How a Little Organisation Helps Build a Useful System
Over the years, I’ve used many note taking apps.
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.
Drafts is my go to app for ephemeral notes. Ephemeral notes are where I capture random ideas, shopping lists, and any moment to moment note taking needs. Of course Drafts has superpowers, including actions. 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.
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. Although there is a mobile app in beta, I don’t really like the experience of writing inside it. So, I’ve configured iA Writer as my mobile app that communicates with Obsidian.
It took me longer than it should have to work out how to make iAWriter play nicely with Obsidian. Having cracked this, I point iA Writer at my Obsidian Vault and now my notes sync directly with 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.
Some people who use a Zettlekasten get sniffy about folders – and I get it. As I’ve worked on my own Zettlekasten, I’ve grown to appreciate how the principles of Zettlekasten make for a better note taking system. As a quick reminder, the key principles which should underpin a Zettlekasten are:
I’m open to other ways of organising notes, so if you’ve got suggestions, leave them in the comments below.
- 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 began with quite a few folders:
- Daily Notes:
This is where I kept my Daily Notes. I designed a template which is pre-populated with headings, prompts and other items I use to ensure I have a systematic structure to my daily note. I enjoy using templates as they allow me to off load thinking from the past to the appear in the future. They are a bit like algorithms as Cortex Futura discuss in this article.
This is where I kept a summary of all my Active Goals and separate notes for each one. I dragged these into my Daily Note using my Daily Note template so I am reminded of my goals each day as I write my thoughts in my Daily Note.
Just like my Active Goals I also keep a record of my My Active Intentions. I pull these into my Daily Notes using the Daily Note in the same way as for my Active Goals. I used to store these in this folder.
I keep track of anything I want to follow over time using the Tracker Plugin. This folder is where I kept the trackers.
- Morning Pages:
I got the idea of Morning Pages from an article by Josh Win who mentioned it. The original idea comes from Julia Cameron, who coined the concept in her book The Artist’s Way (affiliate link). Basically it is a written download of whatever is in your head and I have found this practice to be an excellent way to quieten my mind, extracting anything that’s troubling me, or any ideas that have bubbled up. I use another template to populate my Morning Page each day. I sift through the Morning Page later, because I call it up in my Daily Note template. I still keep my Morning Pages in separate folder (see below).
One of my interests is poetry and there is a branch of poetry writing that draws inspiration from works of art — Ekphrastic poetry. I use an app called DailyArt which dishes up a fresh work of art each day. I transfer any I like by downloading the picture and put them in this folder, linking them to a separate note detailing why I saved it and the thoughts or feelings it generated. These days I store the pictures outside of the Zettlekasten and link to them from Keep It (my long term repository).
The urge to write better poems was one reason I created this whole note taking setup. This folder is where I stored any themes I was using in my writing, along with a Vocabulary and my Poetry Writing Algorithm, and one or two other Routines designed to help improve my creativity.
Routines are a bit like Templates except rather than provide pre-baked fields, Routines are procedural. They remind me how I should do something. I have Routines for a variety of different procedures and I kept them in this folder.
I’ve mentioned that I use the Tracker Plugin to help me visualise consistency is graphs. I created the graphs using code and keep the relevant snippets here. Snippets had their own folder too.
All the Templates I’ve created lived here.
All the graphs created using the Tracker Plugin lived here.
- Writing Notes Inbox:
This is one of two places I kept notes that are not either Daily Notes, Morning Pages or Poetry. I’m slowly migrating away from this approach and am putting all my fresh notes straight into my Zettlekasten (see below). I set up the InBox to begin with because I wasn’t sure how I would use my Zettlekasten. This was a place I could ‘park’ anything I wasn’t sure about.
Finally, the Zettlekasten. I’ve got into a rhythm with my Zettlekasten now and all I create all additional notes with the Zettlekasten Plugin, tweaked so the file names are the way I want them, using a prefix DD-MMM-YYYY-Hh-Mm as I’m a Brit. I add a title after the date, which enables me to recall what the note was about. There is only one folder inside my Zettlekasten, which is where I keep my emergent Cornerstone Notes (my term for Evergreen Notes). content. The rest of my notes are available in date order and are of course also searchable.
Here’s a picture of my current sidebar. As you can see there are far fewer folders. To help stay organised I use prefixes and Blueprint.
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.
LYT Kit has heavily influenced my approach, though my tidy mindedness prefers that I stay with the building rather than gardening theme. I use terms like Cornerstone Note instead of Evergreen Note and Blueprints instead of Maps of Content (MOC) which LYT Kit suggest.
I organise my notes by name rather than by date, and this means prefixes enable me to group similar items together. Some examples of prefixes include:
- BP- for Blueprints
- BC- for notes to be published in my Digital Garden or as I prefer to think of it my Building Site.
- TP- for Templates
- RT- for Routines
- TW-for ideas that need further work
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.
Not everything you discover is worth knowing.
What About You?
How do you organise your notes? Here are some questions to think about:
- Do you think it’s better to use date pre-fixes or does that just confuse things?
- Where do you stand on the use of folders?
- How do you decide whether a concept, idea, thought or feeling ‘deserves’ a note and what doesn’t?