I have a confession to make. Remember how I was so excited about using the One Big Text File approach to organizing myself and my work? And how that sparked off quite a lot of debate at 43Folders and elsewhere? Well, I’ve abandoned it for something else.
This is because after a while I (a) started losing myself within it, and (b) found it didn’t quite suit my needs (more on that in a moment), and (c) I got bored.
My new approach to managing workflow looks like this:
Before I explain it, let me explain what I mean about finding something that suited my needs.
My job is all about writing articles. As a freelance, success depends upon me having plenty of ideas for new articles. I think up lists of ideas, then pitch them to editors of web and print publications. Typically, those editors will respond saying they like a few of those ideas - so those become work that has to be completed, usually to a deadline set by the commissioning editor.
That means there are some ideas that have been rejected; mostly because they’re just Bad, but sometimes because that publication has covered the same subject recently and doesn’t want to do it again, or because there’s not enough space to include it. Those ideas might still have life if they’re shown to another editor; perhaps with a little revision or background research beforehand.
After years of trying out notebook applications, a variety of wikis and outliners, and most recently the one-file-fits-all idea, it suddenly occurred to me that I was making my life more complicated that it needed to be.
I decided to simplify.
There was something of a lightbulb moment when I realized that the basic unit of my professional ‘workflow’ is the idea. (I say workflow in quotes because, let’s face it, the workflow here is pretty simple: have ideas, pitch ‘em, write ‘em. That’s it.)
Each idea can take one of three paths:
- idea -> pitch -> commissioned
- idea -> pitch -> rejected, revise and pitch again elsewhere
- idea -> pitch -> rejected & abandoned
My One Big File was fine when it came to writing articles and keeping track of my todo list; but it failed me in terms of tracking ideas. I kept losing new ideas, and forgetting which ones I had pitched to whom.
Since the unit of workflow is the idea, I decided to change my computer habits to reflect that. I spent a few hours looking at various mindmapping and idea-managing applications, but ultimately came to the conclusion that they didn’t offer the kind of simplicity I was after.
My solution was three rather ordinary Finder windows. One contains all my new ideas, one idea per file. Since I tend to write in BBEdit, they’re all BBEdit files, but I’m not restricted to that. My ideas can be created and stored using any software that suits.
Another directory stores ideas I’ve pitched, and am awaiting feedback on. A third is for work-in-progress.
Now some people might be reading this and slapping their foreheads, saying “Doh! That’s so obvious! It’s an In Tray and an Out Tray system.” And it’s true, I do feel kind of silly for not implementing something like this before.
But it was because I was dealing with the wrong problem. I was trying to save time by keeping things in One Big File - I thought that the lack of mousing around was the most important thing, that being able to keep my hands on the keyboard all the time was the priority.
This new approach requires a little more use of the mouse but it is much simpler, and more effective. Now, when I new idea strikes I can jot it down in an instant in a new text file. I can look at my list of ideas and decide quickly what needs to be developed, or written immediately. By implementing this, I’ve also separated my workflow from my todo list - in effect, creating a ‘workflow’ for myself for the first time. Seriously, I’ve never been as organized as this.
An in January, I’ll probably try something else