On DevonThink and history research (II): Labels, Smart Groups and GTD

In my last post on DevonThink (DT), I discussed group structures in my PhD database. This post and the one which will follow are on meta-structures of my database. (I’d initially intended to write one post, but decided to split it into two due to length). As usual, click images to magnify.

DT has a small but useful feature: data labels.

Labels let you visually highlight or tag files. There are only 7 available labels — I’d love the ability to add more, but they are fully customizable and served their purposes well enough. As you can see in the image above, if you play with your keyboard settings in OS X system preferences, you can assign shortcuts which make it easier to add labels to a file. (I’ve used Cmd+number). You can have only one label per file, and once labelled, the file is highlighted in the colour associated with that label.

DT also has, alongside its normal groups, the ability to create Smart Groups according to customizable boolean criteria. The DT interface offers natural language fields to help the uninitiated put boolean operators together. For example, below are the criteria for the “All Images” Smart Group which now comes bundled with DT:

This smart group will automatically contain within it all files within the database which DT thinks are images.

Broadly speaking, I use labels in conjunction with smart groups for two ends: GTD and content management. I’ll discuss GTD in this post, and content management in the next.

I’m not a canonical follower of David Allen’s Getting Things Done (GTD) — I find it too fussy — but I’ve found the principles behind it useful, and at the risk of copyright infringement, I’ve tended to use the term GTD as a personal shorthand for “doing my work stuff productively”. I have four labels which I use to get stuff done: Urgent, Done, To Read and To Do This Week.

  • Urgent files are those which need attention for any reason: a missing citation, something I need to take note of or check up on when I return to the archive it’s from, something I need to investigate further, and so on. There are usually very few of these, and they get addressed almost immediately. This label was most useful during the period of fieldwork and archive work, but almost never got used once I started writing.
  • To Read are PDFs or text files of documents which I haven’t read yet. There were still hundreds of them when I finished my PhD, which may or may not bode well for the book project.
  • To Do This Week are files which require attention this week: whether I needed to read them, take notes on them or incorporate them into my chapters. I tended to select these at the start of each week depending on what chapter or aspect of the PhD I planned to be working on, and work through them over the course of the week.
  • Files were marked Done when they got, well, done.

I also created Smart Groups for each label, according to the following criteria:

My weekly work was therefore nicely collected in one group, and I could scan through the larger To Read group each week to see what needed to be done. I found I no longer had use for my Urgent group after I got back from fieldwork, and got rid of it. Items which got Done didn’t need a smart group: they just disappeared back into the database.

This system worked really well for me. I liked that when I imported an article or text which I wanted to read into my database, or scribbled a note to myself on a file, I wouldn’t simply lose track of it as it vanished into the deep recesses of my folder structure. This does tend to happen as the database grows and increasingly resembles a gigantic ravenous black hole to which miscellany, haphazard flashes of insight and good intentions go to die.

Next post: using labels for content management: Bridges, Chronologies and more.


7 responses to “On DevonThink and history research (II): Labels, Smart Groups and GTD

  • on DevonThink and history research (III): Chronologies and Bridges « a historian’s craft

    […] This is the last (and much delayed) installment in my short series on using DevonThink for research (See parts 1 and 2). […]

  • FAQs on DevonThink « a historian’s craft

    […] briefly answer a few questions I’ve been getting in response to my series on DevonThink [1] [2] […]

  • Shawn

    Hi, thanks for the DT posts, they are very useful. I recently began using DT for my dissertation. What I’m struggling to figure out is out to link ideas within individual files to each other. I transcribe lots of litigation and other sundry documents from colonial Rio de la Plata. I’ve been transcribing whole cases into one RTF. I highlight and notes throughout.

    Tagging as it functions in DT is not working very well for me because tagging only tags the file, not text within the file. I’ve fooled around with linking, but can’t figure out how to make this work for me. Essentially, what I want is a “tag” system for within the RTF itself. I want to tag a certain phrase/idea in the RTF to other phrases of similar composition in other RTFs. So if I tag a phrase with “native slaves” I want to be able to stick that entire RTF into the Tags folder but when I select it the exact phrase is brought up.

    I’m thinking this should be possible with links, but I haven’t figured this out yet. Any ideas?


    • Billikin

      Hi, Shawn,

      I am even newer to Devonthink than you. But what you are talking about sounds like cross-references or bookmarks such as Open Office, MSWord, or PDF editors can do. Looking through the Devonthink manual, it seemed to me that Devonthink only links to files (documents). At first glance that does not seem to do what you want. 😦

      Then I remembered MaxThink, the DOS program by Neil Larsen, that used hyperlinks. He also only linked to documents, but each document was a text file that would fit on one page, 80×24 characters, about 320 words. Neil was big on not taxing your brain, and having many small, cross-referenced files fit in with that idea. I have also run across other people who think that the “sweet spot” for text is between 250 and 500 words. Anyway, breaking up your files into bite-sized pieces might work well with Devonthink.

      Not that you asked, but I am feeling my way around and wondering how best to use Devonthink myself. 🙂


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    […] Leow has a wonderful series of posts on using DEVONthink for historical research: I, II, and […]

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    […] Labels, Smart Groups and GTD – In my last post on DevonThink (DT), I discussed group structures in my PhD database. This post and the one which will follow are on meta-structures of my database. (I’d initially intended to… – (DT notetaking DevonThink ) […]

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