Practically Paperless with Obsidian, Episode 7: A Framework for Finding Notes Using 4 Questions

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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.

One of my ongoing struggles with information storage is finding what I am looking for quickly. When I first started using email back in 19941 I immediately setup an elaborate folder structure in which to organize my email messages. Messages would come to my inbox, and from there, I’d move them to folders based on projects, or parts of projects, or based on people, or other events. At some point I probably had more than a 100 of these nested folders about. And always, there was the question: did I file this message under this folder or that one? Eventually, my thinking changed. As much as possible, I would flatten my filing system and rely on the search capabilities of the client to find what I was looking for. Today, my email comes into my inbox, and is either deleted, or moved to my archive folder. The only exception is a “Upcoming Travel” folder that I keep for reservations and other travel-related email. And that hasn’t seen much action in the last few years, thanks to COVID.

When I began using Evernote, I found myself falling into a similar trap, creating a elaborate notebook structure and tag taxonomy, and then scaling back to something simpler, and relying on the search capabilities of Evernote to quickly find what I was looking for.

With Obsidian, the main lesson I am taking is one of leveraging search capabilities to find what I am looking for. Organization is secondary, and a far second, at that. There are a few reasons for my thinking here.:

  1. It takes time to build out an elaborate organization structure, be it email folders, Evernote notebooks, or folders and tags within an Obsidian vault.
  2. There is a fair degree of uncertainty when starting out as to what I will actually need. Better to start simple, and expand only where absolutely necessary or obviously useful.
  3. It takes time to remember where things go in an elaborate system, whereas it takes far less time to file something away in a simple system.
  4. By thinking in terms of a handful of questions, I can create and store my notes in such a way as to prime them for easy searching and making searching much faster and easier.

4 Questions

When I create a note, I consider 4 questions that I find useful, either separately or in combination, to make it easy to find the note in question. Over the course of the next 4 episodes (8-11) I will touch on each of these questions in detail. For the purpose of this episode, I am going to stick to the theoretical level. The four questions are:

  1. Who is the note related?
  2. What is the note about?
  3. When is the note for, when considered on a timeline?
  4. Where is the note about or related to?

These are the same basic questions I was taught to seek answers to in my journalism classes in college. I’ve found that by thinking about these questions when creating a note, I set the note up for easy locating. I try to think about why I need to locate notes and use that to frame the questions. Some examples:

Just before the school year started, I had to provide the most recent school entrance health form for my daughter. There were many ways that I could search for this but the quickest was to use my who, what, when, where method:

  • if a note is a related to a person, I include a tag with that person’s name in the note. If a note is related to multiple people, I tag the note with multiple names. Usually these are family members so it’s not like there is a large list to choose from. Because of this, however, I can start my search by finding notes tagged with my daughter’s name.
  • what I needed was the “school entrance health form.” As I wrote in Episode 6, I try to title my notes as succinctly as possible. In this case, I was likely to have included “school entrance health form” in the note. So in addition to notes tagged with my daughter’s name, I’d also add notes with a title containing “school entrance health form”
  • now, given that my daughter is still in elementary school, there probably aren’t a whole lot of notes tagged with her name and titled “school entrance health form.” I was asked for the most recent note, however. Given how I use a date-based Zettelkasten ID at the start of all of my note titles, a glance at the list of results that are returned would give me the most recent note.

In this case, by asking the “who” and “what” in my search and by eyeballing the “when”, I have my results just as fast as it took me to type the search into Obsidian.

Note that my search was for notes tagged with “#grace” (my daughter’s name) and then for files with the name “school entrance health”. In the search results, you can see the Zettelkasten IDs with their embedded dates, and the most recent one was from August 2021 (20210801…)

I might have located this note by just using the tag #grace alone, but there would likely be a lot of other results returned. This is part of the reason why I am trying to be more careful about what I pull into Obsidian so that I don’t clutter my vault with too much noise. But even so, plenty of legitimately useful notes will have been tagged #grace so adding the search for the what–school entrance health form–speeds things along.

I’ve been using this method for a long time now–I’ve written about it as far back as 2016 in conjunction with Evernote–and after a while, it becomes second nature to think about these questions as I create notes. Really, what I do is try to remember the questions I have been asked in the past and use those as a guide for filling in the blanks. Some examples:

  • gather all of your tax documents for 2021 to send them to the accountant: look for any notes tagged #taxes with a title that begins with 2021.
  • what was it that Bob Uecker famously said about catching knuckleballs? look for the what, in this case, “knuckeball” as there aren’t likely to be many notes with that phrase in it[2 The quote is: “The proper way to catch a knuckleball is to wait for it to stop rolling and pick it up.”].
  • when did I get my first COVID vaccination shot? This one’s a bit of a trick question: search for who: #jamie and what: “covid vaccination card”. The resulting matching will have a PDF of the card, from which I can read off the vaccination date.

Over the course of the next 4 episodes, I’ll go into greater detail on how I use these for questions to think about preparing notes for searching as I create them, and how I use those questions to quickly find what I am looking for. She of this depends on simple templates I use when creating notes of certain types, so Episode 8 will cover some practical uses of templates in Obsidian. Then, Episodes 9, 10, and 11 will cover the who, what, and when questions respectively.

One programming note: I’m taking next week off from doing a Practically Paperless post–I’ve got to spend time prepping for Thanksgiving–so Episode 8 will appear the week after, on November 30. See you here next time.

Prev: Episode 6: Tips for Naming Notes
Next: Episode 8: Note Templates for Consistency

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  1. Unix-based mh email, which I still look back on fondly, and still generally think of as superior to the email clients we have today.


  1. Hi Jamie, loving the series so far and curious for the future instalments.

    One question I have: I know you have the _meta folder with templates, and an _attachments folder for all the files. And then you have a Commonplace folder for the commonplace notes. I assume you have a Daily Notes folder as well.

    Could you share the rest of your folder structure? I’m definitely on board with not going overboard, but I’m also wary of just dumping all notes that aren’t “Commonplace” into the root folder.

    1. Clemens, thanks! I’m so glad to hear you like the series. Regarding folder structure: as I have mentioned in the posts, this is a work in progress for me. I am just a little ahead of where I am in the posts, so I’m still trying to figure out the optimal structure. I’ve outline the first 20 episodes, and then have a list of ideas for topics beyond the first 20. One of these if folder structure. I figured that by then, things will have solidified a bit more. Notes cluttering in the root is one thing I am also trying to avoid.

      At a high-level, here is what my current structure looks like:

      • _attachments (all attachments go here)
      • _meta (templates and other meta-related things)
      • Blog (ideas, outlines, list of retro posts, etc.)
      • Daily Notes
      • Health (health-related docs for family)
      • Home (stuff related to home life)
        ** Electronics and Appliances
        ** Furniture
        ** Official Documents
        ** Services
      • Reading
        ** Commonplace
        ** Sources
        ** School
        ** Travel
        ** Writing

      That said, Episode 12 is on my thought process for what things go paperless these days, and maybe I can talk about what folder structure I’ve developed so far in the context of the things that I am collecting, with the caveat that this will change as time goes on. So look for it there. That post (which I am actually writing today and tomorrow) will come out on December 28.


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