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A User's Journey into DEVONthink: Personal Usage

November 17, 2016 — Eric Böhnisch-Volkmann

Leaving academia behind (mostly) for now, we come to the tangled mess of information gathered during my personal life. I don’t do clutter and so, until I started using DEVONthink Pro Office (DTPO) a few months ago, there actually wasn’t much information collected and stored.

I was pretty free with the delete button and the shredder or bin to be fair (my brain works in this way too)! But that was because I lacked a quick and convenient way to store everything that I might be even remotely interested in or need in the future. No longer with DTPO and DEVONthink To Go (DTTG). I can now almost instantly save anything of almost any format, and the process it at my leisure.


I have about five years worth of email sitting inside Apple Mail, and it was simplicity itself to archive these into DTPO. For those wondering about the difference between email import and archive in DTPO, there is a useful forum thread here.

The advantages of archiving email in this way are numerous. It allows the text of all my email to be included in search and presented as results. It means I have a complete archive if I ever toast Apple Mail and use another provider (which if not planned just now, is definitely possible). And more importantly, in line with the principles of Getting Things Done (GTD), I have my email in my database software, rather than using my email program as a database (there is a similar advantage in the GTD system in not using your email program as a task manager too, thus being freed from its dominating influence).


I seem to be one of the few people in the world who don’t hate iTunes. So my music collection resides there, and my ‘iTunes Media’ folder is indexed by DTPO (4,600 tracks took just a couple of minutes). This is an indexed group in my ‘personal’ database rather than a separate database. This does give me the option of playing a file quickly from within DTPO as I’m working if I want music. But more importantly if I’m writing and researching a blog post, I can sometimes come up with a bit of music that has a related title or theme using search or ‘see also’ functions — nice for adding some variety to posts. Like this …


I treat these the same as music in DTPO. You can index your iCloud photos library, but that just embeds a link to it in DTPO, which acts as a shortcut to the Photos app on the Mac. In times past I was something of an amateur photographer, and I have a couple of archives of images taken with an SLR and processed in Photoshop. These I have indexed (again in my ‘personal’ database), again occasionally providing visual embellishment to articles and research.

RSS feeds

I have news feeds from National Geographic, Reuters, AP, New Scientist, and a few scientific journals to boot. These can be added easily to DTPO using DataNewFeed and pasting the URL of the XML feed. Voila, your RSS feeds now show up in your database and are searchable. This is a fantastic, zero effort to add current research and news to whatever you are working on, as well as removing the need for an RSS app on your devices.

Also, I can easily open any of the RSS bookmarks in Safari and save a Reader View PDF of the article to my global inbox with a few keystrokes. I turn off ‘convert categories to tags’ in DTPO preferences as this doesn’t fit with my system of provenance tagging, plus I quickly end up with a couple of hundred tags.


I touched on the idea of provenance tagging (which I read about on the excellent Skulking in Holes and Corners) in an earlier post. I’m using this approach in a looser format than J. Ostwald does, but I find it useful to be able to view my documents according to where they came from.

For example, looking in a ‘Finance’ group is not the same as looking up everything I have received from a specific body, say HMRC (which might be bills, statements, copies of tax returns, user guides, or email messages) — if I have an ‘HMRC’ tag I can do this instantly. Looking in the ‘Ableton’ group is going to find me videos, guides, scribbled notes, PDFs, photographs and all manner of things relating to using the software, whereas viewing the ‘Ableton’ tag is going to show me everything I’ve actually received from that company.

Similarly, skipping briefly back to academia, I can instantly look up everything that is a ‘lecture’, ‘presentation’, ‘assignment’, or ‘case study’ getting the content information from the title, and the context (e.g. module 1) from the grouping. Like many strategies, this becomes more relevant the larger the databases grow. So, titles for content, groups for context, tags for provenance.

Everything else

This is by far the most used (and varied) category. The key for me here is having as low a barrier as possible to getting stuff into DTPO. I don’t have a scanner or printer at home, so anything I want to scan in goes to work and is done in batches every few days (clunky but works). In practice, the amount of scanning I do is fairly low, since (for example) all my financial records are online, and the only physical mail I get is the kind that goes straight in the big round file in the corner. Mostly what goes in here is web clippings, bookmarks and PDFs of things I see during the day and think I might need or be interested to review later.

My workflow here is to strictly send anything new that day to the global inbox. I usually have the Sorter turned off, and I make a point of revisiting the inbox each evening, and processing it in a GTD-like way. Do I really need it? Is there a related action (if yes: send it to OmniFocus for processing)? Does it need annotating? Which database or group does it go in? Does it fit into a larger outline document for a subject I’m researching?

I find that if I perform a daily review of the global inbox, this makes me consider the material and actually interface with it in some way, which is the whole point of storing information. This is the reason I personally don’t use the Sorter. I found myself hoovering up ridiculous amounts of information (because using the Sorter is so well easy to use), categorising on the spot, and then basically storing and forgetting, with no interaction with the material that I had decided was important enough to save — a bit like some of those 4,600 tracks, half of which I probably haven’t ever listened to!

Next in this short series: How I use DEVONthink To Go.