In previous articles I had spoke about how the best way to have ideas was to write everything down and network your notes. Writing down your early hunches or half formed thoughts needs no more than a notepad and the right routine. But networking those thoughts to form a coherent and original idea needs a system to be stacked on top of that layer.
Fortunately, we live in an age where if you stumble upon a concept, options are not far behind. In this article I will take you through a system that I have put my faith and thoughts into. It is an essential part of the Creation Hub of my Life OS system and my personal tech stack. The last few articles I’ve posted on this blog, including this one, emerged from the connections discovered by using this application. I’m talking about Obsidian.
If you have not yet heard of it, then this article is perfect for you. If you have heard of it and are in the early stages of beginning your journey of connecting your dots, then this is the refresher guide you need. At the end of this article you will have the necessary information to create an interconnected extension of your thoughts and ideas
For advanced users, stay tuned, I’ll catch up to you soon.
Table of Contents
Obsidian is an application for capturing, consciously connecting and discovering relationships between your notes. It is part of a new breed of note-management systems that have cropped up in the last two years and gained traction during the pandemic.
Obsidian is the brainchild of Shida Li and Erica Xu who have worked together on Dynalist. The design and layout seems to have some influence from their previous experience
Often spoke about in the same line as Roam Research, Obsidian refers to themselves as a note-taking platform with “links as a first-class citizen”. I think of this as a tool that powers my connected-thoughts library. We will get into what that means later in this post. But before we get there, let’s shed some light on the basics of what Obsidian represents.
Networked Note taking ( TLDR edition)
If you would like to get deep into the mindset of networked note-taking before you start practicing it, head over here first. I’ll wait. But if you are already a believer and would like to jump on board, here’s what you need to remember.
Networked note-taking is the research-backed notion that ideas are born when they are recorded and allowed to freely interact in an interconnected environment.
Bi-directional linking is at the heart of networked note-taking. This mimics how the brain looks for random connections between stored memories. By treating each note as a standalone store of a thought then linking them to related thoughts builds an idea or a narrative.
We’ll see how this is implemented in Obsidian. Before that, let’s establish the foundation of the app that makes it such an attractive choice for your Personal Knowledge Management (PKM)
Firstly, Obsidian maintains all your notes as Markdown. Remember HTML? What do you think it stands for? Yes, that Markdown. The language at the base of the internet. It’s ubiquitous, lightweight, eternal (or will at least be around as long as the internet). This frees your notes from any compatibility issues for the foreseeable future
Secondly, Obsidian stores your notes in your PC or Mac. Locally. Not many people understand the implication. With the growth of so many web connected ecosystems (Google Workplaces), cloud storage and mobile-app based workflows our data is increasingly in the public forum. Would you want your original thoughts, notes and ideas to be in the same space as your amazon wishlist and social media?
The last one may not be as important but for personal use, Obsidian is free. I am all for fairly compensating the developer for providing something of value to me. But by making it free for individuals, Obsidian has removed a barrier for experimentation. It also does not need you to log in or sign up for anything. Which means, no unsolicited communication or sale of your personal information.
If that isn’t enough for you to hit that install button, I don’t know what is.
Hierarchy or lack thereof
With Networked Note-taking as its north star, text formatting takes a back seat. We trade up instead to the wonderful world of connecting your thoughts. Making connections necessarily means adopting a deliberately randomized environment where notes can freely talk to one another. Aiding this are the following:
- Links: Within a created vault, Links cut across all other classifications (like the ones described below). Linking is also the preferred “citizen” in Obsidian’s world. Meaning that it was designed to encourage you to create and discover links between notes more than any other feature. We will delve into the functional details later in this article
- Tags: If you want you may also club notes by adding tags using “#”. I’ve started using it to classify my notes by Context (#bookreview, #productivity, #nutrition, #travel etc.), Stage of Completion (#WIP, #stalled) and attaching Collaborator names
- Folders: The least relevant classification. Folders, in my opinion, exist mostly for people who haven’t gotten over that habit. I’ve currently divided the entirety of my notes into just 3 folders and numbered them so that they don’t resort to Alphabetical order. I have “Quick notes” which record standalone thoughts and ideas as they occur to me. “Articles” hold compiled notes which have evolved from the atomic notes from the earlier folder and have their thread connected. Many of the articles in this blog are born out of this process. Lastly, I maintain a “Media” folder to hold images and video that are embedded in any of the articles
Now that we’ve got the theory out of the way, let’s get practical
Before we begin
Before the first Note can be recorded, we have to install Obsidian, explore the interface and tweak it for our convenience. Here we go.
Are you ready? Good. Then head over here, choose the appropriate version for your OS (Windows/Mac/Linux) and download. Avoid looking at the screenshot on that page if you fear being overwhelmed. We’ll get there, step-by-step.
Once installation is over, the first step is to create a Vault. This is the master folder where all your notes will be saved to. Choose “Create new Vault” and point to where on your computer you’d like to store it
Done? Now, let’s get familiar with the interface.
At its basic, the home screen is quite uncluttered and contains 4 sections. Let us understand what they’re for
- Toolbar: At the extreme left are the basic tools that you can hover over to understand their function. Note the button to “open graph view”, this will grow more useful as you grow your personal notes library and so, will be discussed later
- Files and Folders: This is where you can view the notes you record and the folders we spoke about earlier. You also have access to buttons that will help you create new files/folders. Files can be dragged and dropped into any folder and folders can be collapsed using the toggle button
- Active document: This empty expanse is where you will start to build your first note (and then some)
- Links directory: At the right is where all the connections you made for the current document can be viewed. This is also where Obsidian can suggest un-linked mentions to this document that you may want to investigate.
Do not worry about the few extra buttons on the toolbars you see on my screenshot. They’re all optional and can be turned on from the settings. We will deal with them next.
Obsidian has its settings panel at the bottom-left (the familiar gear icon). Some options are turned on by default, a few nuggets are still optional but very useful in my opinion. I would recommend that you synchronize with me.
Head to the settings window, you’ll see that most options are slide buttons. I’m posting a screenshot of the main options I’ve turned on in the “Core” Settings section. This houses the sub-sections listed below
Hotkeys, About, Account, Third-Party Plugin
No changes suggested for now.
“About” is where your updates appear. Check-in weekly for some updates and new features to enhance your workflow
This is where you can customize the look and feel of Obsidian and make it your own. Take your pick 🙂
Obsidian: Level 1
We’re all set to begin. Keep your favorite beverage handy.
The simplest thing to do is to start writing about the first thing that comes to your mind. It could be your thoughts on the book you’re reading, a subject you’re researching, a fleeting thought, anything. Hit “Ctrl/Cmd + N” This launches a new note. Give it a title. Now start typing.
Edit Mode vs View Mode
The notes appear by default in “Edit Mode”, which exposes some of the raw notations that disappear if you choose “View Mode”.
“View mode” is where data can be presented to an external viewer. “View Mode” is not visible by default, hold down Ctrl/Cmd and Click on the note icon at the top right corner of the note window to open “View Mode” side-by-side as I’ve shown in the screenshot above. Note that you cannot change content on the “View Mode” pane.
“Edit Mode” appears messy in the beginning, with symbols like: #, [[ ]] and () in places you did not intend. Images and attachments do not appear on this mode.
My apologies to the OCD amongst you. This comes with the territory when the platform uses raw Markdown. But bear with the mental adjustment needed to absorb and accept this reality, it’ll be worth it.
Notice that you do not have finer controls over formatting. No line-spacing, alignment controls or font selection. Breathe freely and focus on making sense than making style. But it’s not completely devoid of controls, here are a few formatting tips to make your notes more functional
Headings and Blocks
Headings are useful for making connections and organizing long notes. Thanks to a setting we’ve enabled they also come with a small toggle button on the left side to collapse or expand the content below to keep your note-space clean.
Headings follow a simple notation of “#” followed by a space followed by the title of that heading. The number of “#” determine the hierarchy. For example
A block is a single paragraph, blockquote, image or attachment within the note. Like the one you’re reading now. It may be under the main note or within a heading or subheading. If you feel the need to reference a block, you have to use the Caret (^) symbol at the end of that block and give it a name. That will appear as a superscript in “Edit Mode”. Block names do not accept spaces between words.
You do not have to necessarily name each block. But if you name a critical block it will be easier to search and reference it later ^caretblock
Onwards to a few other goodies
Often, when you make record notes, you want words, phrases or entire blocks to stand out. Similar to Microsoft Word, you can select word(s) and:
Bold : Ctrl + B
Italicize : Ctrl + I
using familiar commands.
Not so similar to MS Word: “quotation marks” and (brackets) auto-close. Keep that in mind and it’ll speed up your typing process. Go ahead, try it out.
Blockquotes require you to know the notation “>” to start a quote and end it with an attribution “\-”
So the note-taking part is simple with very little distraction by way of formatting, but where’s all the connecting your thoughts goodness? Here we go.
Creating a connection
From your very first note, you’re going to have to get into the habit of creating standalone narratives and linking to terms or concepts within that note that need elaboration.
Here’s an example.
You cannot write comprehensively about the digestive system without talking about the stomach, the intestines and the gut-bacteria. But trying to define each of them and their associated functions in the same note will pull your narrative into multiple tangents. The modern way of approaching that is to build your narrative into a personal wiki.
When you use the terms that need further elaboration, you tag them as a link. Later you can go into that link and fill them with relevant content.
Which means that, in the above example, you write a standalone note about the digestive system but mark references to the “gut bacteria” as a link. Later you can follow the link about “gut bacteria”, which will open as an empty note and record your understanding about it.
How to Connect?
The way to link to a term (new or existing) is to use the double-square brackets [[ ]]. Think of it as the building block of a link. Using it will invoke the built in link search drop-down in Obsidian. The drop-down will help you link to an existing note within your vault. You may also input a new link name if you are creating it for the first time. Like this:
Additionally, instead of just linking to a block, heading or even a note, you can embed its contents onto the current note. You just prefix a “!” before your link command. Like this:
Obsidian allows you to create links between notes at 3 levels:
- you can link to an entire note (as shown above)
- a heading within a note (Using “#” within the link command)
- or a block within the heading (Using “^” in the link command).
At each stage you can opt to provide a plain link, which displays a preview when you hover over it. Or you can choose to embed it using the “!” prefix. This will attach the relevant excerpt into your current note.
Here is a side-by-side of how linking and embedding looks like in “Edit Mode” and how the note would appear in “View Mode”:
Level 1: Link or Embed the whole Note - [[The name of the note]]
Level 2: Link or Embed a Heading within the Note- [[The name of the note#Heading]]
Level 3: Link or Embed a Block within a Note- [[The name of the note^blockname]]
As you can see, all link commands are housed within the square brackets [[ ]]. This also tells you why you should name blocks using the caret symbol so as to link to it.
However, if you did not name a block and still want to link to it, no problem. The moment you invoke the caret ^ symbol within a link address, Obsidian will list all the blocks within said note and you can pick one. Obsidian will assign a random alphanumeric block name that will be automatically inserted within that note.
You can also link to external web-links by using “Ctrl + K” and pasting the URL into the normal brackets () that open. Clicking a web-link would open your default external browser.
What lies ahead
So now you know what Obsidian is and why you should consider using it to build your connected-thoughts library. You’re now familiar with the interface. You also know how to start taking your first note and making your first few connection.
At this stage, Obsidian is no longer a black box to you. You are equipped with the “80/20” resources needed to operate Obsidian. What you need now is the experience of using them. That’s a function of the routines you’ve set and where Obsidian features within them. If you want inspiration from my own tech stack you can refer to this article linked here.
Once you’ve become comfortable with the basic note-taking and linking, I invite you to the upcoming second part of this post. The next phase delves into graph view to visualize how your notes are connected, speeds up your workflow using keyboard shortcuts and teaches you how to leverage the staggering multi-pane view feature within Obsidian.
Check back in soon or sign in to my newsletter to be notified of the upcoming second part of this articles and much more. You can also choose to connect with me on Twitter to stay updated.
Update: You can further your knowledge of Obsidian in my second part of this article. Head over to: Obsidian: A Taste of Superpowers
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