Practically Paperless with Obsidian, Episode 8: Note Templates for Consistency

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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.

Let’s see, where were we? Ah yes, when we last gathered, we were discussing a framework for finding notes in Obsidian using four questions. One thing that aids in my ability to frame my searches in terms of these four questions is to ensure consistency in my notes. And one tool that aids in consistency is the use of note templates in Obsidian. In my day-to-day use, I use five templates for the bulk of my notes. Some of these templates are implemented through different tools so let me start there.

Tools for templates

Two of the tools I use for templates are Obsidian core plug-ins available out of the box. The third is a script I have written.

1. Zettelkasten prefixer

For ad-hoc notes, I make use the Zettelkasten prefixes. I discussed this in detail back in Episode 6. The Zettelkasten prefix plug-in allows you to generate a note with a Zettelkasten number in the title. It also allows you to base that note on a set template. In enabling the plug-in, I have selected both the format for the Zettelkasten number and the template I want to use when the note is created:

Figure 1: Settings for the Zettelkasten prefixer plug-in

My template for these ad-hoc notes is simple. It contains a line at the top prompting me to tag the note. Tags, as we will see in Episode 9, are an important tool for helping me find notes. The template itself provides consistency, ensure that every ad-hoc note I create has a place in it for me to add tags as necessary. Here is what my template looks like:

Figure 2: What my ad-hoc template looks like

2. Template plug-in

For several other types of notes, I rely on the core Template plug-in. Like the Zettelksaten Prefixer plug-in, the Templates plug-in is a core plug-in that comes out of the box and can be enabled in Obsidian with a click. Here is how I have configured my template plug-in:

Figure 3: Settings for the Template plug-in.

First, I set a location to store my templates (see A above). In this case, I have a folder in my vault called _/meta/_templates and this is where I put all of my templates. Even the template I use with the Zettelkasten prefixer plug-in goes in here.

Second, I set the format I prefer for dates (see B above). Within a template, you can use certain tags, like the {{date}} tag which will replace the tag with the current date at the time the template is added to a note. I prefer the yyyy.MM.DD.ddd format. That is how the date appears in many of my notes and I like the consistency of it.

Third, I also have the ability to set the time format, but I’ve left it as the default because so far, I haven’t had a need to use it in a template, and if I do, the default seems fine to me.

Finally, I set a hot-key for inserting a template into a note. From Obsidian’s settings, I selected Hot Keys and then searched for “templates” and added a hot key to the “Templates: Insert template” function. I use the Shift-Command-T for this.

3. Daily notes script

Finally, I have written a script that automates my daily notes so that they are generated with the same underlying “template”. I have written an entire post on how I’ve automated my daily notes, so I won’t get into that here. I’ve also put my automation script on GitHub for those who want to use it.

For our purposes today, it is enough to say that (a) my daily notes are generated automatically everyday, just after midnight; and (b) they look like this (using today’s note as a example):

Figure 5: Today’s daily note

Everything you see in the red box is generated automatically. The Agenda section is pulled from my calendar. The weather on the date line is generated using a command-line command that I call from Python. When the note is first created, there is nothing below the “Today’s notes” section. That is what I add manually each day.

5 templates that I use

Here are the five templates that I frequently use:

1. Daily note template

I’ve already discussed the daily note template above. This is generated automatically and it saves me time because I use my daily notes in Obsidian much like a bullet journal. I am in them every day. Also my daily note titles use the yyyy.MM.DD.ddd format, which means if I add a date to note as link using this format, the backlink appears automatically in the daily note’s backlinks so I can fairly easily associated just about anything with a date and use the daily note as an index to any notes that also have that date in them.

2. Ad-hoc note template

Many notes I create are what I think of as ad-hoc notes. These are quick notes that I am creating and filing away and may do something more with later, but I just want to have a way of creating them quickly. Even though I can create them quickly, I still want enough structure to allow me to tag the notes consistently. So my ad-hoc note template–the same template I use with my Zettelkasten prefixer–is simple and looks like this:

Figure 6: What my ad-hoc template looks like

3. Commonplace template

A lot of my notes come from things that I read. I have a “Reading” folder in my vault, and within that folder, I have two subfolders: one is called “Commonplace” and the other “Sources.” Commonplace is where my reading notes go. I’ve written about how I capture my reading notes in Obsidian, and while the core of this still holds, I’ve been modifying my process as I learn new things about Obsidian.

Let’s say that in a given book (or article, or web page) I highlight 20 passages. Each of those 20 passages becomes a separate “commonplace” note. Each commonplace note has tags, and can link back to a source note as well (see the next section for source notes). My template for commonplace notes, therefore, ensures that I capture at last that basic information in my note. The template looks like this:

Figure 7: My commonplace template

Here is are two examples of commonplace notes created using this template:

Figure 8: A sample commonplace note

There are five elements in my commonplace notes:

  • A: The note title. As I discussed in Episode 6, I try to keep this to-the-point.
  • B: The tags used to classify the note. This is an important part of how I find notes, and I’ll have more to say about how I use tags to do this in Episodes 9-11.
  • C: The source for the commonplace note. In this case, you see a note link to a book where I found the passage. In some notes, however, it is a link to an article or web page. By creating the link here, I can go to the source note and see all of the backlinks associated it with it.
  • D: The passage that I highlighted.
  • E: My own notes and remarks. In this case, I’ve also linked to another note, which means that there is now a relationship not just between this commonplace note and this other note, but also a link between the source note and the other note. Linking is a key part of Obsidian, as we will see in Episode 19.

But we get a hint of the power of note linking in next commonplace note below:

Figure 9: A sample commonplace note with backlinks

This note has all of the elements of the previous one, but I’ve also shown the backlinks panel here so that you can see how Obsidian automatically displaces the related notes based on the links included in the commonplace note itself.

4. Source template

As indicated above, each commonplace note can link to a source. In some instances, this link is a URL that points to a website. In many cases, however, it is another note in Obsidian that I have created to represent the source, often a book or article that I have read. Here is what my Source template looks like:

Figure 10: My Source template

Here is an actual source note based on this template:

Figure 11: An example source note

In this note, in addition to the title, we have the following elements:

  • A: tags, which help categorize the note for searches
  • B: authors of the source
  • C: dates I read the source (E. B. White is a favorite essayist of mine, and I often go back on read his collections when I need something reliable to read)
  • D: notes on the source. Sometimes I’ll put notes directly in here. In this case, however, I’ve included a list of transcluded links back to the commonplace notes I made for this book. Because these are “transcluded” links, they display the full note when you view it in preview mode:
Figure 12: A source note in preview mode

5. Product template

Finally, I have what I call a “product” template. I use this template to keep track of things we buy that are worth keeping track of: appliances and electronics, furniture, etc. Here is what my Product template looks like:

Figure 13: My Product template

For my product template, there are three parts:

  • A: the tags (my template contains some pre-loaded tags for speed; I remove ones that aren’t needed and add ones that are).
  • B: information about the product in question. Here, if there is date, I insert it using my yyyy.MM.DD.dd format.
  • C: a timeline or history of events related to the product. This would be things like repairs, calling supports, etc.

Here is an example of a completed product note based on this template:

Figure 14: A completed product note

Inserting a template into a note

Inserting a note into a template is easy. As I indicated above, I setup a hot-key for doing this. When I create a note and want to insert a template, I do the following:

  1. Clear out any default text I don’t want from the note.
  2. Set the cursor to where I want to insert the template.
  3. Press my hot key (Shift-Command-T), which brings up a list of templates:
  1. Select the template I want to insert and hit ENTER

Where I store my templates

To keep things simple, I store all of my templates in a single folder in my vault. Off the root of my vault, I have a folder called _meta and within that folder, there is another folder called _templates (/_meta/_templates). This is where my templates go.

It is important to remember that templates themselves are just notes with some tags that can be used to help automate things. The reason I put my templates in a folder with an _ at the beginning is that when doing an advanced search in obsidian, I can exclude from the search folders that begin with the _ so that I avoid noise in my search results.

How templates and consistency help with searching

Templates help me maintain a consistent structure and format to my notes. They remind me of elements I need to include in them, like tags. Templates are liking filling out a form of metadata for each of my notes and this metadata ultimately provides a powerful tool for quickly finding what I need when I search for things in Obsidian.

In next week’s episode, we’ll see this in action, when I describe how I use tags to associate notes with people. See you back here soon!

Prev: Episode 7: A Framework for Finding Notes Using 4 Questions
Next: Episode 9: Associating Notes with People

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