Practically Paperless with Obsidian, Episode 15: Daily Notes as an Index to My Life

brown framed eyeglasses on a calendar
Photo by Olya Kobruseva on Pexels.com

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

The Background

For more than a decade, I’ve been looking for a way to capture a master index to my life. I’ve got digital files and documents going back to my college days in the very early 1990s. I’ve got story drafts, class notes, contracts for story sales, essays, notes, you name it. It’s all there somewhere, and completely unindexed.

More than once during I’ve set about writing sets of scripts that would attempt to index all of this for me. But even as I wrote those scripts, I realized that my files were so dispersed and in so many different formats that I couldn’t get a handle on it all.

When I first began looking into Obsidian, one of the things that attracted me to it was the concept of “daily notes”–something that was new to me at the time, although I’d sort of been doing that for work for a while. I recall reading a post in the Obsidian forums on how one person managed their daily notes–and I was hooked. From that post, I developed a process that automated my daily notes so that a new note was created each day, that the my calendar agenda was dumped into the note, and a template was there for me to fill in other information throughout the day.

In this model, each day a new file was created and each day I filled that file with notes from the day. A typical note might looks something like this:

old format of daily note, one note per file

Sometimes, within my notes, I’d link to other notes. For much of 2021 these daily notes accumulated in a folder in my vault.

Problems with this process

Over time, I found that the one-note-per-day model was not working as well as I’d hoped. There were several reasons for this:

  • Cumbersome navigation: If I needed to review several days for something, I had to open separate files. Sure, this could often be accomplished by a search, but frequently, I needed a piece of information from yesterday, or two days ago. It seemed like there should be a better way to handle this.
  • Link noise: My daily notes automation script added a breadcrumb that linked to the previous day’s note and the next day’s note. This seemed like it would mitigate some of the cumbersome navigation (it didn’t really). Instead it created a new problem: noise in my link graph. You can see this in the image below, where the green perimeter notes are my daily note files, linked in a chain to each other by previous day and next day.
  • Lack of standards: Within the notes themselves, I had no standards for how I recorded things, making searches, for say, meetings I attended, tricky.
  • Time consuming: I spent a lot of time jumping around in these daily note files throughout the day.

As an index, these notes were better than nothing, but not as useful as I’d hoped.

Living in a single text file

Over our December vacation, I came across a post by Jeff Haung titled, “My productivity app for the past 12 years has been a single .txt file.” In this post, I had a glimpse of what I was looking for. I saw, in Huang’s example, a single text file that could act as my daily notes file and a useful index to my life. With Obsidian’s linking capabilities, I could have a single file for my daily notes and link to other files or URLs from those daily notes, which would turn the file into a kind of index for my life.

I saw a lot of possibility in something Huang said in the post:

A text file is incredibly flexible, and at any point, I can quickly glance to see what I’ve done that day and what’s left. When a task is completed, which is the most common default, I just leave it. I can calculate aggregate statistics using the search box, or list all the lines containing a tag, and other operations using my text editor.

If I thought carefully about how I entered things into my daily notes, it could also serve as a database of events in my life. I could track all kinds of things using a consistent wording and then using searches and other commands to pull aggregate information out.

Beginning on December 28, 2021, I gave up my one-note-per-day daily notes file and started a single note file I called “Daily” determined to experiment with it over the course of the next year.

The structure of my daily notes file

Each day in my daily notes file gets a heading in the format YYYY-MM-DD ddd. That allows me to fold closed days if I want to just see the headings as opposed to the stuff underneath the heading.

Next come a line telling me where I was on that day. It is typically an @ sign followed by the city that I am in (usually home). If I am in more than one place (traveling) I’ll separate the places in the line by a > symbol, as in “@ Boynton Beach, Fl > Orlando, Fl”. This is an example of the standardization I was lacking. It is easy to search for lines that begin with an @ symbol to see all of the places I’ve been and when I was there.

Then, it’s just bulleted notes for the rest of the day. I’ve been really trying to keep these notes updated throughout the day, living in the file, and linking to other notes where relevant so that they really act as an index to my life. Below are two examples. First, an early example from the second day I started using a single file for my daily notes:

The second is a more recent example of what my daily notes look like:

Both of these notes are in the same file and that makes it much easier for me to find things I am looking for. And when I do find something, it is often linked to another note with more detail. Thus, the single daily notes file has already started acting like an index to my life.

Standard conventions

Beyond the basic conventions I mentioned above, I’ve been experimenting and evolving with other conventions. These conventions aim to standardize the way I make certain entries so that it is easy to surface them in the future. Some examples include:

StandardExample
Start reading a book– started reading On Human Nature by Edward O. Wilson
Finished reading a book– finished reading On Human Nature by Edward O. Wilson
Read a magazine article/post– read “The Veterinarian Brings His Healing Presence to Pets of the Unhoused” by Carol Mithers (Smithsonian, Jan/Feb 2022)
Subscribe/unsubscribe to a service– subscribed to Obsidian Sync service
Wrote a post, worked on a story, article, etc. (including link to the source note in Obsidian)– wrote post [[202201181940 Practically Paperless with Obsidian Episode 15 – Daily Notes as an Index to My Life]]
Lunch/dinner with people– 12:00pm Lunch at Ted’s Montana Grill w/Jim and Carol
Call/chat with someone– chat with security alarm service about bad battery | [[Home Securty#2022-01-21 Fri – Service chat about bad dead battery]]

In addition, I use tags in the notes. The tags appear either at the beginning of the line or the end.

  • Tags that appear at the beginning denote something to consider taking action at some point. For instance, you can see “post-idea” as one such tag. These are not to-do’s. I don’t write a post for every idea I get. But they are reminders that there are things out there to think about.
  • Tags that come at the end of the line categorize the note in some way. These are also useful in searching the file.

How a single file addresses the problems with the note-a-day approach

Almost at once, I like the single-file approach better than the note-per-day approach. It seemed to address most of the problems I outlined above.

  • when I need to look back at yesterday, or the day before, all it takes is a quick flick of the wrist on my trackpad to scroll back or forward.
  • I no longer have daily notes cluttering up my links graph
  • because I link to just about all the other notes I produce or consume throughout the day, the file really feels like an index.

Seaching daily notes

These conventions allow me to search the file for interesting stats. For instance, if I want to see a list of every article I read on January 18, 2022, I can run a search in Obsidian for:

file:Daily.md section:("# 2022-01-18" /^- read/)

which returns all of the lines in my daily notes file within the “2022-01-18” section that begin with “- read” (I’ve included the explanation as part of the search):

Of course, because the daily notes are all in a single file, I could run a similar query for every article I’ve read regardless of date:

file:Daily.md /^- read/

I could run similar searches for things like dinners I’ve had with people, posts I’ve written, meetings I’ve attended, places I’ve been, or pretty much anything I can think of.

I’m still experimenting with these conventions and they will likely evolve over time. It will be intersting, at the end of the year, to see what kind of interesting stats I can produce about my life. You can be sure I’ll write a post about that.

Starting and ending each day

I start each day by jumping to the end of my Daily Notes file (hitting the END key twice on my keyboard) and making a new entry for the day. I add the location, and then look at my calendar and add bullets for any relevant events–“relevant” being the keyword. I put them in the notes file along with the times of the event as placeholders for later notes.

After that, I go about my day. I may jot notes in my Field Notes notebook as I often do. Unlike in the past, however, if the notes are useful, they no longer just stay in the notebook. I’ll transcribe the useful ones (like post ideas, or someone name that I met that day) into my daily notes file with some additional context. If I read something, I’ll add it to my daily notes file. This is easy when I am sitting in front of the computer. When I am not, I’ll add it to the file using the Obsidian Mobile App. It’s a little tricker that way, but not too much.

Over time, the bullets grow, I link to other notes and by the end of the day, I’ve got a nice picture of what I did throughout the day.

At the end of the day, I review the notes for the day, adding details where warranted, cleaning things up a bit. Frequently, I’ll add a “for tomorrow” bullet toward the end of the notes followed by a few sub-bullets with thoughts about things I want to get done the next day. Nice thing about that is–there are right there at the end of the file when I start the process over the next day.

So far, so good

So far, this new process of using a single file for my daily notes is working really well for me. It makes it much easier to look back a day or two for some notes that might related to something I working on right now. And it has encouraged me to keep better, more consistent notes about my day.

It has also provided the framework for the index to my life that I have wanted for a long time. It makes it easy to find and access related notes. And it provides a kind of backup for my memory of the day, an place to go where I can easily answer questions like, “When did I write the post about…?” Or “What was the name of the guy we met at the school meeting yesterday?”


And since I’ve been talking quite a bit about finding things in my notes, in next week’s episode, I’ll have more to say on how I go about finding notes quickly in Obsidian.

Prev: Episode 14: Migrating Notes from Evernote to Obsidian
Next: Episode 16: Finding Notes Quickly

Written on January 18, 2022.

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12 comments

  1. Jamie – do you mix work and personal notes in this file?

    I’ve been using one long word document per year for my day job for a long time, and it works great. But I’m wary of putting personal and work stuff together in one document – (1) I like mentally to keep my corporate job stuff separate, as much of the corporate stuff is boring who said what when from meetings and (2) if I’m forced out of the company without notice for any reason, I lose my personal notes.

    This was easier when I went to the office everyday. But with working from home the last two years, I’ve found my work/personal life much more combined. Curious how you handle this or if it’s something you worry about.

    1. Melanie, Great question, and I probably should have mentioned that in the post. I have a separate vault for work notes. Like you, I prefer to keep my work stuff separate from personal stuff, mainly as a way of maintaining that work/life balance. While working, I have both vaults open. They both use the same theme, but my work notes are in dark mode and my personal notes are in light mode, so I can easily distinguish between the two.

      1. Two vaults! So simple, why didn’t I think of it. I’m still using my massive word files for work and blog notes, but you are making me increasingly Obsidian curious!

      2. Hi Jamie,

        I totally get why you want everything in one file and how you can use the search to find everything etc. I’m currently using the 1 file per day technique myself but I have considered trying this like you. One thing which concerns me is that I regularly insert images into my daily notes and I worry about the Obsidian app having to load so many images in one file.

        Another thing that I have thought about is that you could probably keep the one file per day method, but then get all the single-file benefits by using something like DataView to extract things. This has the advantage of only having to write the search query (e.g. post ideas) once, as a small DataView script. You could then have a file called ‘post-ideas.md’ which always contained all the post ideas live-parsed from all your individual day files.

        I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on that approach.

        1. Adam, for now, I’m committed to the 1-file approach through 2022. I did the 1-file-per-day approach in 2021, and I need a fair comparison of pros and cons. After that, we’ll see. I’ve been experimenting with the data view for other things, but for daily notes, I’ve found that a quick Cmd-F search within the file usually gets me what I want quickly, with minimal infrastructure. Sometimes, I’ll use a split pane view of the daily notes file to see different parts at the same time, which I would occasionally do with the 1-day-per-file notes.

  2. I really like this concept. In the past I used a similar approach to keep recurring meeting agendas / notes for the same project in a single file. That had many of the same benefits like having the whole meeting history of the project, who agreed to what, etc.. It was also very convenient to share with the project team.

    The only twist is that each new meeting was added to the top of the file instead of the bottom. This keeps the new stuff at the top and allows you to scroll down to see the history. No need to scroll to the very bottom of an increasingly larger file to get to today’s stuff.

    1. John, I think I could have gone either way, but chose chronological (as opposed to reverse chronological) because that’s what I saw in Jeff Huang’s example. It’s easy enough to hit Cmd-down-arrow to jump to the bottom of the file when I open it.

  3. Interesting. I read the same document over Christmas and just like you started a single md file with sections for each day on 3rd January. Now as we get to the end of January I need to decide if this note is for the month or the year. There are good arguments for both.

    1. I set out to experiment with a single file for a full year, so I’m sticking to that. As of today, that first 25 days or so totals about 5,000 words, which isn’t all that much If that’s what I can expect, then we’re talking about a 60,000 word file over a year. For a text file, that’s nothing. What will be really interesting is if I continue this beyond a year.

      For me, I don’t see any advantage of 12 files/year over a single file, but I have pretty simple requirements at the moment, compared to others I’ve read about.

  4. Hi Jamie, I’ve just finished reading your Obsidian series so far and it’s been very enjoyable. I started recording my “Bullet journal” notes in a single file in May last year after reading the same article.

    I use a H1 for the year, H2 for month and H3 for each day. It helps with folding the year/month headers more than just daily. I guess that could come in handy for doing a monthly search of articles read, too. Looking forward to next week’s article all ready!

    The only annoying issue I have with it is that I keep an Outline view on the right sidebar, which is great for quick navigation, but it keeps unfolding when you return to the note. This is where folding the year 2021 has been great, then have a nice outline of 2022. Hopefully I can find a way to “pin” the outline to the current month or something. Like you, I keep a little “Coming Soon” list at the bottom for quick near-future reminders.

  5. I became a fan of this series – still have not finished it – but this post is a life changer. Seriously thank you for this! My biggest gripe with keeping daily notes is not searching for information, not navigation, but the mental pressure to fill up a note with all kinds of things so it does not look empty and sad.

    Keeping a single file alleviates all this pressure and enables you to put down just the things you need to put down. I also read Jeff Huang’s post you’ve linked and found the combined use of calendar and a single not to be brilliant. Using Obsidian, the single file can be enhanced with links and queries and you get the best of both worlds.

    Thank you again!

    1. Wow, I’m so glad you found this post helpful! In a couple weeks, I’ve got a follow-up post coming out about some tweaks I’ve made since starting down this road with my daily notes, so heads-up for that.

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