"Let life enchant you again." - Fernando Gros
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Blog // Technology
August 1, 2021

Becoming Obsessed With Obsidian

There are a lot of new note-taking apps. But for me, Obsidian stands out as the best.

Obsidian is a note-taking app. It’s also a lovely shade of dark green that I’ve used to paint my stairs and dining room cupboards. But right now, we’re talking about the app.

Obsidian is awesome, I love it, and now that it’s also available on iOS, it’s become part of my daily reading and writing routine.

But why so much enthusiasm for an app that takes notes? After all, note-taking has been a feature on pretty much every device since the dawn of the digital are.

Well, we’re in the midst of a note-taking renaissance. The internet has given us an infinite library. And the tools for content, from writing apps to publishing tools, have evolved at pace. But there’s a gap between the input and the output. We find ourselves wanting to corral the vast ocean of content into something more coherent.

Obsidian And The Note Taking Craze

This has created a huge demand for new note-taking apps. EverNote dominated this space for a long time. But now there’s Bear, Craft, Notion, and Roam Research, to name a few. Add to that, the ever-improving notes apps bundled with other software from Apple, Microsoft, and so on. And, of course, there’s Obsidian.

All of these let you write a note and do some basic organisation. That’s the easy bit.

But what if you make hundreds – or thousands – of notes? And what if you want to be able to find relationships between those notes, between things you wrote months or years apart? That’s where a new generation of note-taking apps comes in. They all provide different approaches to the problem of finding insights in a sea of ideas.

Notion and Roam Research

Notion, which I’ve written about before, is one powerful solution. You can format and tag your information to create relationships between notes. But Notion isn’t note-centric. Notion is built to make it easy to create customized databases. This makes Notion very flexible for wrangling all sorts of data. But it also makes Notion frustrating if you want to work primarily with notes for research. You can easily skip from one note to another if you’ve set up the right tags and relationships, but you can’t easily pull up a bunch of notes to look at them simultaneously. Notion is great for designing a garden but lousy for whipping up a salad.

Moreover, Notion is a cloud-based app. You have to be online to use it. And it’s often slow to boot up and even slow to use. Being cloud based with minimal security means your data isn’t fully secure.

An alternative is Roam Research. As the name implies, Roam was built as a research tool. It’s key feature is the ability to organise notes quickly into outlines – which is great for writing certain kinds of essays. The type you might need to get through college, for example.

But it’s a formulaic and prescriptive approach for more creative or complex writing tasks. And, like Notion, Roam will work offline. But Roam uses a proprietary markdown format, so if Roam were to go out of business, it might be hard to salvage your notes and the work you did to organize them. And since all your data is in Roam’s cloud, you have to rely on their security, which, like Notion, doesn’t include two-factor authentication or end-to-end encryption.

Why Obsidian Is Better

Obsidian works with notes in a standard text file format. You can create links directly between notes or tag them to create relationships. Obsidian also lets you see your notes in a cloud map. It’s fast, and the interface doesn’t get in your way or force you to work a certain way.

In fact, it’s very customizable. You can change the way it looks or apply different themes. And you can easily re-arrange the windows you see to make it as cluttered or as minimal as you want. And, importantly, Obsidian works offline and you control where your files live for maximum security.

As I started using Obsidian, I wondered why it felt so comfortable and familiar to use. Partly it was because of the speed, stability, and ease of use already considered. But there was something deeper. Obsidian seemed to work with a similar design philosophy to my favourite writing app, Scrivener.

Obsidian’s vault, full of standard text files, is like a Scrivener project. Where Scrivener has cards, Obsidian has panes. And Scrivener’s side-by-side mode even looks a little like Obsidian with multiple notes open.

Tools And Meta-Cognition

Finding a tool that does the job isn’t the question. It’s finding the right tool for you. And it’s finding the tool that suits the way you think.

Think about the way you think when you’re using an app. The meta-cognitive demands of the tool. How hard are you working just to figure out how to use important features? How much is the app getting in your way, either because its design or its suggestions for how you should work don’t suit your process?

This was part of the frustration with EverNote. You were constantly trying to find workaround for the EverNote way of doing things. Maybe it’s a confusing camera-setting menu, or a printer that just does weird printer things.

We put a mental burden on ourselves when we use something that doesn’t work in a way that makes sense to us.

With Notion, I could create an elaborate database full of notes. But I couldn’t get into any sort of flow while looking at notes as part of the writing process.

With Roam Research, I felt like I was in an undergraduate essay writing class impatiently staring out the window while a teaching associate droned on about creating a three-part structure with a clear introduction, summarizing conclusion, and lots of connecting sentences.

The Logic Of Writing And Research

Throughout this conversation, I’ve intentionally kept two categories of tools separate. There are tools for research (Obsidian) and tools for writing (Scrivener). You could expand it a little, since you’re able to read this thanks to WordPress, which plays a role in turning the words written in Scrivener into something you can read online. And there are also apps like Readwise for capturing highlights from books, articles, and essays, which creates some of the raw material for notes in Obsidian. But there’s still a distinction between research and writing.

Writing is a pragmatic, goal-oriented thing. When I sit down to write, it’s with a purpose, for an audience, and with a final product in mind. But research is asynchronous and open-ended. When I’m in that mode, I’m considering questions I don’t always know the answer to, reflecting on ideas that might come up again before they go anywhere. Or maybe they never go anywhere.

There are things you read here on my blog that I’ve been thinking about for years.

If you made a note of the interesting things you hear, maybe a few notes per book you read, together with highlights from articles and web pages you read, then it’s not hard to imagine your note collection growing to the tens of thousands in a few years.

That’s a vast trove of information that’s yours, already pre-selected for interest, before you ever have to resort to a search engine. Far more than a tool for creating content, a well-crafted library of notes is a sanctuary within which you can find the room to acquire wisdom and craft your unique perspective on life.

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