Do what again?

The simple to-do list. It’s one of the best ways to help you remember stuff and get things done.

And in this era, the Information Revolution, with information coming at us from several jabillion directions, keeping track of all the things you need to do gets complicated. Here’s another list:

  • Gmail inbox
  • Gmail tasks
  • Gmail drafts
  • Gmail calendar
  • Facebook messages
  • iPhone notes
  • iPhone apps
  • Work to-do list
  • Work inbox
  • Twitter feed
  • Hotmail inbox
  • Delicious bookmarks
  • Google reader
  • DropBox to-do list
  • Sketch pad
  • Work note-book

That’s a list of all the places where I might have written down or made a note to remember to do something. That’s right, I had to make a dedicated list to help me remember to check them all every now and then. A meta list.

But the simple checklist is extremely powerful, as per Atul Gawande’s book, The Checklist Manifesto. Dr. Gawande describes how while working as a surgeon, he got thinking about how he might be able to reduce the  likelihood of complications arising in surgery. Most of these complications were the result of human error, be it the surgeon, nurse, anaesthesiologist, or someone else. And he asked the question – why do people make mistakes performing simple tasks that they’ve already carried out successfully many times.

Dr. Gawande, decided to research how other industries tried to prevent mistakes. In particular, two industries where making mistakes could have catastrophic consequences: skyscraper construction and commercial aviation.

In both industries, he found that the key for managing mistakes and solving problems was use of checklists.

In skyscraper construction, checklists are essential for ensuring tasks are completed regularly and consistently by all of the many cross-disciplinary teams involved in such a large, time-sensitive project.

And pilots really do have a pilot’s checklist in the cockpit on each flight, outlining how to react to any possible scenario that might occur 10,000 metres in the air while flying a plane.

Dr. Gawande took this information and was able to trial a suitably short (7 or so bullet points) but effective checklist in a variety of hospital environments all over the world, and the results were extremely positive. One of the points on the checklist was for everyone in the room to introduce themselves to everyone else before surgery – this simple act turned out to occasionally provide crucial information. As a result of Dr. Gawande’s work, many countries including the UK introduced a similar checklist, and thousands of lives have been saved as a result.

And you can make lists about anything. Life itself is a checklist if that’s how you want to think about it.

  • Birth
  • First steps
  • First words
  • First pet
  • First love
  • First job
  • Getting married
  • Having a baby
  • Kids first day at school
  • Becoming a grandparent
  • Retiring
  • Death

Crossing items off lists has a certain feel-good factor about it. Except maybe that last one.

Since reading The Checklist Manifesto, I’ve been thinking about how I could be using lists to better effect at home and at work. There are lots of tools out there for keeping lists and notes. Aside from the ones I’ve already listed:

  • Remember the Milk
  • ToodleDo
  • EverNote
  • Microsoft OneNote

Some of these are very popular, but I feel like they’ve over-solved what should be a simple problem. At the other end of the road, lots of people prefer to stick with good old .txt files, or even pen and paper because of the flexibility and simplicity they offer.

None of these quite do the job for me though. Ideally I’d like:

  • one central location where I can make all my lists and notes, both for work and home
  • the ability to edit whenever and wherever I want, whether I’m at home or on the go (-lf course)
  • complete privacy
  • complete protection against losing any data
  • the ability to structure the list however I want, so that I don’t have to look through the whole list all the time
  • to share parts of it with other people, who could then also edit it

Lists are simple in theory, but in practice, lists get quite complicated and messy. Especially when they grow. Sometimes you might want to keep track of the things you cross off the list, and sometimes a list might not be a list of things to do, but a list of ideas, or a list of things to try one day, or maybe just something that had to be written down right there and then. Some lists you might want to run through every morning, or day, or week or month or season or year.

We have files for documents and spreadsheets and databases and presentations, but there isn’t really a specific file type for lists, and I started thinking that a good list document could revolutionise the way people work, manage projects and manage their own lives. Particularly something that could include all of the above, and let you show and hide certain sections to help you focus.

I thought I was on to a winning idea, and was on the verge of suggesting it as a potential product idea at work, but last week I discovered someone had just released a web app very close to what I had in mind. If not even better :-(

It’s only in beta, it doesn’t tick all the boxes yet, and the developers are busy adding in some of the more obvious missing functionality such as https, an editable mobile version and a search bar [EDIT: these have now all been added!], but having used WorkFlowy for a week, it’s an incredible piece of software, and totally free from bells and whistles. The interaction design is clean and uncluttered, with speed and simplicity at its core and a lot of thought has been put into usability. It even has functionality to export the list as plain text, which is handy for .txt file loving old timers!

But maybe WorkFlowy at its core is more powerful than it might first appear. The WorkFlowy tagline “Organise your brain” is something I’d like to explore further.

Almost 30 years ago at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Centre, Thomas Malone wrote a fascinating paper titled “How do people organise their desks?” It was a small study making a couple of simple but profound observations.

The first was that people organise their desks and surrounding work areas to make it easy to find information when necessary.

The second was that information is laid out in a way that reminds people what they actually need to do per se when at work.

Information architecture is about organising information / data / stuff to make it work for you better. Peter Morville is the author of the book Information Architecture, and he talks about how in this age of information, we all need to become better information architects so that we can better manage our lives as more of our stuff moves from the physical world into the digital world.

The flexible nested structure of Workflowy, combined with drilling down to just see the bits you want is what makes it so useful. It allows you to organise information exactly how you want with simple drag and drop, and see what’s relevant at that point in time. How you organise it determines how well it works for you.

If you think about what is involved in learning a new or breaking an existing long-term habit, particularly an addictive habit, you’ll know it can be quite difficult to do. Your thought processes make you who you are and these are down to the physical structure of your brain. If you want to break or make a habit, it can take a week, a month or much longer before the neurons in your brain have formed or degenerated appropriately – your brain is very slightly changing shape.

Imagine in theory how if you structure such a list document around your motivations and goals in a smart manner and apply a touch of discipline, such a document could do more than organise your brain and help you remember to do stuff. You could design it to help you change the way you think and to help you get what you want out of life. Then it starts to get interesting.

WorkFlowy could soon be sitting on a data goldmine.

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