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!)
In Obsidian, my current folder setup is an expanded PARA system from BASB:
- 0_Journal/Daily notes/Inbox
- 3_REFERENCE/RESEARCH (I fit my Zettelkast in here)
- 3a_Reference (notes/summaries on things I consume)
- 3b_Permanent (the thinking happens here)
- Permanent notes
- 3c_Library (PDFs, ebooks)
- 9_Attachments (Obsidian asks for a folder to put attachments in – this is the one for me)
I number them so they appear exactly in this order.
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!
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:
- creating “atomic notes” (i.e. figuring out the usefulness of “atomic” notes to me and how they can help me think)
- 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:
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.
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.