Note-taking with Obsidian

Meet Obsidian, the best note-taking tool I've found in 25 years of looking.

Note-taking with Obsidian
Photo by Niklas Ohlrogge / Unsplash

I came across this Tweet:

Who else quit Notion / Trello etc and has a simple ass todo list? Here's mine. Markdown file on desktop.
          – Pat Walls, @thepatwalls

It conjured up my decades old obsession with "the best" note-taking system, which I often fear consumes more time than actually taking notes does. I too have oscillated fiercely between sophisticated tools and simple ones.

Every few years I launch into a system, usually by spending money as some sort of guilt or obligation-based hook. At one point it was Devonthink. It had both the elegant feature set, and the fanatical community, which was sure to mean I finally had the right tool. But that was many computers ago and a lot has changed. I wouldn't even know how to open my Devonthink database, let alone integrate it into my daily routine again.

More recently I took a very similar plunge, this time with Roam Research. On reflection, the similarities are remarkable. But Roam is also modern, web-based, graph-database-enabled, blah, blah, blah. And yes, it is fantastic. I've seen people use it to great effect.

But for me... there's a fraction too much friction. The very things that make it special - living in the browser; the dot point as the atomic structure; extensibility; powerful linking and markup features - seem to sap me of that crucial moment between idea and capture. I might be on the couch and an idea pops into my head that I need to remember for tomorrow's daily standup. Or I might stumble across a Tweet I want to reflect on while doing something else on the computer. Or I could be researching a new concept and deciding whether I should start taking notes or not. It's at that moment, that trying to find the right tab, having to login, waiting for the spinning wheel of Javascript doom, or trying to remember the syntax to tag a thought, that the moment can so easily pitter away and be lost.

So when one of the Twitter thread replies mentioned Obsidian, I felt the pang of intrigue. Obsidian is plain text file based and uses the oh-so-familiar Markdown syntax. I fear Markdown was only the archetype of an excellent concept, and may very soon be replaced by something less fragmented, like reStructuredText. Nonetheless, its core is good.

What gets me very excited about being plain text file based:

  • TextEditor9000, released in the year 2035, will still be able to read the files just fine.
  • Sync1000, released in the year 2050, will still be able to sync the files between neural cyborg instances.
  • RaspberryPiLiteZeroPointZero, the upcoming mini PC that will run on the hot air coming out of the user's mouth, will be able to read, edit, modify, copy, backup, store and transform the files.
  • When Obsidian gets bought out by Amazon and is turned into a WebDev tool for people who don't read books, my database will be safe.
  • When Markdown is indeed replaced by re-re-reStructuredText-final-this-time, converting between the two will be a sed one-liner.
  • In 10 years time when I have 10,000 pages in my database and decide I structured them wrong, re-jigging them will be a 10 line Perl script. Yes, Perl will still be around.
  • When Obsidian's Electron underpinnings inevitably start demanding 12GB of RAM and I only have 0.5 on the in-wall kitchen touchscreen, I can damn well use TextEdit to update the shopping list.

Am I ready to start another note-taking system journey? Well... I spent an hour researching what happens if I try to use Box to sync an Obsidian database. That research proved highly inconclusive, so I guess there's only one way to find out...

Six Months Later...

I've arrived. Obsidian is the basis of the note-taking system I've been searching for.

For six months I used the bare bones and just took notes. It's been a delight, and now I'm excited to explore the other features and automations that I knew lay waiting for me.

The first three plugins to take an esteemed position alongside my bare bones setup are Outline, Tags and Stars. Check out this vid to see them in action:

Letting Computers Do Computer Things

Having now taken the time to do things that don't scale, developing a workflow pattern that was bringing value even when done manually, it's time to add some shortcuts. The first two automations to join me in my note-taking nirvana are these iOS Shortcuts:

  1. Clip To Obsidian: a classic webclipper - create a new file based on a webpage.
  2. Take A Memo: dictate a one-liner, which is prepended to an existing file.

They are heavily inspired by this thread on the Obsidian forum. I chopped ideas from a few places to produce the result, but the main starting point for each is listed in a comment within the shortcut itself.

To understand how they work or what iOS Shortcuts is, check out this video. There's a lot of context, so feel free to use the navigation links in the description to jump to the relevant parts.

I love it when a plan comes together...