How to take notes more seriously with Obsidian

Introduction

Note-taking is an activity that gets practiced a lot, but not a lot of practices are active. In my experience, people take notes so that they don’t forget, or because these are interesting, or because they may have some short-term use for it (schools and stuff). While valid, these uses, in my opinion, are rather limiting. I believe that note-taking is an important method to facilitate insights. Having a method to make incremental progress towards insights is a competitive advantage to students and professionals alike.

People take notes primarily to close open loops

The first reason note-taking, at least in its full potential, often goes underutilized is that we often think of it as a simple act of externalization to reduce cognitive load. When we jot down our ideas, thoughts, information during meetings, interesting paragraphs we read from books, the goal is often to keep us from forgetting or to get things off our mind. In this regard, it is to simply close open loops, to borrow a term from Getting Things Done (GTD). While this act of externalization is indeed fundamental, even to the pursuit of insights, simply externalizing thoughts and leaving them there isn’t sufficient for creativity to blossom.

Another reason it’s difficult to develop good note-taking practice is that we don’t get immediate negative feedback when we do it badly. This also implies that it requires almost a religious attitude during the initial phase where one adopts a new paradigm of note-taking because the result is not immediately visible.

It’s not note-taking, it is developing evergreen notes

Treating note-taking as a method to accumulate insights is a paradigm shift. It isn’t about getting things off our mind, it is about cooking the ideas that would eventually be used, in some way, to create new, useful ideas.

There are many prominent processes, such as Zettelkasten, that align with that paradigm shift. However, there is a core practice underlying all of them, and that is the practice of producing evergreen notes.

Evergreen notes are atomic, concept-oriented, densely-linked notes that make up the standardized units of the production of insights. They are evergreen because they are supposed to last forever, not in terms of content, but of their potentiality. An evergreen note written years ago may combine with a new evergreen note to create a new evergreen note whose idea ends up transforming the way we view both of its constituents.

I wrote about why an evergreen note needs to be atomic, concept-oriented and densely-linked:

Obsidian helps you develop evergreen notes

Obsidian is a local knowledge base that works on top of markdown files. Obsidian makes itself suitable for developing evergreen notes by enabling the ability to link notes and note content together. This is essential because Evergreen notes should be densely linked to other notes. It’s something that benefits tremendously from technology. Atomicity and concept orientation is much more about how you write, rather than the tool that you write in.

Obsidian is a second brain, for you, forever

Obsidian offers two levels of linking, note-level linking, and block-level linking. Since evergreen notes are ideally atomic, most linking would happen on the note level. However, a portion of an atomic idea can also be relevant to the idea we’re currently wondering about, so there’s where block-level linking is useful. It is important not to take the analogy too far. Atomicity of a note is more about being a useful abstraction, rather than a property of indivisibility.

Capture thoughts throughout the day and turn them into evergreen notes

We have established that writing evergreen notes is important. It is perhaps the most useful level of abstraction one can hope to generate. We should aim at this ideal state, but also take into account the facts that we have a lot of fleeting thoughts throughout the day, and that all thoughts are equal in terms of their potential contributions to evergreen notes.

Therefore, if you only write evergreen notes in a dedicated block of time, then most of our thoughts throughout the day will perish. As a result, both the quality and quantity of evergreen notes produced daily are severely limited. The solution is to capture those fleeting thoughts and to have a daily habit to refactor these thoughts into evergreen notes. We need to produce and refine lower-level abstractions to turn them into high-level abstractions.

Put it another way, a note does not have to be evergreen on its first construction, we can refactor or elaborate a fleeting note into one or more multiple evergreen notes later. This is also true for software development work, where you write code so that the software is functional first and then attempt to refactor it to adhere to good patterns. Of course, if you are already familiar with the patterns then applying them initially is also a good choice, although I doubt there are explicit design patterns in the note-taking world (yet).

Obsidian helps you capture thoughts easily

Obsidian has a Daily Note plugin that automatically creates a note with the current date if it doesn’t already exist. In my workflow, daily notes are where my capturing activity takes place. Regardless of wether, it is an idea, a meeting note, a thought, an observation, it will go into the daily note first, and only then it is refactored to individual notes (i.e curation).

My daily note

The same plugin also allows you to template your daily notes, so you can set goals/objectives in the template to remind yourself every day. For example, I have 3 areas of focus that I try to take evergreen notes on every day. It is a way to instantiate long-term initiatives into your life.


Obsidian’s plugin ecosystem is an exciting place, there you can also find Obsidian Calendar Plugin, which is also part of my workflow to navigate between daily notes quickly and easily.

Navigate between notes easily using Calendar

Conclusion

I have tried to delineate how producing evergreen notes can facilitate insights, and how Obsidian facilitates the practice of producing evergreen notes. I write this blog post in hopes that I can contribute to the popularization of Obsidian (because I love it), and also contribute to the paradigm shift of note-taking, or note-creation, to put it more appropriately. Writing evergreen notes has provided me with what I think is a great competitive advantage, and I hope that it can do the same for you.

Further Resources

References

[1] Jones, Gary. (2003). Testing Two Cognitive Theories of Insight. Journal of experimental psychology. Learning, memory, and cognition. 29. 1017-27. 10.1037/0278-7393.29.5.1017.

[2] Bilalic, M., M. Graf, N. Vaci and Amory H. Danek. “The temporal dynamics of insight problem solving – restructuring might not always be sudden.” Thinking & Reasoning (2019): 1-37.

Seeing What Others Don’t: The Remarkable Ways We Gain Insights – Gary Klein

How to Take Smart Notes: One Simple Technique to Boost Writing, Learning and Thinking – for Students, Academics and Nonfiction Book Writers – S. Ahrens

Author: minhthanh3145

To be able, at any moment, to sacrifice what you are, for what you will become.

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