Highlights + DevonThink = Pretty Great

I’m late to the Highlights party, but I’m glad I got here.

Like many readers of this blog, I get sent (and occasionally read) a lot of PDFs. In fact, I did a quick search in DevonThink, and I am informed that I have 52,244 PDFs in my library. These are a mix of reports, archived copies of websites, scanned-and-OCRed photos and a thousand-and-one things in between.

Thus far, my workflow has been to read PDFs on my Mac. Any notes I took while reading the file were written up manually in separate files. I would laboriously copy and paste whatever text snippet or quotation I wanted to preserve along with its page reference. These would be fed into DevonThink’s AI engine and magic would happen.

Now, post-Highlights-installation, my workflow is much less laborious. I can take highlights in-app, export all the quotations as separate text or HTML files and have have DevonThink go do its thing without all the intermediary hassle. If you’re  a professional researcher or writer using DevonThink as your notes database — and quite frankly, if not, why not? — the Highlights app will probably please you.

Skills Development: Foundations

I watched this video a few months ago, but thought it worth returning to since it covers a lot of really useful ground for anyone who has to learn new skills / develop etc. Which is to say, it's relevant to everyone on planet Earth.

Or just read these notes to get an overview of some useful things she talks about. (If you want to read a transcript, go here.)

“Allison Kaptur: Effective Learning for Programmers” — Notes from YouTube

We learn early on that Kaptur’s job at the Recurse Center was to help and support students grow and learn amidst the freedom that the programme there afforded them. This kind of unstructured environment can come as a shock if you’ve only been able to work in structured settings in the past (schools, universities, big companies etc). The unstructured freedom to which Kaptur refers around the 1:30 mark also happens to be a hallmark that defines self-study work.

“Growth Mindset”

  • Kaptur introduces the work of sociologist Carol Dweck and the distinction she’s drawn between fixed mindsets and growth mindsets.
    • A fixed mindset “holds that intelligence is a trait that some people have in some fixed amount, and they can’t really affect how much of it they have.”
    • A growth mindset “says that intelligence is something that you can work on and something you can develop with effort.”
  • Whether someone adopts a fixed or a growth mindset then can determine how they view various other aspects of work. With regards to ‘effort’, people who believe in fixed mindsets hold that “if you are good at something, then it should be easy”. (And, conversely, if you’re bad at something, then it should be hard.) People with a growth mindset believe that you need to work hard at something to become better at it.
  • Kaptur mentions how Dweck’s work has also shown that people who are praised for their effort in the task being performed tend to get better results [slight simplification of what she said] than those who are praised for what they achieved. This is a fairly well-known and well-publicised aspect of Dweck’s work.
  • Kaptur notes that having a fixed vs growth mindset is something which (it seems) can be changed. And the switch from fixed to growth mindset can sometimes happen with deceptively easy tactics.
    • Sometimes it’s as simple as being aware of the things you’re saying (e.g. “Oh, I could never learn physics”). Kaptur suggests when you say “I am…” or “Some people are just…”, these might be times to examine whether you’re stuck in a fixed mindset pattern.
  • Four strategies to change a fixed mindset:
    • 1) “Reframe praise and success” — if someone praises you for something you said by saying “you’re so smart”, you can mentally (most of the time you will say this to yourself internally) reframe this as “yes, I did a great job on that project. I worked very hard and I used an effective strategy.”
    • 2) “Reframe failure” — this is basically the opposite of the first strategy. Listen to your self-talk when you fail at something. If you’re saying “I failed because I’m bad” or “maybe I’m not cut out for this kind of work”, then try reframing it by asking yourself what you learnt from this attempt and what strategies you could change or use next time you try something similar.
    • 3) “Celebrate challenges” — if you can find ways to frame places where you struggle as a victory or an accomplishment in and of itself, this will really help drive you into that growth mindset. Accordingly, when the going gets tough, celebrate the difficult as an opportunity for growth, development and learning.
    • 4) “Ask about processes” — asking “how did you do that” can often be really illuminating, and is better (when viewing someone else’s work, for example) than saying “of course they did x or y; they are a genius/wizard”.
  • On Confidence & Imposter Syndrome
    • Dweck’s research shows that confidence doesn’t help you respond to challenges. A lot of advice counsels feeling more confident in response to difficulties in work etc, but the angle Dweck is explores is the idea that “if you’re doing something new, confidence about something old doesn’t help you with that.”
    • If you hold a fixed-mindset, any moment is basically a chance to prove whether or not you are a failure. “So running into challenges is particularly stressful in that context.”
    • The trick to getting past all of this (of course) is to adopt a growth mindset. (20:10)


Dweck’s research also shows that those who really embody a ‘growth mindset’ are also focused on strategies (and not just outcomes).

  • “Make It Stick” — Kaptur offers some useful tips that she gathered from this great book. You can read my review here, in which I also extract some of my favourite actionable points.
    • “Learning is an acquired skill” — the premise of the book
    • 1) “Effortful retrieval > rereading” — this can be something like self-tests administered through Anki, or it can just be writing a review of a book after you’ve read it. Or it could be trying to summarise a recently-mastered topic by teaching it to someone else.
    • 2) “Spaced practice > massed practice” — Kaptur references three main ways to space out practice — spaced / varied / and interleaved.
      • Spaced = spacing practice sessions out over time rather than bunching it all together in a single mega-session
      • Varied = find a way to vary the kinds of practice you’re getting so that you’re not getting falsely sure of your command of the topic.
      • Interleaved = shuffling the kinds of exercise / practice you’re doing so that it’s somewhat random is better than always sticking to the same order (or a predictable order).
    • 3) “Difficulty is (usually) desirable” — (with the related point that making errors is usually desirable). One difficulty that isn’t desirable, however, is anxiety around performance. This comes out of Dweck’s research.

This is all difficult — a consequence of the fact that all of these strategies are difficult is that people don’t do it. They don’t challenge their recall, they don’t push into the areas they don’t know and so on, even after they’ve been specifically instructed in the ways that these strategies are more effective.

Kaptur encourages us to find ways to make effortful retrieval part of our everyday lives and work. This may mean you have to:

  1. use a flashcard programme to test you
  2. take guesses
  3. be systematic about how you attack your problems. She is speaking in the context of programming, so she talks about debugging but it works for most problems. Have a hypothesis about what’s going wrong, and then tackle each part systematically.

She also suggests we find ways to implement spaced practice. The harder you work to retrieve a fact from your memory, the better this is for your grasp of that fact, so in the end while it feels horrible to test yourself on recall of materials you don’t know so well, it’s actually better for you.

With a growth mindset, errors are something to be welcomed (because they imply that there’s some sort of a feedback loop going on, from which you can, in turn, learn). Thus finding ways to get more feedback (about your writing, your code, etc) is to be encouraged.

PhD Tools: Goodreads for Cross-Pollination

[This is part of a series on the tools I used to write my PhD. Check out the other parts here.]

During the period I was working most intensely on my PhD writeup, I read over 100 books. I put that number out there not as a confrontation, but as an illustration that reading is important to ensure you don't get lost in a small box of your own creation. Judging purely from my own experience and from sporadic conversations with a loose handful of fellow PhD candidates, this can be a real problem.

Reading widely and about issues and problems wholly unrelated to your field of study is, I believe, the hallmark of a curious mind. If I meet someone for the first time and I'm assessing their work, I'm far more likely to be interested in the last ten books they've read than many other data points. Even the fact that someone is taking time to read, and to read diversely, is an important indicator for me.

I think I can date my adoption of this books-and-ideas-for-cross-fertilisation to when I read Steven Johnson's book Where Good Ideas Come From. He makes a strong case for a more deliberate approach to how you develop and cultivate ideas in your thinking life. (The book is short and highly suggestive of specific approaches to work. I'd recommend it if this kind of thing interests you).

I've found that things that I don't track and monitor tend to fall beside the wayside. Hence Goodreads and Beeminder and a number of other tracking tools. Goodreads allows you to set how many books you want to read each year and then keeps a convenient little widget reminding your how far ahead or behind you are of your goal. If you want a bit more of a 'sting' for non-compliance, you can hook up Beeminder and you'll be kept honest that way.

Reading books on unrelated topics was something I would do in the afternoons or evenings after my Four Perfect Hours. The time would be mine and I could read without any sense of guilt or that I wasn't making progress on my PhD writeup. No, I'd done my work in the morning, so now I could read to my heart's content.

Encounters with books are encounters with other ideas, other minds. It refreshes your approach and your sense of perspective -- both so important for your PhD. Give it a try! See how you can add in some reading time to your daily routine. Even 30 minutes before bed each evening adds up in the end.

PhD Tools: DevonThink for File Storage and Discovery

[This is part of a series on the tools I used to write my PhD. Check out the other parts here.]

Discovering similar notes in one of my DevonThink databases

Discovering similar notes in one of my DevonThink databases

I first heard about DevonThink in the same breath as Tinderbox. They go together, though they serve different purposes. Some people want to make an either/or decision about which to use. I see them as sufficiently different to assess them on their own merits and as per your usage scenario.

As with all tools, you should come to the decision table with a set of features that you're looking for. Don't just shop around for new things for the sake of newness or for the sake of having a really great set of tools. These programmes are not cheap. Luckily almost all of them come with generous trial versions or periods, but I don't recommend 'newness' as a feature of any particular merit.

Devonthink (I use the Pro Office version) is a place to store your files and notes. It can, I think, take any file you can throw at it. It comes with software for processing PDFs into fully-searchable documents (OCR software, in other words) which is part of the reason why the license for the Pro Office version of the programme is so expensive.

If you're anything like me, you're drowning in PDF documents. They all come with helpful names like "afghanistan_final_report_02_16.pdf" and unless you have a rigorous file hierarchy and sorting system, you'll probably be unable to find one file or the other. And using the basic file hierarchy system for storage doesn't help you with situations like when you want to store the same file in multiple folders (i.e. what if a report is about Afghanistan and Tunisia). (DevonThink has a feature which allows you to store the files in multiple locations, but without saving two copies of the file. Any changes or annotations you make in one file will automatically be transferred to the other).

You might ask yourself why you would need DevonThink and Tinderbox (see this post for more). The short answer is that they store different kinds of files/data, and that DevonThink is less about thinking than about storage (to a certain extent) and discovery.

One of the key features of DevonThink Pro Office is its smart searching algorithms, its ability to suggest similar texts based on the contents of what you are looking at, etc. It does this by means of a proprietary algorithm, so I can't really tell you how it works, but just know that it does. It works best on smaller chunks of text. In this way, I was reading through a particular source from the 3 million-word-strong Taliban Sources Project database and then I clicked the "See also" button and it had found a source I would never otherwise have read on the same topic, even though it didn't even use one of the keywords I would have used to search for it. It uses semantic webs of words to figure this stuff out. Anyway, beyond a certain database size, this power becomes really useful. It can also archive websites, store anything including text, do in-text searches on e-books etc etc. (Read more on how I use DevonThink for research in general here.)

I also used it a little as an archive for substantive drafts / iterations of the writeup process. That's another important part of the process: making backups of many different kinds. I never found any use for them, but at least they were there (just in case).

If you're a data and document hoarder at heart, like me, you'll soon have a Devonthink database (or several databases, split up by topic) that is bigger than you can fully comprehend it, or remember what was inside the files. At that point, search becomes really important. Not just a straightforward search, but the ability to input 'fuzzy' terms (i.e. if you search for "Afghanistan" it'll also find instances where it's incorrectly spelt "Afgahistan"), and boolean language, into your query is really powerful/useful. DevonThink is an amazing search tool. The company that developed the database software also make something called DevonAgent, which is basically a power-user search tool for the internet. Google on steroids, if you will. Fully customisable, scriptable... you can really go crazy with this stuff. I use it, but my PhD wasn't really about searching things on the internet, so I didn't use it much for my research or writeup. But it's a great tool, too.

In short, DevonThink is a research database tool that will help you store and find the documents that relate to your research, and do smart things to help you find sources and texts that maybe you'd forgotten you'd saved. Highly recommended for anyone working with large numbers of documents.