Notes/reference/writing workflows

Hey guys!

Curious how people are handling their notes, reference material, and the writing or development of ideas that comes out of it all.

I’m split between Apple Notes, DEVONthink, Bear and Ulysses at the moment. But trying to consolidate and make commitments like an adult.


I’m ultimately using two things: nvALT and raw files.

In nvALT, I have a naming structure that acts like tags for the name of the text file. For example:

bookx_Getting Things Done by David Allen

ideax_Design ideas for

recipex_Chocolate Chip Cookies

That makes it possible for me to search them in nvALT on the Mac or in Editorial on my phone.

The file structure is pretty basic. I keep a folder of projects that handle any images or random docs I accumulate on the project. If it’s an email of sorts, I grab hyperlinks to them and add it to the notes field for a project.

Hmmm. I worked that system a few years ago…I think i moved on because of the friction around images. But I do like that it’s simple and that plain text files can be indexed in Devonthink and can be accessed in Ulysses.

I may throw this back into the consideration set.

Related - I know Dr. Terpstra has been working on a new NVAlt style app…really looking forward to seeing how that turns out.

PDFs were a problem for me at first. But once I realized that having a folder per project would work I never looked back. This way it doesn’t matter what type of file it is.

I’ve been a 'DevonThink fan for a long time. I always look for software that can export out of its database to keep my options. It exports out as folders and files back to the Finder whenever I need it. I’ll never get trapped in a proprietary system. That’s something that I’ve heard from Evernote users. They’re kinda stuck in the Evernote ecosystem and it may not be easy to export all of your files.

I can create folders and group files as needed. It has a unique search engine that can find similar files by spotlighting the contents. There are also shortcut links or alias links to represent a a file in different folders. It can also detect duplicate files in the database.

I haven’t really gotten around to it but there is a DevonThink app for iOS which supposedly does syncing. So that’s a bonus.

Agreed about DEVONthink. I really like it. Do you use it for notes as well?

The iOS version is really good.

Yes, I keep it for notes. I create different databases for different projects. It’s also great as a GTD reference system.

I’ve been thinking about writing up a post very similar to this.

I’m sure I’m not in a very unique spot, using a Windows environment at work. I thankfully have a way to use my Mac alongside that, but not everyone does.

My current set up is like this -

  • OneNote for work (I deal with HR docs so I need to keep that in the work system, which is all Microsoft)
  • Evernote for doc scanning, project notes, etc., outside work
  • Apple Notes (sometimes) for quick notes or reference items

My Evernote subscription expires soon. I’m really on the fence about what to do with that.

OneNote on Mac is a little too cumbersome if you want to work outside of Office applications (and on iOS it’s just not very good).

Apple Notes is similar to what I want, but I find the folder-only organization limiting for how I think.

Bear has come closest to what I’m looking for in a note taking system. It’s clean, Markdown-driven, and is plaintext at the core. I like its approach to tagging. The visualization is what makes it for me, as it’s basically how you could tag a note using Apple Notes or nvALT, but you don’t have to remember those tags.

I’ve looked at DEVONthink in the past, but it’s too expensive and clunky feeling to justify switching to it. If I’m going to invest in using DEVONthink, it’s going to be for OCR’ed PDFs and images as well as notes. That being said, you can get pretty close using some files/folders in Dropbox and scanning them with your phone.

I think I may give Bear a shot for note taking. I have also used Evernote for a digital file cabinet of sorts. Instead, I’m exploring (again) a Dropbox-based file/folder setup. I simply need to think through how I’m going to automate the maintenance of it.

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Gabe at Macdrifter doesn’t know it, but he’s been my personal IT consultant for a long time.

He’s working DEVONthink as his complete note system - he posted about it a few months ago.

I’m thinking of giving it a try. I might also test indexing text files to see how it goes. I just don’t want to be beholden to my macbook. Sometimes I go days or weeks without needing to open it.

Bear is still stuck in my craw, so to speak, but I need to settle down with something soon.

I’m with you. There’s been too much flux in this part of my system to be healthy lately. Time to choose.

When you do, you should report back here with your findings of what you like/don’t. I’ll do the same.

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I’m catching up on my Instapaper feed and ran across this article by Shawn Blanc. Shawn spends a lot of time writing and capturing notes in general so my sense is that his opinion would be pretty solid. He’s currently leaning on Ulysses.

I’ve thought about Ulysses. It’s where I do my writing. I really like it.

Benjamin Brooks uses it for notes and writing. Though it looks like he’s impressed with the new ios11 notes app…so who knows what he’s doing now.

I do like the simplicity of using one app. I’m just thinking about working split screen on iOS. Also, the images!

The plan that I was going to implement today involved Drafts for capture, Ulysses for writing and DEVONthink as central hub for notes/reference.

DEVONthink would arranged in Three databases:

  1. Personal
  2. Professional
  3. Commonplace

Personal and professional would be structured with folders. Everything from active project info to meeting notes to lists to reference documents.

Commonplace would be where short notes would go: things that are inspiring, or interesting, or may come in useful someday.

Probably would organize it through tags at first, but maybe folders could emerge as coherent collections start to come together. The beauty would be the lack of structure and seeing what emerges.

Notes going into Commonplace do need to be processed, however. I don’t want it to become a junk drawer of forgotten good intentions the way Evernote did.

In DEVONthink, every database has an Inbox. The Inbox in Commonplace can then act as a clearinghouse. Everything that is collected should be processed from being just collected stuff into knowledge. What does it mean? Why did I collect it? What might it relate to? All of that info may be captured alongside the note. It’ll then be tagged and set loose in the larger collection.

DEVONthink works well for this because having multiple databases nullifies any penalties in search or otherwise that come from collecting tons and tons of shirt notes.

However, I don’t want things to disappear forever without being useful like I saw happen with Evernote. Not easy, but I’d like to make reviewing the contents a regular occurrence. Maybe quarterly? I want this to be a useful collection of knowledge.

In any case…maybe Ulysses could play a larger role. Something to experiment with.

I’ve settled on a combination of Bear and Dropbox for my reference libraries. I haven’t had a chance to fully go in and set them up yet, but here’s what I’m thinking:


Anything notes, text, research, or otherwise will go into Bear. I need to devise a tagging structure. I absolutely enjoy Bear’s nested tags. The only thing missing is a popup showing tags you already used when inputting one into a note.


This will be used for any scans I used to use Evernote to store. I’ll have a simple filing structure:

| Year

I plan on using an app like Scanner Pro to scan these files, name accordingly, and save to an Inbox folder. Hazel will watch the inbox folder and file appropriately based upon the name. I’ll also probably tag files as well depending on type.

Only setback to any of this is the time to implement it!

@KevinR can i ask what you settled on ?

I’m also setting on devenThink for reference files … i’m just not sure if it’s great for note taking , so leaning towards Bear … although i also have Ulysses downloaded and tossing up between those two.

What have a settled on.

stares off into the void

I’ve been around the block on this.

I’ve tried to go all-in on Ulysses.

I’ve tried to go all-in on Bear.

Some things just didn’t feel right. Especially documents about things like my kids’ healthcare.

Also, I’ve been pursuing the idea of building a Zettlekasten to help with my job of teaching, writing articles, and writing for my blog.

Two things helped to move me along.

First, Devonthink 3 came along, offering more power and a much improved UI. My brain used to recoil in terror when I opened DTPO. But I don’t feel the same resistance from DT3.

Second, finding out about the PARA system that Tiago Forte teaches. He has a course, but I haven’t taken it but it’s priced well beyond what I’m willing to pay for productivity advice. What I’ve taken from it is a fairly useful system for organizing notes and reference.

I’ve spent the last few weeks pulling all of my reference/paperless/etc… files into the PARA system I have setup in DEVONThink.


I’ve been bouncing back and forth between Bear and plain text using 1writer/The Archive. Bear is great, but also can feel a bit like a toy, making it feel wrong for long term, serious work. Maybe it’s the aesthetic?

I think I’m going to settle on plain text because I can then index in Devonthink and I can open the folder of plain text files in Ulysses. That keeps the zettelkasten portable, available to work with it in apps that are better suited to it, but also makes them searchable and accessible in both of the other apps that I use.

The plain text format also makes it less likely that I’ll junk up the zettelkasten with a bunch of random web clippings that never get processed.


I love Ulysses, but it’s been a thorn in my side as anything in there is walled off from my larger system. If I was a serious person I would use IA Writer in place of Ulysses for writing. But I like Ulysses enough that I might allow this bottleneck to continue. I keep thinking about seeing what would happen if Ulysses files in dropbox were indexed by Devonthink, but I haven’t gotten around to trying it. If it works, I might consider moving all of my Ulysses content out of the native iCloud storage and into dropbox folders.

I also set Ulysses up in the PARA system, adding a couple extra top level folders that I felt were necessary.


I am getting there, but still one or two things to work out.

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I’ve been toying with the PARA approach, too (in Evernote, nonetheless). There is quickly becoming a stark divide between what I see as note takers and filing cabinets.

EN/DT/The Archive are very much filing cabinets, where long-term information goes to live.

Bear/Notes/etc. seem like short form jot-this-thing-down storage places, but not necessarily where something will live forever.

I like what you’re doing with the Zettelkasten, indexing it in DT and making it available in Ulysses. That’s actually a pretty clever move!

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