How to Organise Your Notes in Obsidian

Over the years, I’ve used many note-taking apps.

1.Bear:

I really like Bear . For a long time, this was my note app of choice. You can chuck lots of different things at it, including web clips. Bear also stores your notes as Markdown, so there’s no fear of losing them. The notes don’t really play that well with other apps, and you can’t use it alongside Obsidian  because there’s no way I’ve been able to find to access Bear’s  notes from Obsidian.

2.Ulysses:

Ulysses comes bundled with Setapp so I’ve been using this more recently. It’s a good app for long form writing because of the way it handles folders.

3. Drafts:

Drafts is my go to app for ephemeral notes. Ephemeral notes are where I capture random ideas, shopping lists, words or phrases I might want to return to later and any other  moment to moment note taking needs. Of course Drafts has superpowers, including actions. Actions are very exciting. You can use them to send your text in many different directions: to a text message (SMS, into another app (e.g. Obsidian) an email and many more destinations. The nurd in me likes it when a button push makes magic happen like this. I can set these up in advance and then trigger them so anything I want to appear in another app will do so. I use these actions to populate WhatsApp messages, for example, and increasingly to capture notes I want to store inside Obsidian.

You can now dictate notes into Drafts, and Drafts will also transcribe audio files and extract text from PDFs.

I’ve used other note apps, including Apple Notes, but the three above have had staying power.

Mobile Working with Obsidian

These days, I’m a true Obsidian believer and this one app has transformed how I think about and make use of notes. I think of myself now as note-maker, not a note-taker. Although there is a mobile, I don’t really like the experience of writing inside it. So, I’ve use Drafts as my mobile app. I have an action set up to send the notes I make into Obsidian.

My Organisational System for Notes

Everyone will approach this differently I suspect, and there is definitively no one right or best way. I’m sharing my setup just to be helpful to anyone thinking about starting with Obsidian or re-designing their Vault. It might spark some ideas you can use yourself.

The Sidebar

Some people are sniffy about folders – and I get it. As I’ve worked on my own note-making, I’ve grown to appreciate how the principles of Zettlekasten make for a better note-making system. As a quick reminder, the key principles which should underpin a Zettlekasten are:

  • Atomicity: a note should be about a single topic or idea. I wasn’t sure about this to begin with, but as my linking has improved, I can see how this is very important.
  • Concept Oriented: a note should lean toward an idea or concept. Again, as my system has grown, I now do this automatically as I take notes. Anything that’s off topic in a note, I put double brackets around as a reminder to create a new Zettlekasten entry for that term.
  • Densely Linked: a note should link through to related ideas. Linking is something it takes a bit of time to get used to, but once you’ve habituated the practice, it does come naturally.
  • Associative Ontologies: This is where that resistance to folders comes from–how can you predict where your thoughts might lead in the future? If you cordon off your ideas too quickly, the links and patterns never have time to emerge. Your Zettlekasten will remain stunted at birth. I partially adhere to this practice, but with some wrinkles which I’ll explain below.
  • Evergreen Notes: People have different ways of marshalling their ideas. The basic flow in Zettlekasten is that you start somewhere with a single note about an idea or concept, and subsequently until you have everything you want to say on that idea or concept. I prefer the term ‘Cornerstone because I like the idea of my Zettlekasten as being built on solid foundations. I also feel ‘Evergreen’ feels too permanent. Ideas develop continuously, at least in my world.

While I’m at it, there’s another term which I use to help me decide whether something in the avalanche of incoming material (news, articles, websites, RSS feeds, Twitter, etc) is worthy of consideration. I distinguish here between something which might be interesting but is ultimately ephemera and another thing which might have staying power. This is when I throw a filter called Lasting Value at whatever it is I’m considering. I’ll say some more about this later.

My sidebar has evolved over time. I’ve experimented with lots of ways of doing this, but for now I’ve gone back to the Lyt Kit model. I’ve adapted the system a bit, but it follows the basic outline they suggest.

  1. +Inbox:

    +Inbox is the first location I use for triaging new notes in Obsidian. I use the +Inbox if I don’t immediately know what I want to do with the note.

  2. Bins:

    Bins hold items like images, PDFs and administrative data I might want to use across my notes. Obsidian is good at bi-directional linking, but it does need the source file to be available in the same vault (master folder).

  3. Journal:

    My journal notes go here. 

  4. Readwise:

    I use the Readwise app to scrape my Kindle and Apple Book notes out of my e-readers. The notes which arrive nicely pre-formatted live here.

  5. Sources:

    This is where I keep source material like articles and secondary texts, as well as notes written as part of writing groups. This may be an unnecessary feature and I might move these items into Bins..

  6. Spaces:

    This is my main folder for notes. My ideas, draft poems, jottings and writing notebooks go here. I have a sub-folder for all writing related notes. There are further sub-folders for study (I’m taking an MA at the moment), reference notes and feedback on my work.

  7. Universe:

    As a student, I’ve decided to share the notes I’m making about the books I’ve read. These appear in a Digital Garden called Poetry in PracticeObsidian has a publish feature which is what I have used for this site.

 

I found creating too many folders made it too difficult to ‘see’ all my notes, as some remained ‘fire-walled’ behind the folders. Of course this is why Andy Matuschak suggests using ontological hierarchies for your notes.

The problem is, without folders it can be difficult to find relevant notes, even with search. I like to group similar items together using prefixes, and then use an index to help tie items together in easy to find ways.

 

MOC (Maps of Content)

LYT Kit has heavily influenced my note-taking approach. I also like the idea of Digital Gardens.

Something about Garden doesn’t feel quite right to me though. I prefer to think of my place as Building Site. Staying with the building rather than gardening theme, I use terms like Cornerstone Note instead of Evergreen Note.

If you’re note sure what a Digital Garden is, I’ve got you covered. I’ve written an introduction called What is a Digital Garden?

Methodology

I have also designed a methodology for entry to my Personal Knowledge Management System which I call Information Flow.

This is a primary mitigation for the Collectors Fallacy, which has bedevilled my previous attempts at creating a Personal Knowledge Management System. 

To read some more about this approach and related ideas like Lasting Value and the Well-Lived Life, pay a visit to the Poetry in Practice (Digital Garden).

Not everything you discover is worth knowing.

What About You?

How do you organise your notes? Here are some questions to think about:

  1. Do you think it’s better to use date pre-fixes or does that just confuse things?
  2. Where do you stand on the use of folders?
  3. How do you decide whether a concept, idea, thought or feeling ‘deserves’ a note and what doesn’t?

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