Practically Paperless with Obsidian, Episode 13: My Daily Process for Staying Practically Paperless

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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.

So far in this series I have tried to provide a step-by-step framework for how I am working toward a practically paperless lifestyle using Obsidian to capture a lot of the “paperless” part. With that basic framework in place, I want to describe how I try to stay practically paperless on a day-to-day basis. It turns out that today’s topic is a good one for me to write about at the beginning of a new year because I have made some changes to my daily process for staying practically paperless that I am testing out.

In Episode 12, I talked about what goes paperless. Not everything does. There are some things, like ephemeral notes I jot in my Field Notes notebooks, or my journal entries that stay on paper out of practicality and preference respectively. There are other things that I don’t bother scanning in because I can readily find them elsewhere in digital form when I need them, and other things still that I used to scan in but no longer do because I never ended up needing them. What remains–the practical stuff–is what goes paperless these days.

Daily Notes as the centerpiece of my practically paperless system

My daily process for staying practically paperless begins and ends with my daily notes. Last year, I wrote about how I automated my daily notes so that a new note is generated overnight each night, and includes my agenda and some other basic information already contained in the note. Each day had its own note.

Beginning in 2022 this process has changed. I started using a single file for all of my daily notes. I was impressed by Jeff Huang’s post on “My productivity app for the past 12 years has been a single .txt file” and decided to start an experiment this year to see if a single text file for my daily notes would work for me. I’ll have a lot more to say about this in Episode 15.

One benefit I’ve found from using a single file is that it is easy for me to jump around in the file and search for what I am looking for without having to jump through a bunch of different files. Another benefit is that the single daily notes file acts as an index to my life.

The downside (or so it may seem) is that my daily notes file is no longer automated. But I see benefit in this as well–similar to what I found by de-automating my reading notes in Obsidian. I am better about thinking and organizing my day doing it by hand than when it is automated for me. Here is what these single-file daily notes look like:

I start my day in these daily notes and finish it there as well. I live in them most of the day when I am sitting at the computer. I refer to them frequently on my phone. They are the centerpiece to my paperless system.

An integration of paper and paperless

One convenient side-effect of this new model is that is provides a mechanism for me to permanently link paper and paperless items. For instance, I still use my Field Notes notebooks to captured to-do lists, shopping lists, post ideas, and other short-term memory notes. In the past, I haven’t done much with these notes, but now, when I review my daily notes in the evening, I will often take the opportunity to transfer key notes from my short-term memory (Field Notes) into my daily notes on Obsidian.

For instance, on our recent vacation, I recorded what we did each day at Disney World in my Field Notes notebook. I’ve been doing this for years. Here is what our day at Epcot looked like on January 3:

Our day at Epcot in my Field Notes notebook

Because I care about this info and would find it useful in planning our next trip, I captured this in my new daily notes file. There, it looks as follows:

Making my daily notes the index to my life has also changed the way I have been using my journal this year. In the past, my journal entries frequently recorded the events of the day–the “facts” as I saw them. Now, these “facts” are recorded in my daily notes. There is no need to repeat them in my journal. Instead, I can write about my thoughts and feelings about those facts. Indeed, that is what I have been doing. And because I have, for the last 4+ years, given every journal entry a unique index number, I can refer to journal entries I write in my notes by the index number. So my daily notes may have a line like: “For some thoughts on our trip to Disney World, see #2118”–where 2118 refers to the entry number in my paper journal on this topic.

I could have done this with my daily notes when they were individual files, but having everything in a single file seemed to open my eyes to this. It’s convenient to be able to scroll up and down the daily notes file, search it, split the screen to look at two different parts of the file, etc. And I try to keep things together in the context that they happened.

Capturing documents in Obsidian

My daily notes file grows throughout the day. At the same time, I may accumulate paper throughout the day that is related to the notes in my daily notes file. Using the guidelines I discussed in Episode 12 for what goes paperless, I will scan in any documents I want to keep in paperless form at the end of the day. I use my daily notes to help make this decision.

For instance, for the last several days I’ve had an ear ache. This morning, I went to have my ear checked and found out that I had a minor ear infection. At the end of the appointment I was given a printout summarizing the visit. You can see in my notes for today that I captured some notes about the appointment. This evening, when I review my daily notes and come to that section, I will decide whether or not it is worth scanning that summary. If I do scan it (after determining if it is readily available elsewhere), then I’ll add it to Obsidian and also add a link to the new note from that section of my daily notes so that it is available in context when I review it. This is useful. Next month, when I have my physical, I can tell my doctor that I had an ear infection and if he needs more information, I can scroll that that part of the note, and then open the scanned document to get more info for him.

I do this scanning and linking at the end of the day because I have all of what happened that day in front of my in my daily notes file. I will also add additional details to my notes, or clarify things that I jotted down quickly.

Summarizing the overall process

  1. I start each day adding a new date to the end of my daily notes file. I look at my calendar and add the relevant appointments. Notes related to those appointments will eventually become sub-bullets of those items in the file. I use this time to do things like determine the important things to get done that day, or to clear my calendar of things I don’t need to do.
  2. I live in the daily notes file throughout the day. I use the same file for personal notes as well as work notes, separating them (for convenience) by different headings.
  3. At the end of the day, I review my Field Notes notebook pages for the day and see if anything needs to be transferred to my daily notes file. Then I review the daily notes and see if there is anything that needs elaboration or clarification. I scan in any documents I think are worth keeping and link to them from the daily notes. I reference any relevant journal entries.

I’ve been doing this for about 10 days now, and so far, is is working really well. Will this continue to work for, say 12 years, as it did for Jeff Huang? Certainly there will be refinements. But like my entire “practically paperless” effort, this is part of an experiment. I’ll keep what works and adjust what doesn’t along the way. It will be interesting to see how things look, say, one year from now. Remind me to do that then.

Prev: Episode 12: What Goes Paperless?
Next: Episode 14: Migrating Notes from Evernote to Obsidian

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  1. Hi Jamie, Good to see you “back on track” again, but a holiday is good for the spirit!
    I liked the idea of one file for all Daily notes. I also tried that in October 2021, but I nearly have 3000 daily notes and got fed up scrolling down all the time for just an update (unless you leave the file open, of course). I also tried to reverse (current date first) the file, but got stuck in the backlog. How do you think you’re going to handle that?

    1. Jaap, this is exactly what I am waiting to really experiment with. My file is not big enough yet for practical testing, but my plan is to experiment with split windows in the same file, and quick search combinations (possibly using regular expressions) to say, find the most recent meeting on x, or find the last reference to y. I think there is also the ability to search just sections so how the file is organized may be dictated by that in the long-term. There are some powerful search operators to play around with in this regard. There are also subqueries in searches, and embedded searches, which would be useful, for says, a “saved search” for all meetings related to x. This is one thing I’m really looking forward to playing around with.


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