Monthly Archives: July 2011

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.