Category: practically-paperless

Practically Paperless, Episode 30: Managing Projects in Obsidian

top view photo of people near wooden table
Photo by fauxels on

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

I thought I would wrap up this series with a demonstration of how I use Obsidian to manage software projects I work on. In my day job, I make software and manage software projects. Aside from writing code now and then, most of what I do is make notes — notes on requirements, design, procurement, technical notes, lots and lots of meeting notes. Until about 2018 or so, I filled composition book after composition book with these project-related notes. Here is a stack of notebooks from about 2015-2018.

Project notebooks I filled between 2015-2018.
Project notebooks I filled between 2015-2018.

From 2019-2020, I started taking notes on computer, using Mathematica (believe it or not!) because I liked their self-contained Jupyter-style notebooks. When I moved to Obsidian in January 2021, I started keeping my project notes there and have been doing so ever since.

Theory of project management: Keep it simple

I am not a project manager by training. I sort of fell into the role from the work I’d done on software. It turned out that I had a skill for managing projects–or so I have been told. Over the decades I have taken a few courses in project management. Most of the books I’ve read on project management have been worthless. But there have been three books that heavily influenced how I manage projects today; they are not, strictly speaking, project management book, but they are the best books on project management I’ve ever read.

Project management courses I’ve taken and those books that are about project management that I have read focus on things like budgets and schedules, Gaant charts, and requirements, and all kinds of tools and services that you can use to manage your project. What most impressed me about the unconventional books I’ve read on project management–those linked to above that are not strictly speaking about project management–is that (a) they focus on the practical aspects of managing projects; and (b) they are about great big projects that were carried off before all of our fancy tools and services existed.

Indeed, it seems to me that the primary tool of the best project managers is the notes that they take, in whatever form they collect them.

So my theory of project management attempts to keep things simple:

  1. Take good notes
  2. Link them appropriately
  3. Be able to find what you need quickly

This has served me well. Just as the pandemic started, in January 2020, I began a big software project involving lots of departments and dozens of people. Because of them pandemic, the entire project–which lasted about 16 months–was done remotely. We never had an in-person meeting, from our kickoff meeting, through 33 requirements meetings, dozens of design meetings, countless hours of co-programming sessions, testing, product demontrations, training sessions, rollout, and post-rollout support. I started the project a year before I started using Obsidian, but as soon as Obsidian began working for me, I moved all of my project notes into Obsidian and it made things much easier for me.

My ingredients for managing projects in Obsidian

Here are the ingredients that make it possible for me to manage projects in Obsidian. I’ll go into each of these in a little more detail below.

  • A template for meeting notes
  • A template for technical notes
  • A note that I use as a map of content (MOC) for the entire project
  • Templater plug-in
  • Quick Add plug-in
  • Dataview plug-in

Template for meeting notes

I have a fairly simple template for meeting notes. It looks as follows:

My meeting notes template
My meeting notes template

The template is designed to work with the Templater and Quick Add plug-ins to make it quick and easy to create a new project-related note. The “project” line in the metadata section presents me with a list of my currently active projects so that I can select the project in question.

You may note that Project is listed twice, once in the frontmatter and once below. The second listing is so that I can link directly to the project MOC. This link is a kind of backup in case something goes wrong with the dataview plug-in and I still want to see the relationships between my notes.

Below is an example of what a completed meeting note looks like:

An annotated meeting note based on my template
An annotated meeting note based on my template

Template for technical notes

In addition to a template for meetings (and calls) I have a template for technical notes. This one is a lot simpler, and just allows me to create a hard link to the project to which the technical note is related. Here is what the template looks like:

My technical note template
My technical note template

These technical notes can be anything. They can be fleeting notes that I’ve jotted down when trying to optimize some code. They can be my notes on a review of some documentation. They can be a simple outline of tasks I have to try to complete that week, or an outline for a briefing that I have to give.


I make heavy use of the following plug-ins to speed up the creation of my project notes:

  • Templater plug-in
  • Quick Add plug-in
  • Dataview plug-in

For the first two, I use them almost identically to how I use them to manage my writing in Obsidian. Rather than be repetitive here, I’d urge you to check out Episode 25 where I go into great detail on how I configure templates to work with the templater and quick-add plug-ins.

Tying the project together: My project map of content

It is helpful as a project manager to have all of the information I need at hand. I do this in Obsidian by creating a single map of content note for each of my projects. I follow the same format for each of my project MOC notes. Here is an example of a project MOC from a project I am actively working:

A project MOC note
A project MOC note

Here are the sections that make up this MOC keyed to the numbers in red in the image above:

  1. Frontmatter: this is used to aggregate all of my projects at a 50,000 foot view so I can see the status of everything at a glance.
  2. Administrative: this section contains links to administrative information: charge codes for projects, status reports for our project management office, etc.
  3. Project documents: links to any documents produced for the project. Here you can see links that point to documents on Confluence, as well as Excel (on Office 365) and a PDF (also on Office 365).
  4. Presentations: I end up giving lots of presentations over the life of a project, and I link them all in this section. I’ve lost track of the number of times that someone can’t make a meeting, but asks for the presentation later. This makes it easy to find.
  5. Meetings: this is a dataview that lists all of my meeting/call notes. It lists them in order from newest to oldest, along with the title of the meeting or call (which also links to that note in Obsidian) and finally, what type it was, a meeting or a call.
  6. Technical Notes: You can’t see it in this view, but below the Meeting Notes section is a section called “Technical Notes” which is another dataview that lists all of my technical notes related to the project, in the same order as the meeting notes.

Other Tools

As far as notes go, this shows pretty much everything I use for managing the project. But it isn’t the entire picture. We use Jira to create tasks and track the tasks in sprints and releases. I have created macros that makes it easy to convert my Obsidian markdown to Jira markdown. I also frequently link to Jira issues in my Obsidian notes. Ultimately, everything is tied together, and I can find what I need quickly.


That is, as they say, a wrap. I want to thank everyone who has read and commented on these posts over the last nine months. I hope that folks have found them useful. The series isn’t going anywhere, and will be here on the blog for people to reference for the foreseeable future.

I will be here, too, although I will be writing about other things. You can stick around for that if you want, but I understand if you were just here for the series. In the free time I have now that the series is completed, I plan on getting back into some fiction writing, which I used to do quite a bit of, until I had a bout of writer’s block. That block seems to finally have passed, and I’ve nearly completed the first draft of a new story–my first in more than five years. The first draft was written in a notebook, but the next draft will be written in Obsidian, of course.

Prev: Episode 29: Filling Out Forms

Written on May 23, 2022.

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Practically Paperless with Obsidian, Episode 29: Filling Out Forms

tax documents on the table
Photo by Nataliya Vaitkevich on

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

It sometimes seems to me that most of the paper I deal with day-to-day are forms. I find this ironic. Given that so much of what we do is online, it seems almost archaic to fill out paper forms. And yet, that is what I do. I am the form-filler-outer in the family. If there is a form that needs to be filled out, it ends up on my desk. Kelly says this is because she is bad at filling out forms, but I like to think it is because I am fairly efficient about it. After all, I’ve filled out enough of them.

Obsidian is part of the reason I have become efficient filling out forms. By combining a number of its basic features, I’ve made it easy for myself to have all of the information I need at my fingertips when completing a form.

Family notes

The vast majority of the forms I have to fill out are for a specific person. School forms are for a specific student. Camp forms are for a camper, sports and other activities are for the participant in question. Then there are medical forms for the patient, insurance forms are for the insured, etc., etc.

The foundation of my system for filling out forms starts with a note for each member of the family (the only people I really ever have to fill out forms for). Each of these notes contains the most common information I’d need if I was filling out a form for the person in question.

Below is an example. I took an actual note as a model, but replaced the information with made-up data. You should get the idea:

An example of a family member note
An example of a family member note I use to fill out forms

In addition to the two sections shown above, the family notes also contains three sections containing medical information, school information, and emergency contact information. These sections make use of Obsidian’s embedded note functionality, pulling the information from supporting notes.

Supporting notes

In order to keep information up-to-date, I try to keep it centralized. I keep several notes for this purpose. These notes include:

  • Family doctors
  • Covid vaccination records
  • Other notes with contact information

Within Obsidian, you can embed the contents of one note within another by adding a note link and prefacing it with a ! symbol. In addition, you can include the content of a particular section of a note by referencing just the section in the note link.

Within my Family Doctors note, for instance, I have a section for each doctor that we use. The section contains the doctor’s name, and then contact information for the doctor.

In the Covid vaccination records note, I have a section for each family member, and within that section, a table that lists the vaccinations and dates for each person.

Finally, I have other contact notes (people notes) with sections titled “Contact Info” that are used for emergency contacts. By using embedded links to these notes within my family person notes, I always have the most recent information in each of the family notes when I use them to fill out forms.

Embedding common information

Here is what the embedded sections look like in my fictional note:

Embedded sections of a family note
Embedded sections of a family note

Now, here is what the source for the family member note looks like for each of these sections:

Source view of the embedded sections of a family note.
Source view of the embedded sections of a family note.

Note the highlighted links are embedded links to other notes. That means that I only have to update information in the source notes for it to be reflected in any notes in which they are embedded. It saves me from hunting down every reference to these notes.

Filling out forms

When it comes time to fill out a form, I go through the following steps:

  1. Pull up the family member note for the person in question.
  2. Use the information in the note to fill out the form.
  3. If there is any information on the form that I couldn’t get from the family note, I’ll note it down (usually as a task in my daily notes) as something to add for the next time I have to fill out a form.
  4. When the form is filled out, I’ll scan it, add it to Obsidian, and note that I completed a form for whatever purpose in my daily notes for the day, with a link to the scanned document for reference.

Filling out forms shouldn’t be this hard. Indeed, this seems like the perfect task for A.I. to handle. Instead of focusing on identifying images in photos, or writing blog posts for people, I wish that A.I. focused on more practical tasks like filling out forms. For now, however, Obsidian helps me manage the information I need to fill out forms so that I don’t have to go hunting all over the place to find it.

In two weeks, I’ll post the final episode of my Practically Paperless series. The final episode will be on how I use Obsidian to manage projects. Why the final episode? It was never my intention for this series to go in forever. My focus was on finding practical ways of using Obsidian to go paperless. My original outline for the series had 20 episodes. As I wrote those episodes, I outlined 10 additional episodes. I’m ready to write about other things now and continue using Obsidian to be practically paperless. I’ll see you back here on May 24 for Episode 30.

Prev: Episode 28: Archiving in Obsidian: A Tour of My Digital Scrapbook
Next: Episode 30: Managing Projects in Obsidian (coming May 24, 2022)

Written on May 9, 2022.

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Practically Paperless with Obsidian, Episode 28: Archiving in Obsidian: A Tour of My Digital Scrapbook

assorted photos and notebook
Photo by charan sai on

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

Recently, while browing around and older server, I unearthed some digital treasure. I found text files going back to 1994 containing about 100,000 words of my writing. Some of it was old journals, some of it what I discovered were proto-blog posts from an era before blogs existed. All of it I had assumed lost, until I came upon it by accident.

The experience was exhilarating. I was delighted to find this writing, and immediately pulled it into my Obsidian archive folders. (Conveniently, it was already all plain text files.) But the experience reminded me of something that I started to do in my Evernote days, and never quite finished: archive old papers and create a kind of digital scrapbook to illustrate the progress of my output over time.

In my Evernote days, I focused primarily on creating digital scrapbooks of my kids’ work. The old files I uncovered reminded me that I wanted to do something similar with my own papers. I started that process shortly after I made my discovery. What I present today, therefore, is a work-in-progress. You are seeing it in its early stages, as I try to figure out how to organize and present the information. Much is likely to change over time.

Practical archiving

I have in my house several good-sized bins of papers going back to my birth. My mom kept all of this stuff, and after their most recent move, several years ago, sent me what she had collected over the years. The boxes contain everything from birth announcements to report cards to school work to drafts of stories that I would eventually sell. They contain artwork I did, scrapbooks I kept, newspaper clippings (as when I had something printed in the New York Times) and letters I’d written and received.

Ten years ago, I would have tried to archive it all, scanning it all into Evernote and then attempting to figure out how best to present it so that I could find it. That it never happened is due entirely to the scope. There are hundreds if not thousands of pages to scan. I kept putting off the task as too overwhelming.

Now, however, I am taking a different approach. Instead of trying to scan in everything, I am capturing what I hope is a representative sample of papers from throughout my life. I’m trying to avoid duplication where I can. I don’t need every piece of artwork, but maybe one or two every few years to show how my artwork changed. I don’t need every report card, or school assignment, just enough to put together a reasonable picture.

A few of the boxes of papers for me to wade through
A few of the boxes of papers for me to wade through

Identifying what to archive

In order to take this more practical approach, I had to figure out what to archive. After some thought, I settled on a kind of “phases of my life” approach:

  • Birth – 1979 (when I lived in New Jersey)
  • 1979 – 1983 (when I lived in New England)
  • 1983 – 1987 (when I lived in L.A. through junior high school)
  • 1987 – 1990 (high school)
  • 1990 – 1994 (college)

I’d review papers and documents from each of those five periods, taking what I felt was a representative sample, and scan the documents into Obsidian.

Format of archived documents

I began selecting and scanning documents, but I fairly quickly, I realized I needed to make a decision: what format should I scan the documents in? My default is to scan as PDFs. I described my reasons for this way back in Episode 5. But as I scanned in documents and started to create the frame work of a digital scrapbook, it seemed to me that image files were better for the scrapbook purpose than PDFs.

There is a clear tradeoff here. As I mention in Episode 5, I scan PDFs as “searchable” PDFs with the idea that once a plug-in is developed to search PDFs in Obsidian, any PDFs that I have stored will already be searchable. It is not as easy to “search” the content of a image file. But then again, these documents are more of a showcase. I don’t really need to be able to search them the way I need to be able to search other types of notes and documents in Obsidian. I settled, therefore, on scanning these documents as image files.

Within Obsidian, while both PDFs and image files can be embedded within a note, only image files, so far as I know, can be resized, which makes it easier to format the scrapbook the way I want.

Creating a digital scrapbook

When adding the images to Obsidian, I was careful to give them names that would make them relatively easy to find later. I used a “date – subject” format, so if a newspaper clipping appeared on July 7, 1977 for instance, the image file might be named “19770707 – Fireworks.jpg.”

Once I had some documents scanned in, the next step was to figure out the best way of presenting them. When I was doing this for my kids in Evernote, I used a notebook for this purpose. In Obsidian, I decided it could be done with a single note for each person or subject. For my own personal scrapbook, for instance, I created a note and divided into five sections (for each of the five phases described above).

Each major section was labeled with the section name. Within each section, I added subsections with brief descriptions and then embedded images that I collected, sometimes with additional text.

A tour through my digital scrapbook

Below are some examples from my digital scrapbook. Keep in mind I’ve only recently started on this and it is still a work-in-progress. The images below are all from a single note, but I’ve picked out sections to showcase here. In practice, this is just a note in Obsidian that I scroll through to browse, like flipping the pages of a real scrapbook.

Samples from my digital scrapbook in Obsidian
Samples from my digital scrapbook in Obsidian
Samples from my digital scrapbook in Obsidian
Samples from my digital scrapbook in Obsidian
A photo of me in the newspaper taken at a fireworks display.
The earliest story I have in my papers that I wrote myself when I was 7 years old.
The earliest story I have in my papers that I wrote myself when I was 7 years old.
Math homework.
Math homework.
The good and the bad.
The good and the bad.

Why collect this stuff?

The main reason is because it interests me. I’m fascinated by looking at how I started out and where I’ve gotten to. I like seeing the mistakes I’ve made and how I’ve learned from them. Some of these papers have also proven helpful with my own kids. If they bring home an assignment that they didn’t do well on, and are disappointed or worried that it is a bad thing, I pull out these papers and show them my own mistakes. That seems to make them feel a lot better.

I’m fortunate that my mom kept all of these papers. I’ve tried to do the same with my kids, although my tendency is to scan their papers in digital form, which makes them all the more accessible for putting them into a digital scrapbook.

Next steps

I’ve only just started to sort through the various papers. I’m mostly interested in getting in stuff I written over the years. I’ve got a lot more that I’ve found and need to wade through to pick and choose what want to include. I also need to play around with how I’ve formatted things. There may be better ways to organize the information. I’ve searched around online and the closest thing I’ve found to what I am trying to do is Stephen Wolfram’s scrapbook.

In Evernote, I’d started digital scrapbooks for my kids, so I am also in the process of moving those scrapbooks into Obsidian. I think it will be fun for them to be able to scroll through their scrapbooks as they get older.

Prev: Episode 27: Use Case: Journal Writing in Obsidian
Next: Episode 29: Filling Out Forms

Written on April 25, 2022.

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Practically Paperless with Obsidian, Episode 27: Use Case: Journal Writing in Obsidian

notebook with blank pages

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

For those just joining us, one of the things I have been trying to do is to use Obsidian for all of my writing. In Episode 25 I described how I used Obsidian to manage my “professional” writing. In Episode 26 I showed I I use Obsidian for my blog and social media writing. Besides my professional writing and blog writing, the other major kind of writing I do in for my diary. That is what I’ll discuss in this episode.


I recently passed the 26th anniversary of my diary1. Those interested can follow that link to see some of the history of my journaling. The short version is that I started fairly late, when I was 24 years old2. The bulk of my diaries are on paper.

When I first started using Obsidian, I toyed with keeping my journal there, but eventually gave up and returned to paper. There were two reasons for this. First, was the lure of paper systems. They are simple and reliable. The second was that it seemed to me that I was more likely to write in my journal consistently if it was on paper. When the calendar rolled around to 2022, however, I decided that my logic on the latter point was flawed. After all, I had spend years using paper journals. I should give a digital version a fair shake. So for 2022, I decided, I’d force myself to write my journal in Obsidian. If, at the end of the year, I want to return to paper, fine.

Format of the journal

My paper journals started as big blank books. There was nothing limiting the size of an entry. There were also no pre-printed guides for dates or anything. I’d scribble entries and include the date. Beginning in 1999, I switched to those red At-a-Glance Standard Diary volumes. There is a page for each day of the year, with the date information pre-printed on each page. There were also little markers at the top you could circle to record the weather (sunny, cloudy, etc.). Unlike the blank books, I was limited to what I could write in a day by what fit on the page.

(Image from At-a-Glance)

In 2017, I switched to large Moleskin Art Collection sketchbooks. Once again, I had blank pages and was free to write as much as I wanted. To add structure, however, I began numbering my journal entries. My idea was that the numbering would continue from one volume to the next, rather than restart. That way, I could index my journal based on entry numbers instead of volume/page number. It also meant I could refer to previous entries by their number.

An image from my Moleskine journal
An image from my Moleskine journal

I wanted the best of both worlds in Obsidian. Here is how I got there.

How I setup my journal in Obsidian

1. A template for my journal entries

I started with a template which has some meta-data in it like the templates I demonstrated in the previous two episodes.

My New Diary Entry template
My New Diary Entry template

I don’t tag the vast majority of my journal entries, but occasionally I will. For example, if I am writing a journal entry while traveling, and about my experience, I will tag the entry with a “travel” tag.

The “note-type” is relatively new. I’ve gone back and added this to my other templates. It allows a quick way of searching for notes of a particular type, for example, diary entries, story submissions, blog posts, etc.

The entry date and time are self-explanatory and used in dataviews for sorting and filtering on dates.

As I mentioned, those Standard Diaries I used to use had a template at the top of each page to note the weather. I added a weather line to my journal entry template, and then added a custom function in Templater to fill in the current weather based on my current location. See the “Templater + QuickAdd Plug-in” section below.

The part of the template marked “Dateline” serves two purposes:

  1. I wanted a way to easily see the date of an entry. I like how the date appeared at the top of each page in the Standard Diary, so I used a callout in Obsidian to emulate this.
  2. The dateline is also a link to the daily note for the date in question. That way, the diary entry automatically shows up in the backlinks of the daily note for that day.

2. One note per entry

I like my method of having a unique index number for each diary entry. Some entries are general and might cover an entire day. Other times, I’ll have multiple entries on the same day, some of them topical, others more general. The entry number allows my entries to be atomic in nature, if I want them to me. It serves as an index number to an entry and makes it easy to link to a specific entries from other places.

In Obsidian, I just continued the numbering from where I left off in my Moleskine notebooks. The filename of the entry is simply the index number. This is convenient because I can then use the QuickAdd plug-in functionality to automatically increment the entry number upon creation of a new entry.

3. Templater + QuickAdd Plug-in for creating new entries

In Episodes 25 and 26, I said that I used the Templater and QuickAdd plug-ins. As I demonstrated above, my template makes use of Templater substitutions. It also makes use of a custom function for getting the weather. Here is what that function looks like within Templater:

Weather function in Templater
Weather function in Templater

Here is an example of an entry including the weather:

An example entry showing the weather line in an actual journal entry.
An example entry showing the weather line in an actual journal entry.

For creating the new journal entry, I use the QuickAdd plug-in. For the New Diary Entry it is configured as follows:

QuickAdd configuration for my New Diary Entry template
QuickAdd configuration for my New Diary Entry template

The result of all of this is when I create a new diary entry, I can immediately begin typing and the entry is already properly filed, includes the date, time, and weather. I can type as much or as little as I want, giving me the best of both the templated Standard Diaries and the blank Moleskine sketchbooks.

Linking my journal

One advantage that immediately became obvious when I started keeping my journal in Obsidian was my ability to link to and from the journal. I mentioned how the dateline in my template ensures that entries show up in the backlinks of my daily notes, like this, for instance:

A daily note showing backlinks to journal entries.
A daily note showing backlinks to journal entries.

In addition, I will sometimes link to specific entries from within my daily notes when I want to provide more context to the line item in the notes. This goes along with my desire to make my daily notes an index for my life. Here is an example of that from back in early April:

A daily note with references to journal entries in context.
A daily note with references to journal entries in context.

Then, too, within my journal, I sometimes link to other notes to make connections and provide context. There are a couple of ways I do this:

  • When writing about a noteable event involving someone in the family, I will link to my note for that person. This causes the particular journal entry to show up in the backlinks of the note for the person in question. For example:
A journal entry that references links to one of my People notes. The entry will show up as a backlink on the note for Grace.
A journal entry that references links to one of my People notes. The entry will show up as a backlink on the note for Grace.
  • When writing on a specific topic, I will sometimes link to another note on the topic. If I am writing about a book I am currently reading, I’ll link to my source note for the book, for instance.

Privacy concerns

I imagine the question might arise as to whether I have any privacy concerns about keeping my journal in Obsidian. The short answer is: no, I don’t. For a longer, more detaied answer, see Episode 23: Protecting My Data in Obsidian.

Typing versus handwriting

I learned to keep a journal on paper, so I have a natural bias toward paper journals. I also like using a fountain pen I acquired for my birthday a little over a year ago for this purpose. However, I’ve committed to keeping my 2022 journal in Obsidian for duration of the year. There are some advantages and disadvantages that I have discovered so far.


  • I can type fast and because of this I tend to write longer journal entries in Obsidian than I would write in a paper journal longhand, frequently adding more detail.
  • The ability to quickly find something in my journal through a search is a big plus. I use a search that focuses on the path where my journal entries reside to cancel out noise from other sources.
  • Being able to link journal entries to other notes is also a plus


  • For reasons I can’t fully understand, I am not nearly as consistent about my journal writing in Obsidian as I am when using a paper journal. Perhaps it is the distinctness of the act: I pull the journal off the shelf, set it on my desk, open it to the current page, unscrew the cap of my fountain pen, and begin writing. It is a unique ritual in my day. On the other hand, creating a note in Obsidian is something I do countless times each day, and making a journal entry is one of those times. There is nothing distinct about it.
  • I miss the physical act of handwriting. My journal was one of the few places where I still wrote in cursive3and I enjoyed the flow of that.
  • Paper still feels like a more permanent storage medium than digital storage.

This last point serves as a nice transition to next week’s topic. As I wrote yesterday, I recently uncovered some digital treasure–files and writing I’d done from nearly 30 years ago. Some of that I’ve pulled into my archive in Obsidian. This archive serves as a kind of digital scrapbook for me, and so I thought I’d give a tour of my Obsidian archive next week to illustrate the kinds of things that get stored there.

See you back here next week.

Prev: Episode 26: Use Case: Managing My Blog Writing in Obsidian
Next: Episode 28: Archiving in Obsidian: A Tour Through My Digital Scrapbook

Written on April 16-17, 2022.

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  1. I use the terms “diary” and “journal” interchangeably, although they may mean different things to different people.
  2. I say “late” because I wish I’d started soon–eighteen maybe. I have encouraged my kids to keep journals of their own, but it is only taken with my middle daughter so far. She has filled several volume and just is ten years old.

Practically Paperless with Obsidian, Episode 26: Use Case: Managing My Blog Writing in Obsidian

a vintage typewriter
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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.

In Episode 25, I described how I managed my “professional” writing in Obsidian. I also mentioned that I looked to Obsidian as the one place to do all of my writing. That includes the writing I do here on the blog, so I thought I’d use this episode to describe how I use Obsidian to write for my blog.

WordPress and the Block Editor

I use WordPress for my blog services, and I have been incredibly happy with the service. I like the block editor for writing and editing posts, too. However, when I finally decided to do all of my writing in Obsidian, I intended to do my blog writing there, too. There are a number of advantages to this, but the main one is a single interface and set of commands for all of my writing. Also, all of my writing is now stored in plain text files, using markdown formatting, and readily accessible locally on my computer within my Obsidian vault.

Writing for the Blog

The bulk of the writing I do each week is for the blog. Readers who come for the Practically Paperless posts see just one of eight to ten posts I publish each week. I’ve been writing here on the blog since late 2005, about 17 years, and in that time, I’ve published more than 7,000 posts. Since January 1, 2021, I’ve made it a goal to publish at least one post everyday. As of this writing, I have published at least one post every day for 467 consecutive days.

I generally try to write 2 posts per day, scheduling them out so that I build up a backlog. I do this for two reasons:

  1. It keeps me writing, and keeps me thinking, both of which I enjoy doing.
  2. It acknowledges the truth of writing for me, which is that there are some days where I just can’t bring it. I’m either too busy, too tired, or I write something that I just don’t like. Having a backlog takes the pressure off publishing a post every day.

For instance, as of this writing (I am writing this on April 3, 2022), I have posts scheduled out through April 23. I sometimes leave gaps in the schedule, like I did for this post, since these Practically Paperless posts go out on Tuesdays.

There are two ways that Obsidian helps me with the blog writing: (1) Collecting ideas, and (2) writing posts.

Collecting ideas for the blog

Over the years, I’ve realized how important having a list of ideas is to writing posts whenever I have time. I’ve gotten into the habit of jotting down every idea I get. I don’t always use the ideas, but I jot them down regardless. There have been too many times when I told myself I would remember an idea, only to forget it.

If I am away from the computer, I’ll jot an idea in my Fields Notes notebook. That idea will get transferred to the current day’s daily note at the end of the date. I detailed some of this back in Episode 24. If I am sitting by the computer, the idea goes directly into the daily note as a task. The task gets tagged with “#post-idea”. These tasks, uncompleted and completed are collected using the Dataview plug-in a note called “Post Ideas.” When I am ready to write each day, I’ll pull up this note and skim through the ideas to see if there is anything in particular I want to write about. This note also shows the list of ideas that I have either completed writing or discarded.

Example of my Post Ideas file -- showing the section on ideas I've either written about or discarded.
Example of my Post Ideas file — showing the section on ideas I’ve either written about or discarded.

Writing posts for the blog

When I am ready to start writing, I make use of a template and the QuickAdd plug-in to generate the note in which I compose my post. The template and plug-in prompt me for information about the kind of writing I am doing, generate the note, and automatically file the note in my Writing/Blog/Posts folder in my Obsidian vault. At this point, I start writing. Below you can see the process for creating a new post note:

Animated gif showing how I create a new blog entry in Obsidian using Templater and the QuickAdd plug-ins.

Here is an example of what a post note looks like after I’ve started to write. I’ve used this post for my example:

draft of the current post in Obsidian

I try hard to keep most posts between 500-600 words. That makes writing 2 posts per day much more managable, given my time constraints. It also helps me practice writing to a target length, which is useful when doing professional writing and an outlet requests a piece of, say, 500 or 800 words. Some posts (like many of the posts in this series, are significantly longer). WordPress tells me that for the 114 posts I have published so far as of today, the average length is 784 words.

Publishing to WordPress

Once I finish writing my post, immediately schedule it in WordPress. Usually, I schedule it for the next open date on my calendar. As of today, the next open date is Sunday, April 24, but since I left a gap in my calendar for this post, I would schedule this one on Tuesday, April 12.

This is a manual process for me, and it goes as follows:

  1. Copy the text of the post out of Obsidian.
  2. Create a new post in WordPress and paste the copied text into the body.

The combination of Obsidian and WordPress make this a very simple process and it usually takes just a few seconds. The reason it is so simple is that my posts are written in Obsidian using Markdown formatting and WordPress knows how to interpret Markdown formatting when it is pasted into a post. All my formatting comes through cleanly, which saves a lot of time.

Once I have the post in WordPress, I schedule it for its future date. I change the status on my Obsidian note to “scheduled” and add the date that it was scheduled for.

Managing My Posts

I have “Blog Post MOC” note that i use to manage my posts. There are three sections to this post, each using a different dataview query to display a list of posts:

  1. Posts scheduled tomorrow. This lists any posts that are schedule for the next day. I use this to proofread the post the night before and try to intercept any obvious typos I happen to notice.
  2. Posts scheduled today. This lists any posts scheduled to be published on the current day. This reminds me what is being published. I also use this to update the meta-data in the note to reflect the status (published) and the link to the published post.
  3. Published posts. This is a list of all the published posts, with a link to the published URL for the post in question.
my blog MOC showing the tomorrow, today, and published posts sections
A look at my blog MOC.

Comments on the Blog

As I said, I try to capture all of my writing in Obsidian. That includes significant comments I make on my blog (or on others, for that matter). I have template for blog comments and I use it to write out my comments before posting them to the blog. This has a few advantages for me:

  1. It keeps all of my writing in Obsdian. I can use the Vim keyboard mappings I am used to and store my comments locally as part of all of my writing captured in my vault.
  2. It allows me to think through my comments and write them with the same care I’d use for any other writing. When I wrote comments on the fly, in the spur of the moment, I tend to (a) make mistakes, and (b) miss some important points I want to make. Writing them out in Obsidian ahead of time let’s me think through what I want to say.

The process for creating a new comment note in Obsidian is similar to the process for my other writing. It makes use of a template and the QuickAdd plug in. After I select the destination as “Blog” the template gives me the following options:

Selecting "comment" in my template.
Selecting “comment” in my template.

This provides a quick way for categorizing the note as a comment to a blog post. I also use this for other significant social media posts: posts and comments to Reddit, to various forums, and to other blogs, for instance. I find three advantages to this:

  1. It allows me to do all of my writing in Obsidian.
  2. Writing out a comment or reply in Obsidian allows me to to think about what I am writing and edit it much easier than if I did it in a text box of a blog or a social media site like Reddit. I don’t feel rushed. I can draft a comment, then come back to it later and edit it before posting.
  3. It allows me to collect all of my writing in one place, whether that is my “professional” writing, blog writing, or social media posts and comments.

Final thoughts

In my attempt to collect all of my writing in text files in Obsidian, I’ve shown how I manage my professional writing, and my blog writing. There is one final bit of writing that I now do and capture in Obsidian. In next week’s episode, I’ll go through my process for writing my journal entries in Obsidian.

See you back here next week.

Prev: Episode 25: Five Use Cases for Managing My Writing in Obsidian
Next: Episode 27: Use Case: Writing Journal Entries in Obsidian (coming April 19, 2022)

Written on April 3 and April 11, 2022.

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Practically Paperless with Obsidian, Episode 25: Five Use Cases for Managing My Writing in Obsidian

shallow photoghrapy of black and gray type writer keys
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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.

Years before I began using Obsidian, I’d wanted to consolidate all of my writing into a single format–preferably text files. I wanted all of my old writing files accessible in plain text, and wanted to do all future writing in the same format. Ideally, I would use a single editor for all of this and would only have to know a single set of keyboard mappings. Once I started using Obsidian, and learned more and more of its features, I began to do what I’d I’d always wanted: centralize all of my writing–all of it–in a single place.

This episode, and the several that follow will describe how I’ve centralized all of my writing in Obsidian. I’ll begin with how I use Obsidian for my “professional” writing, illustrated through 5 use cases.

Professional writing?

In addition to this blog and my day job as an application developer and project manager, I also write stories and articles for publication. I began to write with the idea to sell stories almost 30 years ago, while still in college. It took 14 years of writing, submitting, and collecting rejections before I made my first professional story sale. Sales came quicker, and I branched out from writing stories to writing articles as well. Writing short fiction and nonfiction pieces was never going to take over from my day job as my primary source of income, but it was my avocation: something I’d always wanted to do and something that I really enjoyed doing.

Over the years, I’ve used all kinds of tools for my writing. When I began to write in college I was composing my stories in Microsoft Word 5.5 for DOS–still my favorite word processor to this day. I moved onto other tools. I was a long-time user of Scrivener, and later, Google Docs. When I began using Obsidian more than 15 months ago, I decided that I wanted to do all my writing there. Moreover my vault could serve as the repository for all of my writing.

Writing as a profession–even one as humble as mine–involves more than just typing words onto a page. I have identified 5 tasks I perform as part of the overall process of managing my writing. They are:

  1. Writing drafts
  2. Managing writing projects
  3. Tracking submissions
  4. Tracking sales and contracts
  5. Seeing the big picture


There are a couple of tools I use in conjunction with Obsidian to make the overall process smooth and seamless.

  • Templater plug-in. I use this to build a set of writing-related templates so that I am not re-inventing the wheel every time I create a new draft manuscript note, or a new submissions note.
  • Quick Add plug-in. I use this to speed up the process of creation and to populate some of the meta-data in my templates.
  • Dataview plug-in. I use this in my “writing project” notes for collecting together related information about the project in one place. Because the dataview plug-in does not actually link notes together, I have, as you will see, taken additional steps to ensure that all of my writing notes have links within them to keep them related to their projects. This serves as a kind of backup to the dataview plug-in.
  • Pandoc. I use this to automate compiling a draft note into standard manuscript format. Standard manuscript format is used by most of the professional publications that I have worked with. It is a simple set of guidelines for formatting a manuscript that takes the job of figuring out how to format a document out of the writer’s hand. This is a good thing since getting bogged down in formatting is a good way to avoid writing.

Use Case 1: Writing Drafts

My process for actually sitting down to write in Obsidian is straight-forward:

  1. Create a new note using a New Manuscript Draft template via the Quick Add plug-in. This creates a note with the appropriate meta-data at the top (the YAML frontmatter) and a callout footer with a link to the project. It also automatically files the note into my “Working Drafts” folder.
  2. Write. This is the activity where I try to spend the bulk of my time.

There isn’t much formatting involved in the types of manuscripts I produce. I use simple markdown for things like italicized text. I use markdown headings for sections or parts of a story or article. Otherwise, I just write. I do, however, have a process for working through my drafts that has evolved over the years and I have built that process into my workflow in Obsidian.

1st draft and 2 second drafts

When I create a new note using my New Manscript Draft template via the Quick Add plug-in, I am prompted for several pieces of information:

  • Draft title. This is often a working title. My first published story was called “When I Kissed the Learned Astronomer,” for instance.
  • Project title. A name of the project that this piece is associated with. This is often an abbreviated version of the title. In the case of my first published story, the project name was “Learned Astronomer”
  • Draft: The draft version, 1st draft, 2nd draft, etc.

After providing this information, a new note is available to me with the meta-data in the YAML frontmatter of the note file, and a footer containing a hard Obsidian link to the project note. Now I can begin writing. Here is what it looks like in action:

My New Manuscript Draft template in action
My New Manuscript Draft template in action

At the bottom of my template, you’ll notice a callout section called “Note” which contains a link to the project name. Many of these notes are surfaced through the dataview plug-in, as you will see. However, the dataview plug-in does not create actual links between notes. The “footer” in my templates create links between the note and the project: in this case, between the draft and the project. This serves as a way to see the relationships in backlinks, or the graph view. It also serves as a kind of backup to the dataview itself.

The footer of my template, which creates a relationship between the draft and the project note.

For me, a typical story or article goes through two drafts. On rare occasions, I’ll have a third draft. Each draft gets its own note so I can see the evolution of the piece from one draft to another. These drafts are accessible from the project note, as I will demonstrate in Use Case 2.

Submitted and publication drafts

In addition to “1st”, “2nd”, and “3rd” draft, my template also provides me with two additional options: “Submitted draft” and “Publication draft.”

  • Submitted draft. This is a version of a piece that is formally submitted to a specific market. There can sometimes be several submitted drafts, each one tied to a specific market, slightly different based on feedback I have received, or changes I have made between submissions.
  • Publication draft. This is a version a piece that is ultimately published. This may differ slightly from the submitted draft. Some magazines and publishers provide authors with “galleys” of their piece set in type from which minor corrections can be introduced prior to publication. Changes I make on a galley get reflected in the publication draft.


Ultimately the creation of the new manuscript draft note takes just a few seconds. The templates and plug-ins help speed that process along and keep everything standardized so that I can get to the writing itself, which is what matters.

These templates and plug-ins eliminate a lot of overhead and allow me to focus on writing.

Compiling a manuscript with Pandoc

When I have a submission draft locked down, I will compile a manscript using Pandoc. Pandoc, for those who aren’t familiar with it, is a tool that takes one format of text and converts it to another format. For my purposes, it takes a plain text markdown file and generates a Word document (or sometimes, a PDF) in standard manuscript format.

I have a simple command I run at the command line to do this. Because I’ve already set up a “standard manuscript” template in Pandoc, I run my command against a given note in Obsidian, and out comes a properly formatted Word document ready for submission. After running my command, Pandoc generates the manuscript. Here is an example of the first page of a manuscript that is produced (header information is made up for this purpose):

sample first page of "compiled" manuscript draft via Pandoc
Sample first page of a manuscript compiled from a text file using Pandoc.

Once again, this saves me time. I want to spend as much of my available “writing” time actually writing.

Use Case 2: Managing writing projects

If I manage to complete a draft, I create a “Writing Project” note. (If I give up, I trunk the draft.) I have a “New Writing Project” template that I use to create the project. Like the “New Manuscript Draft” template, it prompts me for a bunch of information, and the resulting project file gets places in a project folder.

animated gif showing how I create a new writing project
Creating a new writing project.

There are five sections to my New Writing Project template:

  1. Drafts: a dataview table listing all of the drafts associated with the project.
  2. Submissions: a dataview table listing all of the submissions associated with the project.
  3. Contracts: a dataview table listing all of the contracts associated with the project.
  4. Appearances: currently, a manually maintained list of places the piece has appeared, with links if available.
  5. Notes: notes and other items related to the project.

Here is an example of a Writing Project note from my first published story from back in 2007:

Writing Project note for my first published story, showing four of the five sections
Writing project note for my first published story.

Everything on the template, with the exception of the “Appearances” is automated so long as I use the same project name throughout the process. Below is what my actual Writing Project template looks like in source mode so that you can see the dataview queries:

a sample of my new writing project template
Template for my New Writing Project.

Once again, because the “footer” in my Manuscript Draft, Submission, and Contract templates contains a link to the project note, there are hard links between the notes, in addition to surfacing the related notes through the dataview plug-in. For instance, from the project note, I can see the backlinks to all of the related notes (drafts, submissions, etc.):

A view of a writing project with showing the backlinks to related notes
A view of a writing project with showing the backlinks to related notes

As indicated, the {{VALUE:Project Name}} comes from a Template configuration I have in the QuickAdd plug-in. That configuration looks as follows:

Quick Add plug-in configuration for my New Writing Project template
Quick Add plug-in configuration for my New Writing Project template

The result is that when I create a new draft, submission, or contract that uses the same project name in the meta-data, it will appear on the MOC for the project in question, surfaced in the dataview tables as well as the backlinks to the note.

I have a writing project MOC for every writing project for which I completed a first draft, even if the story or article was ultimately trunked. More on this in Use Case 5 below.

Use Case 3: Tracking submissions

When a story or article is ready for submission, I use my “New Submission” template. This prompts me for two pieces of information:

  • Project name
  • Market name

The market name is typically an abbreviated version of the market to which the piece is submitted (e.g., IGMS for InterGalactic Medicine Show, Daily Beast for The Daily Beast, etc.)

When the note is created, it is automatically filed in a Submissions folder. I then manually add a couple of additional pieces of information:

  • Submission date
  • A note link to the the submitted manuscript draft.

Recall that some projects may have multiple submission drafts. This link is what ties a specific draft to a specific market. Here is what a submission looks like:

animated gif showing how my New Submission template works
Creating a new submission.

When I hear back from a market, I will update the submission note. I’ll update the status, as necessary, and the status date. I will also make running notes in the note itself. For instance, if an editor requests changes, I’ll note the changes in the submission note that need to be incorporated into the published draft.

As I make these changes, or add new submissions, they are automatically captured on the Writing Project MOC for the project in question.

Here is a look at my New Submission template:

My New Submission template
My New Submission template

Use Case 4: Tracking sales and contracts

When a piece is sold, a contract usually follows that contains the terms of the sale, how much I am to be paid, and what rights I am selling. When this happens, I create Contract note using my New Contract template via the QuickAdd plug-in. The contract template collects information like:

  • project name
  • market
  • contract date
  • payment
  • contract terms/rights

This information goes into the meta-data of the note. I then manually add an embedded link to the PDF version of the contract. This note gets autmatically filed into my _documents folder. The contract is automatically listed in the “Contracts” section of the project MOC for the piece. For some projects, there may be more than one contract. This will happen for reprints or foreign sales, for instance.

Here is an example of what a contract note looks like. This one is for my story, “Take One For the Road” which appeared in the June 2010 issue of Analog Science Fiction:

Contract note for my story "Take One for the Road" (Analog SF, June 2011)
Contract note for my story “Take One for the Road” (Analog SF, June 2011)

The contract is automatically listed in the “Contract” section of the corresponding project note. Like my other templates, the contract template also has a “footer” with links to the project note and the corresponding market note, thus creating hard links in Obsidian between those notes.

Use Case 5: Seeing the big picture

Finally, I have a “Writing Projects MOC” note that lists all of my writing projects using the data view. It has three parts:

  • projects in progress
  • projects that have been complete/published
  • projects that have been trunked

This is the 50,000 foot view of my writing. It lets me see everything and then drill down into those project MOCs that I am interested in seeing in greater detail. Here is what my Writing Project MOC looks like today:

my master writing project note, listing all of my writing projects, active, completed, and trunked
Master “Writing Projects” note listing all of my writing projects, active, completed, and trunked.

The screen capture above cuts off after my first four “trunked” stories, but there are at least a hundred of them in that list, going back, as you can see to as early as January 1993, when I first began submitting.

There are other views I have as well. I can see tables showing me how much I was paid in a given year–useful for tax season. Or I can see a listing of publications by market. One thing I am working on is creating a template for appearances; this will essentially automate my bibliography.

Final thoughts

No solution is perfect for everyone. This one works well for me because it allows not only to do all of my writing in Obsidian (and in plain text files), but it allows me to manage my writing in plain text files as well. The dataviews are convenient for this, but not required. As I have shown, my templates also create hard links between projects and related notes so that I can see the relationships in backlinks, and graph view, in addition to the dataview tables.

There is certainly room for some improvement in my process. But that comes with time. I should also point out that I use this process for my paid writing. I have a similar, process for how I managed my writing here on the blog — but that will be the subject of next week’s episode.

I know there is a lot in this post. I am happy to try to answer any questions, technical or otherwise about managing my writing in Obsidian in the comment thread.

Prev: Episode 24: Use Case: How I Capture Field Notes in Obsidian
Next: Episode 26: Use Case: How I Manage My Blog Writing in Obsidian (coming April 12, 2022)

Written on March 24-26 and April 1, 2022.

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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.

Practically Paperless with Obsidian, Episode 23: Protecting My Data in Obsidian

black android smartphone on top of white book
Photo by Pixabay on

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

As I go through the process of migrating from Evernote to Obsidian, I have moved all kinds of notes and documents into Obsidian. Some of these, like tax documents, for instance, raise the question: Is it safe to put sensitive data into Obsidian?

This is nothing new. When I was writing my Going Paperless posts using Evernote ten years ago, one of the most common questions I got was, “But don’t you worry about exposing your data?” The question came in different forms–what if Evernote is hacked? Don’t you worry that Evernote staff can read your notes and documents?–but the general idea was always the same. People were worried about others gaining access personal information and want to know if a tool is safe to use in this regard. I thought I would spend this Episode talking about how I think about data protection and describing some of the tools I use to protect my in the context of going practically paperless with Obsidian.

Layers of a security onion

When I think of protecting the notes I keep in Obsidian, I think in terms of layers of an onion, with each layer representing one method of protection that I am comfortable with. Each method alone is not perfect. Combined, however, they provide me with enough sense of security that I don’t lose any sleep over the matter. These layers remind me of those doors that Maxwell Smart passed through to get to and from his office each day.

In the case of the data I keep in Obsidian there are three layers of security working together to protect my data: physical access, digital access, and data encryption. I illustrate this as follows:

diagram showing the security layers as if layers of an onion, with my obsidian vault at the center.

1. Physical access to Obsidian data

One of the big selling points of Obsidian is that data resides locally by default. My Obsidian notes are stored on the hard disk of my desktop or laptop computer. Let’s set aside cloud-syncing services and mobile devices for the moment–I’ll come back to it later, I promise. For now, my Obsidian vault sits in a folder on a hard disk on my Mac Mini, and that Mac Mini sits on shelf in my office.

If someone wants to access my Obsidian notes, they need access to my Mac Mini and that means they need access to my office. Access to my office requires access to my house. This is illustrated in the “physical access” layer in the image above. On the right side, the house represent physical access to my Obsidian data.

Now let’s pretend that instead of storing my notes in Obsidian, I followed Niklas Luhmann’s Zettelksaten model and all of my notes were on slips of paper stored in a slipbox that resided in my office where my Mac Mini currently sits. This is illustrated in the “physical access” layer in the image above. On the left side, the house represents physical access to my slip box.

So far physical access to my notes is identical in either case. A person needs to gain access to my office to get to either the Mac Mini or the slipbox. Physical security of my notes is the same in both cases. I make this point because I sometime hear arguments that people don’t want to store certain types of data in digital form. This is perfectly reasonable. Everyone needs to find their own comfort level. But from my viewpoint, physical security for locally stored data in Obsidian and the same data stored on paper in a slipbox is identical.

Physical security itself can include a number of layers. (1) We lock the door to our house. (2) We may lock the door to our office within our house1. (3) We may have an alarm system installed to discourage an unauthorized breach.

I never lost sleep about data security when most of my files were on paper and stored in a filing cabinet in my office, long before Evernote or Obsidian. Given that the physical security is the same when storing my data locally in Obsidian, I don’t lose sleep over the physical security of my data their either.

2. Digital access to Obsidian data

Suppose, however, that someone managed to breach the physical security layer and was able to sit in front of my Mac Mini2. The second layer of the onion–protecting digital access to my Obsidian data–kicks in.

To gain access to my notes in Obsidian, a person would first need to be able to sign into my Mac Mini using an account that has permissions to the vault. At its most basic level, that means a person needs a password to sign into the computer. Good password practices help here. For instance, I use a different password for everything. Gaining access to one password only gets a person access to one specific device or service. A password manager helps with this. I’ve also made it a practice to use long passwords as they are much harder to crack.

Suppose, however, for the sake of our exercise, that the person who managed to break into my house has figured out my unique and hard-to-guess password for my computer. What then? Just as physical access can have many elements to it (keys, alarms, etc.) so does digital access. In addition to a strong, unique password, I also make use of multi-factor authentication. A password alone isn’t enough to get into the computer. A second form of verification is required. There all kinds of multi-factor authentication: biometric, an authenticator tool, a text message to another device, or a separate device entirely like a YubiKey.

The likelihood of someone breaching my physical security, figuring out my password, and getting past the multi-factor authentication is so small that it really isn’t worth worrying about, at least in my view. Suppose, for instance, that my notes were stored on paper in a slipbox, as my illustration shows on the left side. In this case, the digital access layer of the security onion doesn’t exist. Here, then, is a side-by-side comparison of what someone has to do to gain access to my notes in Obsidian in case, and on paper (slipbox) in another:

LayerSlipbox (Paper)Obsidian (Digital)
Physical access1. Access to house (key, alarm code, etc.)
2. Access to office
2. Access to slipbox (key?)
1. Access to house (key, alarm code, etc.)
2. Access to office
Digital accessNone1. Know my strong, unique password.
2. Have access to my second form of authentication

It would actually be easier to gain access to my data if it were stored on paper in my office than in Obsidian with the vault stored locally on my computer.

3. Data encryption

Suppose our frustrated villain, able to get into my office, but unable to breach the digital security of my computer, decides to just take the computer with them, with the idea off gaining direct access to the data on the hard disk within, perhaps by mounting it on another device. At this point, the scenario is getting a bit preposterous, but let’s just go with it. This is where the data encryption layer comes into play.

The hard disks on my computers are all encrypted using FileVault, MacOSs native disk encryption software. FileVault uses 128-bit AES encryption with a 256-bit key. The data on the disk is encrypted at rest until proper authorization has been granted at which point the data is decrypted. “Proper authorization” in this case means the access required in part 2 above. Without a password and valid authentication from a separate authenticator, there is no practical way to decrypt the data. Our villain would have obtained a computer, but it would be useless to them unless they wiped the drive, in which case, they lose access to the data.

With these three layers of the onion working in conjunction. I feel perfectly safe storing my notes, even sensitive ones, in my local Obsidian vault. The risk of a breach is not impossible, but it is so unlikely that I don’t worry about it.

Syncing notes and cloud security

Ah, but what if I want to access my notes from multiple devices? Don’t I worry about someone gaining access to my data in the cloud? I don’t.

For Obsidian data to sync across multiple devices, some kind of syncing service must be used. I have experience with two of these services: iCloud and Obsidian Sync. When I began using Obsidian in January 2021, I used iCloud to sync data between my computer and my iPhone. In that scenario, the data lives on my hard disk (which is still encrypted) is synchronized through the iCloud service to iCloud servers, which in turn synced the data to my iPhone (where the data is also encrypted). Indeed the entire synchronization process is encrypted.

Eventually, I ran into sync issues that seemed to be entirely related to iCloud and I switched to Obsidian’s Sync service. This is a fast, reliable sync service that I setup once and then never had to mess with again. It just works.

There are two models to Obsidian Sync: end-to-end encryption and managed encryption. To ensure complete privacy, I use the end-to-end encryption model. In this model, the data (already encrypted on my hard disk thanks to FileVault) is encrypted when being sent to and from Obsidian’s sync service. It is encrypted at rest on Obsidian’s servers. Best of all, I am the only one who can access the data. The encryption uses a password and Obsidian developers do not have access to that password. The downside of this is that if I ever forget my password, I would not be able to access the vault in the Obsidian Sync service3.

The 3 layers of my security onion still apply even with data stored in Obsidian Sync. Someone would need physical access to the server where the data was stored. They would need digitial access to the data on the server, and they would need a password for decrypting that data. Those three layers of security are good enough for me.

But what about a mobile device?

Possibly the weakest link in this chain is my iPhone, and I say it is the weakest link only because it is the most likely place where someone can gain physical access. This doesn’t even have to be malicious. My phone could slip out of my pocket and I might not notice it is gone right away.

Even here, however, the other layers of the security onion kick in. If someone finds my phone, they need to gain digital access to my phone. And data on iPhones is encrypted so direct access to the solid state storage does no good. Moreover, security is set up on my phone so that after a certain number of failed attempts to sign into the phone, the phone will wipe its data, making it useless to anyone who was after the data. Also, I can wipe the data remotely, if I realize the phone is missing and the phone is turned on and able to access a cellular network.

Some additional protections

Protecting data is more than just preventing unauthorized access to the data. It is also making sure that I have access when I need it. Here are some additional ways that I protect my data (including my Obsidian vault).

1. VPN service

I use a VPN service to make sure my data is encrypted end-to-end, even when I am on 5G, cellular, or unfamiliar WiFi networks. This way, I don’t have to worry about someone snooping on networks that I have no control over. The VPN service ensures my data is encrypted end-to-end from the moment it leaves my device.

2. Data backups

My data is regularly backed up. There are local and cloud backups:

  • I use TimeMachine to continually backup my data to an external disk on my home machines. This allows for quick local restores for times that I make a dumb mistake.
  • All of our computers are also backed up to the cloud using CrashPlan’s Small Business backup plan. This service costs some money, but I look at it the same way I look at paying for insurance. The few times I’ve needed it, it has been there and restored all of my data quickly.

In each case, the backed-up data is encrypted and only I can decrypt it.

Finding a security sweet spot

It is one thing for me to list out all of the reasons why I don’t worry about unauthorized access to my Obsidian data. It is another for others to feel comfortable on their own setup. Some people will insist that the three layers I find reassuring are just not reassuring enough. Others will think it is overkill. That’s fine. Everyone needs to figure out their own security sweet spot. Below is a diagram I sketched out for a post on this subject I wrote just about 10 years ago. I’m reusing it here because I think it is as true now as it was then. Given the practical theme of these posts, I might change the “low reward” and “low risk” to “low practicality” and “highly practical”, but otherwise, it stands.

Find a sweet spot you are comfortable with. And remember, you always have the option of not storing something in Obsidian, or in digital form period.

Summary of Tools and Services

The table below summarizes some of the tools and service I make use of in each of the layers discussed about. I should point out that I’ve had these practices in place for a long time. They do more than just protect my Obsidian data. They protect all my data.

1. Physical accessLock and key
Security service
2. Digital accessStrong, unique password (LastPass for password manager)
Multi-factor authentication (biometric / YubiKey)
3. Data encryptionFileVault (128-bit AES encryption with 256-bit key)
Express VPN to ensure end-to-end encryption on “untrusted” networks
Obsidian Sync for end-to-end encryption for syncing Obsidian data between devices
Additional ToolsTime Machine (MacOS) for local continuous backups
CrashPlan for Small Business for cloud backups

Coming attractions

I have covered a lot of ground in the first 23 episodes of this series. A lot of this ground was me exploring the basic principles and functions of Obsidian, and figuring out how to make practical use of them. Over the next several episodes, I’ll be exploring specific use cases — practical examples of how I use Obsidian on a day-to-day basis.

I also wanted to put out a call for suggestions on topics you’d like to see covered here. I can’t say I’ll be able to meet every demand: I tend to avoid writing about situations for which I have no need or for which I have no experience, but I’ll do my best.

Thanks again for reading, and I’ll see you back here next weel.

Prev: Episode 22: Daily Notes Revisited: The Best of Both Worlds?
Next: Episode 24: Use Case: How I Capture Field Notes In Obsidian

Written on March 12 and 20, 2022.

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  1. For those home offices with doors. Mine home office has a doorway, but no door.
  2. Given that my Obsidian data would be completely uninteresting to anyone but myself, I have a hard time conceiving of someone going through the exercise of breaking into the house to gain access, but l’ll go with it for the purposes of this illustration.
  3. Of course, I’d still have my local vault, and any backups I have made

Practically Paperless with Obsidian, Episode 22: Daily Notes Revisited: The Best of Both Worlds?

brown framed eyeglasses on a calendar
Photo by Olya Kobruseva on

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

A couple of months ago, in Episode 15, I wrote about how I use daily notes as an index to my life. I was impressed by a post I’d read on someone who kept all of his daily notes in a single file, and I aimed to try to reproduce that in Obsidian. Since writing that post, I’ve tweaked things somewhat–enough that I felt it was worth reporting back on. Since this series is an ongoing experiment in going practically paperless, it isn’t unusual for me to change the way I do things when I find ways and methods that work better.

Two competing requirements

In the case of daily notes, I found myself pinned in by two competing requirements:

  1. I want the ability to see more than just “today’s” note. I like to be able to easily scroll through past daily notes. This is a quick and easy way to review things without having to search through a bunch of files, or open a bushel of notes windows to reference something I am looking for. This is what attracted me to the single daily notes file in the first place.
  2. I want to use the native daily notes functionality that comes with Obsidian. This functionality, however, is based on a single-note-per-day, and I’ve found it just doesn’t work nearly as well when all daily notes are in a single file. The main problem was that if I linked to another note from my daily note file, the backlink referred to the daily note file, but not the date in the file under which the link was listed.

So: I want to use a single file for all of my daily notes, but I want the daily notes functionality that is based on one note per day. What to do?

First solution

In order to address this conundrum, I decided to go back to the single-note-per-day. That immediately gained me the native daily note functionality in Obsidian. In a single-note-per-day model, if I link to another note, the backlink shows the date of because it is the name of the daily note file itself. For instance, I list out the blog posts I write on a given day within my daily notes file. In the case of this post, the backlink shows what day I wrote the post:

screenshot showing date reference (in title) to a daily note in a backlink

This is much more useful than when I used a single note for all my daily notes. In that situation, the backlink would show up as follows:

screenshot showing reference to the "daily" file (no date) to a daily note in a backlink

and “Daily” doesn’t tell me the date. That is a big drawback of the single-file model. As I pointed out in Episode 15, one thing that would help would be if the section path that the link was under was displayed as part of the backlink — that at least would pick up the date. I even submitted a feature request for this. But it doesn’t exist now and I have to work with what I’ve got.

One thing I did to attempt to get the best of both worlds was to setup my workspace so that the previous day’s note always appeared in a window above the current day’s note. That way I could easily scroll through the previous day’s note if I needed to reference something there. I pin the current day’s note, but leave the previous day’s note unpinned so I can quickly switch to another day using the calendar.

my obsidian workspace with a 3 windows, 2 on the left split vertically with yesterday's daily note on top and today's pinned below. window the right is whatever I am working on

I played around with this model and it worked okay, but it just wasn’t as useful as being able to scroll through all of my daily notes in a single file. It did, however, get me the benefit of the native daily note functionality in Obsidian, so that was a partial win.

Second solution

After giving it some thought, I came up with another solution that works even better: a single daily notes file made up of transcluded links (embeds) to individual daily notes. This is achieved as follows:

  1. Daily notes are created normally, one-file-per-day, using native daily note functionality in Obsidian.
  2. At the end of each day, I add a transcluded link to the current day’s daily note to the top of a note file called “Daily”

The “Daily” note file looks like this in source mode:

screenshot of Daily file in source mode showing just a list of embedded links to daily note files

When viewed in Live Preview mode, however (which is my default), this same file looks as follows:

screenshot showing the same Daily file in Live Preview mode which renders the embedded daily notes so that they all appear to be in a single file

This allows me to scroll through all of my individual daily notes as if they are in a single file, even though the daily notes themselves are each in a separate file. It allows me to work in a workspace where I keep the Daily file pinned at all times, even while having today’s daily note open in a separate window, like this:

screenshot showing my new workspace with the Daily file pinned on the left and today's daily note pinned on the lower right, with my working file above

In this setup, I can easily scroll through all of my daily notes going back to when I started intending to keep them in a single file (December 28, 2021). What’s more, as I add new items to my current daily note (the window on the lower-right), they appear instantly in the file on the left.

One change I made in the “Daily” file from my previous attempt at a single file is that I reverse sort the entries so that the most recent day appears at the top of the file. I found that I was constantly scrolling to the bottom of the single file to add new notes, and while I like the strict chronology, it was more practical to reverse sort it. Several readers pointed out to me that this is what they did, and it made a lot of sense to me.

While the embedded text within the file is not searchable in source mode or Live Preview mode, it is searchable in Read mode. And I can leave the file in read mode because I only have to made an update to it once a day, to add the current embedded daily note file. That means, if I hit Cmd-F to search in the file, results show for all of the embedded files. For instance, if I search for the term “- read” here is what the results look like:

screenshot of unified daily notes search results spanning across multiple days

Note that the search results span multiple days in this view, meaning they span multiple embedded files. This is what I was hoping for when I began looking into this solution.

The best of both worlds?

This solution — using individual daily note files and a separate Daily file with embedded notes via transcluded links — is better and gets me closer to the two competing requirements I’ve been aiming for. I can use native daily note functionality; I can see references to daily notes in backlinks, and I can scroll through the daily notes as if they are all in a single file. But it is not perfect. There is still at least one challenge to overcome, and a relatively easy one at that.

Challenge: Automating the Daily file

As I said, currently, at the end of each day, I add a new transcluded link to the current daily note at the top of my Daily note file. If I forget to do this, I won’t see the previous day’s note. This isn’t all that cumbersome, but it is something that I want to automate.

A simple shell or Python script can take care of that. The script will add the trancluded link to the new daily note at the beginning of each day so that I can see it there at the start of the day, instead of just at the end. This really is a simple script and when I get it written, I’ll post a link to it on GitHub1.

Daily summary and Dataview

There is one other adjustment I’ve been playing around with in my daily notes. Now that each day is in a separate file, my daily notes template includes YAML frontmatter for capturing some information that I care about. Currently, that template looks as follows:

locations: ["Arlington, VA"]
sleep: 1
summary: Good writing day, busy work day. Upgraded Obsidian. Good response to latest PP post

Here is what this data is for:

  • Locations: a list of places that I was at on a given day. Not every place I go, but rather where I was based on that day. On days I travel, this list contains multiple entries, like [“Arlington, VA”, “Wisp Resort, McHenry, MD”]
  • Sleep: a rating of the quality of my previous nights sleep on a scale of -2 to 2, where 0 is an average night, -2 is a absolutely terrible sleep, and 2 is a dreamless, perfect sleep. For those curious, I learned of this method listening to Jim Collins describe this method on the Tim Ferris Show podcast.
  • Summary: A short, one line summary of my day, written at the end of the day.

I use this in a Dataview table that provides a kind of index to my daily notes. At a glance I can see where I was on a given day. I can also use the summary to help remember what happened on that day. I can then drill into the specific note for more details. I have a note called “Daily Notes Index” and within that note, use the following dataview query:

TABLE summary, locations FROM "Daily Notes"

Here is what this Daily Notes Index looks like for March 2020 so far:

screenshot of the dataview table rendering a summary of my daily notes with 3 columns: file, summary, and locations.

This hasn’t replaced my Daily file containing embedded daily notes. Instead, I find this file more useful as a high-level review of my days, something I can scan through at the end of the month or end of the year, or a place I can go to quickly see where I was or what I did on a certain day without flipping through the details of the individual daily notes file.

Putting it all together

To sum up the current state of my daily notes:

  1. I have gone back to using a single-note-per-day to get the most benefit from Obsidian’s native daily note functionality. I always have “today’s” note open in a pinned window.
  2. I maintain a “Daily” note that emulates the all-daily-notes-in-one-file that I started with back in Episode 15. This allows me to easily scroll through all of my daily notes and search them without having to open multiple files. Given the way that I work, this is more efficient for me.
  3. I use the YAML frontmatter in my daily notes to populate a dataview table in a Daily Notes Index file that I use periodically for skimming my days

This is as close as I’ve been able to get to the best of both worlds: each day in its own note, and all notes in a single file. So far, it seems to be working for me, but as always, I am open to ideas an suggestions for improvment.

In next week’s post, I’m going to change pace a bit and talk about my personal views on information security with respect to my notes in Obsidian. I’ve been asked questions about security quite a bit. This was also try when I was writing about using Evernote a decade ago. The post will summarize how I think about security, some tools I use to protect my data, and what I do and won’t worry about. See you back here next week!

Prev: Episode 21: Tags in Theory and Tags in Practice (And Never the Twain Shall Meet?)
Next: Episode 23: Protecting My Data in Obsidian

Written on March 9 and 11, 2022.

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  1. I suppose I could try to make this a plug-in but (a) this is too niche a use case, and (b) I’d have to deal with all of the overhead involved in a plug-in. A Python script on a scheduled job is much simpler for this.

Practically Paperless with Obsidian, Episode 21: Tags in Theory and Tags in Practice (And Never the Twain Shall Meet?)

blank tags in close up photography
Photo by Eva Elijas on

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

This episode is less of a “how-do-I” and more of a “how-I-struggle with…” post. I have been working with tags for more than a decade and still struggle with them. I wanted to give fair warning at the top in case anyone is expecting brilliant revelations about tagging notes in Obsidian here.

I can’t remember when I first learned of the concept of tags. As someone who grew up during the personal computer revolution, my approach to organizing information was naturally hierarchical. From my earliest days using computers, operating systems organized files in a hierarchical structure, and it seemed natural to follow that model.

Moreover, my schooling, which from 5th grade on paralleled my experience with personal computers–seemed to encourage a hierarchical form of information organization. Textbooks had tables of contents that were organized by Part / Chapter / Section. We used outlines to plan arguments. School notebooks were organized by tabs (remember Trapper-Keepers?). Even something as unbiquious as TV Guide was organized hierarchcally: by Date / Time / Station. Indeed. the closest thing to “tags” that I can think of were the indexes that accompanied many nonfiction books. Entries in these indexes (which themselves were sometimes hierarchical) spanned the hierarchy of the book itself. That is, an entry for “atmosphere, of Earth” might have references in multiple parts, sections, and chapters of the book in question.

First page of the index of the book The Nine Planets by Franklyn M. Branley, the first book I ever checked out of a library.
The first page of the index of The Nine Planets by Franklyn M. Branley, the first book I ever checked out of the library, and the book that introduced me to science and astronomy,

The best I can say is that my awareness of tags probably came out of the various photo-storage apps and services that began to appear around 2004 or so, a decade after the Internet as we know it began to take shape.

Tags: In theory

These photo apps (Flickr was an early one I recall using) allowed users to “tag” photos with arbitrary keywords. This was a revelation to me. After living in a hierachical box for so long, tags introduced two ways that freed me from that box.

  1. The keywords were completely arbitrary. There was no set list. I could make them up, or choose from words that had already been used.
  2. One was not limited to a single keyword. I could tag an image with multiple keywords, placing it in multiple categories at once.

The latter point especially was important. Hierarchies, by their nature, limit where you can place something. A photo, for instance, can be placed in a folder path called /Family/Trips/Italy, or in /Buildings/Cathedrals. To put the photo in both places requires duplicating the photo file and then maintaining it in both places. Tags compliment the hierarchy, allowing one to tag a photo as “Italy” and “Cathedral” simulatenously, without having to duplicate the file.

There was another dimension to tags that I found interesting: crowd-sourcing. Because I first discovered through Internet services like Flickr, tags were often crowd-sourced, meaning anyone could apply tags to photos, thereby creating a kind of public melange of the categorization of images.

At the time, I remember thinking how useful it would be to have the ability to artitrarily tag files in a file system. MacOS introduced such a feature in OS X 10.9 in 2013. When that happened, however, I didn’t jump on it and start tagging my files.

The problem for me was that tags seem like a great idea in theory, but are much more difficult to implement in practice. I discovered this in my first concerted attempt to use tags — back when I was writing my Going Paperless series for Evernote between 2012-2016. Evernote allows you to tag notes with an arbitrary number of user-generated tags. When I began using Evernote (around 2010) I did what I suspect many users did: I started tagging everything without a whole lot of thought about it.

Tags: In practice, a.k.a., by intuition

In practice, tagging has been tricky for me: a classic case of having enough rope to hang myself. It turns out that, for me, at least, tagging comes with the same problems as hierarchical organization: if you just start arbitrarily creating tags, you create a mess of confusion that it is difficult to escape from. Escape is difficult because the process is self-perpetuating, and once started, I find I’d rather go with the flow than to start over from scratch.

What is needed for tags is some kind of taxonomy: a set of rules to follow for when to apply tags, when to create a new tag, and how tags relate to the information they are organizing. Here, however, I come up against a limitation of personal knowledge and experience: I am not a researcher, nor do I have expertise in subjects like library sciences that might provide some kind of guidance in the development of a useful taxonomy for tagging. Ultimately, I am tagging by intuition, which is probably not the best approach.

So back in my Evernote days, I began to think about practical ways in which tagging fits into my note organization, and from that thinking.

1. Tags can span hierarchies

Hiearchical organization can be useful because its very structure provides a map for locating something. I discussed the practical utility (for me) back in Episode 18, when I talked about how I use folders to quickly locate Maps of Content notes. The main limitation to hierarchies from my vantage point is that a note falls into only one path.

Tags can span hierarchies. If you imagine folders and tags as two dimensions of a grid, then the organizational model of notes would look something like this, where folder hierarchies cross horizontally, and tags (in this case, notes tagged “#jamie”) slice vertically across all folders.

an illustration of hierarchical folders show on a horizontal axis and tags shows on a vertical axis

Tags, therefore, compliment hierarchies by allowing you to create categories of notes that span multiple hierachies. In a practical sense, this allows two quick ways of finding a note or collection of notes: by either following a path in a single hierarchy, or by tag for specific collection of notes that span multiple paths in a hierarchy.

2. Tags can be used to quickly identify an arbitrary collection of notes that have a practical everyday utility

I frequently have to find a note related to a specific person. Kelly might ask, “Do you have Grace’s 4th grade report card from the spring?” Or maybe I need my son’s “School Health Entrance Form” for a camp application. One practical arbritrary collection of notes, therefore, is to tag notes by person. I do this way many notes, and these notes often span multiple paths in my folder structure.

This kind of tagging allows me to quickly locate all notes tagged “jamie”, for instance no matter where they are located, and then quickly whittle those notes down to the specific note I am looking for by adding additional search criteria. In the above illustration, the tag #jamie serves as that arbitrary collection of notes.

Similarly, I use tags to identify document types: forms, statements, correspondence, receipts, confirmations, etc. Again, the documents themselves may be spread throughout a file structure, but if I am looking for all school-related forms for my daughter, Grace, then my search would begin with notes tagged “grace” and also tagged “form” — from that result set, I can quickly locate the specific forms in question, regardless of where they are in the file system.

3. Tags can be placeholders for future ideas and concepts

I’ve also found tags useful as placeholders for future ideas and concepts. I described one of these uses in Episode 20, where I illustrated how I tag task lines in my daily notes files with the “post-idea” tag for ideas that I want to write about here on the blog. I then use the dataview plug-in to collect all of the “incomplete” tasks with the tag “post-ideas” in a query that lists the open ideas in a single place.

image showing a checkbox list of blog post ideas, rendered using the dataview plugin and filtered by the tag "post-idea"

There are also subjects that I have a broad interest in, and I’ve taken to using a tag/sub-tag model for captuing notes related to these interests. A few examples include:

  • theme/theory-of-notes
  • theme/theory-of-work
  • theme/value-of-reading
  • sports/baseball

This provides a quick way for me to collect notes together around a theme or concept that I am interested in.

Tagging problems I still struggle with

Despite these practical uses, I still feel like an amateur when it comes to tagging, and no doubt this is reflected in my tag structure in Obsidian today. Indeed, just looking at my list of tags in Obsidian makes me cringe a little. It still feels too arbitrary.

There is a time investment required to tag a note, but at the time I tag the note, it is not clear whether or not there is a clear return on that investment of time. Adding a bad tag is worse than adding no tag at all because time invested to add the tag is either wasted or, worse, does not help in locating the tagged document later on.

Another problem is that, intuitively, I feel that I should be using the fewest tags required to find what I am looking for. And yet tags, like rabbits, seem to proliferate faster than I can wrangle them in.

All of this points to a lack of taxonomy. A clearly defined taxonomy provides a scope for tagging, and more importantly, removes any abiguity from the tagging process. In other words, there is no confusion between two tags, no flitting about wondering, should I tag this note using tag A or tag B. It is always clear from the taxonomy how best to tag a note. But a taxonomy requires knowledge and experience that I don’t have, and this comes to the crux of the tagging problem that I struggle with today:

I don’t know enough about what I need to know to define a useful tagging taxonomy.

I have started to tackle this problem using sub-tags to try to identify those areas of interest I want to collect, but even this seems tenuous at best. It is an ongoing process, and the better handle I have on what goes into Obsidian, the better chance I have of coming up with a reasonably useful taxonomy in the long-run.

For now, my biggest take-aways when it comes to tagging are to ask myself the following questions when tagging notes:

  1. Does this tag help to locate the note or collection of notes that it takes?
  2. Is this tag clear enough that I will remember it in the future without much thought?
  3. Is tagging this note absolutely necessary? Can I find this note easily without a tag?

Outside of some simple, practical use cases that I’ve outlined above, I’m still wary of tags, and yet, ironically, I use them more than I should. I’ve been doing this for more than a decade with only small hints toward a useful taxonomy. Finding the taxonomy that works for me will be the information-theory equivalent of the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

Prev: Episode 20: Experimenting with the Dataview Plug-In.
Next: Episode 22: Daily Notes Revisited: The Best of Both Worlds?

Written on March 7, 2022.

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Practically Paperless with Obsidian, Episode 20: Experimenting with the Dataview Plug-In

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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.

One of the things I have always loved about plain text files is that they are easy to manipulate. More than fifty years of effort has gone into reliable methods for parsing text from text files. It is for that reason that for a long time, I maintained my list of books I’ve read since 1996 as a plain text file with markdown1, and wrote scripts to pull all kinds of data from that file. Other people know this, and Obsidian has a rich community of plug-in developers. It should be no surprise, therefore, that someone came up with a plug-in that allows you to query data from plain text files. Lately, I have been experimenting with the Dataview plug-in, looking for practical uses for querying my notes.

Before jumping into my experiments, I wanted to point out that there is quite a bit of discussion about plug-ins in the Obsidian community and if and how they make the overall system less future-proof. There are good arguments on both sides. Not long ago, I made a post to the Obsidian Reddit group on this subject, outlining my thoughts. Briefly, I found a balance that I am comfortable with and I have no problem using plug-ins like the data tool. Your mileage (and requirements) may vary. There are lots of good opinions. You can find some of them in that Reddit thread.

One thing I really like about the Dataview plug-in is that it is familiar. As a software developer, I’ve worked with dozens of programming languages over the years, but alongside almost all of them was SQL, and the Dataview’s query language is very similar to SQL, which make it easy to learn. The harder part was figuring out practical uses for the dataview. After experimenting for a while to get the hang of things, I came up with a couple of criteria to help identify practical uses for the Dataview tool, over say, a embedded search query. Here are a few of those criteria:

  1. Use to access or summarize frequently-accessed data.
  2. Use in situations where the data is dynamic, and can change over time.
  3. Use to help automating a process

With those criteria in mind, I’ve managed so far to find three places to make use of the dataview plug-in that provide me with practical, everyday use.

1. A Plain-Text Address Book

I have a top-level folder called People, and under that folder, I have a note for any person that I interact with on a regular basis. These notes serve two purposes:

  1. YAML frontmatter in each note allows me to capture “address book” information about the person in question so that I have that information at my fingertips. Sure, it duplicates some of what I have in the Contacts app, but again, this is plain text and I consider it my “authoritative” source for this information.
  2. The note itself serves as a place to link to when I mention the person elsewhere in my notes. The mention might be in a daily note, or journal, or some other note. By using a link to the person-note in my daily notes and other notes, I can see everywhere that person was mentioned by looking at the backlinks of the person note itself.

Now, I can open up the People folder and scan down the list of notes there, all titled in “Last, First Name” format, but all I can see are the names of the people. No other information. I have to click on a note to see a person’s phone number or email address, or birthday. What I needed was a dynamic index, and that seemed to me to be the perfect use case for the Dataview plug-in.

I created an “Address Book” note and in that note, I included the following Dataview query:

This generates a nice table of all of the notes under the People folder, displaying the name of the person (as a link to the note), along with their email, phone, and birthday. (Note: for the purposes of this post, I copied my People folder and then used a fictional name and contact info for each person to make things easy on me.)

When I change information in an individual note, it is automatically updated in the table when I look at the table. And from the table, I can easily locate a person and contact information. I’m sure this isn’t unique. I’d guess that this is one of the first practical ways that many people make use of the dataview plug-in.

2. A Dynamic Idea List for the Blog

Those who follow this blog for more than just my Obsidian posts know that I write about just about anything that comes to mind. I’ve got more than 7,000 posts going back more than 16 years now. Last year, I had a goal for publishing a post every day. This year, my goal was expanded to continue to publish a post every day, but to write two posts every day. That allows me to build up a backlog. But it also means I need a useful way to collect ideas to write about.

Typically what I do is jot ideas down in the Field Notes notebook that I carry with me everywhere I go. Later I transfer them into my daily notes. Or, if I happen to be sitting at the computer, the ideas go directly into my daily notes. The ideas go in the following format:

Since the format is consistent, this also lends itself to query that allows me to look for note ideas I haven’t yet written. Looking at how the Dataview queries work, I began to think of this query as “any task in my daily notes tagged with ‘post-idea’ that isn’t yet completed.” I experimented this with a straight dataview query, but I couldn’t quite get it to work the way I wanted, mainly because I couldn’t figure out how, from a TASK query, to filter out things by tag. Instead, I used a dataviewjs query. I created a note called “Post ideas” and then added the following dataviewjs query:

What the query does is it looks for all notes tagged with “#post-idea” where the text of the task also contains the tag “#post-idea” and the task is not yet completed. The results look like this:

There are several things I really like about this:

  1. Because the ideas go in my daily notes, and the task query renders the name of the file that the task appears in, I not only get a list of un-used ideas, but I can also see how old they are beacuse they are listed under the daily note in which they were added.
  2. I have one place to go to get a list of ideas to write about.
  3. Once I finish writing a post, I click the checkbox on the task and it immediately drops out of the “not yet written” section of the Post ideas file and moves into the “Completed” section of the file.
  4. If I don’t end up using an idea (I don’t use all of them, just the good ones), I’ll cross it out.

3. A Summary MOC for Services and Subscriptions

In Episode 18, I wrote about how I kept a folder with a note for each service or subscription we have. The YAML frontmatter contains information about the subscription/service like the monthly and annual cost, renewal date, etc. In addition, I use those notes to document any interactions I have with the service provider, so that all of the information related to the service is in one place and easy to find.

One use I found for the dataview plugin was to summarize all of these services in table form. This provides a nice summary index of all of the services and subscriptions we have that are currently active. If a new one is added, it automatically appears in the summary. If one is canceled, it drops off the summary list.

The note contains the following dataview query:

and the resulting table looks as follows:

This makes it easy to find everything we subscribe to. I can jump to a service by clicking on a note link to get more detail about the service.

I am still experimenting with the dataview plug-in, but these are a few of the practical uses that I have found, and that I use on a regular basis. Their dynamic nature provides simple automation that saves me a fair amount of time across several types of tasks that I perform several times each day.

In next week’s post, I’ll have something to say about tags and tag taxonomy, something I’ve struggled with since my early days using Evernote. See you back here next week.

Prev: Episode 19: Archiving Notes
Next: Episode 21: Tagging Notes: A Decade-Long Struggle

Written on February 27-28, 2022.

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  1. These days, I maintain the list in a database mainly because it is easier to render on the blog.

Practically Paperless with Obsidian, Episode 19: Archiving Notes

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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.

Why bother archiving notes?

During the years I used Evernote, I accumulated more than 12,000 notes, most of them still sitting in my Evernote notesbooks to this day. My goal then was to see if a paperless lifestyle was really possible, so everything went into Evernote. Over time, this resulted in some interesting observations:

  • Of the 12,000 notes I put into Evernote, between 100-200 were notes that I used on a regular basis (that’s about 0.8 – 1.6%)
  • Another 100-200 notes were notes that I used periodically, usually annually, but sometimes more frequently.
  • The rest of the notes I almost never touched or even looked at. That means I collected around 11,500 notes (96% of all the notes) that I never put to any use.

This created some unexpected problems:

  1. It takes time to get a note into Evernote, whether dragging a PDF onto a note, scanning a document, or setting up some automation to get a note into the system. I was scanning in documents that I was never looking at again. That’s a waste of time.
  2. I had a process for processing a note — tagging it, updating its create date to reflect the document date, etc. I did this for every note I put in Evernote. But again, since I actually only used less than 2% of the notes I put in, this was also a waste of time.
  3. The notes, having been captured in Evernote, and parsed by Evernote’s search system to make the notes searchable, added a lot of noise to my searches. That is, these notes that I never used and never looked at would show up in search results because of some keyword in the document or note somewhere. This impeded the process of finding notes that I was looking for.

Evernote did not have a particularly good mechanism for identifying notes to archive. Ideally, what I would have liked to do is a search for all notes that were not viewed in a given period of time. Alas, while Evernote has the concept of a “create date” and an “updated date” for a note, it does not have a concept for “last viewed on” date. That made archiving tricky–too tricky for me to waste time trying it on the volume that I had to deal with.

As I began to migrate from Evernote to Obsidian, I had these problems in mind, and I was determined not to fall into the same trap with Obsidian.

One way to do this was to reframe my original goal with Evernote. There, I was experimenting to see if completely paperless lifestyle was possible. It was, but it generated a lot of unnecessary notes and noise. When I began using Obsidian, I asked myself, what would a paperless lifestyle look like in a practical sense, as opposed to an extreme? A few ideas came to mind:

  • my notes would be working notes in that they contributed in some practical way to my day-to-day work and life.
  • some of these notes might be part of an historical record, even though they might not be used every day (think: older daily notes, journals, etc.)
  • some of these notes would be “permanent notes” in the Zettelkasten way, and while I might not access them everyday, they would become part of a useful personal knowledge system.

Perhaps most important: I needed a mechanism for keeping my notes “working notes.” I needed a way to review my notes and archive ones that are no longer active.

Retiring notes

First, what does it mean to archive? For me, archiving a note is a way of taking it out of active duty without losing it entirely. I think of it as “retiring” a note. A note or set of notes contains accumulated knowledge. That knowledge may no longer been needed on a day-to-day basis. It woudl be useful to have a way of archiving those notes so that they didn’t clutter up searches.

The framework I’ve evolved (through much trial and error) for organizing my notes provided a clue for how I might retire notes, and get them out of the way without losing them. Recall from Episode 18, that within Obsidian, the vast majority of my notes end up in one of three folders: _attachments, _documents, and _slipbox. The rest of my organization is hierarchy to maps of content (MOC) notes that provide context and links to the notes in those three folders

To that framework, I have added a new folder, which I call _archive. Notes that are ready to be retired can be moved into this folder. By having all of my retired notes in a single folder, I can use Obsidian’s query language to exclude anything in that folder from a search. For instance, if I was searching for all notes tagged with “taxes” and only wanted my “active” notes (that is, notes that are not retired), I could run the following query:

The first part of the query is important. As you can see in the search explanation, I am deliberately excluding anything in the _archive folder. This takes care of the noise problem I had in Evernote. For common searches, you can imagine setting up saved searches each of which is prefaced with that exclusion pattern.

This nice thing about this is that the notes don’t really go away:

  1. They are right there in the _archive folder should I happen to need them.
  2. I can still surface them in searches them by leaving off the path exclusion.
  3. Because I move them into the _archive folder, any links to the notes are automatically updated by Obsidian.

Identifying notes to retire

Unopened notes

For me, this is the tricky part. I’d prefer a hard-and-fast rule. MacOS and Linux, for instance, can track when a file was last opened, which is different from when it was last updated. This is an important distinction. Once a note is in place, it often doesn’t change. The only empirical way I can tell if I looked at is to look at the last opened date on the file.

Example of a search for files last opened more than a year ago.

The problem is that Obsidian (on MacOS, at least) does not seem to update the last opened date of a note when the note is opened in Obsidian. I think this is worth a feature request and I made such a request on the forums recently. Other MacOS apps will update the “last opened” date when the file is opened. For instance, a PDF opened in the Preview app will update the last opened date on a note, but viewing that same PDF in Obsidian does not update that date.

The reason that date is important is because it would allow me to setup a query, at the very least at the OS level, to find all notes that have not been opened in more than, say, one year. These would be good candidates for retirement.

Of course, that is first cut, and fairly liberal. A more conservative search might be all notes that are not in my _slipbox folder that have not been opened in more than one year. Over time, that query could be refined. Periodically, I could move any matches to the _archive folder.

Manual review

Short of that, a manual review would be required. Fortunately, because my goal for Obsidian is different than Evernote (practically paperless, remember?) I don’t put nearly as many notes into Obsidian as I do Evernote. I keep the practical stuff in Obsidian. That means in the first 14 months that I’ve been using Obsidian, I’ve accumulated just 900 notes — and even some of those are probably worthy of review and culling.

There are a few things that can help this manual review. One is look for notes that haven’t been updated in more than a year. That provides something to look at, but it is not as good as being able to look at notes that haven’t been opened in more than a year.

Regardless of how I end up identifying notes to retire, the process, once identified is pretty simple:

  1. Add a YAML frontmatter key to the note to indicate which folder the note was originally located. This extra step makes it easy to put the note back in the right place if it ever needs to come out of retirement.
  2. Move the note into the _archive folder.

Not everyone needs to, or wants to archive their notes. My experience shows that, for me, this is useful to keep my notes in working order, and to avoid clutter. It was something I thought about as I began bringing my notes over from Evernote. I haven’t yet started to archive notes in Obsidian, but I have a framework in place for when I am ready to do so.

Next time, in Episode 20, I’ll discuss how I’ve been experimenting and making use of the Dataview plug-in. See you back here in a week!

Prev: Episode 18: How I Organize My Notes
Next: Episode 20: Experimenting with the Dataview Plugin

Written on February 21, 2022.

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