DEVONthink Pro 3

geekery productivity

I have been a DEVONthink user for a long time. I’m not sure exactly when I started using it, but my records suggest that it was at least as far back as 2006. For many years, it held all my documents, notes, links, manuals, receipts and other random snippets. However, at some point, I needed to sync at least some of my databases between computers and to my phone for mobile use. The early iterations of syncing were a bit clunky and eventually I threw in the towel and looked around for something else. I told myself that I didn’t need all the bells and whistles of DEVONthink, and that anything into which I could throw my documents and which would sync them quickly and reliably would do the job. For a while, I used KeepIt (formerly, Together) which is a great and easy to use application, but (for whatever reason) I didn’t add items to it very often, and was increasingly finding myself in a situation where I couldn’t remember where I had put that snippet of information I needed. To cut a long story short, I’m back with DEVONthink Pro 3, and couldn’t be happier about it.

I think my turning point was wanting to consolidate all my scattered info into fewer buckets. I have switched to using org-roam for my longer form notes on papers, ideas, quotations and so on, but there’s still a need for an easy to access place for my grant reference numbers, instructions on how to claim expenses, bus timetables for an area when we go on holiday, product manuals, and so on. None of the potential options I tried could quite handle all that I wanted them too, and also have excellent search so that I could quickly locate what I wanted when I needed it. DEVONthink 3 had come out a while ago so I decided to give a try and see if syncing was now easier.

If you are thinking of trying DEVONthink, I can’t recommend Joe Kissell’s book Take Control of DEVONthink 3 highly enough. Joe is a friend, but I would be recommending this (free) book anyway because it sets out how and why of using DEVONthink so clearly and concisely. In particular, the section on syncing clarified the best setup in my mind and revealed to me that I had probably been doing it wrong when I last used the application, which was probably why I got into such a mess. Since I was effectively starting from scratch again (though importing content from my old databases), I was able to set things up in a much more sensible way from the start.

I always knew that it was possible to either move things to the DEVONthink database or to index files stored outside of the database, but for some reason I thought that you had to go one route or the other, rather than being able to mix the two strategies within one database. This has completely changed the way I use the application. Before, I always faced a dilemma about whether I would give DEVONthink the responsibility of looking after my files, or whether I would organise them in the Finder. Consequently I would then be searching in two places rather than one. Now can have the best of both worlds: I create a group for each of my ongoing projects and within that have groups of indexed files (for things that I frequently edit and add to outside of DEVONthink), but store that alongside a group of reference materials that I store within the database. Everything is easy to browse and search for (through filenames, tags, labels and contents), but I have the flexibility to access files externally too.

I’m making much better use of tags1, replicants and smart searches, all of which structures my content better and leverages the searching and content similarity strengths of DEVONthink (which are considerable). I’m also using Charles Ma’s Alfred workflow for DEVONthink, which is powerful and flexible, and returns results extremely quickly. You can search contents, tags, favourites or groups, either in the whole database or narrowed to particular groups. Once you have found an item, you can open it with DEVONthink, see it in context in DEVONthink, reveal it in the Finder, or open it with an external application. This means that can use it to look up a grant code in seconds, but I still have the power to either browse or search within DEVONthink if it is needed.

I haven’t yet mentioned DEVONthink To Go (the iOS app) but I also use this and find it extremely handy when I need to consult something on the move. It doesn’t have quite as much power as the macOS application (as you would expect) but it is fine for my needs. It also enables you to capture information quickly on the move for later filing. I hope DEVONtechnologies eventually add the ability to incorporate it into iOS Shortcuts, which would make capturing information much more powerful. However, for now the share extension works well enough for this purpose in most cases.

I seem to have spent at least 20% of my time recently searching for documents or information that I know I have somewhere on my computer, so I think that my renewed love for DEVONthink is going to provide a big boost to my productivity, not to mention my sanity!


  1. For very specific purposes, like marking expense receipts as submitted or paid. I used tags somewhat randomly before, which effectively made them almost useless. ↩︎