Practically Paperless with Obsidian, Episode 16: Finding Notes Quickly

black binocular on round device
Photo by Skitterphoto on

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

Over the course of these episodes, one thing that I have stressed–because it is important to me–is creating my notes in a way that will make them easy to find. This goes for how I title a note, to how I associate the note with a person, or even the date the note was created or modified. And of course, there is the content of the note, which is the part I am looking for when searching for a note. When I need to find something, I want to find it quickly, with little effort. In some instances, I have a question to answer; in others, I don’t want to minimize interruption to my flow. In this episode, I talk about some techniques I use to find notes quickly.

Maps of Content (MOCs)

As my system evolves within Obsidian, I think of my notes as being divided into five major classes:

  1. Atomic notes: those notes that follow a Zettelkasten-like pattern of being about one thing, associated with a source, links, and context. My reading notes are one example of this.
  2. Attachments: images, PDFs, etc.
  3. Document notes: these is a level of abstraction above an attachment. An attachment transcluded into a note to add meta-data and other context to the attachment. I discussed this in detail in Episode 4.
  4. Writing notes: since I began drafting my blog entries and journal in Obsidian, I think of these notes as their own class.
  5. Maps of content (MOC): these are notes that tie all of the above together.

MOC notes are one of my primary tools for finding information quickly. It happens to be the beginning of tax season, and I have used this opportunity to begin migrating all of my tax-related notes from Evernote into Obsdian1 The actual tax documents (W-2s, tax returns, etc.) are PDFs and so these fall into the “attachments” class. For each of these I have created a document note so that I can include date information, tags, and any other meta-data I want to associate with those PDFs. At a higher level, I have an MOC for my tax information called “Tax Documents”

The first note contains links to all of my tax document notes (in which, the actual attachment files are transcluded). The documents are categorized by year with a table summarizing taxes year-to-year, as well as a section for frequently accessed tax documents.

To find what I need, I usually just need to go to this one note, and from there, I have a quick way of getting to any tax information I need.

My MOC note for tax documents
My MOC note for tax documents

I have other MOC notes that are like this for quickly finding documents. I have one for each of our cars, for instance. This document has important information about the car, and then a list of documents related to the vehicle, followed by a Vehicle History section, which is a timeline of events, service repairs, etc. for that particular vehicle. Again, if I need information about a car, I can start at the MOC and very quickly find what I am looking for.

I have an MOC like this for most services I use, and these include service calls I’ve had to make. Because I use markdown headings for the events in the history section of these service MOCs, I can link to a specific event from my daily notes as well. For instance, we recently had an issue with the battery in our home alarm system. This required two chats with the service department. Both of these are logged in the service MOC for our alarm service and referenced in my daily notes making it easy to find from either place.

From my service MOC for our home alarm service
From my service MOC for our home alarm service

Starred Notes

For frequently-accessed notes, I’ll use the Star plugin and star the notes so that they appear on my Starred List. There, I’ll sort them in a way that is useful to me. I try to keep this list fairly short–really just the notes I use every day. I don’t want to turn to my starred list only to have to scan through a long list of notes to find the one I’m looking for.

Some starred notes
Some starred notes

Daily Notes Search

Now that my daily notes are in a single file, it is easy to things within that file with a simple search.

For more complex searches of my daily notes file, I’ll use Obsidian’s search instead of the find-within-file search. The former allows for regular expression searches; the latter does not appear to (yet). For instance, if I want a list of all of the articles I read on January 21, I can run a search like this on my daily notes file: section:("# 2022-01-21" /^- read/)

which gives me the following results:

Search results showing the 4 things I read on January 21
Search results showing the 4 things I read on January 21

For those who are curious about how this search works, here is what Obsidian shows for “Explaining the search”:

Search explanation
Search explanation

I can imagine similar searches for calls, meetings, and other things I do regularly throughout the day.

Saved Searches

For searches, like the previous example, that I do frequently, I can create a “saved search” using the embedded query function in Obsidian. I can then star these notes to be able to access these searches quickly.

Another type of saved search that I use, becaues Obsdian does not yet provide a good way to do this within the app (so far as I can tell) are date-related searches. I have four OS-level searches that I’ve saved (I use MacOS):

  1. Notes – Created today
  2. Notes – Created this week
  3. Notes – Updated today
  4. Notes – Updated this week

When I open Finder on my Mac, this is how these saved searches appear:

Saved searching in MacOS Finder
Saved searching in MacOS Finder

I use these when I want to see what I worked on in a given day or week. I also use it when I know I worked on a note but can’t remember what it was or what I called it. I can go to my “Updated this week” saved search and scroll through the list until seeing the name of the note triggers my memory. Then I can open it in Obsidian.

Obsidian has powerful searching capabilities, but I wanted to illustrate how I use different methods to find things quickly. One thing I didn’t mention was the Data View plug-in. I’ve been playing with that and will have more to say about it in Episode 20. Next week will be all about note links–internal and external–and how I see them as one of the most powerful features Obsidian has. See you back here in a week!

Prev: Episode 15: Daily Notes as an Index to My Life
Next: Episode 17: The Power of Note Links

Written on January 22, 2022.

Did you enjoy this post?
If so, consider subscribing to the blog using the form below or clicking on the button below to follow the blog. And consider telling a friend about it. Already a reader or subscriber to the blog? Thanks for reading!

Follow Jamie Todd Rubin on

  1. This is an ongoing process, but I’ve got a good start on it.


  1. Hey Jamie,

    Great post as usual!

    One of the big advantages of Obsidian is that it just uses plain text files and an open markdown specification, so the files are portable and if the user ever wanted to change from Obsidian to another app for whatever reason, they could. In episode 20, I’d therefore be really interested to hear your view on the use of the Data View plugin from the perspective of it diminishing this advantage and effectively locking you into Obsidian, because as far as I’m aware Data View is not available in any other app.

      1. ETA: Because I think this in important discussion: I posted the list I came up with below to the Obsidian reddit to see how other people think about this subject.

        Adam, thanks for the link! I agree with a lot of what Davide writes, especially that any markup be readable in the plain text note. I could probably write an entire post on this, but let me summarize my thoughts briefly.

        1. Nothing is 100% future proof. 8,000 pages of Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks have survived 500 years on paper. That doesn’t mean they will make it to 600. Look what happened to the Library of Alexandria.
        2. Therefore, aiming for 100% future-proof is not practical. There are just too many unknowns. I have to work with what I do know.
        3. I think there is an important difference between access to notes and operations on notes. I want the former to be as future-proof as practical. I want the latter now, but don’t know that it will always be required in the future.
        4. Plain text files have been around for 50 years and text editors can still open files in that format. Microsoft Word has been around more than 30 years, and yet I can’t easily open files from Microsoft Word 5.5 for DOS in Office 365. Plain text has proven to be a better long-term format.
        5. I still have files from 30 years ago when I was in college. (I can’t open them in Word, but I can extract the text from them at least). These files were always stored locally, backed up on disks, then hard disks. Cloud services have only been around about 15 years or so. Locally stored files (with backup) seem to be more durable to me at this point, but we are still very early in the cloud era.
        6. A tool like Obsidian provides useful functionality around a durable/reliable file format and does not require a cloud service. But Obsidian, the tool, doesn’t have to be future-proof in the same way that Evernote the service does because I can easily access my notes with other tools (Vim, Notepad, Emacs, Atom, etc.) See #3.
        7. While it is possible that Obsidian or various plug-ins may someday go away, the underlying files are still there and still useful to me.
        8. There is a great deal of practical functional value that Obsidian and plug-ins provide me today, that I wouldn’t have if I limited myself to tools that were more future-proof than these. I am not willing to lose that capability today on the chance that the tools might not be available at some unknown point in the future, especially when I consider that it doesn’t change the readability of my notes. (This is the point that I think Davide was making in his post.)
        9. I have an advantage in that I am a software developer in my day job and have been writing code since I was 10 years old. Should a plug-in go away and I really need that functionality, I have the skillset to reproduce it. It isn’t necessarily easy or convenient, but I can do it. I realize that not everyone is in this position.
        10. I feel like there should be an #10 for good measure.

        The bottom-line for me is a balance between access to my notes in the future, and practical functionality today. Where that line is drawn will be different for everyone. The items above are what I use to provide myself with guidance on where to draw that line for me.


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.