Wanting advice re organisation

I have started my first undergraduate degree at age 51. I bought DT just recently in response to document overload which I initially tried to manage with tags, Hazel, and Smart Folders but the overhead cost was very high.

I have created one database per semester so far (currently halfway through semester two). Each has four main groups corresponding to the four courses I do per semester.

Into the groups go all the PDFs that consist of research papers, lecture notes, and a bunch that I loosely refer to as ‘resources’. The resources might be guidelines, best-practise frameworks etc.

I’m just now learning that these resources often cross boundaries between courses and semesters, so I’m wondering what the best way might be to have them accessible.

At some point I might also remove certain older semester databases from my laptop for space reasons.

I think I have two options but would like feedback from longer term users of DT.

  1. Maintain a separate database just for the ‘resources’ PDFs
  2. Maintain a separate folder somewhere (iCloud) of the resources and index that folder into whichever database needs access to the resources.



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I’d probably use only one database and groups in it according to subject: In mathematics, I’d have algebra, analysis, stochastic etc. as groups.

I would agree that it is much better to group material according to the content of the items. You can extend categorisation by using tags or keywords.

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Congrats on your new journey!

I would suggest you follow your instincts. How would you organize this data in the Finder?

Can you provide details as to the “overhead cost”

I use a single database, tags, smart groups and Applescript
Smart ToC (Table of Contents) notes are generated with scripts

I wouldn’t organize via multi-databases; there’s overhead there too
No space limitations yet; I’m under 20GB

I was referring to the cost overhead of my pre-DevonThink workflow, which involved Finder tags, automation via Hazel and Finder Smart Folders.

Thank you,

In the Finder I would normally use folders for managing via hierarchies/categories. I tried to embrace a new way of using the tags/Smart Folders for the categorising as I briefly described.

Perhaps I’m worrying too early about the database getting too big.

Yes, don’t worry pretty much at any time about database getting too big. Perhaps only too big if you expect to sync the entire BIG database (GB’s) to an iPhone or something.

And, re structure, start off as you understand the structure. Use “smart groups” to refine the structure. Easy to change structure in future. Focus on the material and not so much your structure.


You might like to take a look at this screenshot that I posted:

I discovered an interesting strategy for organising material over at the Tinderbox forums: the concept is “incremental formalisation” (Search results for 'incremental formalisation' - Tinderbox Forum). Stated rather crudely, the idea is that you don’t try to set out categories before you have done any work, but rather you begin working with the material and allow the organisation to emerge as you gain understanding of the material. This method perhaps works best with material that doesn’t obviously fit into rigid categories. But as you have discovered, it is not uncommon to find that material can belong in more than one place. One advantage of using tags, smart folders and the like, is that the work that one puts into organisation can be cumulative. Adding tags means that you preserve any work you have done before, whereas moving an item to another folder or group effectively “destroys” the previous work.


Congratulations on being a student! Here is a screenshot from a mindmap, showing part of my naming folder/group system. The naming convention using W and P for work/personal and then one more layer for major areas like WR for Work-Responsibilities helps with searching for things.


In what app did you generate the mindmap?

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I use Mindnode for outlining, summaries and even in lectures. Xmind is however including more and more features that put it ahead of Mindnode (like a presentation mode, bracket elements to annotate part of the map) that encourage a switch.

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I would suggest putting all of the item in a single DT database. There will be considerable overlap, and after your first two years, you will often find resources form lower level courses helpful in upper-level courses.

I would organize the items in folders by subject, i.e. English, chemistry, PoliSci.

I would tag them with the specific course.

I would encourage you to take lecture notes by hand, or use a digital pencil/pen. Your brain is wired to remember things you write. There is often a tendency, not only in me, but one I see in student, to be so bent on transcribing the lecture when they keyboard, that they are essentially on autopilot.

The notes are to remind you of what you hear, not a transcription.

As you take lecture notes and reading notes, make conections not only from one lecture to another, to different classes, and to your own knowledge and experiences.


Thanks for sharing this diagram. I have even trying to use the Johnny Decimal way of organising things but struggle with remembering the number for a group of related items. Substituting letters for the numbers for main area/category hadn’t occurred to me but was prompted by your diagram. It will make my life so much easier. Thanks

One question - do you name files within a group with the two letter prefix?

Thanks again.

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I also tried lots of ways and I am happy that this system has been now stable for a long time, not requiring changes.

I go only down to folder/group level with the naming system. For files/items in those groups, I have Devonthink automatically adding the group name as a tag.

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Thanks for the outline; nice presentation

For organization, I use tag methodology instead of folders
so my similar chart would be “naming tag system”
(however in DT, tags are special groups, so I’m also group naming :slightly_smiling_face:)

I go only down to folder/group level with the naming system. For files/items in those groups …

As tags, the naming standard persists at the file level
Another example of difference with tags is “Projects” and “Responsibilities” are separate tags,
and don’t have to be repeated in the naming

I have Devonthink automatically adding the group name as a tag

I set up a project-id tag for each project, and assign it to notes related to the project

Within the same database “Replicants” will display the same file (or folder) in multiple locations.

Edit any of those and they all change. For me it is incredibly useful - avoids duplicates, same data is always up to date, and even keeps database smaller…

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