Rediscovering Outlines As a Productivity Tool

Through high school and college, I used to rail against having to use outlines because I saw them as stifling my creativity. It wasn’t until years later, as more of my own consulting work grew past just straight up technical writing of user documentation, that I rediscovered outlines as a productivity tool, enabling me to quickly make plans, organize ideas and structure information. Now I consider them an important part of my project planning arsenal.

How I Got My Outlines Back

I rediscovered outlines quite by accident. It happened when I first upgraded to a MacBook Pro and took a trial version of Omni Outliner for a spin. I was trying to think through a process for a policies document I was writing at the time, and as I played with Omni Outliner I found the old animosity I found towards outlines begin to melt.

The first thing I did was to set outline standards that worked for me and weren’t drawn from some composition textbook. I use two styles of outlines:

  • “Formal style” for when the outline may have to be reviewed by a client. I want them to be able to cite discussion points by number or letter.
  • “Brain dump style” is for outlines that are just for me. This style has a lot of bullet points and levels of indentation to organize the information.

Here is a sampling of the outlines I’m using now:

Yearly review/planning for next year. At the end of every year, I do a brain dump of what worked and didn’t work for me during the year as part of my own lessons learned exercise. My 2009 review is going into a series of outlines because they’ll offer me an easy reference when I look back to see if I am really applying any of the lessons I learned.

Stress management. As was true of many people, the down economy made 2009 a very stressful time for me both personally and professionally. One of the ways I try to alleviate stress when it gets bad is to write down the things that are causing me stress. For some reason, seeing them written down helps me to deal with them better.

Process planning. My day gig as a technical writer and all-around geek for hire often has me working with processes for various clients. While I usually reach for Visio or OmniGraffle, sometimes I like to see how the process breaks down in print. The outline I create then goes onto feed either the diagram I create or the accompanying text I write about the process.

Checklists. Being a technical writer and working in the IT industry means writing a lot of policies and procedures. I’ve come to count on outlining as a starting point for the checklists my technical documentation often require.

Outlining Tools I Use

While I spend my fair share of time in Microsoft Word, I usually try to avoid its outlining tools because I find them cumbersome. Typically when creating outlines I use a moleskine notebook, yellow legal pad, OmniOutliner Professional or CarbonFin Outliner. I count OmniOutliner Pro as my favorite because of its flexibility and multiple export options. Outline tools now work for me, as opposed to me working for them (as in a classroom assignment).

Do you use outlines as productivity and planning tools?

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