{ claus.conrad }

Obsidian

https://obsidian.md/

  • Obsidian is a personal knowledge base and note-taking software application that operates on Markdown files. It allows users to make internal links for notes and then to visualize the connections as a graph. It is designed to help users organize and structure their thoughts and knowledge in a flexible, non-linear way. The software is free for personal use, with commercial licenses available for pay.

  • Unlike Dendron, Obsidian does not depend on frontmatter keys that always have to exist in Markdown files for the app to work correctly.

Alternatives

Resources

Publishing

  • Quartz 4
    • Quartz is a fast, batteries-included static-site generator that transforms Markdown content into fully functional websites.

    • It’s a free, open-source alternative to Obsidian Publish and looks much more mature than my home-grown publishing scripts. I have not tried it yet, but would like. If you use it with Obsidian, please consider supporting the company behind it in other ways.
  • Remark-Obsidian
    • Remark (JavaScript Markdown parser) plugin to transform wikilinks, callouts and highlighted text (as implemented by Obsidian)
  • Digital Garden
  • Easiest way to share a note on Obsidian - Obsius Publish plugin

Plugins

  • Make.md - not tried yet, but sounds interesting
  • Excalidraw drawings in Obsidian - just started, want to learn more about it (there are lots of videos to watch, which are linked to from the README)

Articles

FAQ

RegEx for finding tags

(^|\s)(#[a-zA-Z0-9/]+)
  1. Press [[ as usual.
  2. Search for the note as usual.
  3. Instead of pressing Enter to select the note, press Tab.
  4. Enter the “|” character (vertical line, or “pipe”).
    1. (On a Danish keyboard, in Windows, hold AltGr and press the key left of Backspace).
  5. Enter the desired link title.
  6. Now press Enter.

Embed a complete note in another note

  1. Make a link to the other note as usual.
  2. Type a “!” (exclamation mark) immediately in front of the link. There must not be any spaces between the exclamation mark and the link.

Embed all text under a specific heading from another note

  1. Create a link to the other note as usual.
  2. Put the cursor at the end of the link, before ]].
  3. Press “^” (caret) character. (On a Danish keyboard, on Windows, that is Shift+Umlaut followed by a space. The “umlaut” character is to the left of Enter.)
  4. Select the desired heading or block from the dropdown.
  5. Press Enter.
  6. In order to embed this heading/block, insert a “!” (exclamation mark) right in front of the link.

Note-making with Obsidian for total newbies

Consider following along by starting Obsidian and placing these notes in a window next to it.

Fun fact: Did you know the Obsidian team has office cats?

Local-first

  • In Obsidian, notes are kept in a “vault”. That is just a fancy name for “a folder on your hard drive”.
    • Each note is its own file (but you don’t need to open the folder and organize those files, that’s what Obsidian does - it’s an “Explorer” for editing notes).
  • There is no proprietary file format, no database and no dependency on any vendor.
    • If Obsidian (the software) ceased to being developed or Obsidian (the company) went bankrupt, your notes would still be yours, and you could simply switch to a similar tool. Such tools exist today (for example, Logseq) and new ones (both open-source and commercial) are being developed all the time, because the file format is simple and not patented. Your notes will be usable decades from now.
  • Since notes are stored locally, they are available offline, and no cloud provider can ever:
    • have server issues,
    • put limits on the number of notes you can create, or
    • decide to charge you/increase your monthly subscription price.
  • Don’t limit yourself to using your notes on only one device. Folders can be synced using e.g. OneDrive, Google Drive, iCloud or Obsidian Sync). Obsidian is available for download on Windows, macOS, Linux, Android and iOS.
  • The app itself is free. Obsidian Sync is not (running the servers is a recurring cost for the company). You can avoid that cost by using one of the other mentioned sync services.

Markdown

  • The reason the file format cannot be patented and your notes will be usable for the foreseeable future is because the notes are basically “plain” text files (such as those created by Notepad).
  • However, since plain text cannot contain any formatting (bullet points, bold, italic, links, headings, etc.), Obsidian uses “Markdown”, a human-friendly formatting similar to, but simpler than, HTML.
    • Fun fact: Markdown can also used to enter formatted comments on Reddit and GitHub.
  • Every time you are forced to move the hand from your keyboard to your mouse, a small context switch happens. The longer you can keep both of your hands on the keyboard, the easier it is to keep the thoughts flowing. Therefore it is a good idea to memorize a few basic formatting commands of Markdown. There are some others, but these are all I use on a daily basis:
    • Headings: Put one or more hashtags, followed by a space, at the start of a line. Try it now!
      • # is equal to H1 in HTML, i.e. the largest heading, ## is equal to H2 and so on, up to six hashtags (######) for the smallest heading.
    • To make text bold, write ** (two asterisks) before and after the text.
    • For italic, put * (one asterisk) or _ (one underscore) before and after the text. (Use the same before and after the text, asterisks and underscores cannot be mixed and matched.)
    • To make a bulleted list, start the line with - (a dash and a space).
    • To make a ordered list, start the line with 1. (a number, a dot and a space).
    • Try to write a note with some of these formattings, then find the file on your computer and right-click to open it with Notepad or something similar. I hope you find that it is pretty readable even without Obsidian. This longevity of my notes is one of my important factors for using Obsidian/Markdown.
  • If you are used to switching between keyboard and mouse, this takes some getting used to, but soon you will find it to be faster than having to click buttons just to bold a word.
    • What I like about Markdown is that it does not stop your flow, or thinking process. When you are writing a note and you think “The following two words are really important to remember, I should bold them”, you just write the two asterisks, the two words, two more asterisks, and continue writing. No going back to select the words, clicking a button, placing the cursor at the end of the line and re-starting your thought process. It begins to feel natural after a while.
    • But you if really want to, Obsidian does not force you to write Markdown manually. You can also highlight some words and:
      • press a shortcut to format them (often the same as in Word and other apps, e.g. Ctrl+B for bold), or
      • select the formatting option from the command palette.
  • You might have noticed that Obsidian does not have a traditional menu or many icons, unlike traditional apps (e.g. Microsoft Office). That is intentional to keep you undistracted and focused on writing your notes. However, the equivalent of those menus/icons is the command palette. It is a list of all possible commands which can be displayed by pressing Ctrl+P, and that is the only shortcut you really need to do anything in Obsidian. From the command palette, you can e.g. apply formatting (such as “bold” or “heading 1”), create a new note, open a new tab, export to PDF or anything else.
  • To select a command, type the first few characters of what you want to achieve, e.g. “bold”, “new”, etc. - either write as many characters as needed for only 1 command to remain, or when you see the desired command, press Up/Down to select it. Then press Enter to execute the selected command.
  • You can find the whole Markdown syntax here or in this cheatsheet, but don’t overwhelm yourself by trying to memorize them, just reference them when needed.
    • Consider printing a cheatsheet and putting it on your desk for a few weeks.
    • Alternatively, if you don’t remember how some formatting can be written using Markdown, don’t fret - just use the command palette to apply it to the text after writing it.
      • If you then want to learn how to do it faster another time, you can switch to source mode, look at the special characters that were inserted, and afterwards switch back to the regular “live preview” mode.
      • The way to switch to source mode and back to live preview mode is, of course, by typing those italic phrases into the command palette.
  • By the way, your notes are saved automatically, I don’t know why there even is a “Save file” command in the command palette.

Linking (and note organization)

  • Notes are more valuable when you can find them easily later on - maybe decades later. Obsidian has several concepts to help you find notes:
    • Folders
      • I list this option first, but not because I recommend using folders in Obsidian, simply because it is the most well-known concept for organizing digital information - and making these points first allows me to highlight the advantages of the other concepts more easily.
      • Folders are the most traditional way of organizing anything on a computer, they existed even before the internet. Their major disadvantage is that any item can only be in one folder (unless you want to duplicate information). Now did I put that smoothie recipe in the folder Food or Health or Janni…?
      • For example, yesterday I cleaned up some of the bookmarks I kept in the browser. They are easily accessible with a click, always in reach - and still I had not used some of them for years. Now if I had had the option of giving the bookmarks a long, descriptive title, and the option of searching through them easily, I might have used them. It’s not that I did not visit those pages for years, but without that functionality, more often than not I used a search engine or the address bar to get back to the page, instead of the bookmark I made for my future self.
      • Summarizing: Folders make it easy to store information, but hard to retrieve it.
    • Links
      • Our brain/memory doesn’t keep information only in one place, it links different thoughts with each other (and the ADHD brain is probably especially good at that).
      • This is the preferred way for many Obsidian users to find notes again, by linking them to related notes - and thankfully Obsidian makes it really easy to create links between notes.
      • Just type [[ (two square brackets) to open a dropdown and then type (part of) the (other) notes title, similar to how the command palette works. Press Enter to insert a link to the selected note.
      • If you have existing notes “Recipes I want to try” and another note “Improving my health”, and you now create a note called “Strawberry/Cucumber smoothie recipe from Janni”, you can create a link from both of the first-mentioned to the recipe and easily find it again, regardless of whether you focus on recipes or health in the future.
      • The note you link to does not have to exist yet.
        • This is a powerful way of creating “future” notes.
        • For example, if this is the first recipe that you receive from Janni, you could write at the top or bottom of the recipe note “Gotta try this, [[Janni]] swears it tastes great”.
        • Because of the square brackets, Obsidian converted the text to a link to a note “Janni”, which does not exist yet.
          • You can see whether a note exists or not by the different link colors - non-existing notes have a darker link.
        • Now when you click “Janni” for the first time, the note is created and opened, and it is of course empty. Try clicking it now.
      • The power of “Backlinks”
        • Now you could write some more notes here about Janni, such as her phone number, what you last talked about, etc. - but the note is valuable even without any text in it.
        • Try typing “Show backlinks” into the command palette. Obsidian opens a sidebar to the right with a list of all the notes that link to “Janni”.
        • Now whenever you think “I should really try that recipe Janni gave me… hm, what was it?” - just open her note and display the backlinks. (Maybe you want to have the right sidebar open all the time.)
        • Seemingly unrelated notes, such as the smoothie recipe, will be right next to the garden hose and the psychologist that Janni also recommended.
        • Linking is very natural for our brain, which connects seemingly unrelated things all the time, e.g. via a person (or place, or time, etc.).
    • Tags
      • I haven’t used tags extensively yet, so I can’t say much about their usefulness.
      • But they are very similar to links, except there is no note to connect things (unlike the note about Janni, where you could write something).
      • To add a tag, type a hashtag and the text - like on Twitter.
      • Click the tag to display a list of all notes that use it.
    • Bookmarks
      • This is a pretty new concept, which I haven’t tried yet at all.
      • You can bookmark a note (obviously) and “show bookmarks” to show them in a sidebar. (If you hadn’t guessed, “show bookmarks” is what you would type into the command palette to do just that. Sorry, won’t mention it again.)
      • Apparently you can also “bookmark” search results and other stuff.
    • Quick switcher
      • Press Ctrl+O (as in “open”) to display the “quick switcher”.
      • Type a few characters of a few words that you believe to be in the title of the note you want to open.
      • Press Up/Down to select a note and Enter to open it.
    • Graph
      • Use “Open graph view” to view all notes in a graph and see connections (created by links) between them.
    • Search
      • The final way to find files is to… “search all files”.
      • Place the cursor in the search box (that appears when you execute the command) to see some possible options (such as, “all the keywords I type need to be found under the same heading, not just in the same note”).

Tips for organizing notes

  • Start simple by putting all notes in the root folder of the vault.
  • In the beginning, I would keep the Files list visible in the left sidebar.
    • I found that it helped me to get an overview of all notes when I experimented with linking between them.
    • When you get the hang of linking and naming notes, there should not be a need to display the Files anymore, and you can close it to focus more on the actual notes.
  • I like giving my notes descriptive titles, because it allows me to use the “quick switcher” to open them quickly. That is of course a personal preference.
  • First after things become a bit unwieldy (because you created many notes), I would draw inspiration from methods like Linking your Thinking or The PARA Method. Avoid procrastinating over this, premature optimization is a waste of time. The best system of organizing your notes is the one you slowly build for yourself, based on constant little improvements.
  • Your notes are a tool to help you think and remember information. They don’t need to be perfect or publishable or properly formatted or understandable by anybody else.
  • Your notes should be your notes. Avoid cluttering them by pasting whole websites/articles into your notes.
    • If you find an interesting article on the web that you want to remember - great! Consider:
      • Pasting a link to it into your notes. (If it is useful, it will probably still be at its URL when you need it.)
      • Adding a sentence about the aha-moment that you experienced when you read the article, that way when you stumble upon the link later, you can more easily decide if you want to read it again.
      • Summarizing the most important points of the article in your own words helps you remember the content.
      • You did read the article you are “bookmarking” in your notes, right? If not - consider using Pocket, or just paste the link into a note titled “Want to read”, and sync your Obsidian notes to your phone, which is where you are most likely to be when you actually have time to read the article).

Plugins

  • I don’t want to make this note even longer than it already is, but we have just scratched the top of the iceberg of workflows that can be achieved using Obsidian. Much of its functionality is not part of the program itself, but achievable by installing some of the approximately 950 community plugins, which are free and which you can browse through in the section Community plugins of the “Settings” dialog.
  • There are lots of YouTube videos of people showcasing their favorite plugins.
  • Most of the community plugins are created by a single person scratching their own itch (or a small team), so it can happen that less popular plugins stop being updated and eventually stop working. You can sort plugins by “install count” and avoid relying on less-used plugins to prevent that.
  • If a plugin is useful to you, consider checking if it has a ❤️ icon next to it in the list of installed plugins, you can click that to donate a coffee (i.e. a few dollars or whatever it is worth it to you) to the plugin developer.
  • Note that some plugins can make the app quite sluggish. If you experience slowness, try disabling plugins one by one to find the culprit.