Small pieces, even more loosely joined

I recently wrote about my work management tools in a post called Small pieces, loosely joined: Why everything should be URLs (again, with apologies and much respect to David Weinberger). Since that post I have been experimenting with a replacement for Pinboard, the bookmarking and note taking tool I discussed, and for a simple reason. Although Pinboard is based around saving bookmarks, the design is such that the bookmarks saved do not actually reveal the retained URL. The URL is only available in the hyperlink, and there is no way to get the URL except to click on the link and wait for the page to open. That was really annoying.

The replacement I have been using is called Workflowy, and it might best be described as an outline-based information organizer. However, its capabilities include sharing of all or part of the outline you create and manage, and that sharing can either be full-editing or limited to read-only. Therefore, it strays into work management territory. For example, I can imagine sharing a section of my Workflowy with a coworker for a workshop, or a report.

A second reason for adopting Workflowy in place of Pinboard is that it is much more congruent with the style of my favorite task management tool, Todoist, which is also outline-based. I will elaborate on how that works later on.

Here’s my Workflowy, with some sections expanded and others closed:

Screenshot 2013-12-01 08.45.08

In the ‘gigaom’ section I have captured the pop-up menu that shows when mousing over the bullet of the heading. ‘Complete’ strikes out the item, in a task-like fashion. I don’t use Workflowy as a task management app, but I occasionally might use this capability, as in my reading list, shown here at the bottom with ‘Spartina’ checked off.

Screenshot 2013-12-01 08.36.31

‘Add Note’ opens a text area below the heading and then text can be entered or pasted: the text that is dark gray in the image above are notes. ‘Share’ opens a dialogue like the following, which allows the sharing of the selected sections contents. In this instance, I am sharing a  read-only access to a section of my outline to anyone who has the URL. Note that this means that all entries in the outline (potentially) have an independent URL, which as I said in the earlier Small pieces, loosely joined: Why everything should be URLs, is highly desirable when working with otherwise unintegrated tools.

Screenshot 2013-12-01 08.35.12

Shared items have a light gray ring around their bollet, as shown in the reading list example, above, for the ‘My draft for’.

There is also a mechanism to share outline sections and require others to use a password to gain access.

One feature of the sharing approach is that those others that I share with do not have to have Workflowy accounts, and so their identity is unknown. As a result, changes made in shared sections have no indication of who made them. I would certainly adopt a convention of adding notes with handles when making changes or adding new subsections, as shown below, where I assumed the roles of @stoweboyd and @otherboyd.

Screenshot 2013-12-01 09.12.29

Note that the top-most item of the shared section can’t be modified by invited users, and strangely, that also means that the note region is not visible. Personally, I think this is a bug, not a feature.

I have been using tags extensively in Workflowy, which are indicated by a leading ‘#’ or ‘@’. I have limited myself to topical tags indicated by ‘#’, which allows me to use ‘@’ as a mention sort of tag, and has the same properties of filtering that Workflowy provides for tags. If I click on ‘@otherboard’ in the example above, my entire Workflowy outline would be filtered so that all items with ‘@otherboyd’ would be displayed. Likewise for ‘#’ tags. Note that filters like that can be saved by clicking on the star that is present at the upper right of the display canvas (cut off in all these examples), and these are accessible through a filmstrip sort of display. I haven’t made much use of that yet, but I expect as my Workflowy gets larger — I already have hundreds of entries — I will be relying on that extensively.

Integration with Todoist and other tools

I will not revisit the description of Todoist: the description in an earlier post is fairly detailed (see It isn’t how much time you have, but how you protect it). However, Todoist offers a wonderful small capability that Workflowy is lacking: a bookmarklet.

Imagine that I am reading an article by Richard Florida, and I want to save snippets of it in my Workflowy. If Workflowy had a bookmarklet — which is a strange omission — I would click on it, and it would do the following:

  1. Capture the URL of the page
  2. Capture the title of the article (if possible)
  3. Capture any selected text
  4. Place these in three appropriately labeled and editable fields
  5. Display some mechanism for indicating where the new item should be nested in my Workflowy
  6. Show an ‘Add’ button, which I’d press to add after selecting a location.

However, I can use the Todoist bookmarklet to do part of the puzzle. Here you see the bookmarklet — which I already use dozens of times a week — accomplishes 1 and 2 on the wishlist above. I can then copy that text, and paste it into Workflowy.

Screenshot 2013-12-01 09.55.56

The formatting isn’t what I’d like — I’d reverse it and remove the parentheses — but it’s workable. And yes, I have to manually cut and paste any text that I want to retain, and paste that into the note of the item, but no big deal. (Todoist might want to add the note creation feature, as well, copying any text I have selected and adding it as a note in the task.)

[Update: I found a better bookmarklet approach, and wrote it up here: see A Hacked Bookmarklet For Workflowy Users. Still a kludge, but better than using the Todoist bookmarklet.]

Interestingly, if I want to create a task relative to the article, I already have it available in the bookmarklet for posting to Todoist. But if I have made some notes in Workflowy, I would much rather create a task in Todoist pointing to the information in my Workflowy, like this, where the pointer here is not to the Richard Florida article, but to the Workflowy item I have created about that article:

Screenshot 2013-12-01 10.18.13

Todoist tasks have a rich set of metadata, like tags, due dates, notes, and priorities, and I manage all my todos there. So, tomorrow I can pull up all my tasks due on that day and this task and others will be filtered up. I can click on the link to see my notes in Workflowy (Todoist notes are harder to access), plus any supporting materials, like links I may have collected to other bits in Workflowy or elsewhere on the web.

Likewise, I might want to reference tasks in a Workflowy item, for example to point to a task to get the current due date for something. At present, Todoist supports individual URLs for projects and subprojects, but not for individual tasks; however, the founder, Amir Salihefendic, has told me they will be implementing that soon.

The Bottom Line

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that it is easier to use two tools cooperatively if they share basic design principles. In this case, Todoist and Workflowy are very synergistic because of their orientation around the outline design metaphor, and their very similar behaviors with tags and URLs. Soon, Todoist will be implementing sharing of both projects and individual tasks, as well as serving up URLs for individual tasks. I can only hope that Workflowy will add the missing functionality of a bookmarklet, and then they will be more or less at parity.

Regarding Pinboard, all I can say is that the tool is workable, and has some clever features — such as the use of markdown as a markup language in notes that can be shared publicly — but the other features of Workflowy more than compensate for the lack of styling of notes. Although it would be great if markdown were supported in Workflowy, too.