Welcome to my blog series, “Practically Paperless with Obsidian.” Foran overview of this series, please see Episode 0: Series Overview.
Despite everything, I end up with a lot of notes. In the past, this was because I scanned just about all the paper I got into Evernote. Most of that went unused. With Obsidian, I am trying to be better, scanning only those documents that I think I’ll need. That eliminates a lot of notes. But I keep a lot of other notes in Obsidian that I never kept in Evernote–my reading notes, for instance. Naming names, therefore, becomes an important part of being able to pull those notes up quickly. In this week’s episode, I’ll talk about how I name my notes in Obsidian.
In 2013, I wrote a post on How I Title My Notes in Evernote as part of my Going Paperless series. Some of those tips are replicated here with additional context and lessons I’ve learned.
What are my requirements?
This is a question I often ask myself when using a tool or trying to improve a process. What is it that I need to be able to do? What are my requirements? In thinking about the kinds of notes I take and how I use Obsidian, here are some of the requirements I found for myself. Others may vary, but this work for me.
- I want to be able to create notes quickly, sometimes without worry too much about a title.
- I want to have some amount of consistency in how I refer to my notes
- I want to avoid redundant in information contained in the note, where practical
- I want to be able to find notes quickly, when I need them
Tip #1: I prefix all my notes with a Zettelkasten number
In Episode 2, I touched briefly on how I use a Zettelkasten prefix in my note titles. Here, I will explain why this works for me and how this meets some of my requirements.
Zettelkasten is a method of naming and organizing notes. I don’t use the pure Zettelkasten process, but I do use a prefix number for my note. The goal of the prefix is to make a note title unique. To do this, I have enabled the Zettlekasten prefixer core plug-in in Obsidian:
This plug-in comes with Obsidian and does not have to be added separately through the community plug-ins. Here is how I have configured my Zettelkasten prefix:
- New file location: this is where any new notes I create go initially. I left this blank, meaning they go into the top-level of my vault. I generally move them manually after I create them.
- Template file location: I like having a simple template created for all of my new notes. This is location of that template. Templates are just markdown files and can contain anything a markdown file has. Mine is pretty basic, containing a line for me to add tags.
- Zettel ID format: this is the format of the number. As you can see, I use a YYYMMDDHHmm format. I do this because it is easy for me to change later. I’ll discuss that more below.
I’ve done one other thing to make this easy to use. I added a hotkey for creating a new Zettelkasten note in Obsidian. I bound the hotkey to the “Create new Zettelkasten note” function as follows:
Now, whenever I hit Option-z on my Mac, a new Zettelkasten note is created based on my template.
Having a Zettelksaten prefix on my notes has several advantages for me:
- I can create a note quickly with a template and not worry about giving it a complete title. This is useful for quick notes that I want to jot down without spending time thinking about a title. I can always come back to them later.
- Because the Zettelkasten prefix is based on the current date/time, I have a built in way for searching notes by date in the title. If I wanted to search for all notes created in October 2021, for instance, I could search for “file: 202110” and quickly see all of the notes created that month:
- This provides me with a quick way of changing the date of the note to match the date of a document. Let’s say I have a document dated November 2, 2021. When I used Evernote, I would often go in and change the Create Date of the note to match the date on the document. That way, when I wanted to search for the document by date, it would come up matching the date on the document itself. But this was cumbersome to do in Evernote. In Obsidian every note is just a file in the file system. I could go and change the create date of the file, but I don’t want to do this because that is also useful information. Instead, I’ll modify the Zettelkasten number to match the date of the document. In this way, I have access to several dates:
- Create date: the date the note was created
- Modified date: the date the note was updated
- Last viewed: the date the note was last viewed
- Zettelkasten prefix: the date of the document associated with a note.
Tip #2: Keep note titles as succinct as possible
After the Zettelkasten prefix, I add the note title itself. I try to keep these titles as succinct as possible. You can see in the search results image above that my titles try to uniquely define the note in fewest number of words. For instance:
- COVID Vaccination Card – Jamie
- The Baseball 100
- Articles I’ve read
When I create these titles, I try to think of how I might need to locate them in the future. What words would I search for? Well, if I needed to find my COVID vaccination card, searching for “COVID vaccination” will get me close enough so that I have only a few notes to wade through to find the one I’m looking for. If I wanted to search for my notes on the book The Baseball 100, searching for “The Baseball 100” will get me that note, among a few others.
The goal is to be able to quickly find the note in question. I don’t mind if a search turns up more than one note, so long as the title in the results is distinct enough to make it easy for me to pick out among the others.
Tip #3: Be consistent in how I title my notes
It might be problematic if I named similar notes in different ways. A note titled “Jamie’s COVID card” and another called “COVID vaccination for Zach” are not consistent. Searching for COVID might bring up both notes, but searching for “vaccination” would only bring up one. So I try to name similar types of notes similarly.
I find this to be most tricky with my reading notes. That’s where my note titling tends to get inconsistent, although I am trying to improve.
By putting a little thought into how I name my notes, I find that I have a lot more flexibility when it comes to searching for notes. And speaking of searching for notes, Episodes 7-11 will focus on searching for notes in Obsidian. These episodes will tie together much of what I have already written and begin to demonstrate some of the power of Obsidian and how I think it just as useful as Evernote when it comes to locating notes that I have stored there.
See you back here next week.
Prev: Episode 5: Scanning Documents into Obsidian
Next: Episode 7: A Framework for Finding Notes Using 4 Questions
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