Obsidian

A reply to an acquaintance’s question about what Obsidian is doing for me.

Assumed Audience:

People interested in note-taking, writing, personal knowledge management,” and the use of tools in that space.

An acquaintance asked me, after I noted how I had found Obsidian quite productive and useful:

Help us understand how you use it; I’d love to hear how it’s streamlined things.

What follows is my (unedited!) reply.


So, two major points of relevant background knowledge:

  1. I’ve been doing all of my writing in a plain-text first” mode for… a decade? More? A long time. Alan Jacobs covers why you might want to do this (among many other things) in his Tending the Digital Commons essay from 2018; discovering he thought the same way about this I do was a small moment of joy in my life in the mid-2010s. I switched to doing all my note-taking in the same mode as my writing early in my time at seminary, because Evernote was increasingly frustrating me.

  2. I prefer those plain text files to just live on my computer, and syncing between devices using whatever cloud sync tool I’m currently using (in the past that was Dropbox, these days it’s just iCloud Drive). There are a few reasons for that:

    • I’m a working programmer, which means I have a lot of tools I can apply to working on plain text, and if they’re just files on disk, they’re immediately available to any tool.

    • If they’re wrapped up in a specific app, then I’m locked into” that app, and have to export” to try to get them into a different app if/when I move. I had that problem going from Evernote to literally anything else, and I’m still (very slowly, over the years) cleaning up the mess that made of the notes I took in the 2009 – 2014 era.

Obsidian works with that model, rather than against it. And it layers a couple really nice things on top of it:

  • Like many apps from the last ~half decade, it makes it trivial to link between notes; you just write [[title of other note]] and boom, there’s a link. (And if you rename the other note from within Obsidian, Obsidian will update all the references to it!) It can also list all the links from a given note or all the links to a given note.

  • It has a really handy graph” view that visualizes the relationships between your notes. This sounds like a gimmick, but in fact I’ve found it extremely useful to trace out connections between thoughts over time, build new ones, and develop ideas. (Think Zettelkasten, but with extra tools.)

  • It has support for templates: I use it for daily/weekly/monthly/quarterly/yearly work notes, and having templates I can use to generate those automatically saves a boatload of time.

  • It’s pretty fast and lightweight! This matters a ton to me: every bit of friction with my tools grates much more strongly that might seem reasonable to other folks who are less sensitive on this front.

  • It allows me to organize my notes however I want. Some tools demand a particular system (“only tags” or only folders” or must use a date” or others); Obsidian does not.

  • It has a very smart way to embed (part or all of) the content of one document in another. This is particularly handy for when you’re building up an essay or something like that. Although it doesn’t yet make it easy to export the resulting document, there are a few community plugins which do enable that.

  • That last point gets at the last thing: it has a nice plugin system, which allows users to extend the system in fairly arbitrary ways. There are plugins for calendars, task management, integrating third-party web tools like Excalidraw, completely changing the visual style of the app, pulling in your Kindle or ReadWise highlights, showing a map for geolocations included in your notes… and on and on and on.

Net: it lets me work the way I want, and then some.