Introduction to Atomic Workflows

An ongoing trend in the tech-productivity space is productivity gurus sharing their workflows.

E.g.:

Superficially, these digital crib-tours act as a reference for an audience that wants to implement similar workflows.

The Expectations Are Too High

But the tours risk setting too high a target for the beginner. Rather than take these examples as inspiration, the beginner interprets them as instruction: "in order to be 'productive,' you have to use this tool in this way."

In their defense, these tours really can be a source of motivation and insight. But the workflows themselves are often too complex and time-intensive for the budding productivitist to copy exactly. And when the beginner sets too high a target, they are less likely to persist and realize a lasting routine.

We need a more structured approach to building workflows. In this article, I'll suggest an approach I call "atomic workflows" (after James Clear's Atomic Habits).

Let's take a step back. What are habits and what are workflows?

🗿 1 Projects/Rationalia/LW/Concepts/Habits are behavioral routines that usually operate subconsciously. In contrast with workflows, habits are behaviorally monolithic: they involve single (or very similar) actions with clear outcomes.

E.g.:

  • 🚲 You bike to the gym.
  • 📖 You read at night in bed.
  • 💅 You bite your nails raw.
  • 🚬 You smoke your lungs black.

🎡 Workflows also involve behavioral routines that may (or may not) operate subconsciously. What sets workflows apart from habits is that workflows are orchestrated collections of interdependent habits. They involve habits that would not function in isolation, and they are "orchestrated" in that workflows require the executive ability to choose the right habits at the right times.

E.g.:

  • 🗃 The Zettelkasten is a workflow for writing. Its habits include finding and reading content, taking and managing notes, and drafting and editing texts.
  • 📥 Getting Things Done (GTD)is a workflow for managing time. Its habits include adding tasks to the inbox, processing the inbox, and reviewing your progress.
  • 📈 Spaced Repetition Systems (SRS) are a workflow for memorizing. Its habits include acquiring content, forming questions, creating notes, and reviewing cards.
  • 🏷 Scrum (along with other agile frameworks) is a workflow for managing teams in product development. Its habits include meeting together, writing "stories", and managing time.

The asymmetry of habit-formation

Good habits are hard enough to develop as they are.

Because workflows involve multiple habits that can depend intricately on each other, good workflows are even harder to develop.

Clear gave us the answer to forming habits in Atomic Habits. His process combines first-principles thinking with the precision of a surgeon: (1) Strip a habit to its minimum set of activities, and (2) build it up from there.

E.g.:

  • 🚲 Gym: Start by regularly biking to the gym, but don't do anything else. Then, add two minutes of jumping jacks. Move on to a five minute core routine. Etc.
  • 📖 Reading: Read one page before lights out every night, then 2, then 4…

So too, Clear's insight offers the answer to forming workflows: "atomic workflows". This adds one additional starting step: (1) Strip a workflow to its minimum set of habits, (2) strip those habits to their minimum sets of activities, and (3) build them up from there.

E.g.:

  • Atomic Zettelkasten:
    • Taking literature notes: Unless you already have a strict note-taking practice, begin by taking literature notes in the margins of your texts. Disallow yourself literal quoting. This will force you to be sufficiently concise. It will also shorten the time you need before you write which is the end goal and the source of feedback.
    • Taking permanent notes: Give yourself a consistent time in the day to add at least 5 notes.
    • Writing (drafting + editing): The most essential habit. Keep yourself to short blog articles so you keep the feedback present.
    • Organizing your notes: Imposing a top-level structure is non-essential. Defer this until later.
    • Only when this is running smoothly, expand your literature note-taking, spend more time pruning and organizing your Zettelkasten, and let a top-level structure emerge organically.
  • Atomic GTD:
    • Processing the inbox (daily): start with a simple daily to-do list on a sheet of scrap paper.
    • Managing an inbox: use the other side of your daily to-do list to note tasks for the next day.
    • Reviewing your progress: start with a daily transfer session.
    • Gradually level up to an additional weekly to-do list, then monthly, etc.; At the same time, add some form of priority labels and time estimates.
  • Atomic SRS:
    • Reviewing cards: This is the most essential activity. Start with someone else's deck.
    • Gathering content: Find something simple like a list of vocabulary words and filter for the words you don't know.
    • Making cards: Start with simple uniand bidirectional notes (containing only a pair of a word and a picture plus definition).
    • When this feels comfortable, explore making cloze cards and your own note templates. Then, consider larger projects (that require multiple kinds of notes), like learning a language.
  • Atomic Scrum:
    • Reviewing the sprint: Choose a simple retrospective structure and stick to it religiously (for a while).
    • Planning the sprint (writing cards): skip the user story (when you're early on in development, the AC usually stand on their own), and skip the HTD (trusting that your founding team are all A-players).
    • Keeping each other up-to-pubDate: Choose a time (or several) and get in the habit of standing-up even if you have nothing pressing to share.
    • As complexity and manpower increase, add ideas like a user story and HTD back in. Introduce longer-term review sessions and new review formats. Adopt stricter asynchronous communication guidelines.