Category: practically-paperless

Practically Paperless with Obsidian, Episode 6: Tips for Naming Notes

person writing on paper using yellow and black pen
Photo by Startup Stock Photos on

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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Practically Paperless with Obsidian, Episode 5: Scanning Documents into Obsidian

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

Nearly 10 years ago, I wrote about my process for going paperless in 10 minutes a day. It centered around how I converted the paper I get into digital form; in other words: scanning documents. It was part of my going paperless experiment and there were two primary difficulties with it:

  1. There is always paper coming in, even if I attempt to go completely paperless.
  2. I was trying to capture too much.

Ten years later, I am looking to go “practically” paperless, with an emphasis on the practical. As my wife Kelly often reminds me, moderation is key. So this week, I wanted to talk about how I scan documents into Obsidian using as a context, my revised process for going practically paperless. And instead of 10 minutes a day, we’re now talking about 10-15 minutes per week.

Scanning documents to into Obsidian

As much as I’d like to tell you about the new whiz-bang scanner I have gotten in the years since I wrote my Going Paperless posts, the truth is, my trusty Fujitsu ScanSnap S1300i is still my main tool for scanning paper into digital form. I long ago lost count of how many pages I’ve scanned over the years–thousands easily. And the scanner is still working as well as it ever has. I know of cars that haven’t lasted that long without need for repair.

One nice thing about the scanner was that it had a configuration that allowed you to scan directly into Evernote. I’ve tweaked the settings for Obsidian. Here is how I have it configured today:

1. Application – Scan to Folder

I have configured the scanner to scan to a folder.

2. Save (folder location)

Because I use my scanner pretty much exclusively for scanning documents into Obsidian, I scan those files directly into the “_attachments” folder that I created in my vault.

Moreover, for the filename format, I selected the YYYYmmddhhmmss format option, which, as you might recognize is very similar to the Zettelkasten format I use for prefixing my note names. This is useful if I want to search for the raw documents in Obsidian by date in the same way that I search for other notes.

3. Scanning options

One of the nice things about the ScanSnap 1300i is that it can scan in color and it can do duplex scanning in a single pass. If it detects blank pages in the scan, it will automatically remove them. I use the default scanning settings as shown below.

4. File options

Be default, I scan all of my documents as PDFs. One nice feature of Evernote is that when you scanned documents into Evernote, their system would automatically scan the PDFs to make them searchable. At present, Obsidian does not have the ability to search the contents of PDFs, but given the community of developers, I have no doubt that a plug-in will eventually be developed that will allow this, if the core system itself doesn’t1. With that in mind, I set all of my scans to be “searchable” PDFs. This makes the scanning process take a little longer, but it is worth it in the ability to search the contents of those PDFs.

With these settings in place, when I want to scan a document into Obsidian, I set it up on the scanner, and then press the blue scan button. Once the document is scanned the PDF automatically ends up in the _attachments folder in my vault.

From there, I do two other things:

  1. I sometimes rename the PDF file to something more convenient.
  2. I create a structured note in Obsidian to “contain” the PDF. I do this so that I can take advantage of the metadata in the note (tags, etc.) to associate that with the PDF file itself. I then create a transcluded note link to the PDF file in the note, and then I want to refer to the document, I use the note that I created.

For example, I recently got my COVID booster shot and my vaccination card was updated. Using my ScanSnap 1300i, I scanned in the updated vaccination card. I renamed the resulting file something more useful, in this case: covid-vaccine-card-jamie.pdf. Then I created a structured note and linked to the PDF. I discussed structured notes in Episode 4. Here is what my structured note looks like in edit and preview modes:

Including the scanned document in a structured note may seem like an extra step, but it also allows me to add tags and other elements to the document that I wouldn’t be able to add to a plain PDF.

Practically paperless in 20 minutes a week

In the past, my process for going paperless in 10 minutes a day involved the following steps:

  1. Pick up the days mail and add it to the pile of paper waiting to be scanned.
  2. Scan the paper in the pile into Evernote

That “pile” included other paper, like things that came from places other than the mail: magazine or newspaper clippings, things that Kelly handed to me that we needed scanned, receipts, etc. I would go through this process every evening, and in general, it took about 10 minutes.

I found, however, that 90% of what I scanned into Evernote, I never looked at again.

My process today is similar, but there are 2 main differences:

  1. I scan my documents only once a week, instead of every day.
  2. I only scan those documents that I obsoletely think I am going to need in the future.

Scanning documents once a week

I scan the previous week’s documents on Sunday mornings. There is never as much to scan as their used to be, and it generally takes me 10-15 minutes to scan everything into Obsidian and create the structured notes for the things that I scan. You can see the small stack of paper waiting to be reviewed and scanned from this past Sunday in the image below:

When I finish scanning the documents, I decide whether I need to keep the original, or if it can be shredded. If they can be shredded, I move them into a box I have just off the picture above to the right, in which I collect documents for periodic shredding.

Scanning only those documents I think I will actually need in the future

I call this series Practically Paperless with the emphasis on “practical.” One of the lessons I’ve taken from my Going Paperless experiment is that while I scanned a lot of documents, I never again looked at 90% of what I scanned. To this day, more than ten years later, I still haven’t looked at most of the documents I scanned into Evernote.

In Episode 12, I will talk in more detail about what goes paperless in a practical sense, but for now, here is how I think about this at a high level. I ask myself the following questions:

  • Is this something that I will need in the future, but have ready access to elsewhere? Bank statements are a good example. I have, on rare occasions (like when we bought our new house) needed access to recent bank statements. But these are readily available online from the bank. No need to keep them in Obsidian (or Evernote) if they are just going to clutter things up. I can get them from the bank’s online system when and if I need them.
  • Even if it is available elsewhere, is this something that would be useful to have locally? Maybe I want to link to it from other notes. We don’t need official documents like birth certificates, social security cards, etc., but I keep them in Obsidian because I link to them from other notes: in particular, notes for estate planning and “what if” planning so that they are readily accessible.
  • Even if it is not available elsewhere, is this something I will likely need in the next year, or more than once? I don’t see much of a point in keeping a document if I am not going to need it in the short term, or use it more than once.

There are exceptions to these, of course. I am working on a kind of “scrapbook” note in Obsidian that provides a kind of overview of my life through official documents, photos, awards, publications, etc. And I wanted some of these less-used documents to include there. But in general I try to think of the practical uses for documents I might scan. If there are none, or if the document is readily available elsewhere, I don’t scan it.

In Episode 6, I’ll talk about how I title my notes, and the things I think about in order to give the notes practical names to make them as easy as possible to find. That sets things up for the next 5 episodes (7-11) which will deal with searching and finding things when I need them in Obsidian.

See you back here next week!

Prev: Episode 4: Creating Notes in Obsidian
Next: Episode 6: Tips for Naming Notes

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  1. Note that on macOS, spotlight search to look at the contents of a searchable PDF, so that is a convenient alternative.

Practically Paperless with Obsidian, Episode 4: Creating Notes

closeup photo of blue pen tinted spiral notepad placed beside pen die cast car and coffee cup
Photo by David Bares on

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

I sat here thinking about the different types of notes I create. I think they fall into 5 general buckets. They are, in order of approximate complexity:

  1. Observations, ideas, lists, etc.
  2. Daily notes
  3. Commonplace notes
  4. Structured notes
  5. MOCs, also known as “Maps of Content”

This list could probably be pared down. For instance, it could be argued that “Daily Notes” are a form a “structured” notes, as we will see, but they serve a special purpose so I call them out separately. There are also note types that don’t appear here, but this serves as a good start. In this post, I will briefly discuss each type of note and how I go about creating it in Obsidian.

Observations, ideas, lists, etc.

Let me be honest: I have yet to find a quicker, more efficient method for jotting down observation, ideas, shopping lists, recipes, etc., than just scribbling them into a notebook. Usually a Field Notes notebook that I carry around in my back pocket at all times. Nothing beats this, at least for me. I don’t think this is something that will change anytime soon. For the better part of 10 years I’ve searched for digital alternatives, tried different apps, but haven’t found any that are as quick or reliable as a pen and notebook. So when I am keeping track of my son’s soccer game score, or noting how low the pressure was on a tire when the “LOW PRES” light comes on, or jotting down blog post ideas, I’m usually jotting this stuff down in a notebook instead of an app.

A recent page from my Field Notes notebook.
A recent page from my Field Notes notebook.

Often times the notes in these notebooks are ephemeral. They are the equivalent of short-term memory. At some point, I’ll decide to move some of the notes to longer-term storage. For the rest, they stay in the notebook, which sits with its companion notebooks on a shelf in my office, where I can flip through them any time I want.

If any of these observations, lists or ideas need to get stored, I’ll move them to a new note, or to an existing note in Obsidian. Take the two blog post ideas on the page above. When I first started using Obsidian in January 2021, I created a note for “post ideas.” In reviewing my Field Notes notebook at the end of the day, I’ll transfer any ideas into the “Possible” section of my note.

My Post Ideas note. I blurred out some of the "possible" ideas to avoid future spoilers.
My Post Ideas note. I blurred out some of the “possible” ideas to avoid future spoilers.

There, I can add other notes to my ideas and flesh the out a bit. For instance for the post idea on re-reading books, I added a note indicating that this is something I’ve already written about before. Eventually, I’ll move that to the “used” section of the note.

Daily notes

As I have mentioned before, take place of the timeline concept that I used in Evernote. They serve as a kind of time-based index for my vault. I have automated the process of creating these notes. Each day, a new note is added to the Daily Notes folder in my vault. The note contains links to the previous and next day’s Daily Note, and a indication of the weather for the day. It automatically pulls in my agenda from my iCloud calendars. In the Today’s Notes section, I manually add any other items of note that I want to reference. Here, for instance, is my Daily Note for Monday, October 25, 2021:

My Daily Note for October 25, 2021

If you want more information on how I’ve automated my daily notes, see:

Keep in mind, this requires some coding and tweaking to make it work for you. But it is also an example of how flexible Obsidian is because it is based on simple text files.

Frequently, one of the first things I do in the morning is pull up my daily note and review what I’ve got going on today. I also usually pull up yesterday’s note along side to see if there were any notes or tasks from yesterday that should carry over into today.

Commonplace notes

One of the most frequent types of notes I’ve found myself creating since starting to use Obsidian is what I call a “commonplace” note. I have a folder in my vault called Commonplace and the notes that go in there are quotes from books, passages I’ve highlighted, things I’ve heard people say, along with my notes or commentary on those things. Here is an example:

Creating a commonplace note is easy:

  1. I press Option-z to create a new Zettelkasten note.
  2. I fill in my template, adding any tags and, if there is one, a source for the note. In the above example, I’ve tagged the note #democracy, and the source points to another note, that represents the book Essays of E. B. White.
  3. I paste or type in the quote or other information I want in the note
  4. Below the quote, I usually add my own notes or comments.
  5. Finally, I drag the note into the Commonplace folder.

I try to keep these notes discrete. If I had a second note on democracy for E. B. White, I’d create a second note. Its Zettelkasten number would be different, but the rest of the title could be the same. That number helps keep the note title unique. (More on titling notes in Episode 6.) By keeping them discrete, I can link them in different ways. For one thing, I will add references to these notes from the source note, and “transclude” them into the source when viewing it in preview mode. Here is the source note for Essays of E. B. White:

You can see that all of my “commonplace” notes for this book show up in this source note. I didn’t have to rekey them in, either. I just used the ! symbol in front of the note link in the source note to display the full linked note when viewing the source note in Preview mode. Here is what the source note looks like in edit mode:

Structured notes

A structured note is one that has a consistent structure from one note to the next. Take for instance notes I create for electronics and appliances we have around the house. For our new microwave oven, for instance, I downloaded the user guide PDF and dragged that PDF into my _attachments folder in my vault. I then created a note based on a template that I use for home electronics. In the note, I included a reference to the PDF user guide. Here is what the structured note looks like in edit mode:

Because I used a “transcluded” note link to the LG Microwave Owner’s Manual PDF, when I view this note in Preview mode, here is how it looks:

I call these notes “structured” because a structured note uses the same template for format from one note of that type to another. Here is a side-by-side example of two “structured” notes for applianaces:

MOCs, or maps of content

One final type of note that I create is what is often called an MOC note, or “map of content.” This is a way to collect links to lots of notes on a single note–a map of content.

Recently, I’ve been reading The Year’s Best Science Fiction, Volume 1 edited by the late Gardner Dozois back in 1983. I frequently take notes as I read, and I’ve been adding notes to my commonplace folder with each story that I finish. In order to tie all of those stories together, I created a source note for the book with links to all of the other notes for the stories. It looks very much like a table of content. To create this note I:

  1. Created a new Zettelkasten note, and gave it a title
  2. Tagged my note
  3. Created a “contents” section
  4. Within the contents section, I created a list of links to notes for each of the stories I’ve read so far.

This note makes it easy to reference all of the notes I’ve made for the stories in the book. If I liked a story, I tag it as “recommended.”

I have other types of MOC notes. One, which I will talk about in a future episode, is what I call my “Form Data” note. This is a single note that has information for everyone in the family that I frequently use in filling out forms: school forms, medical forms, you name it. From that note there are also links to source documents like social security cards, birth certificates, marriage licenses, and more recently, COVID vaccination cards.

Having talked about the different types of notes I create and how I create them, in Episode 5, I’ll focus on “document” notes and talk about my process for converting paper into Obsidian notes. It will be my attempt at recreating my Going Paperless post from April 2012, “My Process for Going Paperless in 10 Minutes a Day” bringing it up to-date to talk about how I go “practically paperless” with Obsidian today. Then in Episode 6, I’ll spend an entire episode talking about how (and why) I title my notes. See you next time!

Prev: Episode 3: The Basics: Emulating Evernote Features in Obsidian
Next: Episode 5: Scanning Documents into Obsidian

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Practically Paperless with Obsidian, Episode 3: The Basics: Emulating Evernote Features in Obsidian

pile of covered books
Photo by Pixabay on

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

Back in Episode 1, I demonstrated what notes and documents are like in Obsidian. In Episode 2, I showed how I configure Obsidian to take advantage of plug-ins and settings that I find useful for this practically paperless experiment. In this episode, I’m bringing everything together to demonstrate how I emulate 4 basic features of Evernote in Obsidian. The four features are:

  1. Creating notes
  2. Tagging notes
  3. Creating to-do items
  4. Searching notes

These four features are at the core of what I do with notes on a day-to-day basis. Each of these features will be discussed more extensively in future episodes. For this episode, I just wanted to demonstrate how I am doing these four basic things with Obsidian today.

Creating notes

If I wanted to create a new note in Evernote, I would just click the New Note button, or press Cmd-n (on my Mac) and then type out my note. Kind of like this:

This creates a new note, with no title, so the note appears as “Untitled” unless I go ahead and add one. If I wanted to do the same thing in Obsidian, I’d simply press Option-z on my Mac. I have mapped the “Option-Z” command to the “Create a new Zettelkasten note” function in Obsidian. (I talked about this function briefly in Episode 2.) When I do this, I get a blank note with a title already filled–at least the Zettelkasten label portion of it, which for me is the current date and time in yyyymmddhhmm format. So here is what it looks like when I create the same note in Obsidian:

Simple. I can do this again and again. Also, because my note is given a Zettelkasten prefix in the title, I don’t have to title the note, if I don’t want to. Usually, however, I do, so once I’ve gotten the note jotted down, I’ll go back and append to the title, so that my note will look something like this:

Looking at #1 in the above image, you can see I modified my title so that it now includes more descriptive information. I’ll go into greater detail on just why I just the Zettelkasten prefix in Episode 6. But I’ll also hint at how it is useful when we discuss searching notes below.

Also, I wanted to point out that because I have mapped my Create Note keyboard command to the “Create new Zettelkasten note” function, I have the ability to define a default template that gets created for the note. In this case, I have a very basic template that includes the “tags:” line you see above the #2 and the — you see below it.

In Evernote, I can easily add media like images to my notes. I can do this just as easily in Obsidian, as well. For instance, suppose I have copied an image into my clipboard. To add that image to the note above, all I have to do is paste it into the image where I want it to appear.

As you can see in the above GIF, when I paste the image into the note, it appears as a note link reference (the part that you see my highlight). I can see the fully formatted note (and image) when I click the button to view the note in Preview mode. I could also have dragged an image from my filesystem onto the note with the same result. Any image (or other file) that I add to a note is stored in the vault in my default “attachments” folder. This folder can be defined in the Obsidian settings. For me, I store all attachments in a folder called “_attachments”. As far as Obsidian is concerned, this is just another note link and if I move the attachment to another folder, Obsidian will maintain the reference to the link so I don’t have to think about it.

Tagging notes

Now that I’ve added a note, suppose I want to tag it. In Evernote, I could go to the Tag bar at the bottom of the note and begin typing the tags that I want to add to the note. It looks something like this:

I can do the same thing in Obsidian. Moreover, I can type a tag anywhere I want in the note. All tags in Obsidian begin with the hashtag mark (#). Being able to tag anywhere in the note is useful because notes in Obsidian can be searched by their component parts, sections for instance. In the example below, I’ll add a tag to the tag line of my template, and then I’ll add a new section to the note and add a tag there as well.

Note that as I type # and the start typing a tag, I get a list of matches, just like I do in Evernote. Also, when I switch to Preview mode, the tags appear with boxes around them. That is how the tags are styled as part of the Yin and Yang theme I discussed in Episode 2. I’ll have a lot more to say about tagging in Episode 9 and Episode 10.

Creating to-do items

A new feature recently added to Evernote is the ability to add tasks to notes. In Obsidian, tasks are called “to-do” items and I can add a to-do item anywhere in a note by typing [ ] for a “open” (uncompleted) to-do item, or [x] for a completed one. Here is my note with 2 to-do items:

If I look at this new in Preview mode, the theme renders the to-do items properly:

Obsidian keeps track of to-do items and they can be searched by their state as we will see in the next section.

Searching notes

Finally, if I need to find a note in Evernote, I use its search feature, and I can do the same thing with Obsidian. In some ways, each application has its advantages over the other when it comes to searching. Evernote can search the text within PDFs, and Obsidian can’t yet do that (but I suspect it will be able to do this in the future). Obsidian, on the other hand, can search using regular expressions, something Evernote doesn’t do.

I have a whole set of Episodes planned discussing how I find notes in Obsidian. For this episode, I am going to keep it simple, to a few basic examples.

Searching for text in a note

Often, I am just looking for note with a particular term in it. In these instances, the easiest thing to do is search all the notes for that term. For instance, Bob Uecher had a great quote about knuckleballs. I can’t remember the quote, but I know Uecher said it, so here is what happens when I search for “Uec” in Obsidian:

Here is what is happening in the GIF above:

  1. I click on the “Search” tab.
  2. In the search field, I type “uec”
  3. In the search results I select the match I want to display the note.
  4. In the note, you can see the text I searched for is highlighted in yellow.

Quick search by note date

Like Evernote, Obsidian has the ability to search notes by date. Obsidian uses the file dates for these searches. In Evernote, however, you could go in and change the Create date of a note. I found this useful because I often matched the create date of a note to the date on a document. In Obsidian, I could change the create date of a note using an operating system command. But there is an easier way to do this, and this is where the Zettelkasten prefix in my note titles come in handy.

Say, for instance, I wanted to search for all notes from October 3, 2021. Assuming I use my Zettelkasten prefix in my note titles, all I need to do is type the following into the search: 20211003:

Here, you can see that my search results in 6 notes that are prefixed with that date. I can click on a note to see its contents. Note also that one of the matches is my daily note for 10/3/2021. Even though the note doesn’t have a Zettelkasten prefix, because there is a reference to a note with such a prefix within the note, it shows up in the list of matching notes.

Searching by note tag

By adding a “tag:” prefix to my search, I can search notes by tag. I can have multiple tags within my search if I want. For example, suppose I wanted to search for any notes that I have tagged #baseball and #lists. Here is what it looks like in my Obsidian vault:

Searching for tasks (to-do items)

Finally, I can also search by tasks and their status (either incomplete, or what Obsidian calls “to-do”, or done). Suppose I want to search for any notes in October 2021 with incomplete tasks. Here is what that search looks like in Obsidian:

Here is what is happening:

  1. I’m searching for any file that contains a name 202110 (i.e., 2021 (year) 10 (month)).
  2. And I’m also searching for any notes that contain incomplete tasks: task-todo:””

That results in a single note–the one I created at the very beginning of this post. The note title begins with 202110, and highlighted within the note in yellow is the single incomplete task for the month.

The purpose of these first three episodes was to set a baseline for folks who have never seen or used Obsidian to demonstrate how its features can be used as an alternative to Evernote. With the basic posts out of the way, the real fun can begin. Going forward, beginning with Episode 4, I’ll begin to show how I am using Obsidian to go practically paperless. These will be more real world use case-driven posts as opposed to these basic getting started posts. In Episode 4, I’ll talk in more detail about how I create notes. In Episode 5, I’ll recreate one of my first Going Paperless posts and talk about how I scan documents into Obsidian.

See you here next week!

Prev: Episode 2: The Basics: My Obsidian Configuration
Next: Episode 4: Creating Notes in Obsidian

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Practically Paperless with Obsidian, Episode 2: The Basics: My Obsidian Configuration

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

In the first episode in this series, I discussed the basic objects in Obsidian: notes and documents. In this episode, I want to step back and talk more broadly about Obsidian itself. In order to best understand I how I use Obsidian as an Evernote substitute, I want to highlight some features of Obsidian that I use in order to get the most out of it for my paperless notes. There are two reasons I am doing this:

  1. There are some features that are not enabled by default but that I have found particularly useful.
  2. I know from experience that people will ask about what themes and plug-ins I am using in Obsidian and this makes a nice post to which I can point people for an answer.

Also, I am trying something new beginning with this episode:

  • I am creating animated GIFs to help illustrate some of the things I discuss1, something I never tried with my Going Paperless posts, so please bear with me as I figure this out. It’a a learning experience for me.

My preferred Obsidian theme: Yin and Yang

One limitation I found in Evernote is that I never had much control over the look and feel of the tool. The current version2 as of this writing allows you to configure Light or Dark mode, but that’s about it. This may not seem that important. After all, Evernote and Obsidian specialize in storing information (the former in the cloud, the latter locally in your filesystem). More and more, however, modern text editors and IDEs are being designed with a great deal of flexibility in how they look and feel. Editors like Atom, Sublime, and IDEs like Visual Studio Code all allow customization of the user interface through the creation of themes that manipulate the styles of objects that appear on the screen. Obsidian is among these tools. In Obsidian, themes are nothing more than CSS files that you can download from a community, or even create on your own.

My preferred Obsidian theme is called Yin and Yang and can be found in the Obsidian by going to Settings > Appearance > Themes, and clicking the Manage button to view a list of community themes. Obsidian themes can be used dark and light mode. Given how much time I spend on screens, I prefer dark mode.

So how do themes alter the look and feel of Obsidian? Let me illustrate. Below is what Obsidian looks like out-of-the-box in light mode (and notice that the Obsidian Help is just another Obsidian vault):

And here is what Obsidian looks like when I change it from light to dark mode:

Switching to Dark mode in Obsidian

With those images in mind, here is how Obsidian looks with the Yin and Yang theme. The image on the left is a note in edit mode; on the right is the same note in preview mode.

This is my own preference. You can keep the default theme, use one of the 70+ community themes, or create a new theme entirely on your own3

A few additional useful UI tweaks

Folding headings and lists

As I mentioned in Episode 1, notes are nothing more than plain text files that use Markdown to format the content. One nice feature that Obsidian comes with out of the box is the ability to fold your headings and lists. These features have to be enabled in the Editor settings as shown below.

Once you’ve enabled these features, you can open and close headings to show and hide the text within the heading. Using my note on my Retro Posts above as an example, here is how folding headings work:

The same works for lists. If you have a list, like an outline, each level of the list is foldable. I find both of these features very useful for focus. If I want to concentrate on just one part of a note, I can easily fold other parts so that they don’t distract me.

Useful “core” plug-ins

Obsidian comes with “core” plug-ins that are packaged with the application. There are also community-based plug-ins. In this section, I’ll talk about the “core” plug-ins that I find most useful in my pursuit of going practically paperless.

Daily notes

Daily notes are a fundamental part of Obsidian, and they are also a fundamental part of my efforts to go practically paperless with Obsidian. They are so important, that I’ll have an entire episode dedicated to them in January 20224. Daily notes are simply notes that you can associate with a given day. These notes have a special naming convention that uses the date to form the name of the note. This makes it useful when linking other notes to this date. Obsidian knows about all of the “backlinks” to a note–that is, all of the other notes in your vault that are linked to that note. I have actually automated my daily notes so that they are generated automatically each night, and pull in information from my calendars, making them even more useful.

Daily notes act as a kind of index to many of my other notes in Obsidian. They take the place of my timeline concept in Evernote.

An example of a daily note in Obsidian
An example of a daily note in Obsidian

Daily notes can be enabled in Settings > Core Plugins.

Starred notes

At any given moment, I have one or more notes that I use frequently, and want to be able to access quickly. This is what “starred” notes are for. After enabling this core plug-in from the Settings > Core Plugins menu, you can “star” a note. Once starred, that note will be available for quick access on the Star panel on the lefthand side of the screen. Starring a note is like creating a note shortcut in Evernote.

The starred note panel displays a list of notes that have been "starred" for quick access.
The starred note panel displays a list of notes that have been “starred” for quick access.

Zettelkasten prefixes

This one is a mouthful, but it refers to a fascinating method for organizing notes. I don’t use this method in its strict interpretation, but I have borrowed liberally from it for my own notes–especially my reading notes. Because of Obsidian’s ability to link notes and illustrate the relationships between notes, it has become a particularly useful tool for those who wish to have a digital Zettelkasten.

But back to the plug-in. This plug-in does 2 things:

  1. It allows you to define a “prefix” for your note titles based on a date format. If you’ve been paying attention, you may have noticed that many of my note titles begin with a long number combination like 202110111506. This number is just the current date and time in yyyymmddhhmm format. When I create a note using a prefix, Obsidian automatically generates the prefix and I can add more to the title if I want. Having the date in this format is more powerful than it may seem. When searching for notes, for instance, I have a convenient way of searching by date, something I will discuss in much more detail in Episode 11.
  2. You can also, optionally, define a template for your note so that when your note is created, not only is there a title prefix, but there can be other information preloaded in the note. This can save a lot of time, and help with standardization. When I create a new note, here is what my basic template looks like:

I’ll have more to say about Zettelkasten and note titles in Episode 6.

Useful community plug-ins

In addition to having community-developed themes, there are also some amazing community plug-ins that have been developed for Obsidian and the list keeps growing. Here are the community plug-ins that I find most useful:


The calendar plug-in provides a quick way to get to your daily notes (if you are using them). Since I use daily notes constantly, the calendar provides an easy way to navigate quickly to the note I am looking for. In this example, I am using the calendar to navigate to my daily note from October 3:

The dots in the calendar are days in which I have daily notes. The more dots on a given day, the longer the note. It is a very cool plug-in and the first community plug-in I installed when I began using Obsidian.

Natural language dates

Dates are important in my paperless taxonomy because they tell when things occurred. Obsidian allows you to format dates in any desired format. My daily notes use the format, or 2021.10.11.Mon. If I create a note link in Obsidian to “2021.10.11.Mon” it will link to my daily note from that date.

The Natural Language Dates allows you to quickly create these note links using natural language, like “yesterday”, “today”, or “tomorrow”. I’ll use this frequently on in timeline sections of notes that refer to dates.

Using the plug-ins

These plug-ins make it much easier for me to zip through creating notes, linking them together the way want to, and have the notes appear the way I want on the screen. As we progress through future episodes, you’ll see me using these plug-ins frequently. I wanted to have a post to which I could refer people to list those plug-ins and setting that I find most useful. There are other plug-ins that I use, but not as frequently, and I’ll discuss them in the context of how I use them to perform certain activities in future episodes.

In episode 1 I showed the basics of notes and documents in Obsidian. In this episode, I discussed the settings, themes, and plug-ins most useful to my note-taking in Obsidian. Both episodes set the stage for next week when I illustrate how I emulate basic Evernote features in Obsidian. Hopefully this will provide a like-for-like comparison of how I did basic things in Evernote and how I can do those some basic things (with improvements) in Obsidian. See you back here next week!

Prev: Episode 1: The Basics: Notes and Documents
Next: Episode 3: The Basics: Emulating Evernote Features in Obsidian

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  1. For those wondering, I am using GIPHY Capture for the Mac to create these GIFs.
  2. v10.22.3
  3. At one point, as an experiment, I created a theme to make Obsidian look like Word for DOS 5.5, my all-time favorite word processor.
  4. Episode 15, if you are curious.

Practically Paperless with Obsidian, Episode 1: The Basics: Notes and Documents

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

Nearly 10 years ago, I began an experiment to see if the elusive paperless office was actually possible. That series, Going Paperless, was my attempt to use Evernote and other tools to go completely paperless. After several years, my conclusion was that it was not really possible for me to go completely paperless. In the years since, I’ve returned to paper for several things, but still enjoy the efficiencies of having information I need at my fingertips. In examining the lessons I learned from my paperless experiment, I realized that, as with most things, moderation is key. There is a difference between going completely paperless, and looking to be paperless in the practical sense. That is what this series is all about.

Instead of Evernote, I’ve decided to use Obsidian instead. I’ve written about why I want to use Obsidian elsewhere, but the gist of it is:

  • files are plain text, which makes them essentially future-proof;
  • files are stored locally instead of on someone else’s server (unless you want to store your files in a cloud system like iCloud, Dropbox, OneDrive, etc.);
  • it has a great note-linking function that I will make heavy use of as we progress through this series.

Of course, if you are following along, you don’t have to use Obsidian. Evernote still works for much of what I’ll be discussing. If you are not going to use Obsidian, you can safely skip the first three episodes of this series, as they focus on setting a kind of baseline with the tool for moving forward through subsequent episodes.

The first 20 episodes in this series build upon one another. I am using them as a guidepost for getting me to where I want to be. The first 3 episodes establish some basics, beginning here with how I plan on storing my notes. A note can be anything, text, a document, and image. When I think about what I want to be able to capture in digital form, I think of notes in two categories: notes and documents.

Notes in Obsidian

A note is just a markdown file (.md) file in Obsidian. Markdown, for those not familiar, is a plain text file in which special markup can be used to format the note. This is light markup, not as elaborate as, say HTML. In a plain-text markdown file, for instance, if I want to bold some text, I surround it with a double asterisk **like this**.

For me, notes are distinguished from documents in that a note is a markdown file. A document is something else, like a PDF or an image file. I’ll discuss those files in a moment. Notes can be viewed in two ways within Obsidian. They can be viewed in edit mode, where you can see the markup’s that you add to the note; and they can be viewed in Preview mode, which renders the notes fully formatted. Here is an example the same note rendered in edit mode and preview mode in Obsidian. You can use the slider bar to see how they look different.

Figure 1: Comparing a note in edit and preview mode.

Notes are where the majority of my paperless stuff goes. The note in the example above is from my “commonplace” notebook, a collection of notes and highlights from my reading. At its most basic, a note in Obsidian is a file on your file system. The note has title1, and it has the same file attributes as any file on your file system: create date, modified date, permissions, etc. I’ll have more to say about note titles in Episode 6.

Obsidian uses the concept of a “vault” to store notes. A vault is nothing more than a folder on your computer. Obsidian controls and monitors the files and folders within that vault folder. This is incredibly useful. It means that you can move notes around within your vault and Obsidian will take care of maintaining the links that notes have to other notes automatically.

Note-linking is a key reason why I love Obsidian and I’ll have a lot more to say on it in Episodes 17 and 19. For now, note links are simply links to other notes in your vault. In the example above, the “[[202109220957 Natural Questions]] on the “source” line is an example of a note link. Clicking on the link takes you to that note.

Just like in Evernote, notes can have tags. Obsidian uses the hashtag format for tags. In the example above, you can see two tags: #discovery and #favorite. One difference between tags in Obsidian and Evernote is you can refer to tags anywhere in a note in Obsidian. And because Obsidian’s search capabilities are very granular, that means that sections or even lines of a note can appear in search results, making tags quite powerful. I’ll have more to say about tagging in Episodes 7-10.

Notes, then, are containers for information you want to capture. They are the basic unit of storage in Obsidian. You can create notes quickly with a hot key and start typing. Obsidian saves as you type so you don’t have to worry about remembering to click a Save button.

Notes have one other very powerful feature in Obsidian that they lack in Evernote: transclusion. Transclusion allows you to include a note within another note. When I read, I highlight passages, and those passages, after I review them, each get their own note in Obsidian. Here is an example from when I was reading Franklin D. Roosevelt: A Political Life by Robert Dallek:

Figure 2: An example note in Obsidian

For books with notes, I keep a “source” note to collect all of the notes related to that book together, as well as any other thoughts I might have about the book not captured in a specific note. Rather than have to copy and paste the notes into the source note, I can “transclude” the note into the source instead, thus reusing the existing note, almost as if it were a subroutine. Here is my source note for the book in Edit mode:

Figure 3: A note with transcluded note links in edit mode

In the “Notes” section, note that all I did was include links to my notes on the books. Note the ! that precedes each note link? That is what tells Obsidian to transclude the note in Preview mode. So when I look at this note in Preview mode, what I see is:

Figure 4: A note with transcluded note links in Preview mode.

Each of the two note links are transcluded–they include the entire note–within the note in which they are references. This turns out to be incredibly useful with documents.

Documents in Obsidian

I think of a document as something other than a note. Much of what I collected in Evernote over the years were scanned PDFs, or PDFs automatically sent to Evernote through a service like FileThis. Think: bank statements, tax forms, official documents, instructions for household appliances, etc.

Obsidian has the ability to keep track of and render certain types of documents files, among them PDFs and image files. You have the ability to store these files right along with your notes, or you can separate them out into their own folders in a number of different ways. I’ll have more to say on this in Episode 2.

In order to keep things simple, I created a folder called “_attachments” in which any and all document files go. This includes PDFs, image files, and any other files that fit this category. The reason for this is that I don’t just use the bare attachment file, but I couple it with a note in order to gain the benefit of all of the Obsidian functionality that comes with notes. Let me give an example.

We recently got a new microwave oven, which I ended up installing myself. Information about electronics and appliances is something that I actually use from time-to-time, and just as I did in Evernote, I created a note for the new microwave in Obsidian.

Figure 5: My new microwave oven note

I use a similar format for all electronics and furniture because it means I have one centralized place to go for anything related to that thing. Obsidian has the ability to create templates for notes, similar to Evernote. I’ll discuss this in more detail in Episode 8. The “Timeline” section is a running timeline of events related to the microwave. If, for instance, I had to call for support, I’d add an entry to the timeline to record information about that call to support. All of the information I need is right there and easy to locate.

Note that there is a translcuded note link for the Owner’s Manual PDF file. I put the PDF file in my “_attachments” folder, but I don’t have to worry about where it is. When I go to add the link, I just start typing and Obsidian presents me with a list of matches anywhere in my vault. Because it is a transcluded note link, when I look at this note in Preview mode, what I see is:

Figure 6. The microwave note in Preview mode with the PDF included

I have the ability to scroll through the pages of the PDF, or print the PDF if I want to. It’s all right there, included as part of the note on the new microwave oven. Many notes are just the document itself, so the note will contain nothing but a title, some tags, and then a transcluded link to the actual note, say a bank statement or tax form. This gives the added benefit of searching the meta-data in the note to find what I am looking for. I’ll illustrate more examples of this when I talk about finding note in Episodes 15-17.

Notes are just files in the filesystem

I want to stress the point that these note are just files in my file system. This is a big difference from Evernote, which stored notes as objects on their server, which could be downloaded to your client. Here is a look at what my vault in Obsidian looks like (on the left) and a similar look at what this looks like on my filesystem (on the right):

The “DFC” is the name I gave my vault in Obsidian. It stand for “Digital Filing Cabinet.” I can open any of these notes outside of Obsidian in a text editor and still be able to read and use (and even update) the note. For instance, opening the microwave note looks as follows on my Mac’s TextEdit app:

Figure 8. An Obsidian note opened in a text editor app.

Establishing a baseline

I wanted to begin this series with something simple, illustrating how notes are captured in Obsidian, because I wanted to establish a baseline. I wanted to give people who are used to using a tool like Evernote or OneNote an idea of how their notes might be stored in a tool that is essentially a fancy text editor. To that end, I identified two types of notes that I capture–notes and documents–and showed how I am using these separately and in combination to capture notes in Obsidian similar to how I captured them in Evernote. I was trying to answer the question: what would my notes look like in Obsidian?

Again, as I attempt to go practically paperless, I’m using Obsidian because it is simple, future-proof, and doesn’t require paying for cloud service if you don’t want one. Documents are stored locally and because they are plain text files with some PDFs and images in the mix, you can use your OS to manage the files, and even search the files. Running a Spotlight search for “LG Microwave” on my Mac instantly returns the following:

Figure 9. A spotlight search turns up files in my Obsidian vault.

But I like Obsidian because of its note-linking capability, as well as its ability to manage the vault, keeping links updated even as I move notes around in the vault. It also has some powerful search capabilities that even Evernote lacks (like regular expression searches). And it provides an interface that separates my notes from other things that I do. This series will focus on using Obsidian as I attempt to go practically paperless, but I hope it is clear that other tools can work as well. This just happens to be the one that I think is best suited for this task.

Next week: Continuing down the path of establishing the basics for this experiment, next week will focus on Obsidian and how I have configured it to take advantage of features and plug-ins that I think are most useful for managing my notes. A week later, in Episode 3, I’ll show how I emulate some of Evernote’s useful features in Obsidian.

Next: Episode 2: The Basics: My Obsidian Configuration

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  1. You’ll notice that my note titles begin with a long number. That is by choice, I will explain why I do this in more detail in Episode 6. For now, don’t worry about it.

Practically Paperless with Obsidian, Episode 0: Series Overview

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A few weeks ago, I announced a new series, “Practically Paperless,” in which I was going to take lessons from my original Going Paperless series and apply them to a more practical approach for a partially paperless lifestyle, using Obsidian instead of Evernote. To read about my rationale for doing this, see my original post.


The first official episode of this new series will appear tomorrow, but I wanted to have an introductory post to take care of addressing some basic administrivia related to the series. Thus, Episode 0. So, here are some items that you can consider an overview for the new series.

  • One of the big lessons I took from my going paperless experiment with Evernote was that I still enjoy using paper for some things. The reason is call this new series “practically paperless” is to emphasize that I am looking to go paperless where it is most practical; I’m no longer convinced that a completely paperless lifestyle is either possible or practical for me. I’m looking for what is practical.
  • Each episode will attempt to focus on one specific thing. I don’t want to confuse things by addressing multiple topics in a single episode. This will be useful down the road when folks want to refer back to a specific topic.
  • I have outlined the first 20 episodes in the series. For these first 20 episodes, the order matters. Each episodes sets a foundation for the next episode. By the end of the first 20 episodes, I should be in a place where I am using Obsidian as a replacement for Evernote and able to do all of the basics that I was able to do when I used Evernote.
  • All episodes (including this one) will be categorized under “practically-paperless”. You can also find a index page to the series on the Blog Series menu at the top of the page. Select “Blog Series” and then click “Practically Paperless.”

Here is an overview of the first 20 episodes:

General themeEpisodes
Establishing a baseline in Obsidian1-3
Getting notes into Obsidian4-5
Ensuring notes are easily searchable6-11
Getting from Evernote to Obsidian12-14
Finding notes15-17
Curating notes18-20

Schedule for the series

Originally, I thought I’d have a new post every other week, but I’ve changed my mind about that, and for at least the first 2 episodes, the series will appear weekly as follows:

  • A new episode will appear each Tuesday morning at 8 am Eastern Time beginning Tuesday, October 5, 2021.
  • Currently no episode will appear on Tuesday, January 4, 2022, as I wanted to give myself a little bit of a break around the holidays.
  • That means there should be a new episode each week beginning tomorrow and continuing through February 22, 2022 (skipping January 4).

Beginning on March 1, 2022, I’ll begin to move into more specific topics of how I am doing things with my paperless notes in Obsidian. These will depend the foundation established by the first 20 episodes, but should no longer depend on one another.

I’ll continue the series for as long as I have ideas to write about, and wind it down once I think I’ve covered enough. At this point, I think I have at least of year’s worth of posts, but we’ll see how things go.

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