Practically Paperless with Obsidian, Episode 4: Creating Notes

closeup photo of blue pen tinted spiral notepad placed beside pen die cast car and coffee cup
Photo by David Bares on Pexels.com

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

I sat here thinking about the different types of notes I create. I think they fall into 5 general buckets. They are, in order of approximate complexity:

  1. Observations, ideas, lists, etc.
  2. Daily notes
  3. Commonplace notes
  4. Structured notes
  5. MOCs, also known as “Maps of Content”

This list could probably be pared down. For instance, it could be argued that “Daily Notes” are a form a “structured” notes, as we will see, but they serve a special purpose so I call them out separately. There are also note types that don’t appear here, but this serves as a good start. In this post, I will briefly discuss each type of note and how I go about creating it in Obsidian.

Observations, ideas, lists, etc.

Let me be honest: I have yet to find a quicker, more efficient method for jotting down observation, ideas, shopping lists, recipes, etc., than just scribbling them into a notebook. Usually a Field Notes notebook that I carry around in my back pocket at all times. Nothing beats this, at least for me. I don’t think this is something that will change anytime soon. For the better part of 10 years I’ve searched for digital alternatives, tried different apps, but haven’t found any that are as quick or reliable as a pen and notebook. So when I am keeping track of my son’s soccer game score, or noting how low the pressure was on a tire when the “LOW PRES” light comes on, or jotting down blog post ideas, I’m usually jotting this stuff down in a notebook instead of an app.

A recent page from my Field Notes notebook.
A recent page from my Field Notes notebook.

Often times the notes in these notebooks are ephemeral. They are the equivalent of short-term memory. At some point, I’ll decide to move some of the notes to longer-term storage. For the rest, they stay in the notebook, which sits with its companion notebooks on a shelf in my office, where I can flip through them any time I want.

If any of these observations, lists or ideas need to get stored, I’ll move them to a new note, or to an existing note in Obsidian. Take the two blog post ideas on the page above. When I first started using Obsidian in January 2021, I created a note for “post ideas.” In reviewing my Field Notes notebook at the end of the day, I’ll transfer any ideas into the “Possible” section of my note.

My Post Ideas note. I blurred out some of the "possible" ideas to avoid future spoilers.
My Post Ideas note. I blurred out some of the “possible” ideas to avoid future spoilers.

There, I can add other notes to my ideas and flesh the out a bit. For instance for the post idea on re-reading books, I added a note indicating that this is something I’ve already written about before. Eventually, I’ll move that to the “used” section of the note.

Daily notes

As I have mentioned before, take place of the timeline concept that I used in Evernote. They serve as a kind of time-based index for my vault. I have automated the process of creating these notes. Each day, a new note is added to the Daily Notes folder in my vault. The note contains links to the previous and next day’s Daily Note, and a indication of the weather for the day. It automatically pulls in my agenda from my iCloud calendars. In the Today’s Notes section, I manually add any other items of note that I want to reference. Here, for instance, is my Daily Note for Monday, October 25, 2021:

My Daily Note for October 25, 2021

If you want more information on how I’ve automated my daily notes, see:

Keep in mind, this requires some coding and tweaking to make it work for you. But it is also an example of how flexible Obsidian is because it is based on simple text files.

Frequently, one of the first things I do in the morning is pull up my daily note and review what I’ve got going on today. I also usually pull up yesterday’s note along side to see if there were any notes or tasks from yesterday that should carry over into today.

Commonplace notes

One of the most frequent types of notes I’ve found myself creating since starting to use Obsidian is what I call a “commonplace” note. I have a folder in my vault called Commonplace and the notes that go in there are quotes from books, passages I’ve highlighted, things I’ve heard people say, along with my notes or commentary on those things. Here is an example:

Creating a commonplace note is easy:

  1. I press Option-z to create a new Zettelkasten note.
  2. I fill in my template, adding any tags and, if there is one, a source for the note. In the above example, I’ve tagged the note #democracy, and the source points to another note, that represents the book Essays of E. B. White.
  3. I paste or type in the quote or other information I want in the note
  4. Below the quote, I usually add my own notes or comments.
  5. Finally, I drag the note into the Commonplace folder.

I try to keep these notes discrete. If I had a second note on democracy for E. B. White, I’d create a second note. Its Zettelkasten number would be different, but the rest of the title could be the same. That number helps keep the note title unique. (More on titling notes in Episode 6.) By keeping them discrete, I can link them in different ways. For one thing, I will add references to these notes from the source note, and “transclude” them into the source when viewing it in preview mode. Here is the source note for Essays of E. B. White:

You can see that all of my “commonplace” notes for this book show up in this source note. I didn’t have to rekey them in, either. I just used the ! symbol in front of the note link in the source note to display the full linked note when viewing the source note in Preview mode. Here is what the source note looks like in edit mode:

Structured notes

A structured note is one that has a consistent structure from one note to the next. Take for instance notes I create for electronics and appliances we have around the house. For our new microwave oven, for instance, I downloaded the user guide PDF and dragged that PDF into my _attachments folder in my vault. I then created a note based on a template that I use for home electronics. In the note, I included a reference to the PDF user guide. Here is what the structured note looks like in edit mode:

Because I used a “transcluded” note link to the LG Microwave Owner’s Manual PDF, when I view this note in Preview mode, here is how it looks:

I call these notes “structured” because a structured note uses the same template for format from one note of that type to another. Here is a side-by-side example of two “structured” notes for applianaces:

MOCs, or maps of content

One final type of note that I create is what is often called an MOC note, or “map of content.” This is a way to collect links to lots of notes on a single note–a map of content.

Recently, I’ve been reading The Year’s Best Science Fiction, Volume 1 edited by the late Gardner Dozois back in 1983. I frequently take notes as I read, and I’ve been adding notes to my commonplace folder with each story that I finish. In order to tie all of those stories together, I created a source note for the book with links to all of the other notes for the stories. It looks very much like a table of content. To create this note I:

  1. Created a new Zettelkasten note, and gave it a title
  2. Tagged my note
  3. Created a “contents” section
  4. Within the contents section, I created a list of links to notes for each of the stories I’ve read so far.

This note makes it easy to reference all of the notes I’ve made for the stories in the book. If I liked a story, I tag it as “recommended.”

I have other types of MOC notes. One, which I will talk about in a future episode, is what I call my “Form Data” note. This is a single note that has information for everyone in the family that I frequently use in filling out forms: school forms, medical forms, you name it. From that note there are also links to source documents like social security cards, birth certificates, marriage licenses, and more recently, COVID vaccination cards.


Having talked about the different types of notes I create and how I create them, in Episode 5, I’ll focus on “document” notes and talk about my process for converting paper into Obsidian notes. It will be my attempt at recreating my Going Paperless post from April 2012, “My Process for Going Paperless in 10 Minutes a Day” bringing it up to-date to talk about how I go “practically paperless” with Obsidian today. Then in Episode 6, I’ll spend an entire episode talking about how (and why) I title my notes. See you next time!

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4 comments

  1. Thanks for the reminder about transcluded links. I forgot that the ! makes the linked note show up in the Preview, which is perfect for those Maps of Content notes. Enjoying the series; I’m getting at least one good idea from each of posts.

  2. I haven’t used the Zettelkasten prefixer add-on till now, although reading about your workflow and how much easier it is to create notes with unique titles, I’m going to start using it. As it is, I’m constantly dating my notes with a YYYY-MM-DD prefix anyway.

  3. Hello Jamie,

    First, thanks for all this new posts regarding Obsydian! 🙂

    I have one question, what happened with those links to the PDFs inside the attachment folder?

    If you open the .md file with any other program, the link doesn’t work, so in case you want to move to another app in the future you will need to amend the .md file?

    Maybe I get lost and you can open it?

    Thanks in advance for your help!

    1. Josh, yeah, while you can edit the md files in any editor you like, part of the benefit of Obsidian is that it controls the linking behind the scenes. So you can’t take advantage of, say, clicking on a link from another editor, but if you move stuff around in your vault using another tool, Obsidian should still keep track of things like links correctly, I believe.

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