Everything Is a List

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

To Do List.

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.

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.

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.)