Obsidian(external link) is a cross-platform note-taking app. It was founded relatively recently – the first release in their Github repository(external link) dates to May 2020 – but works in a way that makes for high longevity. Things I like about it include:

  • Markdown formatting with YAML front-matter for metadata
  • Notes are stored directly in the filesystem (not in a database), so you can browse them freely in a file manager and edit them in any text editor you like
  • So many ways of organising and connecting notes (links, backlinks, tags, folders)
  • Core plugins to add a number of useful features (daily entries, templates, etc.)
  • Community plugins to add even more useful features (e.g. calendar views, data views)

There are some paid add-ons for it, like Sync (but you can also sync through iCloud or any other mechanism) and Publish (which lets you post parts of a vault publicly online).

In July 2021 they released a mobile app(external link); this will have addressed a lot of the complaints I’ve seen in their user forum about how it’s a little unwieldy to save vaults in Dropbox or whatever and edit your notes in 1Writer. I guess the actual note-editing wouldn’t be the unwieldy part, but the navigating between notes. Anyway, not a problem any more.

In October 2022, Obsidian came out of beta and released version 1.0(external link). This version introduces some nifty features, like tabs, as well as a new default theme that should look more native on different operating systems.

How I Use Obsidian

Obsidian is a really flexible tool. You can have multiple vaults for different purposes or projects, or dump everything all into the one vault. Then, each vault can be structured in pretty much any way you want – all notes in the root directory, or very hierarchical with loads of subfolders, or anything in between. Personally I have a single vault that I basically use as a “second brain”. In the root directory, I have a to-do list and several different folders:

  • Books: for notes on books I read – not just book reviews but also other types of notes, like facts I learned, or sometimes character lists to help me get through books with 252689696 named characters who have to be kept straight.
  • Daily: I create a new note every day to deposit thoughts and jot down anything of interest that happened. I dump links to things that look interesting and link to any wiki pages I’ve created or updated that day.
  • Languages: contains notes about languages I’m studying, as well as notes in those languages that I wrote for practice.
  • Other Chronological: for when I want to write a multi-paragraph journal entry on a single topic, which gets to be too much to keep within my daily entry.
  • Posts from Blog: where I draft longer posts to go on my blog – one day I’ll backfill all the blog entries that aren’t in here yet! 😛 One day…
  • Recipes: what it says on the tin.
  • Reference: for example, how to type every special character on a Mac.
  • Templates: includes one template, for my daily entries.
  • Wiki: like this personal wiki here on my site, but includes stub/draft and private wiki pages too.
  • Writing Notes: notes about the novel I’ve been working on forever, and any other projects I eventually put notes for here.

The five folders that get the most use are “Daily”, “Wiki”, “Other Chro­n­o­l­o­gi­cal”, “Posts from Blog” and “Writing Notes”, in that order.

For my daily notes, the filenames are simply the date, in yyyy-MM-dd order (like “2022-03-13.md”). In the “Other Chro­n­o­l­o­gi­cal” and “Posts from Blog” folders, as well as the “language practice” notes in my “Languages” subfolders, the filenames are a date followed by a title, like “2022-03-13 How I use Obsidian.md”. In every other folder, my filenames are just a title.

Most of my notes have tags defined in front matter. I use two-level tags, like technology/apps or languages/english, so my “Tags” pane can fit more of the top-level tags above the fold and I can just expand things out depending on what I’m looking for.

Plugins & Themes

I use a number of plugins to expand Obsidian’s functionality and make my life easier. It’s worth noting, I think, that if you’re just starting out with Ob­s­i­d­ian it’s really easy to overwhelm yourself and face indecision paralysis from all the ways you could use the many plugins on offer (especially Dataview). The main community plugins I have installed are:

  • Folder Note: This lets you create an “index page” for a folder.
  • Dataview: I use this on my index pages to create lists of every note with­in. It lets you do many more advanced things than just that, but there’s a learning curve, and I haven’t gone that far along it yet.
  • Calendar: Adds a calendar view for your daily notes.
  • Advanced Tables: Adds some features that are really helpful for working with tables, like auto-formatting and the ability to sort by columns.
  • A few plugins that were suggested by the theme I’ve installed…
    • Contextual Typography: Adds CSS classes to various elements so themes can style them better
    • Hider: Gives you a bunch of toggles so you can choose to hide parts of the UI. I’m currently hiding the title bar and the app ribbon.
    • Minimal Theme Settings: Settings for the theme I use, Minimal.
    • Style Settings: This plugin opens up more customisation options for the themes that have chosen to support it (including Minimal). Mainly I use it to make headers nice and big.

As mentioned, I currently have kepano’s Minimal theme(external link) installed to control the look of my Obsidian vault. It has a variety of colour schemes included, both light and dark, like Nord, Solarized or Gruvbox… but at the moment I just have it set to make the Obsidian app look more native on macOS.