Practically Paperless with Obsidian, Episode 2: The Basics: My Obsidian Configuration

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Welcome to my blog series, “Practically Paperless with Obsidian.” For an overview of this series, please see Episode 0: Series Overview.

In the first episode in this series, I discussed the basic objects in Obsidian: notes and documents. In this episode, I want to step back and talk more broadly about Obsidian itself. In order to best understand I how I use Obsidian as an Evernote substitute, I want to highlight some features of Obsidian that I use in order to get the most out of it for my paperless notes. There are two reasons I am doing this:

  1. There are some features that are not enabled by default but that I have found particularly useful.
  2. I know from experience that people will ask about what themes and plug-ins I am using in Obsidian and this makes a nice post to which I can point people for an answer.

Also, I am trying something new beginning with this episode:

  • I am creating animated GIFs to help illustrate some of the things I discuss1, something I never tried with my Going Paperless posts, so please bear with me as I figure this out. It’a a learning experience for me.

My preferred Obsidian theme: Yin and Yang

One limitation I found in Evernote is that I never had much control over the look and feel of the tool. The current version2 as of this writing allows you to configure Light or Dark mode, but that’s about it. This may not seem that important. After all, Evernote and Obsidian specialize in storing information (the former in the cloud, the latter locally in your filesystem). More and more, however, modern text editors and IDEs are being designed with a great deal of flexibility in how they look and feel. Editors like Atom, Sublime, and IDEs like Visual Studio Code all allow customization of the user interface through the creation of themes that manipulate the styles of objects that appear on the screen. Obsidian is among these tools. In Obsidian, themes are nothing more than CSS files that you can download from a community, or even create on your own.

My preferred Obsidian theme is called Yin and Yang and can be found in the Obsidian by going to Settings > Appearance > Themes, and clicking the Manage button to view a list of community themes. Obsidian themes can be used dark and light mode. Given how much time I spend on screens, I prefer dark mode.

So how do themes alter the look and feel of Obsidian? Let me illustrate. Below is what Obsidian looks like out-of-the-box in light mode (and notice that the Obsidian Help is just another Obsidian vault):

And here is what Obsidian looks like when I change it from light to dark mode:

Switching to Dark mode in Obsidian

With those images in mind, here is how Obsidian looks with the Yin and Yang theme. The image on the left is a note in edit mode; on the right is the same note in preview mode.

This is my own preference. You can keep the default theme, use one of the 70+ community themes, or create a new theme entirely on your own3

A few additional useful UI tweaks

Folding headings and lists

As I mentioned in Episode 1, notes are nothing more than plain text files that use Markdown to format the content. One nice feature that Obsidian comes with out of the box is the ability to fold your headings and lists. These features have to be enabled in the Editor settings as shown below.

Once you’ve enabled these features, you can open and close headings to show and hide the text within the heading. Using my note on my Retro Posts above as an example, here is how folding headings work:

The same works for lists. If you have a list, like an outline, each level of the list is foldable. I find both of these features very useful for focus. If I want to concentrate on just one part of a note, I can easily fold other parts so that they don’t distract me.

Useful “core” plug-ins

Obsidian comes with “core” plug-ins that are packaged with the application. There are also community-based plug-ins. In this section, I’ll talk about the “core” plug-ins that I find most useful in my pursuit of going practically paperless.

Daily notes

Daily notes are a fundamental part of Obsidian, and they are also a fundamental part of my efforts to go practically paperless with Obsidian. They are so important, that I’ll have an entire episode dedicated to them in January4. Daily notes are simply notes that you can associate with a given day. These notes have a special naming convention that uses the date to form the name of the note. This makes it useful when linking other notes to this date. Obsidian knows about all of the “backlinks” to a note–that is, all of the other notes in your vault that are linked to that note. I have actually automated my daily notes so that they are generated automatically each night, and pull in information from my calendars, making them even more useful.

Daily notes act as a kind of index to many of my other notes in Obsidian. They take the place of my timeline concept in Evernote.

An example of a daily note in Obsidian
An example of a daily note in Obsidian

Daily notes can be enabled in Settings > Core Plugins.

Starred notes

At any given moment, I have one or more notes that I use frequently, and want to be able to access quickly. This is what “starred” notes are for. After enabling this core plug-in from the Settings > Core Plugins menu, you can “star” a note. Once starred, that note will be available for quick access on the Star panel on the lefthand side of the screen. Starring a note is like creating a note shortcut in Evernote.

The starred note panel displays a list of notes that have been "starred" for quick access.
The starred note panel displays a list of notes that have been “starred” for quick access.

Zettelkasten prefixes

This one is a mouthful, but it refers to a fascinating method for organizing notes. I don’t use this method in its strict interpretation, but I have borrowed liberally from it for my own notes–especially my reading notes. Because of Obsidian’s ability to link notes and illustrate the relationships between notes, it has become a particularly useful tool for those who wish to have a digital Zettelkasten.

But back to the plug-in. This plug-in does 2 things:

  1. It allows you to define a “prefix” for your note titles based on a date format. If you’ve been paying attention, you may have noticed that many of my note titles begin with a long number combination like 202110111506. This number is just the current date and time in yyyymmddhhmm format. When I create a note using a prefix, Obsidian automatically generates the prefix and I can add more to the title if I want. Having the date in this format is more powerful than it may seem. When searching for notes, for instance, I have a convenient way of searching by date, something I will discuss in much more detail in Episode 11.
  2. You can also, optionally, define a template for your note so that when your note is created, not only is there a title prefix, but there can be other information preloaded in the note. This can save a lot of time, and help with standardization. When I create a new note, here is what my basic template looks like:

I’ll have more to say about Zettelkasten and note titles in Episode 6.

Useful community plug-ins

In addition to having community-developed themes, there are also some amazing community plug-ins that have been developed for Obsidian and the list keeps growing. Here are the community plug-ins that I find most useful:

Calendar

The calendar plug-in provides a quick way to get to your daily notes (if you are using them). Since I use daily notes constantly, the calendar provides an easy way to navigate quickly to the note I am looking for. In this example, I am using the calendar to navigate to my daily note from October 3:

The dots in the calendar are days in which I have daily notes. The more dots on a given day, the longer the note. It is a very cool plug-in and the first community plug-in I installed when I began using Obsidian.

Natural language dates

Dates are important in my paperless taxonomy because they tell when things occurred. Obsidian allows you to format dates in any desired format. My daily notes use the format yyyy.mm.dd.DDD, or 2021.10.11.Mon. If I create a note link in Obsidian to “2021.10.11.Mon” it will link to my daily note from that date.

The Natural Language Dates allows you to quickly create these note links using natural language, like “yesterday”, “today”, or “tomorrow”. I’ll use this frequently on in timeline sections of notes that refer to dates.

Using the plug-ins

These plug-ins make it much easier for me to zip through creating notes, linking them together the way want to, and have the notes appear the way I want on the screen. As we progress through future episodes, you’ll see me using these plug-ins frequently. I wanted to have a post to which I could refer people to list those plug-ins and setting that I find most useful. There are other plug-ins that I use, but not as frequently, and I’ll discuss them in the context of how I use them to perform certain activities in future episodes.

In episode 1 I showed the basics of notes and documents in Obsidian. In this episode, I discussed the settings, themes, and plug-ins most useful to my note-taking in Obsidian. Both episodes set the stage for next week when I illustrate how I emulate basic Evernote features in Obsidian. Hopefully this will provide a like-for-like comparison of how I did basic things in Evernote and how I can do those some basic things (with improvements) in Obsidian. See you back here next week!

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  1. For those wondering, I am using GIPHY Capture for the Mac to create these GIFs.
  2. v10.22.3
  3. At one point, as an experiment, I created a theme to make Obsidian look like Word for DOS 5.5, my all-time favorite word processor.
  4. Episode 16, if you are curious.

5 comments

  1. Useful information! I would like to make two remarks though: 1. Obsidian doesn’t store your information like Evernote does. Obsidian just write the note to your file system and can be handled by any other application that handles .md and .pdf files. 2. Zettelkasten is a German word that should be written like that. Not “Zettlekasten”.

    1. Raffy, thanks for those corrections. I clarified where I said that Evernote and Obsidian both store information to make it clear that the former stores it in the cloud and the latter in your local file system. I also fixed the spelling of Zettelkasten. I should have checked that one ahead of time.

      1. Jamie, essential for me is not that my information is in a cloud, my file-system is also stored in “the cloud”, but whether you can get to your information, without the need to export and convert first. Evernote is in disadvantage there.

          1. Derek and Raffy, I agree with of you. When I said “local file system” I meant that the source is stored on your computer; whether you decide to have that source synced to the cloud is entirely up to you. In my case, my vault syncs with iCloud to make it easy for me to use Obsidian’s mobile app. In Episode 1, I think I discussed the fact that the notes really just plaintext markdown files (and documents like PDFs) which makes them about as future-proof as you can get. Which means no need to import/export/convert. You can read your notes with vi, Vim, emacs, Notepad, Notepad++, whatever you want.

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