit among my other documents. As a result, word-processing software—programs that require that you put stuff in distinct files that are stored on a single computer—isn’t very good for notes, because it imposes a level of structure that your notes can’t live up to.
Instead, you’ve probably come up with other methods to take notes on your machine. Your system could be jury-rigged—maybe you write emails to yourself, maybe you keep your notes in a single Word doc or text file that’s always opened on your machine—or perhaps you use dedicated note-taking or project-management software. Some people’s desktops are covered in Mac Stickies. Others swear by Microsoft OneNote, Evernote, Omnifocus, Trello, ActionMethod, or Basecamp.
I’ve used all of these methods, but in the end none has stuck. When I land upon a good note-taking method, it works well for a few months or even years, but then I inevitably find it complex and cumbersome.
But I think I’ve turned a corner. Nearly a month ago, I discovered an app that—so far—seems to be the best note-taking and organizational program I’ve ever tried. I concede I’m a flaky guy when it comes to such programs. Still, this app is the easiest, best-designed, and most-flexible note-taker I’ve ever come across, and it solves many of the problems I’ve had with other software. In the weeks I’ve been using it, this new program has become my go-to place for storing and keeping track of everything—not just to-dos and grocery lists, but my ideas for articles, all the notes I gather while reporting, all the tasks I need to do for those articles, and even all of the stuff I’m gathering for a book I’m working on.
The program is called WorkFlowy, and it’s an outlining app that runs on the Web. In the broadest terms, you can think of WorkFlowy as a website that makes lists. Once you sign up, you’re presented with a page that looks like a word-processing document. Just start typing your first list item. Unlike in Evernote or OneNote, you don’t need to open up new “notebooks” or “notes” to put stuff down. Instead, everything in WorkFlowy is part of a single giant list. Each item can have sub-lists under it, and each of those sub-items can have their own nested lists, and so on. The best part, though, is that you can “zoom in” on each item—double-click on a bullet point and WorkFlowy suddenly shows you a new page for that item and all its sublists. Each item in your list, then, is like a new document on its own.
Does this make sense? Maybe not. Perhaps a better introduction to WorkFlowy is this 45-second promotional video.
And here’s a screenshot showing one piece of my own WorkFlowy account. It’s a list I just made explaining the benefits of the software.
One of the problems I’ve had with other note-taking apps is that they tend to be pretty complicated, often requiring a steep learning curve. They also tend to have too much structure—you’ve got to specify what kind of list you’re creating, or set a due date, or specify who’s working on it. In that way, many of these apps seem targeted for specific uses. Some are better for managing projects but less good for jotting down your supermarket lists. Others are better for casual stuff, but they’re not powerful enough to let you manage big, involved tasks. Others are best for collaborative work, but they aren’t so good for working solo.
Farhad Manjoo is Slate's technology columnist and the author of True Enough: Learning To Live in a Post-Fact Society. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter.