Note to Self, Week 2

Writing notes has become an extension of how I think, and an integral part of my workday and career. My digital hoarding of notes—and ongoing quest for better organization of them—is a big reason that I’m undertaking this 2023 Note to Self writing experiment.

Over the years, I’ve amassed many thousands of pages of notes and writing, and have tried (and failed) various strategies of making better use of them. I started exploring better organization methods and discovered the concept of personal knowledge management (PKM), and have widely experimented to find tools, formats, and a processes that work for me.

Because of this, I’ve explored dozens of tools and methods for taking notes over the years. For about a decade I poured my thoughts into Evernote. For many reasons (privacy concerns, vendor lock-in, UX) I’ve been searching for a better alternative for years (Notion, Google Keep, OneNote, Standard Notes, Logseq, Joplin, Roam, Remnote).

In early 2022, I settled on Obsidian, hopefully for good.

It’s got a lot of bells and whistles, but the single most important thing that it (and other modern PKM tools) have over simpler note taking programs is linking between notes. Specifically, wiki-style linking that’s as fast as typing, and doesn’t require a note to exist previously.

Once linking your thoughts is second-nature, it opens up the addictive practice of personal knowledge management.

Below is a little bit of what I’ve learned in this process, with the hope of making it simpler for others to find the right tools, and hopefully inspire others to start their own PKM that might help them. This is an evergreen post that I’ll update over time as my process and tools change.

Why write / take notes?

There are lots of articles out there that can tell you about the benefits of structured, regular writing. I’m a UX designer, product strategist, and developer that works in tech—you might call me a knowledge worker. For these types of roles, what you know and how you apply that info is how you advance in your career.

For me, it boils down to a few things:

  1. I’m just not very good at remembering details, terms, and names. There are lots of those in my work, so I need a way to connect them all. Practically, I just don’t think I could do my job without taking notes, and as I saw this year, I am significantly more stressed and disorganized when I don’t have a good tool to help me. Searching my notes is something I do almost daily. I honestly think it’s helped me be a better systems thinker.
  2. Writing helps me think and learn
  3. PKM helps me find connections amongst my work
  4. Having a quickly searchable reference of things I’ve learned over the years has been extremely beneficial (even before I started the PKM and linking process described below).

I’ve been surprised at what the practice of writing does for me. As a designer, I’m also a visual learner, but over the years I’ve learned that I need both in my process. Writing helps me learn new topics. Sketching and mind-mapping* help me make connections.

*It just so happens that Obsidian recently launched their Canvas feature to help me combine both of these efforts digitally. I haven’t used it much yet, but it looks promising.

How I take notes: my Zettelkasten process

I follow something like the zettelkasten method. The website linked has much better information than I can summarize here, so I’m going to quickly outline the process I’ve found works for me.

Note that I mention Obsidian-specific features here, but the tool doesn’t matter as much as the process. I did something very similar in other tools and simply found Obsidian to be the fastest/best for me for reasons I list at the end.

Daily notes

Daily notes are simple bulleted list outlines. I take them every day that I work, and they’re always open on my computer while working. I also take personal notes on non-work days, though I’m less religious about this.

Basically, I start all writing on a daily note (with a title that’s in a sortable date format, like 2023_01_02). All of these “daily” notes are in a Journals folder. Obsidian lets you configure this easily in settings, so it automatically opens your daily note.

I use a strict bulleted-list outliner method for this (so my designer brain doesn’t worry about formatting). Each new meeting or topic of my day gets a new section with indented bulleted lists underneath.

- Here's the markdown format for my notes
    - It's just a dash and then space to make a bullet
    - Then a hard return and a tab to get an indent
    - I need to write quickly and focus on what other people are saying
    - Which means my daily notes are often in shorthand
    - Bulleted lists and a simple outliner format help me do this

Anytime a person, project, or large topic comes up, I make a link to it, simply by typing two opening brackets and then the word, like this:

- An example of a note about [[Alex Turnwall]] where I'm referencing a [[topic]] or [[project]] that I'm working on.

Obsidian magically changes the words Alex Turnwall, topic, and project into new, blank notes with the given titles. If the note already exists, I can see it from the handy quick search menu that opens as soon as I type [[ in place.

In the moment of my daily notes, I don’t worry about that new note.

Importantly: I don’t worry about the organization of these and I use topics, tags, people, projects quite liberally. The whole idea is that important topics and links will emerge over time. Over-organizing at the beginning is counterproductive.

Pages (topics)

All of these start as the auto-generated back-links from by daily notes. Over time, these topic pages naturally grow. I highly recommend not actually adding too much content to these pages and not trying to organize them into folders (until you organically grow a list).

I try not to add too many notes to any of those groups—I still write most details in a daily note and make heavy use of links to ensure they all relate. That way, I can quickly see the list of backlinks or related links

A few types emerge in my notes naturally:

People

Coworkers, friends, authors. I don’t categorize these

Projects

The day-to-day work I’m engaged in at my corporate job. Previously clients and sub-projects for them. Also personal projects.

Topics

Groupings of information, loosely related to an idea. Some might call these tags or categories—I prefer not to make any distinction.

My examples include broad topics like: PKM, code, legal, grids, typography, accessibility; but also themes like: pitching a book, design process, career development, mentoring designers, climate change.

I’ve also got topics pages for things like blog ideas and reading list.

The point is to have a flat (no hierarchy) approach to creating connections.

Books / Reading

These are special, because I often copy/paste or transcribe words directly from them onto a note for sections that I want to remember. This way I have a record of them that is official and I know these words are not my own. I can easily link to them but also create links from quotes to other topics so I can see how they all relate.

Articles

These are longer-form pages that I start writing in my own words to summarize what I’ve learned. Some of them will be fleshed out enough to copy/paste onto this blog. Many will simply stay as my personal record of what I’ve synthesized on a subject.

This is really where I leave the sloppy outliner format behind and start using markdown to create hierarchy with headers.

Folders

For any sets of articles that are organized around a single topic, or when I need to create multiple pages of written material.

Right now, my organization looks like this:

  • PKM Personal
    • Archive
      • Folders {hodgepodge of past clients, projects, etc.}
    • Assets
    • Blog
    • Books
    • Information
    • Journals
    • Pages
    • Projects
      • Folders {ongoing project names}
    • Templates

Personal vs. work notes

First: I have an artificial constraint. I work for a company with very strict corporate data policies. While I can use Obsidian (in fact, this restriction lead me to Obsidian in the first place, and I’m glad it did), I have to keep my work notes limited to a local folder on my corporate computer, synced only with my corporate online drive. This means that I’m taking work notes in a totally separate work space (Obsidian calls them “vaults”). This has drawbacks, but it’s also freeing and focusing at the same time.

The sections below work the same for both my personal and corporate notes, but over time the organization has organically drifted.

Would I only have one if given the choice? Probably—I migrated all of my old consulting / freelance / personal business notes into my current personal vault, and I prefer the ease of linking between concepts. That said, there’s a ton (literally thousands) of cruft note entries that aren’t all that useful in perpetuity. So, I’ve actually come to appreciate the separation. It’s a toss up that doesn’t actually matter all that much if you use the tools the right way.

What if I have personal ideas during the work day? I simply take quick notes on my phone and dig in later. I could easily open up my personal vault on my corp machine, but that’s got some murky privacy and data ownership implications I’d rather not deal with.

Why PKM tools? Why Obsidian?

Obsidian itself doesn’t matter as much as the practice and process. That said, I prefer it for quick a few reasons at this point, and the “how” section below makes note of the methods in Obsidian.

Here’s my quick list of modern-PKM tool benefits

  • Linking (quick, wiki link style) between notes is the number one most important part of my PKM practice, which makes this more useful than simple daily note-taking
  • Uses markdown standard formats and local storage. This means longevity of your work, and interoperability.

Obsidian-specific benefits

  • Works very similarly on desktop and mobile
  • Very extensible and customizable (I like the CSS option)
  • Code/IDE-like interface, allowing multiple tabs, panes, windows that you can easily drag and drop between
  • Great, and growing, community devoted to developing plugins and more
  • Committed to open-formats like markdown
  • Bonus:
    • The Kanban plugin

Quick Obsidian setup:

  • One folder called “Personal PKM” that lives in my Google Drive
  • It’s automatically synced between my laptop, the cloud drive website
  • I can access on my phone (I use a workaround, but may invest in sync)
  • Start with “Journals” and “Pages” folders.
    • Journals for daily notes only
    • Pages for everything else, with no organization
    • Over time your personal organization will emerge—it’s easy to move stuff around (Obsidian will correct all links for you if you move within app)

Further Reading