Here’s a a recent email I got from a reader which fits well with today’s topic. (Thank you, Chris, for letting me post it):
… Regarding this new book, DEVONthink for data management is an interesting choice. To me, applications like this represent the past — a pre-cloud era of applications and the internet, characterized by desktop-centricity, containing many keyboard shortcuts and menu items, and mobile feeling like an afterthought rather than native. Of course, this applies to OmniFocus as well, so it does make sense to me that many of the things that drew you to OF might draw you to DT as well.
I’m no expert, but it seems to me that things are trending toward more mobile-optimized, cloud-first apps that have fewer features but instead do one thing really well. For example, the note-taking app Roam Research to me offers many of the benefits as a platform like DT, and in a small amount of time has amassed tens of thousands of users. Apps like that seem to be where the growth and innovation is happening, rather than in something like DT, which doesn’t seem to have a very large user base.
I know you don’t have the time to respond to every reader who asks you a question, but I’d be very interested to hear your thoughts on the newer, “lighter” apps that are popular today and what makes you prefer a tool like DT.
Part of the problem of presenting a decision is that this becomes a comparison post. The trouble is the same as any other comparison post I might do: I have much more experience with one program or modality over another. While I can adapt principles between them, I won’t have the depth of knowledge that characterizes my books unless I live in them. And to do that, I cannot live in another one for the same period of time.
That said, I hope to answer the question of why I chose DEVONthink here by going through some of my own thought process. In the process, I think it will also become apparent why another program may be better suited for someone else.
First, a Slip-Box is tool agnostic. We can use whatever we would like. Pen and paper can work. After all, the originator just used cards. In How to Take Smart Notes, Ahrens nicely describes the methods to create an analog Zettelkasten.
Perhaps then, digital vs analog is a good first point of decision. Analog systems certainly have a wonderful natural feel that you just don’t get with digital. My small set of fountain pens and paper will attest to a beauty of mechanical craftsmanship. I likely do lose something in the simple and natural by going digital. However, I would much rather leverage the power of a computer, particularly if I’m going to deal with a large amount of notes.
Another point of decision is between iOS and MacOS. Many people use iPads and Surface computers. I’m simply not one of them despite having made several attempts. It just never clicked for me. There is no right or wrong to it. I’m certain there are excellent ways to use tablet devices and that there are note-taking apps well suited to them. But as time and attention are limited, I only follow the paths that seem to work for me and then write about them to offer ideas to consider.
Considering the Programs
Among the MacOS apps, I can at least outline several that exist, and the ideas that came to mind as I made my decision. There are several programs well suited to creating a Slip-Box, and of course more are coming out all the time. These include:
- nvAlt, (the upcoming nvUltra)
- Roam Research
- The Archive
among others.1 So long as there is an ability to link between notes, you can likely use it. Much like a task manager, the choice involves asking yourself:
- Do you feel you can trust it to hold your information?
- Can it be simple to enter new thoughts?
- Are you able to see what you want, when and where it is important, with little interference?
Some of these take time to discover and develop and there are nuances to consider. And it can be daunting to start one, only to worry that you’d see a sweeter patch of berries over the next hill.
Roam Research, for example, is entirely online. Creating links to other pages or creating new pages is a simple process. Back links are instantly created and readily seen in any note. Ahrens himself has started to use Roam Research. Check out Nat Eliason’s post on using Roam Research.
Obsidian, which has just the coolest looking icon, allows you to use your own set of files. That way, you could place them in DropBox, for example, and share them with other programs. It has a number of plugins and is continually being developed. Take a look at Effective Remote Work’s Youtube – First Look. (Hat tip to Korm at the DEVONthink forums for first introducing me to the program.)
nvAlt is an old standby that similarly works with your local files and has a unique and quick method of allowing you to simultaneously search for or create a file. Brett Terpstra has contributed so much to the community, and I look forward to seeing nvUltra.
Tinderbox, similar to DEVONthink, is a power tool. Creating a box of notes is just one of its many capabilities. I’ve tried it several times, but haven’t had it click yet. That’s not to say it isn’t useful. In fact, it took me years for DEVONthink to click with me. Check out Beck Tench’s excellent videos.
Zkn3, which I originally discovered through Ahren’s book, is a program entirely dedicated to the Zettelkasten approach and worth exploring.
Evernote is another standby for many, and it allows for creating and copying links to other notes. I have embarrassingly little experience with it for all its popularity. My friend created Crusoe to make it work like a Zettelkasten. But since I’m neither an iOS nor Evernote person, I never gave it much of a run.
The Archive, Zettler, and Org-Roam all look interesting, but I have not tried any of them. I list them for sake of inclusion.
My Choice of DEVONthink
Certainly, it can take some time and consideration to make a decision as to which to use.Trying one out and then moving to another takes time. Even with the ability to connect to text files and ease of export, transitions always take time.
After running through trials of several programs, I settled on DEVONthink. I’d been using it for years with PDFs, research papers, billing, receipts, URL storage, resource storage, audio files, and more. After discovering that it had a way of creating a wiki system of notes, I gave it a whirl.
DEVONthink is a powerful application. How to engage that power may not be immediately apparent. It certainly took me some time.
Several of the other options listed above are much simpler to use. For example, Roam Research and Obsidian can both quickly create back-links without any form of AppleScripts or other adjustments. Just plug and play. And, they have become quite popular as of late.
So why did I choose DEVONthink?
Beyond having several unique abilities, DEVONthink shines in the sum of its parts. It’s the sort of program that can help you store your thoughts, but in a way that it can help you find them when you need them. For example, DEVONthink takes your bookmarks, papers and the like and uses a powerful AI to show which ones might be related to others.
One of the neat things about DEVONthink is that the more organized you try to be, the better it gets at making suggestions that would fit your organizing process. It’s sort of hard to believe until you start using it.
Another little mentioned ability is how I can create WikiLinks without square brackets. I love this. I can understand using square-brackets. It’s a great system for “opting into” a link. But I find it delightful to type a phrase and discover, by virtue of the phrase automatically turning into a link, that I’ve already written a few thoughts about something. Then, I can hold Command and select the link to create a new tab with that note. Now, when I’m done with the current note, I can go there and explore.
It is local to my laptop, it can sync with other devices, encrypts databases if I want, I love the alias system when creating links, I like how I can easily create tabs between notes, how I can rapidly index a list of already existing files and create notes around those, and more. And it is more than a note-taking system – I can organize my receipts so I find them and have the program show me which other ones are related, I can create reference databases for any number of interests, etc. It’s a powerhouse.
Using Multiple Tools
But, you may not need to choose so definitively. Unlike a task manager, an idea manager can be shared among tools. In fact, several of these can play well together. For example, by choosing DEVONthink’s WikiLInks option to use square brackets, you can then Index an external set of files. In this way, you could use not only DEVONthink, but also for example nvAlt or Obsidian with the same set of files.
However, do note that working by this method does require you to use the square brackets option, and you lose the discoverability afforded by links made without them.
Maybe you start with Obsidian, for example, create a whole host of files and interlinked ideas, and then one day decide to try out DEVONthink. Quickly, you could create an Index of those files, never moving them, and still use Obsidian just as you had before. But now, you can get to your notes with DEVONthink, too, and now have all its abilities at your disposal, too.
Choosing a program is not simple. I’ve had many discussions with people about their task managers. For example, some start with OmniFocus and move onto Things or pen and paper. Some go in the other direction. Each move could be about procrastination, but they could also be about finding a goodness of fit. That mental work of the process, even trying to understand one’s own motivations, can be a struggle.
As a point of reference, I made most of my jumps between Zettelkasten programs before hitting about 100 notes. At that point, I felt I had enough notes to see how they could relate to each other, know how easily I could add and connect things, and have enough of that “discoverability” sensation to know what it would do. Also transitioning between programs wasn’t too difficult, though it did take work.
This is not to say I won’t still try others. In fact, I think Obsidian looks really neat right now, and I have been kicking its tires. However, I highly doubt I would use it exclusively. Instead, I would most likely use it to supplement my use of DEVONthink. (Though I am stuck with the how to get Obsidian to work without square brackets. If anyone has suggestions, please let me know!)
Regardless, the point I am making is that finding and developing the tools that help you reflect on thought is, unsurprisingly, a creative process. After all, it must follow the creativity of the mind. And restarting and rebuilding are always a part of any creative process.
Taking Smart Notes with DEVONthink
Interested in learning how to organize your ideas, spark creative inspiration, and find your stuff easily? Check out Taking Smart Notes with DEVONthink:
- If there are any that you are fond of, let me know in the comments, and I’ll add it to the list. ↩