NOTE: For a variety of reasons, it's been quite a while since I updated my blog. I suppose it would be fair to say the biggest factor was the full time job, move and life changes around that situation, although there are some other factors as well. I'm hoping to amend this moving forward, and Obsidian looks like it will be a great help with this!
I recently became introduced to a new piece of software that has kind of changed everything for me, in a good way. I have been subconsciously looking for something like this for a long time and didn't even realize it until I opened up a new vault and started making connections. So let's get into it.
What is Obsidian
Obsidian is a note-taking software based on simple markdown files and the idea of linking and crosslinking your notes, also known as a hypertext layer. There are a few other similar applications, of which the most popular comparison is Roam. I say note-taking, and that's a fair description of basic use, but in a more advanced form it is what is known as "personal knowledge management" or PKM software. The Obsidian team describes it on its website as a "second brain".
It isn't open source, but it is free to use. It has subscription models for features like syncing and publishing notes, although you can also use other services to sync between devices, such as Dropbox, Google Drive, or what I use: iCloud. Your files are simple markdown, which is readable and editable by just about any text editing software out there, so if you ever move away from using Obsidian, you still have full access to all the knowledge you stored, missing out only on the interface features that help organize and link it. This also lets you make your own choices about where to store information, which is great if you're concerned about the security of what you're storing.
Obsidian also has a publicly available plugin API that has resulted in a thriving ecosystem of plugins for just about anything imaginable. I personally only use a couple of them at this point (see below for details), although there are a few more that I've been considering taking on.
One of Obsidian's key selling points is the graph view. Essentially, Obsidian will show you graphically your entire network of links between notes. For me, so far, this has kind of just been a fun toy, but more advanced users have found interesting ways to make it really useful also. For example, Eleanor Konik uses it to visualize and keep track of her overall organization, and briefly touches on a number of other uses in her article It’s Not Just a Pretty Gimmick: In Defense of Obsidian’s Graph View.
My baby < 2 month old graph:
What's amazing about Obsidian
If you've used note taking software such as Evernote or Google Keep and not been very impressed - I'm right there with you. Haven't really seen a point of making a monolithic file of notes when I could handwrite things instead and get the benefits handwritten notes have over typing.
But using Obsidian is a different experience to me. Creating a link to another thought in Obsidian is a matter of hitting the
[ key twice and typing in a name: if it exists, it'll link it; if not, it'll insert a clickable link to create the file (and put it in the autocomplete list for every other link you create, even if the file itself hasn't been created). This linking is the key feature that makes Obsidian great. Our minds work much more so on an interconnected web of ideas than in a linear format, and using links in this way allows you to both follow a tangent into explaining another thought as you go, and come back and linearly follow the thought you started, without having to write in and out transitions or having weirdly abrupt topic switches.
For example, say you're writing some notes about the Single Responsibiilty Principle from an article you read about SOLID, and it reminds you of the Principle of Atomicity from your notes on Zettelkasten. As you're typing the Single Responsibility Principle notes, you can just throw Principle of Atomicity between two pairs of square brackets, and now you have a link to that note. You can hope over there to add some thoughts, then go back and pick up where you left off with SRP, ideally with a descriptive statement indicating why you thought they were related. (My note that I based this scenario off of says that SRP is essentially the programming application of the Principle of Atomicity. Fair, but probably a bit underdeveloped.)
Technically you could do this without the linking system, but it would be much less convenient and fluid. You wouldn't have the record of your connection right there, whenever you happen to look up the Single Responsibility Principle, with the ability to just click through to remind yourself of what exactly the Principle of Atomicity is and complete that thought. With the links, your note on Single Responsibility Principle can be a complete thought and complete piece of writing on its own, without needing to do more than mention the connection to Principle of Atomicity and allow the other note to stand on its own as well. (Thereby demonstrating the Principle of Atomicity!) Without the link, you'd have to either trust your reader (probably your future self) to know what you meant by it, or spend time and effort explaining it inline. Then you'd also have to spend words on getting back to your previous point and line of thought. Finally, if you just explain both thoughts inline (say if you are simply writing a journal or disorganized notes) you end up with a lot of bloat that makes it harder to separate and identify individual thoughts and return to them later.
Another super neat feature of the linking system that I almost forgot to mention: backlinks! These work whether the note on the other side is already created, or not. Say I am writing a note one day and put in a link, "
this subject is really related to [[Steveism]] in a lot of ways" to create a link to Steveism, but don't create a note. Then a couple days later I am just free texting in my daily note and mention something else about Steveism, without bothering to link it at the time. Then, I totally forget about both of these notes, and six months later come across an interesting article on Steveism and think, "I should make a note about this!" and go and create one. Well, both of those prior mentions will show up in the backlinks tab. The first one as a Linked Mention, the second one as an Unlinked Mention. This can be really powerful; the more so, I think, the older your vault gets. By sometimes paying attention to your backlinks, and your local graph mode, you can easily uncover links you forgot, or may have not even thought of at the time. This contrived, imaginary example doesn't do a fantastic job of showcasing that, but if you have a descriptive title phrase, unlinked mentions can even show up from text where you were using the phrase without even thinking of it as a title.
How I'm Using Obsidian
There are as many different ways to use Obsidian as there are people who use it. For me, personally, my primary intention is to use it as a PKM (Personal Knowledge Management) repository. To this end, if I'm reading interesting material, or watching a thought provoking video, and so on, I'm often stopping and taking notes and making links as I go.
Zettelkasten... Sort of
When I first got set up with Obsidian, the friend that mentioned it to me also suggested learning about the Zettelkasten method of knowledge management. I took a lot of strategies from this (emphasizing hypertext and trying to keep my individual notes small and atomic especially) but am not doing a strict Zettelkasten with structured IDs, nested notes, hubs, etc. I expect my pattern will evolve over time as I find what makes the most sense for me.
There are other setups such as Johnny.Decimal and PARA that might be worth looking into in the future. I glanced through these as I saw them mentioned but haven't investigated in much depth. However, from what I've seen of Johnny Decimal, it won't be the solution for me; it's pretty rigorously structured and seems like more work than it's worth to keep up on the details for how my brain works. Definitely worth looking into if you're interested in this kind of thing, though.
I have my notes organized into various subfolders. This is a bit hard especially with notes I'm just creating links to and not writing yet, as I don't always know what subfolder it makes the most sense to place something into and it can break my flow sometimes to stop and think about it. Still working on a good solution for that, although I also think I have most of the major subfolders I will need. They can always be rearranged later, of course, but the more possible not-yet-created notes link to a folder, the more confusing it will be to rename it. (Links to already created notes Obsidian will automatically update for you, but not links to not-yet-created files.) An ideal setup would minimize friction of adding new links as much as possible.
One of the other benefits of organizing my notes into subfolders is, I can assign each path its own color in my graph view, which helps me get a feel for what I spend the most time writing about. You can do this in other ways too, though, for example by tag or search terms in lines or sections, so don't feel limited to folders if you want to color things up.
I also use Obsidian as a kind of daily journal to keep track of significant events, disorganized thoughts, and so on. Adding links to the daily pages allows me to find them easily by backlinks as well if I get into a topic I've written thoughts about in the past, which makes it easier to incorporate them when I'm ready to have a more serious think about it.
I don't show my daily notes on the graph view as I found they made it cluttered and pulled connections in strange ways. (I mean, okay, those two topics are maybe a bit related if I thought about them both on the same day, but then again... maybe not.) The links are all still there to explore via the Linked Mentions panel and the local graph, but the daily notes and their connections don't show up in my overall graph view.
Another great feature of Obsidian is the plugin ecosystem. I am currently actively using just a few, including the Core plugin "Daily Notes", and the Community plugins Calendar and Templater. Calendar enables me to create a new note on any day I want by using a calendar view to navigate to the correct location, and Templater has a lot of great options for setting up a default note template based on what folder it is in. I have different templates, for example, for my Daily Notes (see this forum thread if you're curious what template I'm using), for my blog posts (including all the metadata that Pelican needs to construct the HTML file, so I can just copy a finished text into Pelican and clean up links - even though Obsidian itself doesn't do anything with most of it), and for files I expect to be too short to need some of the default tag setups I have on my overall default template.
NOTE: There is a core plugin that has a lot of template options also; the biggest reason I'm using the much more complicated Templater is for the ability to handle date codes as +1 and -1 from any arbitrary date I create a Daily Note for.
I haven't dipped my toes very far into the available plugins yet, however. There are a few that look interesting that I have not yet explored in any depth (such as Juggl and this breadcrumbs plugin) and more on my list to check out "someday".
If you're looking for an alternative digital note taking experience (compared to something like Evernote), Obsidian is absolutely worth checking out. Don't be scared off by the complexity of available options - it's super simple to set up and get started, and all of the features that make it great are also entirely optional, so you can just start writing individual notes or even one monolithic note and worry about linking them later. And, if they're descriptively named, the Unlinked Mentions feature will help you out with that immensely - with no up front work!
NOTE: Obsidian even makes it extremely simple to extract a block of text and turn it into a link to a new note containing the text. Just select, right click and hit "Extract current selection". So don't worry about doing it "right" the first time.
Especially when your vault is small, it's easy to rearrange and update stuff as you get a better feel for how to use the features and what makes the most sense to you for organization. There are a huge amount of features available for advanced users - but they aren't in the way for a beginner, the focus is on just being able to write notes quickly and easily. If you are familiar with formatting text on Stackoverflow, Reddit or any one of a number of other sites (even chatting in Discord!), you already have the basics of the text formatting, since it's just standard markdown.
If you need a little more guidance than just jumping in, though, I found a good beginner's guide series of videos that also helps highlight the power and usefulness of being able to link notes like this. I recommend checking it out if you're on the fence, or want to get started but not sure what to do.
All in all, this is a fantastic piece of software that I am very glad I brought into my life. It's done a lot to improve my ability to communicate my thoughts about things. I don't think it's made me smarter, or necessarily learn more, but when I put my thoughts into Obsidian and start to link them up, they become a lot easier to consciously remember and explain to other people, even compared to writing notes by hand! I highly recommend this software to anyone who wants to gather knowledge. (Any other Enneagram 5s in my audience? ;) )
Next on my writing plate: A few way overdue book reviews as I go through handwritten notes from 2019 and 2020 and start to put them into my Obsidian vault (the flower of pale purple in my graph was me preparing note files for each item in my read through of the Tao Te Ching), and once I finish Metroid Dread, I'd like to compose a review for that, too.
Until next time!