Notes with Obsidian: My Initial Impressions

Now that I have been using Obsidian fairly exhaustively for the last 5 days, I think I’ve got enough experience with it to share my initial impressions.

I mentioned earlier that Obsidian was the notetaking tool I’ve been looking for all my life. That begs the question: what is it that I’ve been looking for in notetaking software to begin with? Here are a few of my requirements. (Your mileage may vary.)

My requirements

Notes should be plain text

There are two kinds of notes I deal with:

  1. Ephermeral notes, or those notes that I am jotting something quickly for later use, but that can ultimately get thrown away because they will be transformed into something else. Examples of this might include a person’s name, or phone number, or a rough set of notes from a phone conversation.
  2. Permanent notes: the kind that I’ll continue to use, update, and search into the forseeable future. Examples of these include how-to notes, daily notes, notes and clippings from reading. Drafts of blog posts, lists I maintain.

When I think of notes, I think of the need for versatility. I keep a Field Notes notebook in my pocket at all times to capture many of the type 1 notes above. I’ve found over the years that is much quicker than pulling out my phone, unlocking it, finding a notes app, and tapping out what I want to capture. To that end, the most versatile file format for digital notes, for me, anyway, is plain text. Plain text has many advantages:

  • I don’t have to worry about the file format. Plain text files created in the 1980s can still be read today with any old text editor.
  • Plain text files are easy vehicles for automation. Automation is a big reason why I’d want to keep notes in digital form in the first place.
  • Plain text files are cross-platform compatible.
  • Plain text files are easy to search and are the perfect targets for advances searches with regular expressions.
  • With Markdown, even plain text files can be rendered with formatting.

Notes should be rendered as Markdown

When I have looked to convert all my notes (and even my writing) to plain text in the past, one thing that has help me back is the lack of a good tool for rendering the Markdown in the files. It never looked like how I wanted it. Most text editors are really for writing code, and they bias their features in that direction.

This is one place where Obsidian excels. It has a great UI, one that is designed for notetaking (instead of code) and one that renders Markdown well. It is also flexible enough to allow custom themes so that really, you can make your plain text notes look pretty much however you want.

Notes should be easily linkable

A few years back, I tried to put together a system that allowed me to create links between my notes. I understood intuitively how useful this would be. But it seemed like a difficult problem, and really, I didn’t want to spend my time writing code, I wanted to work with my notes.

Obsidian’s note-linking capability–one of its central functions–eliminates this problem, and removes all the roadblocks to linking notes. Not only have I jumped on this feature, I have even started down the Zettelkasten rabbit hole (something I will discuss in a future post). Being able to easily link notes, follow those links, and see the relationships they form is a huge plus in favor of Obsidian.

Notes should be kept locally

I like that underneath it all, these are just plain text files sitting on my local file system. Of course, I can store them in iCloud or Dropbox or some other cloud service if I want to, but the actual files are local. This just helps with automation.

My initial impressions of Obsidian

Where to begin?

  • I just love the UI. It is clean, and easy to use. It makes me want to live in the app when I am working on the computer.
  • The linking is fantastic.
  • I also love that is has a folding feature built in which allows you to easily show and hide sections of a document.
  • I love that moving notes around (which I do often for organizational purposes) keeps the links up-to-date. I don’t have to think about it, it just work.
  • I love not having to save the notes. They save as I type. Important since more and more tools work this way and I’ve gotten use to not having to manually save documents.
  • Great searching capabilities! I can even search regular expressions, which comes in hand.
  • The Daily Notes feature is awesome and I’ve started using it to create a kind of digital bullet journal.

I’ve liked what I’ve seen enough that I became an Obsidian Supporter. I find the forums and documentation both useful.

Some use cases to illustrate and illuminate

Let me illustrate some of what I like about Obsidian with some real use cases that I’ve got just in my first five days using the tool.

Reading notes

I take notes when I read. I mark up books (real and digital). Ultimately, I like to get those notes together in some useful fashion. (This is the one area in which I have really started to explore Zettelkasten, and I’ll have more to say about it in the future.) Here is one simple example of what I have started to do in Obsidian.

I try to read one feature article from the various magazines I get every day. When I finish an article, I create a note for the article with information about the author(s), source, date, a link to the online version, if available. I also tag the note.

In order to build a kind of searchable index, I have started to create a note for each author. On the article note, I’ll link to the author note, like this, for example:

An Obsidian note for an article in Smithsonian by Glenn Adamson

Note that I have linked to the the author on this note. So when I go and look at the note I have for that author, I see this:

Obsidian note for author with backlinks section listing all of the backlinks

The “Backlinks”section on the note is created automatically through some automation I’ve written. Again, I’ll talk about how I automated this in a future post. I know that I can just go to the backlinks section on the sidebar to see backlinks, but I like seeing the actual references in the note itself.

Presenting with notes

Block folding is incredibly useful. That is, being able to close some blocks and keep others open while looking at a note. Here is an example of this post (yes, written in Obsidian) so far with most of the blocks closed.

Obsidian note with folded headers

I find this allows me to use my notes as presentations in meeting. I’ll jot down the topics I want to discuss in the meeting. List out the points under those topics, and then, before the meeting starts, close all of the headings, so that I can walk through them one by one, sharing my notes on the screen. It allows us to focus only on the open block at hand, while still having a context for the rest of the discussion. No need for slides!

Searching for daily notes

One test I have for any good editor is how well it can search. In addition to the great capabilities that Obsidian has for searching already, it also passes my test for being able to do regular expression searches. Here is a regular express search I have ato surface all of my Daily Notes:

A regular expression search for my daily notes: /^\d{4}\.\d{2}/

I have actually gotten quite a bit of mileage already out of the daily notes features, especially after I added some automation to make it even better.

How I’ve got my Obsidian configured

I’ve already had people asking me thing like what themes I am using, so here is a summary of how I have Obsidian configured for my Macs:

![[Pasted image 20210131113120.png]]

Obsidian configured with my preferences.
My Obsidian configuration

Theme

I’m using Pisum (from the community themes). Incidentally, I did spend time loading every community theme to find one that fit well. I kept a note open and moved the ones I liked to the top of the list as I discovered ones I liked better.

Plug-ins

I’m currently using the following plug-ins:

  • Calendar
  • Daily Notes
  • Zettelkasten prefixer

Other settings I’m using

  • Fold Heading
  • Tab size: 8

Questions I’m still pondering

There are some things I am still trying to figure out, and I’ve been searching the forums to see how others approach these issues:

  1. What should be in my vault. When I started, I created my vault as a Notes folder within my Documents folder. From there, a sub-folder structure began to evolve. But I’ve found that I want to link to documents that are not in the vault, so I am beginning to wonder if really, the vault should be my entire documents folder. I’m looking for advice on the scope of a vault in Obsidian.
  2. Zettelkasten. This seems like overkill for a lot of the notes I have. Put it seems like the perfect solution for how I have envisioned organizing notes from my reading. I used to have a note for a book. All my comments and highlights would be in that note. Now, I have a note for a book, but highlights each get their own note with (a) a link back to the book in question, and (b) a reason for the link. I’ve even started linking some of these extracts to other notes, formiing the web of relationships that Zettelkasten is all about.
  3. Best format for my Daily Notes. I’ve actually done some automation here and getting happier with what I’ve got. But I’m still figuring it out. Here is an example of my Daily Note for today:
An example of a daily note
An example of a Daily Note

Automation preview

So far, I have automated 3 things using Obsidian notes and the plain-text framework:

  1. Collect “to-read” references into a single note. This collects tags marked “to-read” throughout my notes into a single “To Read” note so that I have a single list to look at. My script will ignore items tagged to read if they have already been checked off.
  2. Update People index. This is the script that scrapes notes for backlinks to specific people notes and adds the “Backlinks” section to that person’s notes.
  3. Daily Note generation. This genarates the daily note for the day (just after midnight). I pulls in the agenda from my iCloud calendars. It pulls the to-dos from incomplete to-dos found in other notes, and from any incomplete items in my Apple Reminders. It then formats the other sections and creates the note.

I’ll write about these automations in more detail in a future post.


So there you have it, my initial impressions of Obisian. I’m looking forward to exploring it more. And I’m eager for that mobile app that’s “coming soon.”

9 comments

  1. So pleased you’ve taken up to using Obsidian. As expected, you’ve far surpassed what I’ve been using it for in the last 3 months since I moved from Evernote. (I found your blog way back when you were taking about Evernote and stayed).

    I’m looking forward to all the automation and clever things you are going to bring to this subject. Thanks.

    One of the very best features of Obsidian for me is the transclusion whereby you can embed notes (or indeed parts of notes) within other notes.

    1. Paul, uh, so transclusion was not what I thought it was and after I read your comment, I experimented with it and found a great niche it fills in my reading notes. Wow! That feature is amazing. Thanks for reminding me it existed!

  2. Curious on how and where you use the Prefixer. I’m doing first steps in both Zettelkasten and Obsidian right now, and not sure whether the timestamp prefixes are worth it. If I recall correctly, they originate from having some kind of unique ID for linking actual index cards, but for software them seem less useful.

    1. Michael, I tried using the Prefixer initially as suggested by the Zettelkasten process, but like you, I quickly found that it wasn’t worth it and I gave it up. The internal linking is good enough, so far.

  3. Wondering what your current practice is for the question you raised, “what should be in my vault?” I’ve had the same issue. I’d like to have everything in one big folder and add metadata via embedding those files in Obsidian notes. But I have package files like Keynote that don’t show up correctly.

    1. Russell, I’m still trying to figure this out. On the one hand, it seems that for the linking to be really effective, you’d want your vault to include everything so that some unexpected relationships would show up. On the other hand, that can seem a bit unwieldy. Once I figure how the best way to handle this, I’ll write more about what I am doing in this regard. For now, I lean toward the former (vault should include everything).

  4. Putting everything in one vault is only useful when the notes are structured according to the Zettelkasten principles as written down by Adrian Philipp:
    1. Atomicity: Each note should contain one idea and one idea only. This makes it possible to link ideas with a laser focus.
    2. Autonomy: Each note should be self-contained and comprehensible on its own. This allows notes to be moved, processed, separated, and concatenated independently of its neighbors. It also ensures that notes remain useful even if the original source of information disappears. Same idea as the Single-reposibility principle in programming.
    3. Link notes: A note that is not connected to the network will be lost, will be forgotten by the Zettelkasten.
    4. Explain why linking: Briefly explain why notes are linked for future reference.
    5. No copy-paste: Recalling helps the brain to comprehend the information.
    6. Sources: So the original can be read/viewed/heard again in a later stage.
    7. No folder structure: Use tags to aid searchability and links between notes for extending the knowledge graph. All notes can be flat in one folder.
    8. Connection notes: When linking notes that need a longer explanation why they are linked, use a new note connecting the notes.
    9. Outline notes: When creating an overview of a topic or theme, also see Zettelkasten zettel types.
    10. Never delete: Instead, link create a new note with a revised idea that links to the old note.
    11. Keep adding notes: The system doens’t break with more notes. Add as many as possible.
    So that will make things not easier!

    1. Raffy, so far, I am finding it useful (even if it is not canonical) to use a single vault for everything, even though I break many of these rules. My reading notes definitely follow the structure you outlined above, especially 1-7. But even though I do have a folder structure, the linking between notes has formed some interesting insights from things that at first glance are seemingly unrelated.

      In many ways the rules above remind me of the rules for normalizing data in a database. When I design databases, I strive for some level of normalization (typically 3rd normal form) but I also know when it is appropriate and convenient to break the rules (for speed of searches, data-to-UI, etc.).

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