How I use Obsidian to Manage My Note-taking Workflow

Rambling blog post alert: there isn’t a simple, straightforward way to tell the story of how I use Obsidian. This is going to be a bit of a winding post as I start to describe my setup and workflow. And there will be gaps because a) I don’t have time to write an omnibus description of this and b) you don’t want to read that anyway. I’ve been meaning to write this for awhile, but kept getting stuck by the scale of what was needed. So, forget that, here’s a first and incomplete blog post to get it started…

I migrated my 3,000+ notes from Apple Notes to Obsidian (following this howto) in December 2022, and spent some of the holiday break reorganizing the notes and learning about how Obsidian works. It took some time to figure out how to use the core features as well as to add plugins1 to make it work to support how I work.

Obsidian stores all notes as simple markdown files, so they’ll also work with other applications and will hopefully be pretty future-proof. As long as something can read text files, my notes will still work. Obsidian seems to have good longevity and adoption, but if it disappears there will be other ways to access my notes.

I invested hours into learning about using Obsidian with the Zettelkasten workflow. I now think of my notes more like a database than as a pile of pages. My Obsidian folder structure looks like this:

my Obsidian folder structure

Collections is the Zettelkasten library - in my case, I created “nouns” as folders for articles, committees, ideas, institutions, organizations, people, profiles, topics, and vendors (so far).

Periodic has folders for daily, weekly, or monthly notes. I only really use the daily notes, and so far mostly for adding tasks to track outside of existing notes. I was hoping the daily/weekly/monthly notes would be useful to support reflective practice, but that hasn’t happened yet…

Resources is where all 2,900 attachment files referenced by notes - images, pdfs, etc - are stored.

Templates holds the template files that I can use to create notes of different types.

Utility is the folder with various dataview-powered note pages that make up the Map canvas.

Work is where most of my notes go - for meetings, consultations, projects, etc. There are over 2,000 notes in that folder, and its various sub-folders.

After spending a few months working in Obsidian, I’ve realized that this is the first time that I didn’t feel like taking notes was some kind of futile exercise in digital hoarding. I now regularly refer to notes, I can find connections between topics, and - for the first time in forever - I don’t feel like I’m missing things.

I started by creating a note called “Dashboard”, and adding some dataview code to list pending tasks and daily notes.

As an aside, the dataview plugin is what really transformed how I use my notes. It’s kind of like a simple SQL query to embed tables and lists within notes. It works with the Tasks plugin, so you can list all pending tasks, or all recently completed tasks, from all notes in the vault. And, from the embedded dataview list of tasks, you can check them as completed without having to go to the original note.

That worked well, but then Obsidian was updated to add a new Canvas feature. Canvas is kind of like a digital whiteboard tool - a bit like Miro - where you can add items (including notes and web pages) and lay them out as needed. I was having flashbacks of creating complex Cyberdog and OpenDoc documents from back in the ’90s.

I added my Dashboard note as an item on a “Map” canvas. And then created a few more notes using dataview code to list different items:

Obsidian “map” canvas, with blocks for all of the types of information I need to keep handy

The live canvas works much better on a large 4K display, where all of the text is legible. From left to right, the blocks provide views for:

  • People (dataview table, listing the People folder’s notes)
  • Institutions (dataview list)
  • Topics (dataview list)
  • Collections, LTDT, TI, Committees, Vendors, Organizations
  • Topics for Meetings (manually edited, tracking items for future meetings)
  • Dashboard (tasks and daily notes)
  • Questions (anything from any note that includes Question::This is a question…)
  • Links (anything from any note that includes Link::https://link-goes-here…)
  • Articles (the most recent 50 notes in the Articles folder)
  • Ideas (the most recent 50 notes in the Ideas folder)

I keep the “Map” canvas pinned in a tab so it’s always handy, and it’s become my home base for work. I can see at a glance over 300 pieces of information.

As I’ve been using Obsidian, I’ve been adding wiki-style links between notes. And linking notes from meetings and projects to the Zettelkasten noun bucket notes like People, Institutions, Topics, etc. I’ll add placeholder notes for these if needed, which lets me link to them to start with, and then I’ll go back and fill in the stub later if I refer to it.

Obsidian has a “graph” view, visualizing notes as nodes, and links as edges or lines connecting the nodes. My graph view currently looks like this:

obsidian graph view, showing nodes and connections to notes in my vault

My graph doesn’t include all of my notes - especially older notes. Many are “orphans” without links to anything, so adding them to the graph would just add noise.

The live view displays the titles of each node when the cursor is over it, or you can set it to show all titles - but with this many nodes that just becomes a bunch of illegibly overlapping black text. I think the graph view is largely cosmetic - ooh! pretty pictures! - but it has given me some insight on which organizations I’m more actively using. EDUCAUSE has a large node because of how much we use the learning space articles. SCUP is smaller, because I’ve only been a member for a year now.

Another interesting insight - the light blue dots mostly along the top left are the People notes. And they are - of course - connected to each other and to the things we work on together.

Anyway. I’m really digging how I use Obsidian. That Map canvas is a game-changer for me, and I finally feel like my notes are actually useful for how I work.

  1. over 30 plugins so far - I think that’s too many, but they seem to work well so far ↩︎

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Last updated: September 16, 2023