Evernote and Obsidian: Collecting vs. Creating

As I have continued to increase my use of Obsidian over the last few months, I have occasionally felt a little guilty at my neglect for Evernote. I keep coming back to the question: why not use Evernote for the stuff that I am putting into Obsidian? Yesterday, while thinking about this question, I came up with the answer. It is all about collecting versus creating.

Collecting

If you look back at my Going Paperless posts, they are all about collecting and categorizing information in some form or another. From the early days when I described my process for going paperless and tips on how I use Evernote to remember everything to the way I used Evernote as a mobile paperless office or capturing technology setup instructions, everything I wrote about, everything I experimented with was about how to collect, categorize, and find the information I needed at moment’s notice. What I didn’t write about much, because I simply didn’t do it, was create new stuff in Evernote.

Why not create in Evernote? Two reasons come to mind.

  1. It is still faster to jot something (an idea, a list) down in a pocket notebook than it is to pull out my phone, unlock it, fire up the Evernote app, and tap out the note on the touchscreen. I wrote about this as far back as 2013 when I discussed how I performed time trials of using a Field Notes notebook instead of Evernote.
  2. I’ve never been convinced that Evernote’s note-taking interface was an improvement over similar WYSIWYG interfaces. I find I spend too much time doing things like trying to get the formatting correct, and not enough time in the process of actual creation. Evernote is not unique in this regard. This is a problem I have with most WYSIWYG interfaces.

I still collect things in Evernote just as I always have. I still categorize them, refining my taxonomy, finding ways to make it easier to search for what I am looking for. But I still don’t create things in Evernote.

Creating

When it comes to writing things down, Obsidian has become the only tool I use for creation. Indeed, while I still carry around a Field Notes notebook wherever I go, and while I still fill them up, I have started to transcribe those notes into Obsidian to have the content of the 25 notebooks I have filled thus far accessible when I need it. But I transcribe them into Obsidian because I see those notes as acts of creation on my part, not me collecting things for which I had no part in the creation.

Obsidian is an entirely text-based editor that uses markdown to allow the separation of the content versus the presentation layer, something I find to be of utmost importance in a writing tool. (Scrivener does this as well.) That said, it is no faster at jotting down content than my Field Notes notebook because I still have to go through the same steps I’d go through with Evernote: pulling out the phone, unlocking it, etc.

But I do think it has important improvements over WYSIWYG interfaces that make it much for useful for creation:

  1. I can use markdown to format how I like things without spending much time worry about the formatting. I can use a third party tool like Pandoc to export the notes into whatever format I want.
  2. I can create links between my notes with ease and visualize how the notes are related to one another. The former can be done in Evernote, but not the latter.
  3. There is little to distract during the creation process so I find it easier to focus on what I am creating.
  4. The things I create in Obsidian, because they are plain text, lend themselves more readily to automation. Take my daily notes, for example.
Current map of my note links in Obsidian
Current map of my note links in Obsidian

Balance

This notion of collecting versus creating has helped provide some balance to how I think of these tools. Evernote is my digital filing cabinet–it has been since I first began using it nearly 11 years ago.

But for my own creations: notes, stories, blog posts, essays, lists, anything that is the product of my brain, Obsidian is a living archive, one that makes it easy to create content and provide context to the creation by through its innovating note linking. I now have a much better sense of what goes where, and why.

4 comments

  1. Interested to know – why not collect in Obsidian? Is it inertia of 11 years of using Evernote? I have found that don’t even open Evernote now so the data in there is effectively lost for my current process.

    1. Paul, great question. I’ve found Evernote to be really good for capturing documents and finding them quickly. The OCR has been invaluable to me. Generally speaking, I can find what I am looking for within 30 seconds–and that seems pretty fast to be considering I’ve got over 12,000 notes. Most of the documents are PDFs and importing them into Obsidian loses the ability to do that OCR searching that quickly. Then, too, I kind of like separating the creative work (writing, notes, lists, etc.) from the stuff that I collect, but generally didn’t create. I think of it as similar to the one bookshelf I have in my office that has stuff I’ve created and nothing else (diaries, journals, notebooks, magazines and anthologies in which my stories have appeared, etc.

      But, yeah, there is also inertia and sunk costs involved. I feel like it would take way more time than I want to spend getting all that Evernote data organized in Obsidian.

  2. After using Obsidian for a few months now, I think of Evernote, just like Microsoft OneNote, as a Personal Knowledge Management tool. It’s a pity though, it closes in your information and makes it their own data format (enex). When exporting notes, you can only choose enex HTML or pdf format
    I like the way that Obsidian looks over your data, however slow showing pdf contents, and not taking it over.
    For creation of content you can use any text-editor, really, but for the linking of the content, Obsidian, or that sort of tool, is handy.
    The Zettelkasten method of handling your notes can give added value over your initial creation, if you can get the ‘“hang of that”.
    So far I was not able to reach that level, but was using Obsidian as a Journaling tool and to set up some type of database (book collection). My data stayed outside the tool and can be reached on any alternative way.

  3. I like this idea. I started thinking about doing something similar when I read this post, and about the Evernote “Import Folders” feature that makes Evernote really interesting just as a secondary collection service that overlays OCR on top of imported items.

    I upgraded Evernote back to the Premium plan for a month to test this out. I’m setting up a few folder imports, and I’ll see how this works for me. I’m using Google Drive for primary document storage now (including an archive of my Evernote notes from when I stepped away from Evernote a few months ago).

    Obsidian is still by far a better option for actual notes, and keeping everything linked together. It isn’t a great option for general collection, at least not for documents, and perhaps even web clippings (although copying and pasting from the web into Obsidian works really well).

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