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Cognition

My Paperless Trail

In a previous Cognition post, I shared my experiences of working remotely over the last 5 years. In the last section of that post, I made a quick reference to DEVONthink Pro Office, which I described as a “powerful database tool” that “allows you to easily store, tag, classify, and search for documents.” That is still true and, just as I mentioned in the post, I use DEVONthink Pro Office to store all of my documents, notes, URLs, and other files. As a follow-up, I want to share some more details on how I use DEVONthink Pro Office to organize some of my Happy Cog project documents.

Last Fall, with the impending arrival of our first child and initial plans to sell our house, I decided to simplify our life by reducing the amount of stuff we kept around. Part of this was my Great Paperless Office Initiative 2010 (affectionately referred to as “sigh” by my wife). Since I had already put so much effort into doing this for my personal documents, it only made sense to extend this to how I store, search, and organize documents for my work at Happy Cog.

My tools are:

  • DEVONthink Pro Office because of its ability to OCR (Optical Character Recognition) scanned documents and
  • the Fujitsu ScanSnap S1300 scanner.

Together I can almost effortlessly scan, OCR, and organize my documents. The result is a paperless, searchable and smart filing system.

Keep ‘Em Separated

DEVONthink Pro Office allows you to create different databases where you can store your documents and other information like URLs, RSS feeds, email, spreadsheets, and rich or plain text notes.

I have different databases for each context of my life: Personal and Work. In the Personal database I store everything from financial records to scans of important receipts, medical documents, bills, and even manuals for appliances. In my Work database I store project information (PDFs, wireframes, sitemaps, technology research) for both active projects and prospective clients. Because I sometimes have to do research for prospective clients (e.g. a certain technology or platform is required and I need to learn more about it), it’s always handy to keep that information together in one spot. Here’s a sample of what my setup looks like:

There are three top-level folders: Clients, Internal, and Prospects. Clients are broken up into separate client folders, Internal is organized by internal projects, and Prospects by company. The hierarchy can be as simple or complex as you want. For my Happy Cog database, I don’t need anything complex, so this setup works just fine.

Getting the Data In

While doing research on a prospective or active project, I can drop in bookmarks to related web pages (or as I typically do, create web archives for offline viewing), import PDFs, take notes, or as in the case of the (unfortunately fake) “Breakfast Tacos USA” client, I’m pulling in an entire Google Alert feed for a search related to the project. This automatically updates my DEVONthink database with the latest search findings.

For phone or on-site meetings, I prefer to take meeting notes on paper. In the past, I have taken notes directly into DEVONthink or into a plain text file. I’ve found I take better handwritten notes, which also allow me to draw diagrams, doodle, and otherwise express myself as quickly and succinctly as possible. I find that hard to do when just typing text in an editor.

I used to take my notes in a bound notebook (like the Moleskine variety that are so popular) but that made it difficult to get the notes scanned. I’ve settled on a notepad of standard (for the USA) 8.5 × 11 graph paper. The paper I use is the Edward Tufte variety. I like the quality of paper and how easy it is to write on it.

After a meeting, I drop the notes into my ScanSnap scanner and press the glowing blue button. It’s a duplex scanner so it scans both sides at once. DEVONthink takes over by OCR’ing the notes and placing them in my database inbox. I can move them to the project or let it auto-classify the document. I should note that unless you have very neat handwriting (and I do not), the OCR’d document may not prove very useful. You can mitigate this somewhat, however, by using a good document title and adding relevant keywords. Doing so will help your document appear in search results.

After scanning, the paper notes are kept for a short period (days, not weeks) and then shredded.

For web-based resources, I like to import web pages as a web archive or entire website using the Import Site feature.

Getting the Data Out

The real power of DEVONthink (and what puts it beyond just using the Mac OS X Finder and Spotlight) is its “Artificial Intelligence.” Along with text searches of PDFs, DEVONthink automatically displays relationships between your documents, which means you can find exactly what you’re looking for plus any related material. This really works well when you have a lot of documents stored in the database or are working on an extensive research project (like writing a book, a proposal, or planning a new technology platform).

From DEVONthink, I can also quickly email documents to coworkers or export entire projects as folders or even as a website.

Further Reading

My current workflow with DEVONthink Pro Office doesn’t take advantage of everything the software can do, so if you’re interested, I hope you’ll read more about it. I can recommend the following additional reading (which, coincidentally, I found by searching my database for DEVONthink materials):

Feature List of DEVONthink
Bylr.net for an overview, scripts and tweaks
Take Control Of Getting Started with DEVONthink 2 ebook

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