New series: A user’s journey into DEVONthink

This is a guest post by Stuart Ingram. Stuart is not affiliated with DEVONtechnologies in any way except for being a power user of DEVONthink and DEVONthink To Go.

Stuart IngramI first came across DEVONthink whilst working through one of the periodic urges I get to review and make changes to my digital organisation habits, Again I had become disillusioned with the futile search for ‘one app to rule them all’. I was a longtime user of Evernote, however I’d never been quite satisfied with its storage of files within notes (I’m unable to explain this rationally), and the recent move to limit the usage of free account holders hampered my workflow, which is part personal, part work and across several devices.

I had also recently begun to use OmniFocus 2 to manage tasks instead of simple GTD with Evernote, and made a switch to storing all my notes as plain text in Dropbox, using the excellent nvALT and 1Writer to manage and futureproof these. So Evernote was gone, and my plan was to store reference files in Dropbox too, and ideally have them available on both macOS and iOS. However, whilst easy to set up, this came with a couple of major flaws — remembering and finding.

Like many of us who even remotely use technology to simplify or organize our lives, I am constantly trying to balance work, home, and a family with my own interests, with occasional periods of success. In my work life I am a research project manager in a large centre for genetic medicine, and outside of this I’m a DJ, budding music producer, and blogger writing for several music websites. When you add fitness goals, a busy family life, and — just because I’m not busy enough with those — a postgraduate degree which I just started this week, there’s a whole bunch of stuff that passes my way and then slips through some rather large cracks as I try to keep up.

The initial attraction to DEVONthink was its ability to quickly store, index, and recall absolutely anything. What I need in a database is somewhere I can quickly dump things, further process at my leisure if needed, and then essentially forget about. Then, all I need is a vague notion (I work well with these) that I once looked up, and made notes about, how to use a glue compressor in Ableton Live — and just ask the database. In line with David Allen’s concept of ‘mind like water‘, I find that I need to keep my mind free of remembering not only tasks, but data and details also, in order to think clearly and act effectively upon what is in front of me right now. If I don’t, I can easily suffer from brain freeze or unproductive tangential thinking. The similarity between the DEVONthink database structure and the GTD method, for example in the use of a global inbox, helps me enormously with this.

DEVONthink sidebar with databases and global inbox

When I started looking into it seriously, I realized that this was just touching the surface of what DEVONthink can do. I quickly progressed through ‘needing’ the personal and pro versions and arrived at DEVONthink Pro Office (DTPO). To my mind, the ability to scan and index the contents of a pdf, or the metadata of an image or music file is essential, a no-brainer, even to someone just starting out as I am. Why on earth keep a database of things if you can only search for the things, rather than the whole content and any attached data/notes?

I began testing DTPO using the 150hr free trial and almost immediately started coming up with interesting and useful results. Much has already been written about the ‘magic hat’ button, but it’s not until you start using this on your own data that its power becomes apparent. Taking the above example of the glue compressor in Ableton Live, on using the See Also feature, DTPO came up with a couple of PDFs, a couple of saved video links, a text note and an email conversation with a friend that I had forgotten about, the content of which I then used in the project I was working on.
See Also drawer

In the forthcoming posts I will be covering how I have set up DTPO, how it works for me, challenges and solutions, integrations with other apps, and what the future could hold. This won’t be a set of tutorials or instructions — there are plenty of those already; rather my own experiences of learning and applying the software to my needs. The hope is that others considering using the software will find this useful. I for one haven’t looked back; DTPO has helped me to free my mind of a significant amount of information, because I know it’s to hand if I need it, thus achieving the goal that many applications aspire to but few achieve: simplifying the users life.

Next in this short series: First usage and set up.

9 Responses to “New series: A user’s journey into DEVONthink”

  1. John Finch says:

    Looking forward to reading more Stuart.

  2. Stuart says:

    Thanks John – hope you enjoy the series

  3. David Parker says:

    As with John, I’m looking forward to the rest of this series.

    As a fellow GTDer, I tried both Evernote and Omnifocus but have now ditched both in favour of Wunderlist – now if only Wunderlist had a capture to DEVONthink . . .

    Back to the subject of a “user’s journey, I really found these types of article inspiring (I found a few others out on the internet) so I hope this is only the first of many such series.

    With powerful tools such as DEVONthink it’s often more enlightening to see WHAT it’s used for that just HOW it’s used.

  4. Paul Waldo says:

    This is great Stuart! DTPO is very versatile tool, but hard to figure out how to use because there are so many options. I look forward to more details and tips!

  5. Stuart says:

    Thanks David and Paul – the feedback is really appreciated! Look forward to your comments on further articles.

  6. John says:

    Hi, Stuart,

    I was curious about whether you store files locally (and INDEX them on DTPO) or if you store files in DTPO (and “Move to External Drive” periodically).

    From your post you mentioned you “import and index”: (“At this point I’ve decided to import or index everything I possibly can on my hard drive into DTPO.”

    Thanks, John

  7. Stuart says:

    Hi John, thanks for the post.
    Answer is half and half! Most things are now imported into DTPO and the file at the original location trashed (lecture notes, research papers, personal documents, links, images etc).
    The only things I currently have indexed are image and audio libraries, as they are most frequently used by other applications (Apple photos and iTunes). However i find it useful to have an index of these in DTPO for search purposes, it helps making connections between all the material on my hard drive.

  8. John says:

    Hi, Stuart, Thanks for your reply. Exactly what I was hoping to learn from your process.

    Does DTPO AI work better with files IMPORTED (vs. INDEXED), or is the AI just as powerful with INDEXED files? I haven’t taken the leap to fully import (so far just indexing a bit).

    Thanks for the series! J

  9. Stuart says:

    Thanks John!
    As I understand AI much better with imported material, since importing performs OCR on the contents of documents which can then be included in search and ‘see also’.
    This thread touches on the subject too: