Macjournal, Devonthink, Scrivener, Tinderbox & note-taking

I have spent some time figuring out how to improve my note-taking workflow, and thought I’d share my experiences with you all. Feed-back would be very welcome.

My problem came from the fact that I have a lot of “pre-project notes”. Notes that I take on interesting books or films or experiences that may come in handy for academic work later, but which are at a stage where it’s too early to decide exactly what I am doing with them. (So my note-taking needs are mostly academic and research related.)

I love taking notes by hand, away from my computer, and always have a paper notebook and a fountain pen with me. But if I am serious about my notes, at some point I have to go over them, and transfer the essential points from paper to computer. I also, of course, sometimes take notes directly on the computer. Right now I have a whole stack of handwritten notes I need to go through.

The problem is that I don’t actually know what I’ll use them all for (yet). I find that putting them in Devonthink directly means that they often drown among all the other data I have there. (I find that I can’t tag or group such notes appropriately because they are still at a pre-project stage.) And while Tinderbox is great for thinking, it is not a good place for just keeping inchoate notes. Scrivener is absolutely essential when it comes to drafting papers, but it is not suited to be just a ragbag repository of notes before one gets to the writing stage.

In short, what I need is a place that can be a kind of pre-project repository of notes. Which means that the application has to be able to export notes easily to my three other favorite applications. Enter Macjournal. The export functions are phenomenal, and very easy to use. It is easy to transfer whole folders of notes right into Devonthink and Scrivener (as rtf). It is just as easy to export them as txt, and then simply drag them into Tinderbox. Of course Devonthink can also index Macjournal notes, if one prefers. Macjournal also coexists beautifully with Simpletext and Notational Velocity, which are my preferred note-taking apps on the road. For once, I feel that I have solved a problem which has been nagging me for a long time.

Any comments? Further suggestions? Potential difficulties that I should be aware of?

I don’t know Macjournal and I haven’t yet mastered Tinderbox :wink:

I have the same observation for Scrivener ("(…)not suited to be just a ragbag repository of notes(…)").

About DevonThink, did you try smart folders? You can automatically group notes from various sources based on some keywords. Very useful and powerful.

@Hedda: I am glad you are finding your way in your process but I will give you a word of caution… Many times the problem isn’t the components but the workflow.

I have been designing workflows for the past 20+ years, often involving scripting. Often people want to automate a process that shouldn’t be automated. They need a new workflow, not an automated fragile / inflexible one. And one of the worst things to do is throw more software at it. Watch for unnecessary duplication of function in applications.

I don’t mean to preach (though I suppose I am) and I don’t mean to discourage you. I just don’t want you to rely on a system that’s trying to rely on too many pieces that aren’t necessarily built to work together.

BTW, if you are running Pro or Pro Office, have you considered just having a database dedicated to these transient, unfiled notes?

I’ll mention my version of this, which will not fit with your workflow but is another path. I also take extensive handwritten notes so I can write or diagram or annotate them easily and on-the-fly. For several years I’ve used a LiveScribe pen and notebooks for these. Typing notes is too linear and slow. The pen records everything, I download and save these written notes to PDFs, and store those in DEVONthink. In meetings or elsewhere I collect handouts and papers and scan them to DEVONthink. I have a page numbering scheme to link the LiveScribe notes to the scanned handouts, and thus built up a record with supporting documents. I don’t have a need to convert my handwritten notes to searchable text.

Couldn’t agree more. At times, I’ve wasted hours fiddling with workflow automation – focusing on the “flow” and losing track of the “work” 8) Oops.

ROFL - Nice, korm! BTW…

. Good to know. I have considered this option (as it really addresses a need many still have) but never bought one. I respect your recommendation on this. Thanks for sharing.

I am also struggling with this and haven’t found the optimal solution yet.

I often use Slipbox for these kinds of notes. You can tag notes and other kind of meta data. I like the way this application can find related notes automatically / similar as DT. And it’s free!

Using a seperate DT database for these kinds of notes sounds also like a good option, also I’d somehow prefer the “lighter” version with Slipbox

I am very grateful for everyone’s input so far. (I really enjoy this user forum: alongside Scrivener’s surely the most sensible crowd online!)

Bluefrog: you are right to warn agains the tech temptation! (By the way, I do have DTPO.) But I have owned Macjournal for years, for other purposes, so at least I didn’t just run out to spend money recklessly!

Which means that I may be inconsistent when I also say that Nomad’s recommendation of slipbox actually sounds very interesting to me. I will definitely check it out.

Then there are the aesthetic and personal elements: I think Devonthink’s quick note panel is really uninspiring (all boring black!), and the .rtf document within Devonthink is also less than engaging to write in. (I do like Scrivener’s full screen, fully customized window, which one can give any color and background color one wants…) As for
LiveScribe: I suppose I would have to give up my beloved fountain pens to use it!

I just wanted to add that the major reason I think Macjournal is a good choice for scattered pre-project notes is precisely that I don’t feel locked into it. Macjournal is no way an exciting application. It is in real need of a thorough redesign (but so are the three other applications I am discussing here). But Macjournal is easy to use. Its saving grace is the simple and versatile export function. Which means that I can use it as a shoebox, and decide later whether I think the notes I parked there should be sorted and indexed in Devonthink, used as background for writing in Scrivener, or as lego-blocks for thinking in Tinderbox.

Here’s how it works. In Macjournal, a “journal” is essentially a folder. Each folder can contain any number of entries. Click on the journal, click on export, and Macjournal sends a folder full of either .txt or .rtf files (your choice – each journal entry becomes a separate file) to whatever location you designate, including Devonthink’s inbox. Or place the folder on the desktop and have Scrivener iimport it. (For Tinderbox, which I am only beginning to comprehend, by the way, export as .txt files and then just drag the notes on to a Tinderbox map).

For me this just means that I am keeping my options open, not that I am adding extra work (the exporting is so simple, it barely counts as work). However, having said that, I actually think ealvarez’s idea of a smart folder responding to a “ragbag” label would also work well. At least that would give all such notes a separate color in Devonthink.

I have spent a long time wondering about the “bottle-neck” of unstructured notes. We want to keep them, but we don’t yet know what we’ll ultimately do with them, and we don’t want to commit to overhasty categorization. (Tinderbox promises to deal with the uncommitted note, to put it this way, but the learning curve is VERY steep! Too much work for just the note-taking, quite frankly.) Bluefrog: as an expert work-flow designer, have you any note-taking secrets up your sleeve?

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Unfortunately, not really. Freeform notes - my transient data - fall under unstructured datasets so there’s little to apply a workflow to. Since they are transient they are expendable and rarely need to survive to the end of a project.

I actually use DTPO for almost all my freeform notes because they have so little real value. (I do most of my serious daily writing in Bean - fullscreen - because I haven’t finished converting it to DT (and I like the fullscreen magnification factor in Bean).) I make liberal use of the web Bookmarklets and on occasion, the Quick Note function. (I actually will use TextEdit out of habit too.)