Obsidian: A Taste of Superpowers

Expanding your horizon

Welcome to the second part of our journey into making Obsidian our connected thoughts library. If you are new to Obsidian and have stumbled in here first, I recommend you read through the basics. I will be making references to Obsidian note terms that should be common knowledge to people who have read the first article.

For those of you who have read through it already or have begun their early days on the platform, hi. This is where you expand your Obsidian skill-set.

In this article, we will focus on two things:
– make you familiar with the big-picture tools of Obsidian
– speed up your workflow

Like any good PKM tool, Obsidian has a Forest and Trees view. To ease you in gently, in the previous chapter, we focused on the trees; An individual note, and what you can do with it.

But as the number of notes and thoughts grow and connect with each other, an organic forest grows with it. It then becomes essential to tend to this forest and derive value from it.

Let’s tackle that forest now

Table of Contents

Big Picture Tools

Let us look at two of Obsidian’s most powerful features that set it apart from its peers. These are features that allow you to draw insights from collections of notes rather than just one note at a time.

Leveraging Graph View

Without doubt, this is my favorite feature. it is as informative as it is distracting, in a good way (I think). Graph view is an interactive visualization of your notes and the connections between them. In a past article, I had said this about graph view:

Obsidian knocks this one out of the park. Not only does it offer a fluid visualization of the inter-relation, it also allows finer control over the graph view. Allowing you to establish the direction of the link, restrict or expand the degree of that relationship, adding filters and a host of other tools to harvest your bounty of notes the way you see fit.

This is what it can look like.

Obsidian Graph View GIF

It visualizes your notes-collection as a hub and spoke model. Notes that have more connections appear as larger hubs.
You can click on a node to open the note or hold down the mouse button over a node and drag them around to see your collection of notes behave like a microscopic creature. This is the addictive part I was talking about. Go ahead, give it a try. You’re welcome.
You can hover over nodes to highlight the immediate connections. You can zoom in and out of the view using the scroll wheel of the mouse or the pinch gesture on your mouse-pad.
The more you record and connect, the more complex it becomes. Each person’s graph is unique, as it should be.

Global vs Local Graph view

Global Graph vs Local Graph

The graph view is accessible at two levels, Local and Global. The Local Graph view visualizes the connections to the current note you are working on. The Global Graph view maps your entire collection of notes.
You can access the Local Graph from within a note by clicking on the menu button (3 dots) found at the top right corner of the Note Pane and selecting “Open Local Graph”.
The button for the Global Graph is found in the left toolbar. Hover over it until a callout appears labeled “Open graph view”

Drilling down

Whether you choose the Local or Global option, the graph view offers you finer controls over your visualization. Let us talk about what they do and more importantly, how you can use them to derive value.
When you open the graph view, at the top left corner you will see a floating window that presents tools to work with. At the time of this article Obsidian version 0.9.11 offers three main controls, Filters, Display and Forces. They are dropdown menus that hide the relevant controls under them. This is what they do:

Filters

Filters allows you to play with the breadth and depth of the relationships between notes, making it one of the most powerful of the tools to generate insights within your collection.
The Filters option displays a few different options within Local and Global views. We’ll discuss all of them

Obsidian Graph Tools
Filter Options between local and global graphs
Common Filters

Search
At the top of the menu is “Search” which obviously allows you to filter down to notes that contain the search term.
This has many other use cases too, a powerful example is to use it to search for any missed mentions within notes than can be shepherded into the cluster using backlinks. Another suggestion would be to create easy copy-paste Content Maps.
Standard Toggles
Common toggles allow you to choose to show or hide Tags, Attachments and Existing Files only.
That last option mentioned above excludes empty or placeholder notes that are generated when you create a backlink to a note that does not exist yet or has no content in it.

Global Graph Extras

Orphans
This toggle points to standalone notes that do not have any connections to the rest of your collection.
This presents a good opportunity to review them. Decide if they have a connection that needs to be made manually through backlinks or are they the beginning of a new node where related thoughts and ideas are yet to be recorded.

Local Graph Extras

Depth
This is a slider control that lets you decide what level of separation from your current note you want to see.
If I am working on a tight article on a narrow subject then I would not go beyond the first level of connection, but if I am doing free form research or fishing for ideas I will slide over to the 2nd, 3rd or even 4th level of connections to see if there are distantly related topics that spark my brain.
Incoming and Outgoing Links
These toggles let you view the nature of connection between the related notes. Combine this with the “Arrows” toggle under Display settings and the relationship becomes clearer.
One example of where this is useful is in establishing topics where there is a linear flow of logic or a cause-effect relationship between concepts.
Neighbor Links
This can be turned on to reveal if the disparate topics revealed within the Local Graph are interlinked amongst themselves.

Display

As the name suggests, this is a collection of tools that allows you to control how the visualization looks.
This includes the “Arrows” toggle which displays the direction in which the notes are linked. If they are bi-directional links then you see a double-headed arrow.
“Text Fade Threshold” allows you control over text visibility when you zoom in or out
“Node size” and “Link thickness” sliders are obvious labels and needs only minor experimentation before you decide what suits your needs

Forces

Forces is a collection of tools that allows you to control how the visualization behaves as an object with physical properties.
It assigns gravity and elasticity to the Nodes and Links. While it is fun to play with, I have not yet been able to find a functional use for them.
If you have any thoughts on how to use them productively please tweet at me.

Split-view goodness

AKA The Note Multiplexer

When the fundamental philosophy of a tool is to be able to link your thoughts and notes, then you should also be able to view those links in the context of a coherent whole. Enter, Split-view.

Obsidian Split view
Obsidian Split view demo

Sure, you’ve always had the ability to open multiple Word documents or browser tabs and arrange them side by side for reference and comparison. But Obsidian is truly next-level at this. To quote their official webpage:

Panes in Obsidian can be split infinitely and resized

I’m not interested in putting the “split infinitely” claim to the test. But I can tell you this, If you have a large screen monitor, you’re in for a treat.

Friendly warning: Considering how many entry points Obsidian has built into their split-view feature, it is easily possible to go overboard and overwhelm yourself with this feature.

So I am going to take this opportunity to only introduce the feature and its key possibilities. Let’s start with understanding what it is and how do we invoke it

Split that pane

Split-view, as the name suggests, is the ability to open multiple notes at once. Obsidian achieves this, not by opening multiple instances of the application (as Word or Excel does) nor as tabs in Chrome, but by splitting the window into as many note/graph views as you choose to. You can activate this by:

  • Choosing “Split vertically” or “Split horizontally” from the dropdown list on the top right corner (Three stacked dots) then opening a new note or graph within it
  • Right click on a [[backlink]] and choose to “Open in new pane”
  • Hover over a note in Graph view and Ctrl+click on it
  • Create a keyboard shortcut for it (check section below)

All opened windows are freely resizable. If you are operating a 13 or 15 inch laptop monitor, you could have about 4 notes/views open without overwhelming the standard UI menus and comprehension. But once you cross into standalone monitor territory 21, 24 inch and beyond, then you’re restricted mostly by your ability to comprehend.

Uses for this feature

So what can you use this feature for?

Academics, coders and researchers probably do not need me to answer this question. But for others, the casual note collectors or prosumer thought librarians, here are some pointers.

  • Having split view is useful for dealing with Content Maps. This meta-note warrants a separate post that tackles more advanced concepts and uses of Obsidian. But for now, content maps can be understood as a homepage for connected notes that relate to a larger subject.
  • Opening a blank note alongside a split-view of its local graph lets you see the connections that you are creating pop out in real-time. This allows you to keep track of links to existing notes vs links to blank notes which need to be addressed by you
  • Split view is useful when you are trying to get a refresher onto a dormant subject or need to setup a content mood-board for inspiration.
  • Split view is invaluable for research. Whether you are generating new content or commenting on existing content, nothing beats having the related notes open for quick access to ^blocks that can be linked and >quotes that can be attributed to add depth and validation to your content.
  • In scenarios where you have to evaluate or compare and contrast to pieces of notes, then having them open side-by-side in a unified interface makes for a distraction free environment to work.

Graph view and Split view are two of the marquee features of Obsidian that let you address your notes collectively. The other thing you would need to know to level up your Obsidian game relate to workflow optimization. Let’s look into those

Workflow Boosters

Once you have made Obsidian a part of your everyday routine then you could benefit from learning a few tips and tricks that make your time within it, joyful. Here are a few to get you started

Useful Shortcuts

While there are a plethora of keyboard shortcuts within Obsidian and more being added, I would suggest you ease into it. Here are a few key ones that lets you have a fluid workflow while working on your note-making without leaving the keyboard.

Function Shortcut
Jump to previous Note
Ctrl + Alt + <--
Jump to next Note
Ctrl + Alt + -->
Graph View
Ctrl + G
New Note Launcher
Ctrl + N
Opens Quick Switcher ( File Browser)
Ctrl + O
Edit Mode/ View Mode Toggle
Ctrl + E

Create your own

Once you synthesize your own workflow then you will want more of your common practices to be sped up through keyboard shortcuts. Not all of them have one yet. Fortunately, Obsidian has opened up the process of assigning one and made it very easy. Here’s what you do:

Obsidian keyboard shortcuts
  1. Open “Settings” (The cog icon at the bottom left of the screen)
  2. Select “Hotkeys”
  3. Scroll through the options or type in a few key terms surrounding the task you want to lookup/assign a shortcut to
  4. If the task urns up with the comment “blank” it means that there isn’t one already and you can assign one for it
  5. Click on the adjacent button and choose the key combo you’d like to assign for it
  6. Please ensure that it does not conflict/duplicate with an existing shortcut

I’m listing a few of the key shortcuts I’ve created that suit my workflow. Feel free to implement them.

Function Shortcut
Fold all headings
Alt + F
Unfold all headings
Alt + O
Split Vertically
Ctrl + /
Split Horizontally
Ctrl + \
Open Local Graph
Ctrl+Shift+G

Workspaces

Workspaces is another neat feature within Obsidian. I can safely assume that anyone who’s reading this article wouldn’t be unfamiliar with the need to set their laptop screen at eye-level showing you the active emails you’re responding to, while a Notepad and pen are near arm’s length and the iPad is propped up on the stand nearby, displaying your calendar.

Think of it as “my way of arranging my work tools” within the application.

Interested? Here’s what you do:

Obsidian Workspaces
Obsidian Workspaces demo
  1. Open settings (Shortcut: Ctrl + ,)
  2. Select “Core Plugins”
  3. Scroll down to the slider marked “Workspaces” (currently the last option within Core plugins) and turn it on
  4. Exit Settings
  5. The left toolbar has a new button labeled “Manage workspaces”

Now you can arrange the different views and windows that you are working on, just the way you like them, and save them as a custom workspace. Refer to the [[Split-view]] section above to see what you can do.

The next time you need to replicate that arrangement, you click on “manage workspaces” and choose the preloaded view. Voila!

A Few Examples

Here are a few of my favorite styles that i have saved

Research Mode

For brainstorming

Research Workspace

Clean Writer

For distraction free content creation

Clean Writer workspace

Editor Mode

For reviewing an article

Editor Mode

A/B Mode

To compare and contrast two versions of the same/similar article

A/B Compare and Contrast

This is a good stage to stop and reflect. You’ve covered a lot of ground, time to add a star to your Obsidian uniform. Congrats!

Good Practices

Before we close this functional tutorial of Obsidian, I’d like to remind you that this is still a tool. It is as useful as your practice of it. To that end, I make two suggestions.

Record regularly

Volume is the secret to success. I’ve mentioned before that ideas are not made in a vacuum. As your notes grow in number and connections, Obsidian becomes more useful to you. Soon it becomes an indispensable part of your Life OS

Review religiously

Scan for “unlinked mentions”. As your collection of notes grow, you may have made inadvertent yet meaningful mentions to your exisiting notes which you have not yet connected or explored. But Obsdian’s algorithm lists them under unlinked mentions. Scheduling a scan of “unlinked mentions” ensures that you stay on top of this and do not miss that “Aha” moment.

Use “random note” feature, the dice icon on the left toolbar. That generates notes at random. This encourages you to revisit forgotten ideas and sparks serendipitous discovery.

Obsidian Unlinked Mentions
Unlinked Mentions and Random Notes

So, now I turn this over to you. It’s action time. Pick your favorite topic; A book you liked, a movie that stayed with you, a thought germinating in the back of your mind, and make magic!

Tweet a screenshot of your graph and let me know how it’s coming along.

Disclosure: This article may contain affiliate links. Which means that, at no cost to you, I get a small commission if you choose to buy through my links. Please go through my Disclaimer notes for more info

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