my note-taking system (september 2021)

This is a response I wrote to someone who was curious about my note-taking system in Obsidian. The setup is the result of 12 months of testing, wearing a variety of different note-taking philosophies and feeling my way to the setup that you see below.

This is not an “intro to note-taking” so apologies for the minimal explanation and heavy jargon. There’s so much to explain and I welcome you to search the web for primers. Maybe one day I’ll come around and write a more accessible version of this. There is however a list of abbreviations and some sources are at the bottom, for further study.

My system is still not complete as it’s missing the “Publish” part – I have a beta for it but it still needs to be put to the test. Hoping to experiment with a variety of things while taking Write of Passage 7… (shoutout 📣 to my fellow students and mentors of this cohort!)

SETUP

In Obsidian, my current folder setup is an expanded PARA system from BASB:

  • 0_Journal/Daily notes/Inbox
  • 1_PROJECTS
  • 2_AREA
  • 3_REFERENCE/RESEARCH (I fit my Zettelkast in here)
    • 3a_Reference (notes/summaries on things I consume)
    • 3b_Permanent (the thinking happens here)
      • MOCs
      • Permanent notes
    • 3c_Library (PDFs, ebooks)
  • 4_ARCHIVE
  • 9_Attachments (Obsidian asks for a folder to put attachments in – this is the one for me)
Screen cap of my folders in Obsidian. Ignore the top folders with 00s – this is a work in progress!

I number them so they appear exactly in this order.

CAPTURE

By far the best advice out there is to “take notes while you read” or listen to podcasts or watch movies – any time you’re consuming information. Whenever I come across/have a random interesting thought while doing something else, the key for me is to capture it quickly into a “fleeting” note (a zettelkasten concept):

  • Quick capture at my desk: My Daily note in “0_Journal”.
    • Example: I was watching the Disney documentary series “The Imagineering Story” and came across the concept of Levels of Detail. The note will be formatted something like: “On Levels of Detail: Disney designs their theme parks to four levels of detail. This is a recipe for designing environments that people love, and should be implemented in urban planning somehow.”
  • Super-quick capture when reading: Take a screen cap, manually highlight what I liked. These get deleted once I enter them into Obsidian and I love the decluttering aspect of this.
  • Super-quick capture when listening: Using Drafts when I’m on the go and taking notes on my phone. I’ll review Draft notes and bring them into Obsidian manually, then delete. I still find Obsidian for Mobile a bit clunky and unreliable but I hope to use it in the future once it stabilizes.

NB. This part may change once I try Readwise!

Processing/Digesting

It’s important for me to know that I’m cultivating my own ideas once things end up in 3b_Permanent Notes. However, I was struggling with:

  1. creating “atomic notes” (i.e. figuring out the usefulness of “atomic” notes to me and how they can help me think)
  2. organizing strings of thoughts to create serendipitous connections worthy of tweeting/building an article around

So far I’ve solved 1. with using MOCs as a “workbench” (heard first via Bryan Jenks). Instead of stressing out about “what is an atomic note”, I create master notes about big themes that I seem to always gravitate around, and I write entries in these MOCs anytime I have an interesting thought that relates to them. Screenshot of some of my MOCs so far:

My MOCs – they slowly grow over time as I collect more thoughts on that topic and theme

I use parts of the Zettelkasten method to write my MOC notes, which is to take the interesting thought/concept you found in the wild, and go through all your notes and see where it fits in your collection, and write a paragraph about that in said notes. 

  • For example, the concept of Levels of Detail relates to “human senses” and also “cities”, and probably could also go into “mastery”.

Dumping all my half-formed thoughts into big theme notes like this really helped me a lot, as I am now spending less time thinking about the admin of my notes, and more time just writing into these buckets which I know are (more or less) the right place for them.

I create a new MOC when I feel that what I want to write about doesn’t fit in any of the big themes that already exist. I’ve intentionally made this a high-friction activity as I want to keep the list of MOCs as compact as possible.

Publishing

As for solving for 2., I haven’t actually started doing this much (that’s why I’m enrolled in WoP!!) but here’s the theory:

  • I see tweets/articles as a form of “atomic note”. When I see a good idea start to crystallize in the MOCs that is worth transforming into a piece, I will create a new note with the title of the idea, cut/paste pre-written thoughts about this from the various MOCs, create link-backs, and start massaging the content for flow, different mediums/audiences etc. 
  • This process is very similar to Nick’s MOC process. I like how Nick just lets MOCs be this hot mess of ideas, slowly graduating ideas from MOCs to separate notes as they need more space/start to take shape. 

That’s it – this is the state of my “process” 😃 I’ve leaned towards designing a process that is organic, low overhead/admin, is not forced, and this works quite well for my chaotic/perfectionist mind.

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