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New Series: A User's Journey Into DEVONthink

October 20, 2016 — Eric Böhnisch-Volkmann

I 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.

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.

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.

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