Note Taking and Writing in Obsidian
I have a long history of trying various note taking techniques and tools. I've used paper notebooks, followed the bullet journal method, and used countless digital tools with varying levels of success.
Writing on paper has its advantages. It forces you to slow down and capture only the most relevant information. But notebooks are limited when it comes to things like search. You can use an index like the bullet journal approach, but once you have multiple notebooks, now you need to go dig through old notebooks that contain the content you're looking for. It's also hard to create links to websites on paper 😅.
Digital tools make just about everything easier. I can easily search and link notes together, link to external resources, format code, share, copy/paste, create backups, etc. The major issues I've had with digital tools in the past are having multiple tools for multiple purposes, and things being out of sight and out of mind. The third issue that deserves mentioning is the desire and ability to tweak a tool until it's "perfect". The problem there is that is never is and I spend more time configuring the tool than using the tool.
I've been using Obsidian now for 7 or 8 months and it's still going strong. There are several reasons why I think Obsidian is the tool that works best for me, but the key to my success with Obsidian is that I "live" in it. I always have it open. I start my day in Obsidian with a daily note and some writing to clear my head, plan my day, and get going. I also take meeting notes, write articles for my website, draft documents for work, capture thoughts on projects, you name it.
Sure, I could choose to "live" in another tool, but Obsidian is a joy to live in compared to other tools have just never felt as comfortable for handling multiple needs. So let's go through some of the features of Obsidian that make it such a versatile one stop shop for me.
In the most simplistic view, Obsidian is a Markdown editor. A better description (direct from the Obsidian website) is that "Obsidian is a powerful knowledge base on top of a local folder of plain text Markdown files.".
I love Markdown for its simplicity and it makes it easy for me to move content between my notes and my website, GitHub READMEs, and various other places where markdown is supported. If Markdown isn't supported, then I can always fall back to plain text or export my markdown to HTML or a PDF. Of course, linking to websites and incorporating images is nice and simple.
Finding a note in Obsidian is very easy. With
⌘+o you can find a note with fuzzy search and if your note doesn't exist, you can create it from the same interface. Know the exact note you want?
⌘+o. Think you might have a note with a vague idea of its title?
⌘+o. Want to create a brand new note? You guessed it,
There is also a search feature that is a bit more comprehensive if you need to find something based on content rather than title. Obsidian also supports front matter for meta data on notes, allowing you to add aliases for the note title, and tags to ease discoverability and the retrieval of notes.
The ability to easily find notes based on title (including aliases), tags, and content mean I don't have to agonize over finding the perfect folder structure for my notes. In fact, for the most part, none of my notes are organized in any kind of structure in my OS at all. I never look at the folder that contains my "vault" (the Obsidian term for a collection of notes, I only have one and I keep everything in it).
I've already mentioned that you can add links to external websites and images via markdown, but you can also use wiki-style links to link to other notes. When writing a note, you just need to type in double brackets
[[ and you're greeted with a menu that utilizes the same fuzzy search capabilities as
⌘+o. It gets even better though. You can link to specific headings in a note and you can even create markers that link to a specific block in another note, even without having a specific heading 🤯.
The linking functionality can also support content embeds for cases where you want to link something from another note while making it visible inline in the current note. The embed functionality allows the same heading and block level linking that I've already described so it's a great way to combine and remix ideas that work in multiple contexts.
Obsidian has template support, and a command palette that makes it easy to insert some templated content complete with dynamic sections for the date, time, current file name, etc.
I use a couple templates regularly. One of those is a generic "note" template that inserts a heading level 1 with the file name and the created date and time. I typically create a new file with
⌘+o, then open the command palette with
⌘+p, type "tem" to get me to the "Insert Template" command. Then I get to choose from templates I've created. I choose
Note Template and it gets inserted at the top of the note. This saves me the trouble of typing the note title more than once and gives me the timestamp.
I have different templates for different purposes. For example, I have one for articles that I intend to post to this site (I'm using it right now as I write this in Obsidian 😃), the one for generic notes that I've already mentioned, one for recipes, and a few others.
The interesting thing about Obsidian templates is that they aren't file-level templates like a lot of systems, they're more like advanced snippets that you can insert anywhere. That means templates aren't limited to a specific "type" of file, but can be applied anywhere and combined based on context within a file.
Obsidian is pretty powerful on its own, but you can customize it and add functionality with Obsidian plugins. I'll go into more details about some of the plugins I use and how I use them in future articles, but as of this writing, there are 621 community plugins. You can also write your own with TypeScript 🎉. I have yet to need my own, but as someone who likes to write code and tinker with things, it's nice to know I have that option.
Plugins allow me to keep track of my tasks, and manage larger projects all in the same place I keep my notes. This makes it possible to keep most of my information in a single app and I believe this is the thing that has given Obsidian staying power when most other apps fall into the background for me after a matter of months, if not weeks.
I've converted multiple co-workers to Obsidian and it has been instrumental in my ability to develop and maintain a steady writing habit. I'm going to keep using it and will write more deep-dive style articles in the future to get into more specifics.
If you're in need of a better note taking app and you like markdown, I highly recommend checking out Obsidian.