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My notes in Obsidian

Every so often I get (stuck) excited. Then I (stop) start making progress. Next, a (failure) new opening arrives w.r.t. what I’m working on. And so I (put it aside) start on something new, hoping that this change will help me progress … in some way.

Yes, that was a confusing paragraph. Because the distinction between these two modes of working is deeply unsettling. Getting stuck usually gets me down and starting something new gets me going. But without bumping into some problem, there is also no meaningful progress. This struggle is a key ingredient … and part of that struggle is to keep track of all my notes and ideas.

The past few weeks were such a roller coaster: from doodling without focus, to figuring out how to implement a multi-tasker and tacking it into the new “v2” JeeH library. And then moving back to the Monty project where all this is intended to be used, only to see all momentum vanishing again. Time for yet another break. I’ve become really good at taking breaks, putting the stuff I’m working on aside, and … going back to doodling.

This latest break took me away to a completely different domain: organising my notes, links, documents, projects, computers, whatever - in other words: taking a “meta” step back. Procrastination at its best: since I’m stuck and fighting a big task ahead anyway … why don’t I go clean the house instead? Yeay: progress!

So here’s my new approach: for over a year now, I’ve been using Obsidian as my main tool for collecting notes on my laptop and desktop computers. Before that, I was using nvALT, but it only handles the text itself, whereas Obsidian can also save images and other documents. And it’s all based on Markdown and open source. That means: 1) no file-format or vendor lock-in, 2) no reliance on specific tools (it’s all plain text, in the end), and 3) it syncs effortlessly across different machines using Nextcloud, which I’m running locally on a low-power always-on Raspberry Pi.

It’s working out really well. Over the past decade, my PKM setup has grown from over 1500 notes in nvALT to now over 2500 notes in Obsidian. And there is one key feature in Obsidian which makes it work so well for me: automatic (back-) links. With a reference of the form [[xyz]] in any note, I can create a link to a note named xyz, and not only will Obsidian track the links in both directions, it will actually update the link to [[xyz blah]] if I ever decide to rename the note to xyz blah. Links change: from making minor tweaks to having to split a note into two related notes. With Obsidian, I now have a an externalised Second Brainwith robust dynamic synapses! - And it’s all done with plain text and Markdown files. This is as future-proof as it gets.

This whole “second brain” thing is a bit of a fad, but so is everything tied to “productivity management”, if you ask me. We’ve gone from Dave Allen’s GTD in 2001, via Merlin Mann’s Inbox Zero in 2006, Omni Group’s OmniFocus application in 2011, and Cal Newport’s Deep Work in 2016, to Tiago Forte’s Building a Second Brain in 2022. You could spend (and I have spent …) days reading up on this. Not to forget Niklas Luhmann’s Zettelkasten - a paper note-taking methodology taken to the extreme.

Like everyone else who falls into this productivity rabbit hole, I’ve cobbled together my own setup - trying to keep things simple, matching my geeky needs, and geared towards my leisurely pensioner’s “work” habits:

  • all my notes are stored in Obsidian (also some sketches and images, but rarely any app-specific data)
  • I’m using a reduced version of Forte’s PARA structure: Projects, Long-term (i.e. areas), and Archive
  • instead of a “resources” folder, I’m tagging notes to make them easy to find (#book, #idea, #writing, etc)
  • apart from these 3 folders, there are two more: Zettel and Monthly (which is auto-generated from Zettel)
  • and lastly, one of the project files is called Inbox - it’s a holding tank for get-it-written-down-asap notes

Inside the Archive folder are 3 subfolder: Assets, Closed, and Filed. That’s all: eight folders. I don’t have a folder per project, only notes (with links and back-links). Data files go elsewhere. My Obsidian “vault” is now at 10 MB (notes) + 38 MB (assets).

Here’s the thing: all my 2500+ notes are placed in a single folder, called “Filed”. No structure. Just a unique file name (with .md file extension). The Assets folder is where Obsidian places all the files I drag onto a note to insert an image or other document. The Closed folder is for completed and shelved projects.

Only a handful of these notes are placed in the Projects and Long-term folders, i.e. within immediate reach.

And these are the three ways I capture information (scribbles, bookmarks, images, etc):

  1. add a line or two to the Inbox note (to be reviewed and moved around perhaps a few days later)
  2. add text to an existing note, inserting [[...]] links as needed, this is also used to create new notes
  3. hit CMD+U to create a uniquely-named Zettel note - these are note-to-self “discussions” on some topic

These last “Z-notes” are generated from a template and start with a “YYWW” code (e.g. 2251 for 2022, week 51), so that picking a title which doesn’t clash with other Z-notes is easy. From the command line, I run a little Python script which goes through the Z-notes and updates their corresponding monthly index pages. As a result, there is one note per month to give me a feel for the things I’ve been “discussing with myself” and a timeline to leaf through when revisiting things as they evolved over time.

That’s it. But Obsidian itself adds a lot of functionality: on the left, I have a sidebar which can switch between “starred” notes, a collapsible file/folder view, a tag list, and a global search pane. On the right, I can switch between auto-generated lists of back-/forward-links for the current note and a Markdown header outline. And the live editing mode in Obsidian is brilliant.

I don’t use any “community provided” plugins for Obsidian, nor its flashy “graph-of-links” visualisations. There’s no need. What’s shown on the screen is content: mostly text, links, URLs, and diagrams / photos. And structure, which emerges gradually.

None of these notes are meant for publication (but I do write articles in the same way, i.e. inside Obsidian). None of this is structured or hierarchically organised, it’s 100% associative and personal, just like my (1st) brain.

P.S. For a very nice (IMO) overview of digital note taking and apps, see this 4-part video series by Tiago Forte on YouTube.