The Workflow Opus, or Find Your Hammer.

I'm primarily a carpenter. I make my living by building things. I may build them for television, for stage, or for individual clients. Any way you slice it, I build things to survive. And I'm pretty damn good at it.

One thing is a constant. I always have a hammer. Personally, I prefer an Estwing 20 oz. hammer. I've been using this brand and size of hammer for 15 years and I think it's perfect. Twenty ounces is big enough to drive a framing nail into a deck joist, and small enough to tack up some door casing. It's the perfect size. As an added bonus, they're 16″ long, which is the spacing between most floor joists and wall studs, so spacing nails is pretty easy. It's multi-purpose, useful, convenient. It's there when I need it, it's just hanging around when I don't. Workflows should be your hammer.

On the other side of the coin of my life, I'm a (occasionally opinionated) writer. Some may call me a blogger, but I've been writing online since before the web was the web, so I think blogger (which stems from "web log") is a little too timely. That term will fade, so I prefer not to use it.

As a "writer", I've used a pretty consistent workflow throughout the years. I'm a big plain-text guy. I like to just type away in a text editor and deal with all the prettification later. I've worked on Windows, Mac, Linux, Chrome OS, JoliCloud, Palm, Windows Mobile, Symbian, and iOS. The one thing that always worked was a good ol' plain text file. If I'm writing a post for my site or some guest-author spot, I write in plain text and then copy/paste into the CMS of the day. This also gives me a backup of all the articles on my site should something go terribly wrong in the cloud.

I was listening to the Mac Power Users workflow podcast last week, and productivity nerd and all around good guy Merlin Mann was on. He was talking about his workflow, and it's remarkably similar to mine. That should make me feel great, or Merlin Mann feel bad. Not sure which. I didn't know people were interested in this sort of thing, but apparently you are. Here's my current workflow for everything I write, post, present, or pitch.

The Workflow

If I were to diagram it, it would be

My head > iPad > Text Expander > Markdown > Elements > Dropbox > Notational Velocity > Squarespace > You.

Seems pretty convoluted, but it is seamless. Let's take these things one step at a time.

iPad

It's no secret I love my iPad. I love my iPhone. They let me do things I never thought possible on the go. My iPad and a bluetooth keyboard replace my laptop for all but the most demanding (read: video editing) tasks.

Text Expander

Do you write? Do you write the same things over and over? Then you need Text Expander. It's not terribly cheap, but if you can give up a few lattés, it is worth every penny. Text Expander on the Mac will take a few letters and do amazing things. It can take something like "ssig" and instantly spit out your 4 line email signature with links and a graphic. It can take "qofnt" and run an AppleScript that creates a new task in OmniFocus with a due date and context set. It is completely customizable and totally awesome. I have over 300 "snippets" that save me hundreds of keystrokes a day. (Those cryptic abbreviations are mine. The built in ones, like "ddate" putting in today's date, are easily remembered.)

The best part is, there is an iOS version. It syncs all your snippets from the Mac to your iPhone and iPad. Due to limitations in iOS, it doesn't work everywhere. But if a developer supports Text Expander, you're golden.

Markdown

Learn it. Use it. John Gruber wrote Markdown to make writing for the web easier. It uses common symbols that relate to HTML syntax. If your CMS software doesn't support Markup, file a bug report. It should. Instead of typing

<h1>Header Goes Here</h1>

to get a header, I type

#This is a Header

If I need an h3, I use

###

Instead of

<h3>header text</h3>

It's that simple. There is also simplified linking, lists, paragraphs, and more. Gruber points out that Markdown is not a replacement for HTML, but it's intended for easier viewing while writing. The Markdown is translated into HTML when the post goes live.

Elements

Simply put, Elements is a plain text editor that supports Markdown, saves to Dropbox, and can handle my hundreds of text files. It also supports Text Expander snippets, white-on-black text, and can send what you write to printers and email. But syncing to Dropbox is the magic.

Dropbox

Get Dropbox. They want you to get it so bad, the website is getDropbox.com. You get 2 GB of free online storage (you can buy more), and the Dropbox desktop application mirrors that online folder wherever you install it. So, I can edit a file on my MacBookPro when I'm offline. When I go online, the Dropbox folder is synced. If I open that same file on my iMac, it's the newest version. Save it, and the newest version is now available to my iPad. See where I'm going with this? If I edit the same file in 2 different places and there's a sync conflict, Dropbox just saves both versions so I don't lose any work. It's magic. Sync is hard, and Dropbox gets it right. Apple – buy Dropbox and make it the new MobileMe iDisk. Because iDisk is damn near unusable.

Notational Velocity

Notational Velocity is simple. It does one thing – monitors a folder for text files, and lets you create, edit, and save text files in that folder. I, naturally have mine set up to monitor the Elements folder on Dropbox. Anything I type in Elements on the iPad shows up in Notational Velocity on my Macs. The beauty of NV is you don't need a mouse or other pointing device. When you open it, there is a list of docs at the top, and a search box. Start typing in the incremental search box, and the list gets shorter and shorter until your file is found. If the file is not found, just hit enter, and a new text file is created with whatever you typed as the title, which you can change. And I usually do. I have a cryptic naming scheme that works for me. We'll get to that in a bit.

Squarespace

Squarespace is my site host and CMS. There are a ton of awesome features that you can read about on your own. The reason I love it is that posting is so easy. They have iPad and iPhone apps, and a great web interface. I can take whatever I've typed in a text file in Elements or Notational Velocity, copy the (Markdown-Formatted) text into the text field, and hit "post". That's it. It parses the Markdown and I get a fully-formatted blog post with no HTML coding or drag-and-drop editing (which Squarespace fully supports, should I choose to do it).

File Names

The issue I used to have with my text-file process was finding what I needed. How many "email draft" or "draft post for blog" files can one guy have? I came up with a cryptic naming system that I understand.

I use abbreviations, underscores, and dates. For example, the file name of this post is cj_qdraft_033011_workflowOpus. Here's the breakdown: "cj_qdraft" means channelJimmy, draft. I use the term qdraft because it's easy to search for.

  • Sidebar>>>>>Did I mention I don't organize things into folders? That's a waste of time when everything in my workflow has a big search bar at the top. It's faster to type "qdraft" into the search bar than navigate through the Finder to Documents > channelJimmy > Drafts > 2011 > March > WorkflowOpus.txt. That's the old way to do things.

Back to the point… When I type cjqdraft into the search bar, I get a list of all the drafts for channelJimmy. Then the next part, "033011" is the date I created the document. Then there's a camelCase description. I use camelCase to, again, aid in search. If I type in "workflow", I'll get 30 or 40 text files, because these things search titles and content. By keeping workflowOpus one word, it's easier to find. On that note, I also add a "q" to the front of most parts of my file names. Searching for "draft" could come up with dozens of results because of the content. Searching for "qdraft" gives me just file names.

I have a ton of these. "cj_qdraft" is a draft, "cj_qnews" is a news update, qem_qdraft is an email draft, and on and on. I also use the letter "y" to notate importance. If I just wrote a line of brilliance, The file name would be "cjq_draft_033011_workflowOpus_yyyy" Think of the "y" like a star. That's a 4 star post. Again, easy to search for. There are no words in the English language that have a double-"y", so it never makes a word. I am a GTD-er, so I also used to have a ton more to remind me of things to buy (qshop_) or do (qdo_) but all that list-based stuff has been replaced on all my devices with OmniFocus. OmniFocus is a whole other post…

This is the way I work. It works for me, but it may not work for you. I suggest you come up with your own system, because that's the only way you can remember it. But don't spend so much time doing the system that you don't do the work. So many people try so hard to stay organized that they never get anything done, but their desks are tidy.

I follow the "organized enough" philosophy. My silverware drawer has 3 compartments. Forks, spoons, knives. I don't need to separate my soup spoons from my tablespoons. That's spending more time putting dishes away than enjoying the food. That's not what a workflow system should accomplish. Find a system that works for you and use it like a rented mule.

Find your hammer. Get your work done, and go outside and play.