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An Introduction to DevonThink

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Introduction to DevonThink

In this article I want to provide you a basic introduction to how we use DevonThink.

For the uninitiated, DevonThink is a “Smart Document Management” application, that helps you manage your information and helps you go paperless.

DevonThink is a very complex and customizable program. There’s no right way or wrong way to use it, and I’m pretty sure that I don’t personally know all the functions, workflows and options available within the program yet. What I do know is that the basic setup I use works pretty well for me and most people I’ve shared it with.

I personally use DevonThink Pro Office – the top-end edition. I’ve never tried the Pro or Personal editions, but most of this article is about basic setup so it should be applicable to all editions.

Let’s get to it.

Quick Summary

  • What I use DevonThink for.
  • Basic Organization and Setup.
  • Basic Workflow.
  • Going Mobile.

What I Use DevonThink For

I personally use DevonThink for storing files and documents. I like the idea of being 100% paperless, so every sheet of paper that enters my life is scanned and stored within DevonThink.

Personally, I don’t use DevonThink for storing “information sets” like processes and scripts – those go into Evernote instead.

Some examples of documents stored:

  • Bank Statements.
  • Mind map summaries of books I’ve read.
  • Receipts.
  • Travel itineraries and related documents.

One of the big features that I personally find very useful is to sync all select DevonThink documents to my iPhone/iPad and have digital copies of everything with me everywhere I go.

Basic Organization and Setup

Folders

Let’s look at a basic setup.

I have one DevonThink database inside my /Dropbox/Documents/ folder on my Mac. Unlike iPhoto/Aperture, I haven’t had any issues with syncing the entire database file to Dropbox. The actual /user/documents folder on my Mac is basically empty, because everything sits within DevonThink.

EDIT: As pointed out in the comments by Bill and Jim from DevonThink, you actually shouldn’t put your DevonThink databases in your Dropbox. What you need to do instead (and I just tested this) is put your database in /user/Documents/, then to select File > Synchronize inside DevonThink and authorize DevonThink to create a folder on your Dropbox which will act as a transactional/backup space for your database. It’s a little slower, but hey, no data corruption.

The structure of my folders (“groups”) within DevonThink itself is the same as per our article on Organizing your Files and Folders:

  • /bills – All regular bills, dated with company names and year/month.
  • /book summaries – Book summaries, subfolders for type (business, health etc)
  • /fashion – Notes, documents and media related to fashion and style.
  • /finances – Subfolders for banks, countries, types (insurance vs banking vs investments), financial planning stuff.
  • /health – Subfolders for dentist, doctor, gym, insurance, physical therapy, test results.
  • /housing – By city.
  • /identity documents – Scans of commonly used identity documents, like my passport, driver’s licence etc.
  • /life management – Documents related to goals, stories, motivation.
  • /personal – Various letters and documents (sorted into subfolders), notes on hobbies (e.g., boardgame tactics), miscellany.
  • /processes and scripts – Various scripts or directions for things that I commonly do. Think of them as recipes for things that are not food.
  • /receipts – All receipts scanned and tagged with date and vendor.
  • /recipes – Kitchen recipes in text files.
  • /roadmaps – Roadmaps for goals, system maps for areas of life.
  • /profile photos – Some profile photos for uploading to various social media sites etc.
  • /TED – TED notes.
  • /travel – By year and destination. Includes itineraries, confirmation printouts etc.

Tags

DevonThink comes with a very powerful tagging system. I personally am not a huge fan of tags in general, so I don’t use them all that much.

One thing that I have found them useful for, is for creating simple smart searches, such as this “Reminder” tag which highlights documents that I review on a regular basis.

Reminders Smart Search Listing

Smart searches appear at the bottom of your folders list.

Reminders Smart Search Setting

You can set up a Smart Search like this.

Layout

Here’s what my actual DevonThink configuration looks like:

DevonThink Layout by Asian Efficiency

My DevonThink Layout. Click to Enlarge.

As you can see I like my fonts big and my layout in widescreen. You can get this same layout by using COMMAND + 5 to switch to the 3 panes view then OPTION + COMMAND + W to switch to widescreen.

Plugins and Functions

DevonThink comes with an number of plugins and functions too, such as:

  • Jot2 Widget.
  • DevonThink Sorter.
  • The Inbox folder in /Library/Application Support/DevonThink Pro 2/Inbox.
  • Browser clipping extensions.

I don’t use the Jot2 Widget or the DevonThink Sorter at all – I don’t like overlay functions on my screen and haven’t found either particularly useful in my workflow.

The Inbox folder is very useful. It’s listed as one of my favorite folders in Finder/Path Finder.
DevonThink Inbox in Path Finder

I also use the browser extensions extensively, mostly for archiving material as single-page PDFs for reference.

Multiple Databases

Unlike programs like Evernote you can create as many databases/DevonThink files as you like. While I can see this being useful for businesses that want to segment documents for different departments, in our personal lives I haven’t found a use for it – one database is more than enough.

Basic Workflow

Basic DevonThink Workflow

(Click to Enlarge)

My basic workflow with DevonThink is to get documents in through the Inbox folder, then to sort and tag them within DevonThink, then to refer to them with Item links from other applications.

While DevonThink has built-in scanning capabilities I have a really old scanner that just wouldn’t work with it, so I do things the old-fashioned way:

  1. Scan using Image Capture (built into OS X, bypasses the need for specific drivers) and into the DevonThink Inbox (don’t open DevonThink while doing this or it will try to import them).
  2. Using Adobe Acrobat and Saving as a Reduced Size PDF.
  3. Opening DevonThink and it will auto-import. You can then sort things there.

When I need to refer to a document within DevonThink I use the Copy Item Link option to create an easy shortcut direct to that item:

DevonThink Copy Item Link

Right-click to copy an item link.

DevonThink Item Link in OmniFocus

Item Link as it appears in OmniFocus

Going Mobile

One of the most useful features of DevonThink is to sync select portions or your entire database to an iOS device.

This is actually pretty easy to do, once you understand the difference between duplicates and replicates.

  • Duplicates are copies of the original file. Think “Du” = two = 2 separate versions.
  • Replicates are essentially aliases – you get multiple entires referring to the same files. In other words, if you change the contents of a replicate, it changes the original file and all other entries pointing to that replicate. As an aside, they really need to change the term “replicate” to something else.

To enable Mobile Sync you want to replicate the folders/groups you want on your mobile device to the Mobile Sync folder. Because they’re replicates, you won’t be creating extra files and any changes you make to the originals will be reflected in the Mobile Sync “replicates” too.

You then open DevonThink To Go on your iOS device and select your database and sync over wifi.

Here’s what I personally sync:

  • Archival Material – I like having reference PDFs available with me at all times for review.
  • Bills – Useful for when dealing with day-to-day life administration.
  • Finances – Bank statements, credit card statements etc.
  • Health – Useful to have your medical history around when visiting doctors.
  • Identity Documents -It’s very handy to have scans of your passport, ID card etc accessible from your smartphone.
  • Life Management – Reference material for goals, motivation and everything else.
  • Recipes – For cooking!
  • Travel – I create separate folders for each trip and put emails, PDFs, printouts and everything else into that folder. Helps a lot when I’m travelling.

In Closing

And… that’s it. Our basic introduction to using DevonThink to manage your documents and files.

I really hope that we’ll be releasing more content about DevonThink in the future, because it is a phenomenal and very powerful program – if only more people used it. If you have your own workflow tips and tricks, please share them in the comments!

Next Actions

Do you want to see more examples of our personal systems and workflows? Join The Dojo, our productivity community. We devote an entire forum category just for systems and workflows and we also have training modules that is not available anywhere else.

We also reveal them on our Personal Systems seminar. It’s completely free and you’ll get to see the exact step-by-step systems and workflows that we personally use to be insanely productive. Register for the next available seminar here.

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36 Comments

Posted by Jean-Luc  | March 7, 2018 at 4:34AM | Reply

Hi Rachel,
DevonThink To Go has totally changed. The sync service is now totally reliable, and doesn’t use the “Mobile Sync” folder anymore.
You will have some more informations here: http://blog.devontechnologies.com/2017/10/devonthink-2916/ and here: http://blog.devontechnologies.com/2018/02/devonthink-to-go-243/
This article written by Aaron is out of date nowadays.
I may propose a new updated article to the Asian EfficiencyTeam in a few weeks based on my experience integrating Devonthink in my workflow.

Posted by Rachel  | June 4, 2017 at 3:32PM | Reply

I’m using DT Pro and I don’t see a Mobile Sync folder. :( I tried to sync my inbox with my iPad and it attempted to import 50k items that were replicants but of course still took up a good 10GB. I need to get this figured out ASAP.

Posted by Paul Newcomb  | November 20, 2016 at 9:51AM | Reply

Why not just use a file manager like path finder? It seems to do pretty much the same thing, plus much more.

Posted by Malcolm  | November 14, 2015 at 8:51AM | Reply

Hey, good article man. Can you help recommend or talk about the features of the particular version of DEVONThink you use?

I’m trying to switch over from Evernote for all my personal and work stuff and am overwhelmed by the version differences.

Thanks!

Posted by Frank  | October 21, 2015 at 7:57PM | Reply

Harold, I think there’s something wrong on your side … At least in my setup DT in the Pro Office version does search the content of Excel spreadsheets perfectly.

Posted by Harold  | August 5, 2015 at 11:12PM | Reply

After using Devonthink for a while and paying for the Pro Office version (the most capable one), I just found out that DEVONThink does not support Excel files. It will gladly import them but it is not capable or “seeing” their content. So, their content is not indexed and not available for search or auto-grouping and auto-classification. The developer is blaming Microsoft for having a proprietary format and suggest converting all Excel files into CSV files before importing. This is an extra step and of course you lose all figures, macros, and dependent cells. Also, it adds another step to your workflow. Meanwhile, other software does not seem to have any problem searching in Excel files, even spotlight can do this. Since I use Excel spreadsheets for organizing a number of aspects of my life and work, Devonthink is pretty useless for me.

Posted by Aaron Lynn  | July 23, 2015 at 10:39PM | Reply

@James I actually put them in Evernote nowadays!

Posted by James Mathison  | July 15, 2015 at 5:55AM | Reply

You said that your “information sets” processes and scripts go into Evernote, but then in the structure of your groups you’ve got a group called “processes and scripts”.

I’m interested to know whether or not you do keep scripts (or anything else) in Evernote, and if so, why (and why not DevonThink), because due to a few bugs I’m experiencing with the big green elephant I’m looking for another application to migrate to that I can trust. (Tried VoodooPad, but DevonThink looks better suited).

PS Thank you for this blog! :)

Posted by Ahmyo  | October 13, 2014 at 11:25PM | Reply

For Sam Silverman – Best check out the user forum at Devon for professional advice:

http://forum.devontechnologies.com

The staff are very helpful.

Posted by Sam  | October 8, 2014 at 4:57AM | Reply

I’m a physician trying to go paperless. I have a electronic medical record (PracticeFusion) but it’s document storage (lab results, authorizations, consultation reports is limited.
I bought a Fujitsu Snap and Scan. I have Dropbox and then found Sookasa which is a HIPPA compliant folder that I can scan my documents to without compromising patient integrity.
I installed Devonthink inside Sookosa. Now i’m reading concerns about that. When I try to look at files in my office with an old MBA and open Sookosa I get warning Devonthink is in use and I may have a problem.
After reading this post it sounds like I should get my Devonthink “medical record” data base out of Sookosa within Dropbox and run it on my computers accessing what exactly inside Dropbox.
I can email a screen shot if that helps.
I’m not really understanding how to do that and am terrified of loosing my database. It just contains patient founders with copies of my scanned pdf’s. The original pdf’s are in Sookasa /dropbox but have no names. Devonthink makes them visible inside the medical record database so I can separate and search.
What I’d like to do is have Devonthink running on my office MBA and be able to access the data base that sits inside Sookosa.
I think that’s what the caution is saying about not running Devothink inside Dropbox which is what i’m doing now. I hope this makes sense?
i need step by step how to do it, i’m not sure i understand the filing and moving and linking that others refer to. I’m just a doctor creating a secure flat paperless database filing system so that can access pt folders in my office that I scan into Devonthink from home at night.
thanks
Sam Silverman MD

Posted by Tony Tryx  | August 6, 2014 at 9:01PM | Reply

Great article, thank you for this!

This may be a really bold ask… but in one of your screenshots you show what looks like a list of ‘systems’ in mindmap form. I recently began the process of trying to establish/ document a number of these systems in my own life… do you have any posts going into detail with any of these? I’d be very interested to see how you organize some of them.

Thanks,

Tony

Posted by Jody Wright  | June 6, 2014 at 3:53PM | Reply

Hi there,

Thanks for this helpful review. I am trying to Sync my DEVONthink database (housed in /user/Documents/ on my Mac mini at work) using Dropbox but still can’t figure out how to open this synced database on my MacBook Air, as there is no single database flatfile housed on Dropbox for me to actually open. Do you have any suggestions for how I can do this? Basically, I want to be able to open and modify the same synced database from all of my machines.

Thanks,

Jody

Posted by Aaron Lynn  | June 6, 2014 at 11:48PM

I used to use Dropbox for this but the DT staff suggested not to. There is an internal DT sync function but you’ll have to get in touch with their support for exactly how to use it!

Posted by James  | December 13, 2013 at 5:23PM | Reply

Thanks for your review. I have been using Devonthink for a while and reading your article I realize I could do more with it. I have also a personal debate between Devonthink and Evernote, in terms of which one in the main information management system, specially when one can be using the free version Evernote offering 60mb per month and I have to say that Devonthink let you easily import and export notes to anf from Evernote. At the moment I am using both (Evernote lets me share to social networks and notes with my friends and I also can make publick notesbooks to collaborate with a team), so both can come handy, specially when Evernote is very powerful at simplifying web page format through the browser add-on both in Firefox or Safari.
In regard to the sorter, I think you are missing a very powerful feature that also works perfectly. You can assign tags or folders there, or even tagged folders, so everything that you drag into the sorter goes directly where you have assigned and gets tagged instantly. I recommend you to give it a try, you won’t be disappointed.

Posted by Harlee Eide  | October 31, 2013 at 5:54AM | Reply

Just so you know – the new DevonThink To Go iOS app has been refreshed for iOS 7 and is updated in the app store for both iPhone and iPad. :)

Posted by Jeroen  | October 4, 2013 at 4:20AM | Reply

A bit off-topic, but I’d really like to know contents of your Fashion folder :–)

Posted by Aaron Lynn  | November 1, 2013 at 12:31AM

Haha it’s a collection of cool hairstyles and outfits I’ve seen.

Whenever I do a wardrobe update or get a haircut I usually pull things from there to experiment with.

Posted by Joel  | September 30, 2013 at 4:08AM | Reply

I have tried to use the automate sync on dropbox, but I do not find this useful. Dropbox is not able to search the database. I also do not use DT on iphone (not useful, need to be sync by cable and my databases are too big).
Instead of this I use the following :
-my dt base is stored in the default file (home/document)
-I have a symbolic link in my dropbox file (not alias, it’s not working)

Using this I am able to :
open and use my database on mac
search, find use and share documents through dropbox on iphone

By the way, using symbolic link in Dropbox is very useful : you can think any file with dropbox but you don’t need to store it in the dropbox fille. Some apps use specific folders in specific locations and it is sometimes hard to change this. If you want to easily generate any symbolic link use this : http://home.comcast.net/~seiryu/symboliclinker.html
It will appear by right click in services menu.

Posted by Joel Millican  | September 15, 2013 at 3:47PM | Reply

I have used DT for going on two years now. It fits well into my “on the job” workflow allowing me to put everything related to whatever project I am working on in this one intelligent container. I think their mobile synch is a bit cumbersome and for that reason I use Evernote for a small subset of things like, music for the band I am in, account numbers etc that I need access to while on the go. I hear they are planning an upgrade on the synch for later this year, and I am looking forward to that.

Just out of curiosity. What integrations with OF do you have in your process?

Posted by Aaron Lynn  | September 16, 2013 at 9:20PM

Not much actually. Occasionally I’ll reference an item link from DT into OF or vice-versa but for the most part they’re quite separate. Same with Evernote.

Posted by Jonathan  | September 12, 2013 at 9:12AM | Reply

Echoing the prior comment on Evernote, is the marginal benefit really so great from having two applications worth it. We productivity geeks always need to balance having exactly the right tool for each job versus the complexity of managing yet another application. Keeping a workflow intact gets exponentially not linearly more difficult over time as you add applications. Things may work day one but over time as applications and APIs all evolve in different directions things tend to fall apart.

Posted by Aaron Lynn  | September 13, 2013 at 12:09PM

As I mentioned above I like the way I have it set up with journal + quick notes in Evernote, reference material in DevonThink.

I suppose a high school student analogy could work here – Evernote serves as my backpack, holding everything I need to carry around with me everywhere. DT serves as my locker, holding reference material that is also in reach but a little harder to get to (though in reality DT is actually quite to get too as well). Maybe more quick access = Evernote, long-term storage and reference = DT.

Posted by Januz  | September 14, 2013 at 2:55AM

OK, I think I would use two different databases for this. Using the Dropbox sync capabilities, you could keep the whole database in sync with DT-ToGo without having to decide what has to be synced and what not…

Posted by Sasha Sanan  | September 12, 2013 at 7:53AM | Reply

The post provides very useful filing recommendations for a paperless workflow – I am interested in what advantages does DevonThink provides for filing than over a standard, organized file-folder filing methodology? I never have found tags handy and already use Dropbox extensively with a well organzied file-folder system for work projects (Excel, Word, PDFs), some-paperless activity (mainly receipts) – which all sync to mobile perfectly via Dropbox.

My takeaway is: 1) Can invest more into a paperless setup, perhaps consolidate some other items sprinkled around elsewhere – Travel (email folder), Recipies (Evernote), etc. 2) Does Devonthink help the process of filing and storing or scanning in anyway?

Posted by Aaron Lynn  | September 13, 2013 at 12:06PM

I like the idea of having everything in one place – inside a single DT database. The other thing about it’s mobile sync function is that the documents are actually copied onto the storage of your mobile device, meaning that you don’t have to have a live data connection to access them, which you would with Dropbox.

RE DT and filing/storing/scanning – I need to really play around with the DT scan/OCR process more. It didn’t work well with my (early 2000s) scanner last time I tried, but when I pick up a new one will see how it goes.

Posted by Andrew Allsop  | September 12, 2013 at 2:31AM | Reply

Thank you for this. I have been a user of DEVONthink Pro Office for a number of years and it is an excellent application. I would like to endorse and emphasize Bill and Jim’s remarks concerning storing a database in Dropbox, this advice definitely should be heeded to do otherwise is courting disaster as a quick search of the DEVONthink User’s Forum will show! By the way, their other applications, especially DEVONagent, are very good as well. (I have no connection with them except being a very happy user}.

Posted by Aaron Lynn  | September 13, 2013 at 12:04PM

Thanks Andrew. I recently spotted DevonAgent and DevonSphere and will be checking them out later this year :)

Posted by Januz  | September 11, 2013 at 7:18PM | Reply

Thanks for the post.

Could you please elaborate on what information you use Evernote for and why you separate information for use in DT vs. Evernote?

I use DT and I always thought that it mirrors the capabilities of Evernote…

Posted by Aaron Lynn  | September 13, 2013 at 12:04PM

I suppose it does :)

I keep my journal and quick-reference textual (no images, no documents) stuff in Evernote. I keep basically everything else in DT.

Posted by Jon Surratt  | October 25, 2013 at 5:02PM

Are there any pros of DevonThink vs Evernote for just a “normal” user (i.e. I only need one database, etc)? I’m sure I’m missing something – but all else equal, simplest solution is usually best …

Thanks for the input.
Jon

Posted by Thanh Pham  | October 29, 2013 at 10:04PM

For the average user, I’d recommend Evernote.

Posted by Jim Neumann  | September 11, 2013 at 2:43PM | Reply

Thanks for the nice (and honest) article but…
“I have one DevonThink database inside my /Dropbox/Documents/ folder on my Mac.” This is NOT recommended or supported behavior. To do so is to invite data loss or database damage. You may get away with it but it will eventually catch you.

If you need to Sync a DEVONthink database for use with other machines with DEVONthink installed, use the included Sync plugin connecting to your Dropbox account. You can also index the contents of a Dropbox folder in DEVONthink, allowing you to have data Dropbox-synced through Dropbox but still searchable in your copy of DEVONthink.

Posted by Bill DeVille  | September 11, 2013 at 2:43PM | Reply

Nice writeup on how you use DEVONthink.

A word of caution, though. Dropbox is great for handling individual files in the cloud. It can have problems, though, with some package files, especially large ones. DEVONthink Pro and Pro Office store databases as package files. There’s a more critical problem potential, though. DEVONthink databases are dynamic, and Dropbox isn’t designed to handle that. Not only can there be things going on in memory that haven’t been stored to disk, the actual document files stored in a DEVONthink database are not permanently located, but can change their filing locations.

A number of our users have experienced database damage if the database is stored in Dropbox. We don’t recommend that. However, Dropbox works well as one of the options for sharing databases using the Sync routine built into DEVONthink. Sync doesn’t store the databases themselves in Dropbox.

Posted by Aaron Lynn  | September 13, 2013 at 12:02PM

Thanks for pointing that out Bill. I’ve edited the article to include your warning about Dropbox syncing and a note on how to do it properly with the Synchronize function.

Posted by Steve Koterski  | September 11, 2013 at 8:35AM | Reply

Great post. I’ve had DEVONthink for a while, but havn’t used it much. Been using Together. Now need to migrate over to DEVONthink. I’ll be using your article to make my use all the more effective and efficient.

BTW, because they are so similar in function and design, your article is also broadly applicable to Together and Yojimbo. (That is, you killed three birds with one stone.)

Posted by Aaron Lynn  | September 13, 2013 at 12:01PM

Thanks Steve!

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