Practically Paperless with Obsidian, Episode 24: Use Case: How I Capture Field Notes in Obsidian

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

I have been a dedicated user of Field Notes brand notebooks since 2015. Since then, I have rarely been without a Field Notes notebook in my back pocket. These Field Notes notebooks represent my short-term memory. They contain fleeting notes, lists, ideas, names of people (if I don’t write them down I am liable to forget them), and just about anything else I need to remember. Here are 2 annotated pages from a notebook from 2016.

Capturing my Field Notes in Obsidian

My process for capturing my notes in Obsidian is straight-forward. At the end of each day, I open my Daily Notes file for the day and do the following:

  1. Flip through notes in my Field Notes notebook looking for anything worth saving.
  2. Tranfer those items worth saving into my daily notes.
  3. Elaborate on these as necessary

Most of what I jot in these notebooks stays in the notebooks. The most common things to go into Obsidian are:

  • blog post ideas
  • notes jotted about things I read or listed to
  • notes from experiences, like tours, museum visits, etc1.

I will frequently elaborate on notes as I enter them. For instance, if I entered a post idea for “capturing field notes in obsidian” in my notebook, when I add that note to my daily notes, I might expand it, add some sub-bullets, flesh it out a bit, or clarify it so that it is more useful than what I scribbled in the notebook.

For a while, I prefaced these items in my daily notes with an “FN” to indicate that they came from a Field Notes notebook, but I gave that up as completely unnecessary.

I do try to fit the notes into the rhythm of the day in my daily notes. If I jot down a blog post idea on my morning walk, that will go into the earlier part of my daily notes for that day. If I wanted to note a particularly good restaurant where we ate dinner, that will go in the latter part of the day

Usually, I don’t add a whole lot and probably spent less than 5 minutes each day transferring notes from my notebook into Obsidian.

Below is a page from my current Field Notes notebook from March 6, 2022, followed by my daily notes for the same day. I’ve highlighted the notes in the notebook page that I moved into Obsidian, and highlighted them in Obsidian so you can see the end result.

Page from my Field Notes notebook. Items highlighted in the red boxes were  transferred to my Obsidian daily notes
Page from my Field Notes notebook. Items highlighted in the red boxes were transferred to my Obsidian daily notes

And below, here are the my Obsidian daily notes for the same day:

My daily notes from March 6 -- items in the red boxes came from my Field Notes notebook.
My daily notes from March 6 — items in the red boxes came from my Field Notes notebook.

Why not just capture these notes directly in Obsidian?

People who see me with my Field Notes notebook frequently ask why I don’t use a note-taking app for these notes. “Aren’t you the paperless guy?” they’d ask back when I was Evernote’s paperless ambassador. Plenty of people do capture their notes directly in Obsidian and it works perfectly fine for them, there are 5 reasons why I use a notebook for these fleeting notes instead of an app.

1. A notebook is faster for me

In my experience, nothing is faster or more convenient than a pen and a notebook. Believe me, I have tried. I’ve measured the time it takes me on paper and in a dozen or more note-taking apps over the years. A notebook is always faster. I think there are few reasons for this:

  • In the time it takes to pull out my phone, unlock it, open the app I want, and create a new note, I’ve already jotted the note in my Field Notes notebook and moved on to other things.
  • Over the years I’ve developed a kind of shorthand that makes jotting notes even faster.

2. I enjoy using a notebook

I like using a notebook. There is a tactile difference to jotting notes with pen and paper that I enjoy and that I probably wouldn’t give up even if an app was developed that was more convenient than paper.

3. A notebook doesn’t run out of battery life

I don’t have to worry about a dead or dying battery with a notebook. I may run out of pages, but when I am down to the last few blank pages in a notebook, I always have a second with me. I may run out of ink, but I always carry two pens.

4. A notebook gets me off screens, for at least some of the day

I try to avoid screens for everything. When I walk in the morning and have an idea for a post, or want to jot a note on the book I am listening to, I don’t want to look at a screen. My notebook provides a convenient way to capture fleeting thoughts without depending on my phone.

5. A notebook acts as a good filter for fleeting information

As I said earlier, not everything that goes into my notebook needs to be kept. I don’t need to put shopping lists into Obsidian. I don’t need to record the name of our server in the restaurant we’re eating at in Obsidian. For those things that are worth keeping, the shorthand in my notebook reminds me of them and I when they do go into Obsidian, I can elaborate on them as needed.

What about the notes I don’t capture in Obsidian?

For a while, I considered scanning the pages of my notebooks and storing them as PDFs in Obsidian, but that seemed like too much work for too little gain. Put another way, it seemed impractical to do that. Instead, I’ve found that capturing just those things that I find useful in the future is enough.

As for all of the other notes: when I fill up a notebook, it goes into a box with all of the other Field Notes notebooks I’ve filled up over the years. Any time I want, I can flip through them and see the stuff that I needed to remember on a given day. It is difficult to search the notebooks this way. I once spent quite a bit of time searching for a beer brand in my notebooks. But that’s why I lean toward keeping notes in Obsidian that I think will be useful in the future. In Obsidian, I could easily locate what I am looking for.

A box of my Field Notes notebooks
A box of my Field Notes notebooks

In next week’s episode, I’ll talk about how I use Obsidian to manage my writing, illustrated through 5 use cases

Prev: Episode 23: Protecting My Data in Obsidian
Next: Episode 25: 5 Use Cases for Managing My Writing in Obsidian

Written on March 17, 2022.

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  1. Yup, I’m that guy with a notebook out jotting furiously as a tour guide leads us through Monticello, Mount Vernon, or some other place.

10 comments

    1. David, if I don’t write it down, I’ll forget their name. Writing it down helps me remember it. That kind of thing is ephemeral and doesn’t go into Obsidian. It’s more just a memory aid.

  1. Jamie – did you go back to individual daily notes? Or is your screenshot from your single document log? It’s hard to tell! If you went back to individual, I’d love to learn why. If not, disregard. 🙂

      1. I totally missed that one! This is brilliant hybrid solution. Thanks for sharing all you do!

    1. Matt, I am using the Minimalist Theme with the “Minimal Theme Settings” plugin, which I have set to use “Solarized” as my color scheme. That is what your are seeing in this post, and that is what I am still using today.

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