Dynalist. An Outliner's Gold Standard.

mywork May 28, 2020

(Part of the “My Work” series)

I love outlines. 

Reading and creating outlines, to me, is the beauty of ordered and coherent thought. Perhaps this love comes from my upbringing in the Church (3 point sermons) or my history-major roots (tying together cause and effect). But I have notebooks and file folders full of outlines. They help me get shit done.

I realize other methods for writing are equally awesome. My wife, who is a gifted writer and talented teacher of English, is a big believer in free form writing with lots of drafting. I completely suck at such writing. I’m continually looking for coherent patterns when writing, and free form sends my mind wandering in far too many directions. Even with this simple blog post, I’m working off an outline.

Outlining isn’t hard. Its basic methodology carries over into any tool. Over the years, I’ve tried all kinds of apps, solutions, and software for outlining. From your basic Google Doc (which, to its credit, auto-creates a structured outline when you write by taking cues from headers and bold font) to the simple moleskin bullet journal, they all have pluses and minuses.

Until I met Dynalist.

Dynalist is both an outliner and a listmaker dream. It has features that not only capture my thought processes (and finish them) but also anticipate future needs. It is part of the top 5 apps I use daily (and arguably, the most important).

How Dynalist Works 

I should start by saying Dynalist is robust. Its interface is clean and straightforward, but it allows for complexity for the power user. I’m going to keep this pretty top-level, but you can see all the features here.

With Dynalist, you create bullet lists. Bullets list can have as many layers of nested lists as well. You can order your lists into folders.

Pretty basic in its core function.

For me, I run everything out of two folders. 

  • A content creation folder, which carries lists pertinent to creating content such as blog posts, research, articles, podcasts and webcasts. 
  • A second folder sets up a modified “Get Things Done” framework with lists such Dailys, Waiting For, Projects, and Someday/Maybe. 

The two folders conduct my life.

So what can you do with lists?

You can create checklists, zoom in and out of nested lists, tag bullets (meta-information), and assign items to people (the @ function). This adds a secondary and powerful level of organizing information.

One of my favorite features is that you can assign dates to bullets (with a simple keyboard shortcut). Dates sync to your Google or Outlook Calendar. This is incredibly helpful for tracking items in time. My Google Calendar runs my life.

And then there is the Inbox

You know how, when careening around the internet, you find something you want to share on social media? The silly story about dogs and cats being best friends? You click the “Facebook” or “Twitter” icon and it appears on your feed.

Dynalist has a similar feature. When I encounter something I want to save, I click the Dynalist icon, and it immediately routes to a core list called “Inbox”.

The mess of discovery all in place.

Of course, merely building a list of “internet finds” can lead to the equivalent of digital hoarding. To keep the house clean, I review my Inbox weekly and move finds to the appropriate list category. For example, an article about Distance Learning will get assigned to my “research and ideas” list in content creation. House cleaning also performs a meta-function. I get to return to ideas and concepts that have stewed in my mind and combine them with a growing list of observations.

The List that Directs

All lists are important. Probably the most important is the list called “Dailys”.

I am fortunate enough to have a job that has the following characteristics:

  1. Is part of the knowledge economy
  2. Involves a large degree of autonomy
  3. Is and can be done remotely

One of the challenges I frequently face is that a job with such characteristics lacks external structure. I suspect education is one of the most highly structured occupations in the world. It’s the factory schedule in an educational box. When I first stepped out of the classroom, I walked around with a feeling of unease for a good year. (The simple ability to go to the bathroom when I needed to was a wonder.)

Dynalist Screen Shot
A view of my May 28th Daily

I crave structure. Without it, very little gets done.

That’s what Dynalist provides.

Every evening I create a sublist for the next day in my Daily. It’s a simple to-do list corresponding to time frames within the day. I’ve found that I’m condition to think of “getting things done” by orienting around time blocks (probably because of all the years in education). The integration between Dynalist and my Google Calendar is particularly helpful with Dailys. Adding a date and time in Dynalist automatically syncs to a Google Calendar.

This isn’t fancy (indeed, to-do lists are the most common things in the world), but it does direct. I may have a block of time in my Daily to “Write Blog Post About Modular Software Structures”. This, in turn, sends me to my content creation folder with an outline of the blog post. Do I always get done with my list? No (I achieve around 70% on average). But hope is operational in delivering results.

Structure arrives with intentional list-making.

Next up – the most excellent writing app Bear.

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