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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?

🗿 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.:

🎡 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.


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.


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.


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