Info Dump

In The Productivity Habits, I wrote about the need to create an "info dump" into which you can archive complete information. This includes work you have finished yourself, notes, documents, articles, even emails. 

The interesting thing about archived information is that it's neither alive; like your current projects, nor dead; like the stuff you've deleted. It's unconscious. It has no immediately usefulness, but lots of potential usefulness. 

This means that the way live information is dealt with doesn't strictly apply. An example is filetypes on your computer. Knowing whether a particular file is a text document, a spreadsheet, a PDF or an image is very important when you're actually working on it. But it's meaningless in an archive.

A good archiving tool must be able to store multiple types of information together, and treat them equally.


DEVONthink Pro Office is my preferred choice. It's the most sophisticated and powerful knowledge manager that I've tested. I generally prefer simple tools, so why the exception in this case?

DEVONthink is, in my ways, the epitome of the ideal info dump. You can drag pretty much any kind of file into the app and it will make sense of it. Everything from Microsoft Office files to PDFs, web links, text notes, and more. The Pro Office version, which I use, has the ability to archive emails from Apple Mail using sophisticated date filters. This is invaluable to me. I have a repeating task set every six months to archive my email into DEVONthink before I delete it from the mail server. Additionally, the DEVONthink Pro Office integrates nicely with Fujitsu's excellent ScanSnap series of scanners. I don't have much use for this personally, but for anyone who deals with reams of paper, the ability to archive that information into accurage, searchable PDFs will save a lot of time. 

DEVONthink Pro Office also integrates a powerful OCR feature. This can digitize the text in scans and images, turning them into searchable files. This is incredibly useful if you're in the habit of screenshotting or photographing images with text.

While it's very easy to get stuff into DEVONthink it's also quite easy to organize it. Folders can be nested inside folders, making it easy to replicate your Importance Tree structure in DEVONthink. Tagging is especially useful for people who need to finely organize data in a very large project, although I don't make much use of that feature myself.

Asides from capturing data, the most important role of a knowledge manager is that of retrieval. Even if it was easy to capture information, the tool would be useless if it was difficult to find the right piece of information. DEVONthink's "Find" function is reasonable, although I rely on the more powerful "Search" function under the Tools menu. This makes it easy to find tune the search and to deploy DEVONthink's secret weapon: the "See Also & Classify" function. When you select an item in your DEVONthink database and enable See Also & Classify, you will see a dossier of items which relate to whatever you've selected. This can include any file type. It's a game-changer.

Local data

The other thing that draws me to DEVONthink is that it stores my data locally, on my computer, without relying on a cloud service. The information contained in my DEVONthink database is incredibly personal; including complete work, thoughts for future projects, and an archive of my communications. Keeping this data secure and safe is very important and, frankly, I don't quite trust services like Evernote to do a good job at keeping my information from prying eyes. DEVONthink data, by contrast, is not transferred to any third party. The fact that it's data is local means that a comprehensive backup strategy is likely to include your DEVONthink data.

This strength is also a limitation. I would like to see DEVONthink offer the ability to encrypt the database before hosting it on Amazon S3, Google Drive, Microsoft OneDrive and the like. This would combine pre-internet encryption and modern sync capabilities. Synchronization, while possible, is a pain right now. As such I think it's a tool for people who use a laptop as their only computer. Their mobile app, while perfectly usable, is also very limited. I would like to see an mobile version of DEVONthink which, at the least, features the See Also & Classify function.

DEVONthink maintains DEVONthink Personal, Pro and Pro Office. I think that this is confusing and unnecessary. The best version of DEVONthink for anyone who deals with information in a serious way is Pro Office. At less than $150, it's very reasonably priced considering the problems it's capable of solving.

These issues aside, it remains the most powerful knowledge manager tool available and I recommend it to anyone who would like to use a powerful, secure tool for archiving their data. If you'd prefer to sacrifice power and security for the sake of better ease of use, and the benefits of having your data everywhere, Evernote is an excellent alternative.