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WorkFlowy – free minimalist list webapp

January 25, 2011 Leave a comment
Today’s post is about WorkFlowy, a great, free web application for creating and managing lists. It is the best tool for organizing TODOs and random thoughts out of anything I’ve found. 

First, let me describe the two main problems I have with todo/note taking software I’ve tried previously.  Secondly I’ll show how WorkFlowy alleviates these problems.

TODO: fix these problems!

There have certainly been other TODO list applications that I have used in the past, but they usually suffer from at least one of the following problems:

1) They require too much information about each item
When I’m jotting things down, I rarely care about prioritizing it, giving it a due date, assigning it a label, tag, etc.  A lot of organization software hits you over the head with all the different ways to categorize your items; this really can slow you down when you’re just trying to brainstorm in a lightweight manner.  I found Evernote to suffer from this problem.
2) They force you into a flat mode of thinking
When I’m trying to right down all the thoughts in my head related to a given project or task, they often are deeply hierarchical.  I write down task A, which really consists of subtasks A.1 and A.2, where A.2 in turn consists of tasks A.2.i, A.2.ii, and A.2.iii.  I want whatever software I jot down notes with to reflect this way that I think, and it ties into the previous point.  I’d much rather indicate that a task depends on a different task by nesting it beneath another task, rather than manually annotating it with a label.
(Here’s a visual representation of the nested list I described earlier:)
  • A
    • A.1
    • A.2
      • A.2.i
      • A.2.ii
      • A.2.iii
I found Things, a todo manager on Mac to suffer from this problem.  It just didn’t fit into the way I like to jot things down in a nested relationship.

WorkFlowy

With respect to #1, WorkFlowy is as barebones as you can get.  There are no labels, tags, colors, due dates, etc.  All you do is enter plain text.  If you need all those bells and whistles, then WorkFlowy might not be for you.  But if all you want is an online repository for your random thoughts, I have not found anything better.

Workflow is also excellent at managing deeply hierarchical information, as I described in number two.  It supports the standard tab/shift+tab combo to indent/unindent items.

Indent text with the tab key

Here you see all the top level notes that I have.

Top level lists

Top level lists

By clicking the plus sign to the left of the node, I can expand the subtree that’s rooted at that node.  This allows me to selectively hide/reveal pieces of my lists.

After the chores node has been expanded

The ability to expand/collapse subtrees is nothing new, though it is an extremely useful UI feature (and one that I desperately wish were in Google Tasks).  Workflowy adds an additional way of showing / hiding information, which I’ve never seen before and I wish was copied everywhere.  If you click on the node itself rather than the plus sign to the left of it, you jump to that node in the tree, hiding all siblings and ancestors of that node.  Conceptually, you “zoom in” on that part of your list, ignoring all the distractions of the other lists
Zoom in

Zoom in

You are always able to work your way up the list (backing out of the subtree you entered) through the intelligent use of breadcrumbs that appear at the top of your view.

Breadcrumbs allow you to back out of your current location

This is an extremely effective UI technique, as it allows you to create arbitrarily complex and nested hierarchies but focus on only a small piece of it at any one time.  This allows you to switch between nested and essentially flat views of your data at will, simply by zooming into the relevant portion of the tree and by collapsing the children nodes whose detail you don’t care about.

Conclusion

Workflowy is an extremely lightweight, barebones web application for managing your notes and todo items.  Workflowy encourages you to get down the information as easily and as quickly as possible, and makes it easy to rearrange the data and selectively view the portions you want to see.  It features a unique UI feature for zooming into subtrees of your lists, while providing breadcrumbs to back your way out of your current position.
While I do like the minimalism of the application, there are certain features that I wish were present.  For instance, it would be nice if links were automatically parsed from the plaintext.  Overall, I find Workflowy an indispensable part of my toolkit.