Category: practically-paperless

Practically Paperless with Obsidian, Episode 18: How I Organize My Notes

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During the years that I was Evernote’s paperless ambassador, one thing I learned was that organization was a very personal thing. This came as no surprise. Each person is unique, has unique requirements, and the result is a unique was of organizing their notes. What was a bit surprising at the time was how vocal people were about what method of organization was best. I’m not doing that here.

Recently I wrote about what I think of as “how-to versus how-I.” My migration from Evernote to Obsidian is an experiment. My use of plain text files for the bulk of my output is an experiment. Some things work, and I keep those things around. Other things don’t work and I toss them or try to find ways to improve them. So when I talk about how I organize my notes in Obsidian, I am talking about an experiment that I am working on that meets my own unique requirements. What works works for me, and may not work for anyone else. But I think it is good to have examples of what people are doing because there is always the possibility to learn something.


Lessons from Evernote

Consider some lessons I took from how I organized my notes in Evernote:

  1. The organization grew organically without much initial thought.
  2. I considered notebooks topical and that all notes related to the topic should go into the notebook.
  3. I thought of tags as themes: a mechanism that allowed me to span or collect topics together.

This resulted in an overly complicated set of notebooks, where it was sometimes difficult to find something because topically, I put it into one notebook when, thematically, I looked for it elsewhere.

Lessons from Obsidian

I have been using Obsidian for over a year now, and in that time, I’ve experimented quiet a bit. One thing that I have found, is that my notes fall into several general categories:

  1. Attachments: PDFs, images files and other files stored in my vault that are generally not plain text. Example: a PDF of a W-2
  2. Documents: Documents are attachments with context. They are wrappers for the attchments. That is, a note in which I transclude an attachment file, in order to provide additional meta-data and context to that file either through YAML frontmatter, note text, or links. Example: a note that transcludes a PDF of W-2 and also contains meta-data (tags, etc.) about the document, as well as any other remarks or links that I add. For more on how I think about document notes, see Episode 1.
  3. Permanent notes: I am borrowing this term from Luhan’s Zettelkasten methodology. Permanent notes are notes about one thought that can stand on its own, written in my own words, with context added in the form of links and tags. Example: a note about how power differs in the Senate and executive branch, based on reading I have done.
  4. Maps of Content: Notes that pull together links to other notes in a unified context that allows for easy access to relavant information. Example: a note about a specific vehicle, that links to other notes and documents related to the vehicle, and provides additional context in the form of a timeline or backlinks.
  5. Writing: Notes that contain writing: stories, letters, blog posts drafts, essays, etc. Example: The note containing the draft of this blog post.

Looking through the notes in my vault, I can generally put each one into one of these buckets. There are some exceptions, of course, like templates or my daily notes file. But the vast majority fit into this framework.

As I was thinking about my requirements for organizaing my notes, I tried to keep all of these lessons in mind.

My Requirements

Since the basis of organization stems from one’s requirements, let me talk about the requirements I had in mind when I was organizing my notes in Obsidian. As I thought about how I might better organize my notes in Obsidian, two requirements began to emerge:

  1. Optimize for finding things later as opposed to organizing them now. This is something I have emphasized in previous episodes. It takes time to maintain a taxonomy for notes. The important thing for me is not so much how the notes are organized, but how quickly I can find them when I need them.
  2. Remember that I may not be the only one that needs to access these notes and plan accordingly. Kelly may need access to the notes and she needs to be able to find what she is looking for. We jokingly call this “succession planning” but in reality, if something happened to me, access to my notes, which contain all kinds of information that she would need, would be vital. Finding that information quickly would take some burden off her mind.

(Re)organizing My Vault

These two requirements led to some decisions that I made about how I’d structure my vault.

  1. Attachements, documents and permanents notes can have a completely flat structure. I typically access these note in one of two ways: via an MOC note, or via a link on another note. It is rare for me to search for these notes directly. The allows for a flat structure.
  2. Maps of content (MOCs) need to be very easy to find. Because they are topical and provide sturcture and context, they lend themselves to a more hierarchical structure. MOCs are also the most useful mechanism for Kelly to find what she is looking for.
  3. Writing notes could go into their own folder and be organized in a relatively simple hierarchy, the way I might organize them on a file system.

I went about making these changes. It was not hard to do because Obsidian handles all of the linking and indexing behind the scenes as notes move around. I was tempted to have just four or five top level folders, so that my vault would look something like:

  • attachments
  • documents
  • slipbox
  • writing
  • MOCs

But I decided for ease-of-use to keep to a flatter hierarchy and implement the taxonomy through a different mechanism. At the top level, therefore, my vault looks like this:

The vast majority of my note can be found in the attachments, document, and slipbox folders. I’d guess they contain 90%+ of all of my notes. The structure for MOCs is flat, too, but contains some structure to make it easy to find the MOC I’m looking for. Still, the MOCs make up a small fraction of all the notes, even though they link to many of them.

Some examples I used to test this structure

Example 1: Tax season – MOCs to the rescue

As I write this, I am preparing to send all of our tax information to our accountant for preparation and filing. An MOC for all tax-related documents makes this a simple exercise. As tax documents come in, I add the PDFs to my vault as attachments, create document notes for them to capture context and meta-data, and then add a reference to the document on the MOC note for taxes.

Here is what the “Tax Documents” MOC looks like (with some annotations in red):

In the Tax Documents section, there is a corresponding year for each year in the Tax Returns section and under each section is a list of all of the tax documents for that year, each of which in turn transcludes the PDF attachment as well as meta-data for the yearly summary table.

I’ve tried to make this a one-stop-shopping document for anything tax related. It is useful for more than just tax season. We recently refinanced our house (squeezing it in before the rates started to go up again) and needed to provide some tax documents as part of that process. This made it easy. If Kelly needs some tax information, she know to go to this note, and it will point her to everywhere else she needs to go.

When I go to sent the documents to our accountant, I’ve already got everything in one place. It’s just a matter of uploading the documents to their secure portal.

This MOC meets both by requirements: (1) optimizing for finding things later, and (2) making sure Kelly can find them too.

Example 2: Managing services – herding kittens

I miss the old days when you had your phone bill, you gas bill, and electric bill, and maybe a newspaper subscription to keep track of. Today, everything is a service: from streaming media to software to digital subscriptions, there are tons of services that need to be managed and coralled.

Within my MOC structure, I have folder called “Services” and within that folder is an MOC note for each and every service we subscribe to. Combining the usual utilities with subscriptions and software services, it is a long list. Each service is billed in its own way, on its own cycle. Each costs something different. It can be hard to stay on top of. I do it through MOCs using a simple set of guidelines:

  1. Each service gets its own note.
  2. Each note has a specific set of YAML frontmatter at the top to keep track of the basics. I’ll come back to this in a moment. Currently, it looks like this:
  1. The note itself has two main sections: (1) Service info, which includes things like where the service is billed to, links to managing the account, how to cancel the service, etc. (2) Service notes: if I have to contact support, the notes related to the contact go in this section. The dates are links back to the daily note on the date of the contact. Here’s an example:
  1. With a note for each service populated with the meta-data, I have a Service Summary MOC note. This note uses the Dataview to summarize all of our “active” services with links to the service note, and listing the monthly and annual costs, and the due date of each. This allows us to view, at-a-glance, all of the services we have, how much they are costing us, and when they are do. If we cancel a service, I mark it’s meta-data status as “canceled” and it drops off our active list. Here is a snippet from that summary note:

This model has worked very well for keeping up with all of our services. The summary note makes it easy to find anything we are looking for. The MOC note for each service contains everything we need to know about that service and its history. There only one place we need to go to look for the information so it is easy to find.

Example 3: Continuity planning – a step-by-step guide

Back when I was Evernote’s paperless ambassador, one of the more popular pieces I wrote was one I called 6 Steps for Life Continuity Planning in Evernote. In our house, we jokingly call this “succession planning” to take away some of the discomfort of thinking about this kind of thing. As part of my migration from Evernote, I’ve been working on using the features of Obsidian to improve upon how we document this continuity planning. An MOC I call “Succession Plan” plays a central role in this.

The Succession Plan MOC centralizes everything that Kelly or I would need if something happened to one of us. It is also written so that if something happened to both of us, the folks who would be responsible for our affairs would have a detailed roadmap.

The document is broken into two parts:

  1. A step-by-step guide for everything that needs to happen, in a logical order, with links to all of the relevant documents, contacts, phone numbers, email addresses, etc. It is all right there in one place. Go to that note and you have everything you need at your fingertips.
  2. A kind of annotated index to my Obsidian vault, with links, so that if there is something that is needed that is not in the step-by-step section, there is a framework for locating it in the index section.

I try to keep this up-to-date, and it is still a work-in-progress, but there is enough there that it would be useful in the unlikely event of a water landing. Here is a high-level glance at the structure:

Once again, I’m focusing on finding things later when they are needed as opposed to a deep hierarchical structure to how the notes are organized.


Like any organizational structure, this is a work-in-progress. It evolves as I test things out, figure out what works and what doesn’t, and make adjustments. But this is the closest I’ve come to accomplishing an organization that doesn’t require me to constantly think about where I need to put something, and instead focus on linking to it in ways that will be easy to locate later on. It is an easy system to work with and so far, it is working well for me.

In next week’s post, I’ll talk about archiving notes.

Prev: Episode 17: Six Ways I Use Note Links
Next: Episode 19: Archiving Notes

Written on February 2-13 , 2022.

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Practically Paperless with Obsidian, Episode 17: Six Ways I Use Note Links

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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.

At a high level, I had three main requirements when I was looking for a note-taking app. I wanted an app that:

  1. Uses plain text files: first because they are accessible anywhere and require no special or proprietary software to access; and second because they are essentially future-proof.
  2. Does not require a cloud service or SaaS to use. Such a service could be optional, for syncing notes between devices, for instance, but the core functionality of the app does not require this.
  3. Has the ability to link between text files.

There are plenty of text editors in the world. Notepad on Windows and Vi/Vim in Unix environments, which have been around for decades, can read and edit text files. There are plenty of apps that are based on cloud services: Evernote is one example. Obsidian met all three of these requirements, but the one that really impressed me was its implementation of note-linking. So today, I’m going to focus on that and discuss six aspects of note linking that I find incredibly useful in Obsidian.

Anyone who has used Obsidian knows how easy it is to create a link to another note. You just tap the link key twice and begin typing the name of the note you want to link to. Once you have it, you hit enter, and your note is now linked. The ability to be able to link between notes is something I’d wanted in a text editor for a long time. Of course, it is possible to do this in a rudimentary way in other tools, like Evernote and OneNote, but neither tool uses plain text files locally on your computer, and neither links notes with the power that Obidian does. Two examples of that power that I find incredibly useful:

I can link and not worry about losing the connection. Obsidian handles any updates to links between notes behind the scenes. That is, if I have file A linked to file B and I move file B, the link between the notes remains in tact because Obsidian is keeping it up-to-date with any changes. The same is true if I rename the note.

I can link to any section within a note. In addition to being able to link to a note, I can link to any section within a note. I use this frequently in my daily notes file. Each top-level heading represents a single day, and if I want to link to a day in my daily notes file, I can do it using a link like this [[Daily#2022-01-28 Fri]]

2. Using note aliases

Another powerful feature of linking that I use is note aliases. A note alias is piece of YAML frontmatter that allows you to refer to a note by a different name. I use this for notes about people. I have, in my vault, notes related to family members which act as a place to see where I have mentioned them. For instance, suppose I have a note for James Bond. Anytime I refer to Bond in a note, I do so with a link to the note.

Now, because I want the list of people to appear alphabetically by last name, I name the people notes using the format “Last Name, First Name.” Bond’s note, therefore, is titled “Bond, James.”

Within the YAML frontmatter of the note, however, I have an alias setup that allows me to refer to the note as “James Bond” which looks better inside the text of a note.

The alias allows me to refer to a note either way: “Bond, James” or “James Bond” by automatically adding an alias to the note link when I insert it. Either alias points to the same note file underneath.

When I use the alias as a link, Obsidian automatically inserts the note alias into my note link so that it appears as “James Bond” in my note, even though it links to “Bond, James.”

I can think of all kinds of uses for note aliases, but this is a very practical one that I’ve been using quite a bit.

3. Linking to dates in daily notes

Last week I wrote about how I use my daily notes as an index to my life. In that post, I described how I use a single file for my daily notes rather than one-note-per-day the way the out-of-box behavior for daily notes is setup in Obsidian. One of the advantages of the one-note-per-day form of daily notes is that the title of the note is a date and the natural language date plug-in can create links based on a date, which is an easy way to link back to a daily noet for a given day.

It turns out, however, that this is easy to do using a single file for daily notes, and I’ve been doing this more and more. If I have a note that refers to a date, I’ll create the date in a link and the link will link back to the section of my daily notes file for the day in question. For example:

I’m writing this on January 28, 2022. I draft all of these posts in Obsidian so by using a note link for the date in this link, I am connecting back to my daily notes file as a backlink to that file. The date link itself looks like this: [[Daily#2022-01-28 Fri]]. If I now go look at my daily notes, I’ll see the backlink to this draft because I’ve linked to the section of my daily notes file containing the date in question:

I can do this for dates (sections) that already exist in my daily notes file, or I can do it for a future date. Once that future date appears in my daily notes file, the backlink to the referenced note will appear as well.

One feature I’d like to see added to Obsidian related to backlinks is the ability to indicate which section of the note file the link appears in. In addition to showing the note from which the backlink comes, it would show the path to the section in the note. So if the reference took place in a section of the document under an H1 head called “Posts” and an H2 heading called “Series”, the backlink would indicate the document name followed by something like “Posts > Series.” That would be a useful improvement.

Backlinks provide additional context for a note I am looking at. I’ve come to rely on backlinks quite a bit. As I demonstrated in the previous section, a backlink is a link to the current note from another note. By referencing other notes using links, I can easily get a summary of activity, for instance on a particular note, or see how that notes relates to other notes, ideas, or thoughts.

For instance, I recently had to change the battery in the car fob for our car. I’ve done this before and had instructions written for it. Not long after that, I had to replace the battery in Kelly’s fob. Looking at the instruction note with the backlinks, I can see references to changing the battery in my daily notes file:

If I click on the backlinks, I can see the exact date on which I replaced these batteries. When I replace them again, I’ll know how long they last. This is also an example of where I think it would be useful for a backlink should also indicate the section of the note the link appears in. If this feature were available, I could see the dates directly in the backlink because I use dates as a section header in my daily notes file.

Sometimes, when writing notes, I find it convenient to add placeholder links while I am typing, and come back to them later to fill them in. Obsidian makes this easy. I can just create a note link as I would for any other note, and move on. Clicking on the link will create the note, but I don’t have to create it first and then link to it later. This has advantages because I may not want to lose a train-of-thought. It helps me to organize thoughts at a high-level , creating a pseudo-structure. I tend to use placeholder links in two scenarios:

  1. When writing thoughts on something I’ve read, and trying to see how that fits in with other things I’ve read or thought about.
  2. When referring to future dates. Linking to a future date means the link will work once that date section appears in my daily notes file.

I can see these placeholder links the graph view. They are the dimmer dots. This provides an easy way to see all these “to-be-created” notes at a high level:

![[Pasted image 20220201174346.png]]

My notes frequently link outside of my vault–that is, to web links to other sites. One plug-in that has saved me a ton of time for these external sites is the “Auto-link title” plug-in. I can grab a link from my browser and when I paste the link into Obsidian, it automatically goes out to the site, extracts the title of the page, and creates an Obsidian link that includes the title so that it renders cleaner in my notes

For instance, if I paste in a link to the list of books I’ve read since 1996, the plug-in will grab the title of that page and convert it to a nicely formatted link in my note:

In next week’s post, I’ll talk about how I organize my notes in Obsidian (so far). See you back here then!

Prev: Episode 16, Finding Notes Quickly
Next: Episode 18: How I Organize My Notes in Obsidian

Written on January 28-February 1, 2022.

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Practically Paperless with Obsidian, Episode 16: Finding Notes Quickly

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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.

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

Maps of Content (MOCs)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Starred Notes

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

Some starred notes
Some starred notes

Daily Notes Search

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

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

which gives me the following results:

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

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

Search explanation
Search explanation

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

Saved Searches

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

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

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

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

Saved searching in MacOS Finder
Saved searching in MacOS Finder

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

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

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

Written on January 22, 2022.

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

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

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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.

The Background

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

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

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

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

old format of daily note, one note per file

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

Problems with this process

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

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

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

Living in a single text file

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

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

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

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

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

The structure of my daily notes file

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

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

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

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

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

Standard conventions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seaching daily notes

These conventions allow me to search the file for interesting stats. For instance, if I want to see a list of every article I read on January 18, 2022, I can run a search in Obsidian for: section:("# 2022-01-18" /^- read/)

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

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

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

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

Starting and ending each day

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

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

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

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

So far, so good

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

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

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

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

Written on January 18, 2022.

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Practically Paperless with Obsidian, Episode 14: Migrating Notes from Evernote to Obsidian

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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.

When I started this series, I talked about how I was looking to see how Obsidian would work as an alternative to Evernote as the place where I “remember everything.” I’ve spent quite a bit of time describing how I’ve been using Obsidian’s functions and features to works toward this goal, but so far I haven’t really touched on how I have been migrating notes from Evernote to Obsidian. That’s what I’ll talk about today. It might be useful for folks to review Episode 3, where I talked about how I emulate some of Evernote’s features in Obsidian.

Slow but steady wins the race

First off, for those thinking I have some magic solution to export all of my notes from Evernote and seamlessly import them into Obsidian, I have some bad news for you: I don’t. But I wouldn’t want this either. Part of my reason for doing this is that I don’t need to be 100% paperless. That was a big lesson I learned from my years going paperless with Evernote. It was, for me, impractical. There was a lot of noise cluttering the notes and that made it more difficult to find what I was looking for. Then, too, when I was putting every piece of paper into Evernote and then not using those notes ever, I was wasting a lot of time.

My goal in migrating notes from Evernote to Obsidian is to curate the notes–pick and choose the ones that I really need, and leave everything else behind. This is a slower process than a one-shot migration, but there is a lot of value in that curation step. The way I do this curation is through a hierarchy of needs, or an order of operations.

Order of operations

Here is order in which I am migrating notes from Evernote to Obsidian:

  1. Migrate the notes I use frequently in Evernote.
  2. Migrate notes that I know I want to keep in digital form.
  3. Migrate other notes only when I happen to need them in the context of some event in my life.

Migrating notes that I use frequently in Evernote

There exists a fairly small (50 or fewer) set of notes that I frequently access in Evernote. These are things like official documents (birth certificates, car information, etc.). These are things that I frequently access when filling out forms, for instance. Fortunately, I have a note in Evernote that collects all of these together making this initial migration pretty easy. That note links to many other documents so it provided a quick guide for documents I wanted to move right away. I also took the opportunity to reformat the note from how I had it in Evernote to make it a little easier for me to use. Here is what it looks like:

There is a section for each person in the family. Each section has a “Basic Information” section which has things like birthdates, SSNs, phone numbers, driver license numbers (with a link to the scanned drivers license document). You can see that in the Documents section, there are important documents related to the person. This provided a guide for which notes for me to migrate right away.

There is also a “Family information” section which has information that applies to the whole family. Finally there is a “Vehicle information” section listing our cars and the frequently accessed information (license plate, VIN, title, registration) with links to those documents. The cars also link to a note I have for each car which acts as a kind of service history for that vehicle.

I have also starred this “Form Data” note so that I can find it quickly when I need it. It seriously speeds up the process of filling out forms, which anyone with kids in school knows is an almost constant activity.

Migrating notes that I know I want to keep in digital form

There were also notes that I knew I wanted to keep in digital format. Fortunately, I had tagged these notes in Evernote in such a way as to make them easy to find. For instance, I had a tag for “scrapbook” for notes that had things like my art and writing when I was a kid, as well as my kids’ art and school work. I had a tag for “contracts” for story and article contracts that I wanted to keep for my records. I used these tags to begin the process of moving notes over from Evernote that I wanted to keep in digital form, even if I didn’t access them frequently. I’ve got much of the scrapbook migrated at this point, but I’m still working on the contracts because I don’t access those nearly as much as I used to.

Migrating other notes only when I need them

The first two groupings above accounted for maybe a few hundred notes at the most (out of more than 12,000 notes I have in Evernote). For everything else, I haven’t been migrating until I need it. That is, until it comes up in context. A few months back, for instance, Kelly needed a copy of our older daughter’s report card from 4th grade. I went to Evernote to get it for her, and when I did that, I migrated it to Obsidian since it was probably something that was useful to have. But I didn’t go back and migrate all the other kids’ reports cards yet because so far, I haven’t needed them.

Tax season is coming up and when it is time to gather all of the (digital) paperwork for our taxes, I will take that opportunity to migrate all of the tax information I have in Evernote into Obsidian. In a case like this, I don’t just migrate the notes but I look for ways to improve how they are formatted in Obsidian to make them more useful.

Over time, I suspect I will be going to Evernote less and less because more and more of what I need and use will have already been migrated to Obsidian. But I still plan on keeping Evernote around for the foreseeable future, in case there is something there that I need that hasn’t yet been migrated.

Migrating a note

So how do I got about migrating a note from Evernote to Obsidian. Typically, my process works something like this:

  1. Copy the text out of the note in Evernote and paste it into a new note in Obsidian. I talked about creating notes back in Episode 4. If I have a template for the note, I will use that template. This is also where I will potentially review the format and organization of the information of the note to see if I can improve upon it. I will also adjust the Zettelkasten ID in the note title to match a date that appears on the note, if such a date exists.
  2. If the note contains a document like an image or PDF, I move the attachment into my attachment folder and then create a “document note” as I described in Episode 1.
  3. I’ll tag the note with a tag that makes sense based on my current note taxonomy.
  4. Finally, I tag the note in Evernote with a “MIGRATED” tag so that I know what I have migrated to Obsidian.

As I said, this is a slow process. But by prioritizing how I move the notes from Evernote into Obsidian, I’m getting what I use most frequently right away without migrating in a bunch of noise. I am also using the opportunity to clean up and clarify the notes so that they are more useful to me when I do need them. This is working pretty well for me. I suspect that by the end of 2022, at the rate that I’m going, I will have migrated 99.9% of what I really need. The rest is just noise that I’ve never looked at and will likely never need again. Migrating what is useful and not everything is what I think of as the practical part of going practically paperless.

Prev: Episode 13: My Daily Process for Staying Practically Paperless
Next: Episode 15: Daily Notes as an Index to My Life

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

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

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

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

Daily Notes as the centerpiece of my practically paperless system

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

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

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

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

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

An integration of paper and paperless

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

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

Our day at Epcot in my Field Notes notebook

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

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

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

Capturing documents in Obsidian

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

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

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

Summarizing the overall process

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

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

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

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Practically Paperless with Obsidian, Episode 12: What Goes Paperless?

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

One of the biggest challenges of going practically paperless is deciding what goes paperless. It is easy to know what stays on paper. I’ve tried journaling in Obsidian, for instance, and I just prefer paper. Paper has proved itself a good information storage unit over the centuries. And I think differently when I write with a pen in hand than I do with fingers on the keyboard. Then, too, I’m not giving up my Field Notes notebooks anytime soon. After more than a decade experimenting with various to-do and notes apps, I’ve found nothing beats a small paper notebook and pen in my back pocket for capturing items in short-term memory: shopping lists, to-dos, idea, notes and observations. That leaves everything else. But what of that “everything else” should go paperless?

When I was going paperless with Evernote, my experiment was to see if I could go completely paperless, so everything went into Evernote. But I found that 80% of the paper I scanned I never looked at again, even years later. And while it might not seem like a big deal to have that stuff scanned in, it illustrates a downside of Evernote’s ability to scan and search the text of scans: all that paper that I never used served as noise in searches.

I have been more selective in migrating documents into Obsidian. In doing so, I have followed a couple of general guidelines that I explain below.

Guidelines for what goes paperless

1. Is the document one that I never accessed in Evernote?

As I said, about 80% of the tens of thousands of pages I scanned into Evernote I never ended up needing. That is, I have them there, but in more than a decade, I never needed to call them up in a search for some purpose, even something as simple as glancing at the document.

I have ruled out importing these documents into Obsidian. This immediately culls the total volume of existing documents by 80% and makes what’s left much more manageable.

Moreover, this provides a precedent for future documents. If the document is of a type that I never used in Evernote, it is likely I will never use it in Obsidian and so it will stay out.

2. Is the document readily available elsewhere?

There were many documents that I brought into Evernote which I did end up searching for or using, but which are also readily available elsewhere. Various bank and financial statements represent examples of these. It takes effort to get these documents into a system like Evernote or Obsidian. But often I know exactly what I need when I go looking for it: for instance, the last 2 months of bank statements when applying for a mortgage. Since the “last two months of bank statements” are readily available online through my bank, there really is no need to have them in Obsidian.

This is true of other types of documents that I previously brought into Evernote. These days, many of these documents are readily available through the providers: medical records, insurance statements, tax forms, etc. None of these things need to be in Obsidian.

If the document is readily available elsewhere, my general rule is not to bring it into Obsidian.

3. Does the document have personal or historical value?

Finally, I ask if the document in question has some personal or historical value. This provides an exception to the guidelines above. Letters from my grandfather, for instance, are readily available in my papers, but I like the idea of having scanned copies available online for me to access. Ditto for other things like contracts for stories I’ve sold, artwork from my kids, or letters I’ve received from notable people.

What goes paperless?

So with these guidelines in mind, what goes paperless? A good way to see what I’ve been moving into and keeping in Obsidian is to take a glance at my folder structure.

folder structure for my obsidian vault
My folder structure in Obsidian

The first two folders (preceded by underscores) are “meta” folders. The first is where all of my attachments go. The second is where things like template notes go. From there, you can see how I’ve divided those things I think are worth capturing into several top-level groups:

  • Blog: notes related to my blog (including my outline of posts for this Practically Paperless series).
  • Daily Notes: where all of my daily notes files live.
  • Health: health-related notes and documents that are worth having accessible–like scans of our Covid vaccination cards.
  • Home: notes related to things at home. You can see some examples in the sub-folders, including things like “Official Documents” (birth certificates, baptism records, etc.) and Services (with a note for each service we subscribe to).
  • Reading: my reading notes, my commonplace book
  • School: school-related notes for the kids’ schooling. Report cards, etc.
  • Tech: all of my HOWTO tech related notes. These notes save me tons of times when I try to remember how I did something.
  • Travel: travel-related notes.

As the new year approaches, I have been thinking more and more about what I collect within Obsidian and what I collect outside Obsidian. I suspect the look of this list will change over the coming years. I suspect, for instance, that my vault will continue to become a commonplace-book-centered repository of notes from my reading, and notes related to the writing I do, but with certain things moving out to other tools because of greater accessibility.

One challenge, for instance, is sharing these notes with the family. I am the only one who uses Obsidian and I doubt I could get anyone else to use it. I had a hard enough time getting Kelly to use Evernote. I could see things like my Tech notes moving out of Obsidian and into Apple Notes because it is much easier to share them there, and there are frequently times when Kelly or the kids ask how to do something, and sharing the note would answer the question.

This is an evolving process and I expect to see it evolve more over the coming year as this experiment continues.

A reminder: I am taking next week off from the Practically Paperless series. There will still be posts every day here on the blog, but I’m still on vacation and wanted a week off from writing a post in the series. Episode 13, on my daily process for staying practically paperless, will appear on Tuesday, January 4, 2022. For folks who read this only this column on the blog, Happy New Year! I’ll see you back here in 2 weeks.

Prev: Episode 11: Associating Notes with Time
Next: Episode 13: My Daily Process for Staying Practically Paperless

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Practically Paperless with Obsidian, Episode 11: Associating Notes with Time

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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.

What does it mean to associate a note with time? For me, it is simply a way of capturing where that note fits into a timeline of events. I find this useful for two reasons: (1) it allows me another way to find notes I’m looking for; and (2) it provides a “big picture” look at a particular subject by seeing it over time. For example, maybe I need a copy of last year’s tax return. I could search for notes tagged #taxes, and then narrow that search by searching for notes in 2020 that are related to taxes. Or perhaps I’d like to see examples of my older daughter’s artwork. I could search for notes tagged #kids-art and #grace and sort the results by title, which includes a reference to the date. This allows me to see how that work evolved over time.

Different types of time

There are different types of time with which notes can be associated. Some of these associations happen automatically. For instance, when I create a note, the operating system stamps the file with a create date. When I make changes to a note, the operating system stamps the file with the last modified date. When I open a note, the operating system (at least on MacOS, which is where I primarily use Obsidian) also stamps the file with a “last viewed date. These all happen automatically, and while these dates can be changed, it requires some knowledge of Unix commands to change them. Besides, these are useful dates and changing them alters some useful information.

Then there is the date that I associate a note with on the timeline of my life. For me, this is the Zettelkasten prefix that I use in all of my note titles. This number, generated automatically when I create a new note, uses the format yyyymmddhhmm. I discussed this in some detail in Episode 6. Here is an example of a note for my older daughter’s birth certificate:

An example of my Zettelkasten prefix representing a date
An example of my Zettelkasten prefix representing a date

I’ll use this note to describe how these four times differ:

Create date9/29/2021 16:53The time the file was created, which was back in September 2021.
Modified date12/12/2021 9:22The time the file was last modified, which was last Sunday.
Last opened12/14/2021 9:29The last time the file was opened.
Date prefix in note title8/26/2011The date matches the “issued on” date in the birth certificate.

Of these date, the first three are set automatically by the operating system. The last one is generated automatically at the time I create the note, but I often change this to match the date on the document or note in question. In this case, I changed it to match the date the birth certificate was issued. I typically change this date to match the date on documents because this can be useful in a search, or in sorted related notes in a timeline of events.

The “Last Opened” date can be particularly useful, but currently, there appears to be a quirk with this date with respect to Obsidian. If I open an .md file in my vault from outside Obsidian–that is, if I double-click the file in Finder–then the Last Opened date gets updated. If I click on the note from within Obsidian, the Last Opened date does not get updated. This is something I’d love to see Obsidian add–updating the Last Opened date when a note is opened in Obsidian–for reasons I will explain shortly.

Associating notes with time

The most frequent time-related information I am looking for is where a note fits on a particular timeline. Since a document’s date rarely matches the create date of the note I associate it with (like the birth certificate above), I tend to use the Zettelkasten date prefix to associate my notes with time. For different types of documents, I might associate it slightly differently. A few examples:

  • Official documents (like birth certificates, driver’s licenses, etc.): I use the “issued” date on the document.
  • Letters and correspondence: I use the date on the letter (as opposed to the create date of the note, which is often the date the I received the letter.
  • Statements and receipts: I use the statement date, or the date listed on the receipt.

Some notes aren’t associated with documents at all but still may represent events on a timeline. In these cases, I will alter the Zettelkasten prefix date to fit it where it belongs on the timeline in question. For instance, I may have a note about my youngest daughter losing her first tooth. I’ll make sure the prefix on that note reflects the date she actually lost her tooth, rather than the date I created the note.

Answering the “where” question: finding notes by time

Evernote is currently better at time-based searches than Obsidian, but I am hoping that Obsidian will improve on this over time. For instance, within Evernote, there are search parameters that allow you to search within time ranges based on created and modified dates. It is tricker to modified the created and modified dates in Evernote than it is the Zettelkasten prefix in Obsidian, but it is generally easier to do advance date searches in Evernote. That said, the Zettelkasten prefix often is enough to get me to the general area I am looking for.

Suppose, for instance, I needed to know when my current driver’s license was last issued. I know that we moved to our new house in June 2019, so I might start with a search for notes that are prefixed with 201906 (June 2019):

Search results for notes in June 2019
Search results for notes in June 2019

As it happened, this search returned just one note (mainly because I am still in the process of migrating notes from Evernote to Obsidian–more on this in Episode 14). But you can see how the formatting of the Zettelkasten prefix allows a general-to-specific date search and by getting to June 2019, I was quickly able to find what I was looking for: that the license was issued on June 10, 2019.

I don’t think it is possible to do date searches involving search operators in Obsidian yet, although there is a feature request for this. This is one area that Obsidian is currently lacking. A feature like this would allow for some sophisticated saved searches within Obsidian.

The value of “Last Opened” searches

One problem I had with Evernote is that there was no way to tell the last time you opened a note. All you could see was when you created it or last modified it. Often however, when I refer to a note, it is simply to read through it for some piece of information I need. I’m not actually changing it. “Last Opened” dates therefore provide a useful way of seeing notes that you’ve recently used–or even more useful to me, those notes that I haven’t looked at in a long, long time.

One way of keeping my vault useful is to purge it of those notes that I rarely or never use. Granted, there are certain notes that I might not refer to frequently, but are useful to keep around. But there are thousands of notes in Evernote that I scanned it just to get rid of the paper that I never went back and looked at again. These notes add noise to searches, and are essentially useless to me.

With my Obsidian vault, I have created a saved search (outside Obsidian for now) that shows me all of the note files in my vault that I haven’t opened in the last 6 months. I have this search saved in my Finder sidebar, and when I click on it, here is what I see for my current vault:

Search results for Obsidian notes last opened more than 6 months ago
Search results for Obsidian notes last opened more than 6 months ago

Notes that appear here are notes that I haven’t opened in more than 6 months. The list is fairly short right now because I started a fresh Obsidian vault around the time I started writing this series, gradually moving things over from Evernote and my old vault. More than likely, I’ll change this to > 1 year instead of 6 months and I’ll review what is in the list at the end of each year to see if there is anything I can purge.

Daily notes as a timeline of event

Another way I associate notes with time is through my daily notes. I have automated my daily notes so that I get a nice summary of events coming up on a given day. Then, I try to add notes throughout the day so that I know when things happened. Often, I’ll link to other notes so that when scanning my daily notes, I can see when something happened, but also, if I am looking at another note, a document maybe, I can see the daily note it was associated with in the backlinks. Here is an example from December 1:

An example of a daily note with links to other documents to establish a timeline.
An example of a daily note with links to other documents to establish a timeline.

Of course, this daily note also shows up in the backlink to Kelly’s COVID vaccination card, establishing it firmly on a timeline in both directions. Since I frequently live in my daily notes throughout the day, this is a great source of finding things by time. I’ll link to notes from phone calls I’ve had, documents I’ve received or sent, you name it. I’ll have a lot more to say about daily note in Episode 15.

In next week’s episode, I have a more philosophical post on what I think should be paperless (for me) and what stays on paper, as well as what goes into Obsidian and what can be left out. This is based on my own experience using tools like Evernote (and more recently Obsidian) for more than a decade. See you back here in a week!

Prev: Episode 10: Associating Notes with Document Types
Next: Episode 12: What Goes Paperless?

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Practically Paperless with Obsidian, Episode 10: Associating Notes with Document Types

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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.

Last week, in Episode 9, I talked about how I use tags to associate notes with people. This helps me answer the “Who” question that I discussed in Episode 7. If I need to find something that is associated with someone in the family, I can use a tag with their name to quickly narrow the search to notes associated with that person. I also use tags to help answer the “What” question. Actually, both note titles and tags help answer the “What” question.

Using tags to answer the “what” question

Last week I used a recent question Kelly asked as an example: did we have a copy of our older daughter’s 4th grade report card? The “who” part of the question is our daughter, and I illustrated how I use tags to associate people with notes. The “what” part is the 4th grade report card. It turned out that the note title was good enough to narrow the search. Even so, I end up using tags to associate notes with a document type. In that case of a report card, I’ll tag the note with “report-card”:

This is somewhat redundant when you consider what I already have at the title, but it also helps a lot with more generalized searches. For instance, if I needed to quickly look at all the report cards I have in my vault, I could simply search for all notes tagged “report-card”:

I use this method of tagging notes by “document type” frequently. For all “official” documents, for instance, I use a “official-document” tag, and this provides a quick way accessing those important documents (which I have found, are frequently needed together, as when applying for a passport):

Tagging notes to help answer the “what” question can seem redundant, when you consider, for instance, that the words “report card” also appear in the note title. But I still do this for 3 important reasons:

  1. What I put in the title is arbitrary, and while I try to stick to some self-imposed standards, I sometimes forget, especially when I am rushing. So I might title one “Spring report card” and another note “Fall reprot card” and not notice that I made a typo in the second note. Searching for “report card” will not bring up the second note. But tags are data-driven from within Obsidian. Once I type the # symbol I get a list of all the tags I’ve used so far and can select from that list, which helps ensure data integrity.
  2. As indicated in Obsidian’s documentation, tags are “faster and more accurate than searching for the tag in plaintext as it uses the cached information and ignores text in code blocks and sections that aren’t markdown text.
  3. The standardization makes it easy to rely on the tags for saved searches. I’ll have more to say about this is a future episode.

Over the years (based on my experience with Evernote) I have developed a set of “document type” tags that I tend to use more frequently based on the kinds of questions I am trying to answer when searching notes. These include:

  • #contract: for contracts related to my writing
  • #form: for forms that have to be filled out, like school forms and other application forms
  • #kids-art: for scans I’ve made of the art work the kids have done over the years
  • #kids-school: for scans I’ve made of the schoolwork the kids have done over the years
  • #manuals: for manuals for things like gadgets, appliances, etc.
  • #receipts: for those receipts I think are useful for keeping in digital format
  • #statements: for those statements that are useful for keeping in digital format

As I migrate notes from Evernote to Obsidian, I am trying to weed out all of the stuff I never really used and in doing so, I am slowly revising the list of tags I use to categorize these notes and documents.

Using filenames for file types

Sometimes, I can quickly narrow a search when a question I’m trying to answer has some implied information. For instance, maybe I’m looking for a particular image I know I have in my vault. The “what” in this case is an image. A quick way of finding the image is to search for the file type. For instance, maybe I’m looking for my older daughter’s 4th grade school photo. I might start with this:

which returns two results. I can easily see the second is the one I am looking for. However, if there were a lot of these file types, I could narrow the search using more of the file name:

This works with any file types that I might have in my vault.

Next wee in Episode 11, I’ll continue with the searching theme and will go into how I answer “when” questions: that is, questions and searches that center around time. See you back here next week.

Prev: Episode 9: Associating Notes with People
Next: Episode 11: Associating Notes with Time

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Practically Paperless with Obsidian, Episode 9: Associating Notes with People

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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.

Like my Going Paperless series, this series is an experiment. I began to slowly migrate notes from Evernote into Obsidian a few weeks before I outlined this series, and little-by-little, notes from Evernote have been making their way into Obsidian. I’ve still got a long way to go. It is a process because I’m trying to avoid migrating the stuff I never used, and also trying to capture elements of the process along the way. I’ll have more to say about the process of migrating notes from Evernote to Obsidian in Episode 14.

In Episode 7, I described how I think about finding notes when I create them by thinking in terms of 4 question. In Episode 8, I described how I used templates in Obsidian to standardize my notes, making things easier to find. In this short episode, I’ll give a real-life example of how I recently used Obsidian to answer what I call a “who” question.

Answering the “Who” question

“Who” questions involve finding something related to a particular person. My primary method for doing this involves tags. If a note I create is associated with a person, I tag that note with the person’s name. If it is related to more than one person, I’ll tag the note with the name of anyone associated with it.

I do limit the “who” to immediate family. So there are tags for “jamie”, “kelly”, as well as each of our kids. But I don’t create “who” tags for notes that are associated with people who are not part of the immediate family because I’ve found that I don’t really search for “who” questions for people other than family members. Your mileage may vary in this regard.

Here is an example of a note tagged with my name:

a note tagged with my name

When I create a new note, I ask myself: would I ever need to search for this note based on a family member? If so, I add the tag to the “tag” line in my note. (As we saw in last week’s episode, thanks to templates, most of my notes already have this “tag” line already in place.)

Searching for notes by person

It turns out that I had migrated a number of the kids’ school records from Evernote to Obsidian recently. Not long after, Kelly said that she needed a copy of our older daughter’s 4th grade report card for something. Didn’t I have this scanned in somewhere, she asked.

I went into Obsidian and began with a simple search: tag: #grace. That resulted in the following matches:

search results for an obsidian search for tag: #grace

This is a relatively short list of matches, because I am still in the process of migrating notes over from Evernote. Just by skimming this list, I could easily see her 4th grade report card, select the note, and sent it to Kelly.

Suppose, however, this was a much longer list. I could add to my search to narrow it down. For instance, I might search for tag: #grace 4th grade, which would result in:

search results for an obsidian search for tag: #grace 4th grade

In this example, my list is whittled down to two matches. The first is the note containing the 4th grade report card I was looking for; the second is a “Map of Content” note that aggregates all of my older daughter’s school records in a single notes, kind of like a table of contents, making it easy to find things.

What if Kelly had asked, hey, do you have all of Grace’s reports cards? In that case, my search might have been something like: tag: #grace report card, which gives me this:

search results for an obsidian search for tag: #grace report card

Finally, Kelly might have asked for any report cards we had for Grace from 2019. That search would have looked like: tag: #grace file:2019, which results in just a single match:

You get the idea. When I am searching for a note that answers a “who” question, I search for the who first because it is the most specific thing, and then narrow the search from there. In this way, when I need to find a note related to a who question, I can usually find it very quickly. Having templates that pre-load the tag-line makes it easy for me to remember these tags when I am creating the note.

Next week, in Episode 10 (already!), I’ll continue the searching these, and talk about how I answer the “what” questions for notes, often a combination of tags and title. See you back here soon!

Prev: Episode 8: Note Templates for Consistency
Next: Episode 10: Associating Notes with Document Types

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Practically Paperless with Obsidian, Episode 8: Note Templates for Consistency

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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.

Let’s see, where were we? Ah yes, when we last gathered, we were discussing a framework for finding notes in Obsidian using four questions. One thing that aids in my ability to frame my searches in terms of these four questions is to ensure consistency in my notes. And one tool that aids in consistency is the use of note templates in Obsidian. In my day-to-day use, I use five templates for the bulk of my notes. Some of these templates are implemented through different tools so let me start there.

Tools for templates

Two of the tools I use for templates are Obsidian core plug-ins available out of the box. The third is a script I have written.

1. Zettelkasten prefixer

For ad-hoc notes, I make use the Zettelkasten prefixes. I discussed this in detail back in Episode 6. The Zettelkasten prefix plug-in allows you to generate a note with a Zettelkasten number in the title. It also allows you to base that note on a set template. In enabling the plug-in, I have selected both the format for the Zettelkasten number and the template I want to use when the note is created:

Figure 1: Settings for the Zettelkasten prefixer plug-in

My template for these ad-hoc notes is simple. It contains a line at the top prompting me to tag the note. Tags, as we will see in Episode 9, are an important tool for helping me find notes. The template itself provides consistency, ensure that every ad-hoc note I create has a place in it for me to add tags as necessary. Here is what my template looks like:

Figure 2: What my ad-hoc template looks like

2. Template plug-in

For several other types of notes, I rely on the core Template plug-in. Like the Zettelksaten Prefixer plug-in, the Templates plug-in is a core plug-in that comes out of the box and can be enabled in Obsidian with a click. Here is how I have configured my template plug-in:

Figure 3: Settings for the Template plug-in.

First, I set a location to store my templates (see A above). In this case, I have a folder in my vault called _/meta/_templates and this is where I put all of my templates. Even the template I use with the Zettelkasten prefixer plug-in goes in here.

Second, I set the format I prefer for dates (see B above). Within a template, you can use certain tags, like the {{date}} tag which will replace the tag with the current date at the time the template is added to a note. I prefer the yyyy.MM.DD.ddd format. That is how the date appears in many of my notes and I like the consistency of it.

Third, I also have the ability to set the time format, but I’ve left it as the default because so far, I haven’t had a need to use it in a template, and if I do, the default seems fine to me.

Finally, I set a hot-key for inserting a template into a note. From Obsidian’s settings, I selected Hot Keys and then searched for “templates” and added a hot key to the “Templates: Insert template” function. I use the Shift-Command-T for this.

3. Daily notes script

Finally, I have written a script that automates my daily notes so that they are generated with the same underlying “template”. I have written an entire post on how I’ve automated my daily notes, so I won’t get into that here. I’ve also put my automation script on GitHub for those who want to use it.

For our purposes today, it is enough to say that (a) my daily notes are generated automatically everyday, just after midnight; and (b) they look like this (using today’s note as a example):

Figure 5: Today’s daily note

Everything you see in the red box is generated automatically. The Agenda section is pulled from my calendar. The weather on the date line is generated using a command-line command that I call from Python. When the note is first created, there is nothing below the “Today’s notes” section. That is what I add manually each day.

5 templates that I use

Here are the five templates that I frequently use:

1. Daily note template

I’ve already discussed the daily note template above. This is generated automatically and it saves me time because I use my daily notes in Obsidian much like a bullet journal. I am in them every day. Also my daily note titles use the yyyy.MM.DD.ddd format, which means if I add a date to note as link using this format, the backlink appears automatically in the daily note’s backlinks so I can fairly easily associated just about anything with a date and use the daily note as an index to any notes that also have that date in them.

2. Ad-hoc note template

Many notes I create are what I think of as ad-hoc notes. These are quick notes that I am creating and filing away and may do something more with later, but I just want to have a way of creating them quickly. Even though I can create them quickly, I still want enough structure to allow me to tag the notes consistently. So my ad-hoc note template–the same template I use with my Zettelkasten prefixer–is simple and looks like this:

Figure 6: What my ad-hoc template looks like

3. Commonplace template

A lot of my notes come from things that I read. I have a “Reading” folder in my vault, and within that folder, I have two subfolders: one is called “Commonplace” and the other “Sources.” Commonplace is where my reading notes go. I’ve written about how I capture my reading notes in Obsidian, and while the core of this still holds, I’ve been modifying my process as I learn new things about Obsidian.

Let’s say that in a given book (or article, or web page) I highlight 20 passages. Each of those 20 passages becomes a separate “commonplace” note. Each commonplace note has tags, and can link back to a source note as well (see the next section for source notes). My template for commonplace notes, therefore, ensures that I capture at last that basic information in my note. The template looks like this:

Figure 7: My commonplace template

Here is are two examples of commonplace notes created using this template:

Figure 8: A sample commonplace note

There are five elements in my commonplace notes:

  • A: The note title. As I discussed in Episode 6, I try to keep this to-the-point.
  • B: The tags used to classify the note. This is an important part of how I find notes, and I’ll have more to say about how I use tags to do this in Episodes 9-11.
  • C: The source for the commonplace note. In this case, you see a note link to a book where I found the passage. In some notes, however, it is a link to an article or web page. By creating the link here, I can go to the source note and see all of the backlinks associated it with it.
  • D: The passage that I highlighted.
  • E: My own notes and remarks. In this case, I’ve also linked to another note, which means that there is now a relationship not just between this commonplace note and this other note, but also a link between the source note and the other note. Linking is a key part of Obsidian, as we will see in Episode 19.

But we get a hint of the power of note linking in next commonplace note below:

Figure 9: A sample commonplace note with backlinks

This note has all of the elements of the previous one, but I’ve also shown the backlinks panel here so that you can see how Obsidian automatically displaces the related notes based on the links included in the commonplace note itself.

4. Source template

As indicated above, each commonplace note can link to a source. In some instances, this link is a URL that points to a website. In many cases, however, it is another note in Obsidian that I have created to represent the source, often a book or article that I have read. Here is what my Source template looks like:

Figure 10: My Source template

Here is an actual source note based on this template:

Figure 11: An example source note

In this note, in addition to the title, we have the following elements:

  • A: tags, which help categorize the note for searches
  • B: authors of the source
  • C: dates I read the source (E. B. White is a favorite essayist of mine, and I often go back on read his collections when I need something reliable to read)
  • D: notes on the source. Sometimes I’ll put notes directly in here. In this case, however, I’ve included a list of transcluded links back to the commonplace notes I made for this book. Because these are “transcluded” links, they display the full note when you view it in preview mode:
Figure 12: A source note in preview mode

5. Product template

Finally, I have what I call a “product” template. I use this template to keep track of things we buy that are worth keeping track of: appliances and electronics, furniture, etc. Here is what my Product template looks like:

Figure 13: My Product template

For my product template, there are three parts:

  • A: the tags (my template contains some pre-loaded tags for speed; I remove ones that aren’t needed and add ones that are).
  • B: information about the product in question. Here, if there is date, I insert it using my yyyy.MM.DD.dd format.
  • C: a timeline or history of events related to the product. This would be things like repairs, calling supports, etc.

Here is an example of a completed product note based on this template:

Figure 14: A completed product note

Inserting a template into a note

Inserting a note into a template is easy. As I indicated above, I setup a hot-key for doing this. When I create a note and want to insert a template, I do the following:

  1. Clear out any default text I don’t want from the note.
  2. Set the cursor to where I want to insert the template.
  3. Press my hot key (Shift-Command-T), which brings up a list of templates:
  1. Select the template I want to insert and hit ENTER

Where I store my templates

To keep things simple, I store all of my templates in a single folder in my vault. Off the root of my vault, I have a folder called _meta and within that folder, there is another folder called _templates (/_meta/_templates). This is where my templates go.

It is important to remember that templates themselves are just notes with some tags that can be used to help automate things. The reason I put my templates in a folder with an _ at the beginning is that when doing an advanced search in obsidian, I can exclude from the search folders that begin with the _ so that I avoid noise in my search results.

How templates and consistency help with searching

Templates help me maintain a consistent structure and format to my notes. They remind me of elements I need to include in them, like tags. Templates are liking filling out a form of metadata for each of my notes and this metadata ultimately provides a powerful tool for quickly finding what I need when I search for things in Obsidian.

In next week’s episode, we’ll see this in action, when I describe how I use tags to associate notes with people. See you back here soon!

Prev: Episode 7: A Framework for Finding Notes Using 4 Questions
Next: Episode 9: Associating Notes with People

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Practically Paperless with Obsidian, Episode 7: A Framework for Finding Notes Using 4 Questions

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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 my ongoing struggles with information storage is finding what I am looking for quickly. When I first started using email back in 19941 I immediately setup an elaborate folder structure in which to organize my email messages. Messages would come to my inbox, and from there, I’d move them to folders based on projects, or parts of projects, or based on people, or other events. At some point I probably had more than a 100 of these nested folders about. And always, there was the question: did I file this message under this folder or that one? Eventually, my thinking changed. As much as possible, I would flatten my filing system and rely on the search capabilities of the client to find what I was looking for. Today, my email comes into my inbox, and is either deleted, or moved to my archive folder. The only exception is a “Upcoming Travel” folder that I keep for reservations and other travel-related email. And that hasn’t seen much action in the last few years, thanks to COVID.

When I began using Evernote, I found myself falling into a similar trap, creating a elaborate notebook structure and tag taxonomy, and then scaling back to something simpler, and relying on the search capabilities of Evernote to quickly find what I was looking for.

With Obsidian, the main lesson I am taking is one of leveraging search capabilities to find what I am looking for. Organization is secondary, and a far second, at that. There are a few reasons for my thinking here.:

  1. It takes time to build out an elaborate organization structure, be it email folders, Evernote notebooks, or folders and tags within an Obsidian vault.
  2. There is a fair degree of uncertainty when starting out as to what I will actually need. Better to start simple, and expand only where absolutely necessary or obviously useful.
  3. It takes time to remember where things go in an elaborate system, whereas it takes far less time to file something away in a simple system.
  4. By thinking in terms of a handful of questions, I can create and store my notes in such a way as to prime them for easy searching and making searching much faster and easier.

4 Questions

When I create a note, I consider 4 questions that I find useful, either separately or in combination, to make it easy to find the note in question. Over the course of the next 4 episodes (8-11) I will touch on each of these questions in detail. For the purpose of this episode, I am going to stick to the theoretical level. The four questions are:

  1. Who is the note related?
  2. What is the note about?
  3. When is the note for, when considered on a timeline?
  4. Where is the note about or related to?

These are the same basic questions I was taught to seek answers to in my journalism classes in college. I’ve found that by thinking about these questions when creating a note, I set the note up for easy locating. I try to think about why I need to locate notes and use that to frame the questions. Some examples:

Just before the school year started, I had to provide the most recent school entrance health form for my daughter. There were many ways that I could search for this but the quickest was to use my who, what, when, where method:

  • if a note is a related to a person, I include a tag with that person’s name in the note. If a note is related to multiple people, I tag the note with multiple names. Usually these are family members so it’s not like there is a large list to choose from. Because of this, however, I can start my search by finding notes tagged with my daughter’s name.
  • what I needed was the “school entrance health form.” As I wrote in Episode 6, I try to title my notes as succinctly as possible. In this case, I was likely to have included “school entrance health form” in the note. So in addition to notes tagged with my daughter’s name, I’d also add notes with a title containing “school entrance health form”
  • now, given that my daughter is still in elementary school, there probably aren’t a whole lot of notes tagged with her name and titled “school entrance health form.” I was asked for the most recent note, however. Given how I use a date-based Zettelkasten ID at the start of all of my note titles, a glance at the list of results that are returned would give me the most recent note.

In this case, by asking the “who” and “what” in my search and by eyeballing the “when”, I have my results just as fast as it took me to type the search into Obsidian.

Note that my search was for notes tagged with “#grace” (my daughter’s name) and then for files with the name “school entrance health”. In the search results, you can see the Zettelkasten IDs with their embedded dates, and the most recent one was from August 2021 (20210801…)

I might have located this note by just using the tag #grace alone, but there would likely be a lot of other results returned. This is part of the reason why I am trying to be more careful about what I pull into Obsidian so that I don’t clutter my vault with too much noise. But even so, plenty of legitimately useful notes will have been tagged #grace so adding the search for the what–school entrance health form–speeds things along.

I’ve been using this method for a long time now–I’ve written about it as far back as 2016 in conjunction with Evernote–and after a while, it becomes second nature to think about these questions as I create notes. Really, what I do is try to remember the questions I have been asked in the past and use those as a guide for filling in the blanks. Some examples:

  • gather all of your tax documents for 2021 to send them to the accountant: look for any notes tagged #taxes with a title that begins with 2021.
  • what was it that Bob Uecker famously said about catching knuckleballs? look for the what, in this case, “knuckeball” as there aren’t likely to be many notes with that phrase in it[2 The quote is: “The proper way to catch a knuckleball is to wait for it to stop rolling and pick it up.”].
  • when did I get my first COVID vaccination shot? This one’s a bit of a trick question: search for who: #jamie and what: “covid vaccination card”. The resulting matching will have a PDF of the card, from which I can read off the vaccination date.

Over the course of the next 4 episodes, I’ll go into greater detail on how I use these for questions to think about preparing notes for searching as I create them, and how I use those questions to quickly find what I am looking for. She of this depends on simple templates I use when creating notes of certain types, so Episode 8 will cover some practical uses of templates in Obsidian. Then, Episodes 9, 10, and 11 will cover the who, what, and when questions respectively.

One programming note: I’m taking next week off from doing a Practically Paperless post–I’ve got to spend time prepping for Thanksgiving–so Episode 8 will appear the week after, on November 30. See you here next time.

Prev: Episode 6: Tips for Naming Notes
Next: Episode 8: Note Templates for Consistency

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  1. Unix-based mh email, which I still look back on fondly, and still generally think of as superior to the email clients we have today.