Replied to Weeknote - 25 October 2020 :: Off the Top :: ( )
I’m finding with what Obsidian offers I’m able to really get a lot of crosswalks between ideas, sources, authors / creators, and structures that I just didn’t have access to before. Already it feels a bit like I have a James Burke long transfer system in the works that is part of the structure of his Connections series.

Thank you for mentioning the James Burke and Connections in your week notes Thomas! And using it as a metaphor for your Obsidian usage. Some timely serendipity while working out some notes related to theories of change in my own Obsidian vault.
Btw, I’ve been documenting some of my Obsidian experiences in the past week or so, the first of which describes my pkm system, and how Obsidian supports parts of it.

In part 1 I explained how Obsidian is a tool I use in support of the methods I employ that make up my system to process incoming information as well as track and do my work.

I started using Obsidian to make better notes (Notions as I call them), and link them together where I see relevance. This is a networked type of use. For my daily work and for logging that daily activity I use a folder structure, which is a hierarchical approach. My personal knowledge management system is based on the interplay of those networked and hierarchical perspectives, which allows emergent insights and putting those insights to action or keep them until they can be used.

Folder hierarchy

To kick-off my more detailed description of using Obsidian, I will start with that hierarchical perspective: the folder structure. I will also explain how I make daily and week logs, as well as what I call ‘month maps’

Obsidian allows you to use multiple ‘Vaults’. A vault is a folder tree structure that is perceived as a single collection of notes by Obsidian. The tool tracks connections between only those mark down files in that folder tree. I currently have only a single vault, as I want to be able to link between notes from all my areas of activity. I can imagine you might use separate vaults if one of them is meant to be published, or for instance if one is a team effort. As there is no such division for me, I am building a personal system, I have a single vault.

Within that vault I have a folder structure that currently looks like this:

Main folder structue in my Obsidian vault

That list of main folders is a mix of folders for each of the areas I’m active in, some folders that I use to manage my own work, or that I have/had as Notebook in Evernote to keep their contents apart from other things, and the folders that contain the notes and notions that led me to start using Obsidian.

Areas (a component in the GTD method) are things like my company (4TGL), family and health, home, my voluntary board positions, and websites/automation. Within each area there are projects, specific things I’m working on. Some of the projects may have subfolders for projects taking place within the context of a client assignment for instance.

Examples of folders for managing my work are 1GTD12WY which contains things related to my longer term goals and 3 month planning cycle (combining elements from Getting Things Done and the 12 Week Year methods), and the 2Daglogs folder which contains day and week logs, and month maps.

Evernote notebooks like travel related material (bookings, itineraries) en digital tickler files (also part of the GTD method), and Network (where I keep contextual notes about people, as LinkedIn etc e.g. stores nothing about how you met someone) also have their own top level folder at the moment.

The actual folders for notes are Notes (for notes made from information coming in) and 0GardenofForkingPaths (why that title?), which contains my Notions, the conceptual Zettelkasten-style notes. Those two folders internally take a networked perspective and have no subfolders.
Some folder names start with a number to ensure them being shown at the top end of the list. One folder Z-Templates contains, well, templates, and is called Z so it is always last. Templates can be copied into new notes for those notes where you want to keep a specific structure.

Whenever I start a new project I run an Applescript that after asking me the project name, the area it belongs to, the description and project tag, creates the right folders and in them the right notes I need to start a project (albeit a client project, an internal one, or something else). That script used to create those structure, tasks and notes for me in Evernote and Things, but now creates them in the filesystem within my Obsidian folder. Each project e.g. has a ‘main’ note stating the projects planned results, to which goal(s) it contributes, main stakeholders, budget and rough timeline.

Day and week logs, month maps

Within the folder 2Daglogs I keep day logs, week logs, and month maps. Day logs are ordered in monthly folders, all weeks in a year are in one folder, as are all month maps.

Folder structure that keeps day/week/month files

The first thing I do in the morning, is start the Day log. I do this by clicking the ‘tomorrow’ link in the day log of the day before (after glancing at what I did yesterday). Then in the new note I hit the keyboard short cut /dnow which (through Alfred) adds date tags (like #2020- #2020-10 #2020-1025) and links to the day logs of yesterday and the (as yet not existing) one for tomorrow. See the screenshot below. During the day I add activities to the log as I’m doing them. I also mention thoughts or concerns, how I think the day goes etc. I link/mention the notes corresponding to activities, e.g. things I wrote down in a project meeting. I started keeping day logs last April, and they are useful to help me see on days that seem unfocused what I actually did do, even if it felt I didn’t do much. That helps spot patterns as well.

Example of a day log with the links to other days shown, beneath a bullet list of things I mention during the day

Week logs are notes that collate the day logs of a week. (Since I restarted doing weekly reviews, a week log is accompanied with a note that contains review notes.) Collating is done by transcluding 7 day logs into one note. I add links to the previous and next week on top. I use the week logs in my weekly review on Friday, to write hours in my timesheets at the end of the week, and to write my Week Notes blogpost on Sunday.

A week log is a list of transcluded day logs. Above in edit mode, below in preview mode

Monthmaps are something I make at the start of each month, they are a mindmap of the coming month, hence the name (the Dutch word for month, ‘maand’ sounds a bit like the English mind in mindmap). It’s a habit I started 4 years ago. I list every area (see folder structure above), and within those areas I list every project where I see I might hit a snag, where I have concerns or urgencies are likely to pop up, or where activities are in store I know I usually try to evade or postpone. I add easy actions I can think of that will help me deal with such barriers. It’s a way to confront underlying hesitations or anxieties and prevent negative consequences from them. I refer to it during the week, to see if barriers indeed popped up, or what I had planned to deal with them when they do. I go through it during weekly reviews as well.

In the next part I’ll take a look at how I’ve replaced my todo-list app Things with simple markdown files in Obsidian.

I’ve been using Obsidian a little over 100 days now. So, with over three months of daily use it’s good to review the experience. I will do this in some detail, and it will span several blogposts. To explain both the evolution over time, as well as how I currently work with Obsidian in practice in a more detailed way, as Frank (rightly!) requested.

My system leads the use of tools

First off, a key point to make. I am using a system for myself to plan and do my work, maintain lots of things in parallel, and keep notes. That system consists of several interlocking methods, and those methods are supported by various tools. What I describe in my review of 100 days of using Obsidian, is not about Obsidian’s functionality per se, but more about how the functionality and affordances of Obsidian fit with my system and the methods in that system. With a better fit with my system and methods, I can reduce friction in my methods, and reduce the number of tools I need to use in support of those methods. At the same time, the use of a new tool like Obsidian influences the practical application of methods, it creates a different daily practice. Those shifts are of interest as well.

What I started with

The image below shows you how my overall system of work and taking in information looks. It’s a personal knowledge management system, that both takes care of the networked nature of making sense of new information and evolving interests, as well as the more hierarchical nature of working on projects and executing tasks. Both start with my general notion of where I want to be headed (‘goals’).

I used different tools for different parts of that image:

  • Excel (orange) for: listing goals (3-10 yrs out), the 3 month planning cycle I keep (along the lines of ’12 week year’), the habits I want to maintain or introduce, and tracking of those habits and project progress/fulfillment.
  • Things (red) for: areas of my life I’m active in, projects within those areas, and tasks in those projects.
  • WordPress (darkblue) for: daily logs (which I started keeping end of April this year, on an internal WP instance), week logs (internal draft blogposting), and of course for public blogging itself.
  • Evernote (blue) for: a list of all my current interests/favourite topics, all types of note taking, related to my work/projects and my information diet.
  • Other tools (grey) come into play for feedreading (Readkit), blocking time (Nextcloud calendar in Thunderbird), book reading (Kindle, Nova2), keeping references (Zotero since June, Evernote before that)

While evaluating my system, I tried Obsidian

In the spring I had started evaluating my system. I found I was not keeping up several parts of it, had fallen out of practice with a number of elements, and had changed some of my practices without adapting the flow in my tools. It had therefore suffered in its usefulness. Being at home because of the pandemic allowed me to allocate some time to take a better look, and to start testing some changes. On the tool side of that evaluation, I want to get rid of Evernote (as a silo and single point of failure) since some years.

One change in my system I was experimenting with, was keeping better atomic notes about the core concepts and key elements in how I work. Late last year I thought a bit about atomic notes, i.e. cards with individual snippets, and bringing those collections of snippets and the process of curating them and threading them into e.g. a blogpost or a line of argumentation. In January I came across Zettelkasten and took a closer look, in the spring I read a book about Zettelkasten and knew I wanted to adopt parts of it into my system (linking notes first and foremost, and storing references in a better way). That’s when I started using Zotero to keep references, and stopped doing that in Evernote (Zotero can take website snapshots and store them locally, something I used Evernote for a lot. On top of it if you give Zotero a reference it will find and store a PDF of a scientific article, very useful to read more deeply).

I started to keep atomic notes, sometimes called ‘evergreen notes’ which I to myself now call Notions, capturing concepts from my work (so not work related notes, but conceptual notes) first in both WordPress and Evernote simultaneously. WordPress (a local instance on my laptop, not online) because I already used it for day logs since April, and it allows relatively easy linking, and Evernote because it is much easier to keep notes there than WP, but linking in Evernote is much harder. I also played with some note taking tools, and that’s when I came across Obsidian. It immediately felt comfortable to use it.

How after 100 days Obsidian has covered my system

After over 100 days of Obsidian my use of it has expanded to include a much larger part of my system. Along the way it made my use within that system of Things, Evernote and almost Excel obsolete. It also means I sharpened my system and practice of using it again. This is how the tool use within my system, with the use of Obsidian in green, now looks

Obsidian now contains some 1200 mark down files. 500 are Notions, atomic notes almost exclusively about my own concepts and other core concepts in my work, in my own words. Mostly taken from my own blogposts, reports, and presentations over the years. The other 700 are some 115 day log / week log / month maps, about 100 proto-notions and notes that contain conceptual info to keep from other sources, and some 500 work and project related notes from conversations and work in progress. This sounds as a very quantitative take, and it is. I have in the past months definitely focused on the volume of ‘production’, to ensure I could quickly experience whether the tool helped me as intended. I think that monitoring the pace of production, which I’ve done in the past months, will no longer be relevant by the end of this year. I used the quantity as a lead indicator basically, but have been on the lookout for the lag indicators: is building a collection of linked notes leading to new connections, to more easily creating output like blogposts and presentations, having concepts concisely worded at hand in conversations to re-use? And it did. One very important thing, central to the Zettelkasten method, I haven’t really tried yet however, which is to use the current collection as a thinking tool. Because I was more focused on creating notions first.

On Obsidian as a tool

There are four things in Obsidian that are to me key affordances:

  1. it is a viewer/editor, a fancy viewer/editor, on top of plain markdown text files on my laptop. It builds its own local database to keep track of links between notes. Whatever happens to Obsidian, my data is always available.It being ‘just’ a viewer is important because Obsidian is not open source and won’t be. There is a potential open source alternative, Foam, but that tool is not yet developed enough.
  2. being ‘just’ an editor means using regular text files, it feels like coming full circle, as I have for the most part been note taking in simple text files since the late ’80s. Textfiles always had my preference, as they’re fast and easy to create, but it needed a way to connect them, add tags etc., and that was always the sticking point. It means text files are available outside of Obsidian. This allows me to access and manipulate notes from outside Obsidian without issue, and I do (e.g. on mobile, but also with other software on my laptop such as Tinderbox that I used for the images in this post).
  3. it makes linking between notes (or future links) as simple as writing their filenames, which is supported by forward search while you’re typing.
  4. it shows graphs of your note network, which to me is useful especially for 2 steps around a note you’re working on.

I use Obsidian as simple as possible; I do not use plugins that are supposed to help you create notes (e.g. the existing Zettelkasten and Day log plugin), because they make assumptions about how to create notes (how to name them, which links to create in them). I created my own workflow for creating notes to avoid functionality lock-in in Obsidian: day logs are created manually by keyboard shortcuts using Alfred (previously TextExpander), as are the timestamps I use to create unique file names for notes.

Timeline of three months of Obsidian use

Below is a timeline of steps taken in the past months, which gives you an impression of how my use of Obsidian in support of my system has evolved.

November 2019 I discuss the concept of cards (i.e. atomic notes), curation and writing output

January 2020 I first looked at the Zettelkasten method and some tools suggested for it. I mention the value of linking notes (possible in Evernote, but high friction to do)

May 2020, read the book about Zettelkasten by Sönke Ahrens, adopted Zotero as a consequence.

7 July started with deliberately making Zettelkasten style atomic notes in WordPres en Evernote in parallel, to move away from collecting as dumping stuff in your back yard. Atomic notes only concerning my concepts in my work.

8 July started using Obsidian, after having just started creating ‘evergreen’ notes

15 July having made 35 atomic notes, I make a new association between two of them for the first time.

28 July I’m at 140 conceptual notes. I named the collection Garden of the Forking Paths. I switched my digital tickler files (a part of the GTD method) from Evernote to Obsidian. I had stopped using them, but now it felt normal again to use them. The post I wrote about this, was made from atomic notes I already had made beforehand.

5 August I find I haven’t used WordPress anymore for my day logs ever since starting with Obsidian, and that I also added week logs (an automatic collation of day logs), and monthmaps (a mindmap at the start of the month listing key upcoming things and potential barriers). My Evernote use dropped to 4 notes in 4 weeks, whereas it was 47 the 4 weeks before it. After almost a month of Obsidian, I am getting more convinced that I am on a path of ditching Evernote.

12 August I renamed my ‘evergreen’ notes, that contain my concepts mostly, to Notions, as the generic word notes doesn’t make a distinction in the character of some the things I’m putting into notes.

12 August I write a first long form blogpost made from Notions

13 August Added Nextcloud synchronisation of the note files, allowing mobile viewing and editing of notes

31 August I keep track of tasks in Obsidian and drop Things. There was a time I always did such things in straightforward text files. Being able to do so again but now with a much better way of viewing and navigating such text files and the connections between them, makes it easy to ‘revert’ to my old ways so to speak.

13 September I am at 300 Notions. These first 300 notions are mostly my notions, the things that are core to my thinking about my own work, and the things I internalised over the past 25 years or so, of doing that work. I expect that going forward other people’s ideas and notions will become more important in my collection.

13 September I describe how I make notions and notes

September / October I increasingly use my conceptual Notions as reference while in (online) conversations.

5 October I gave a client presentation (about the Dutch system of base registers) pulled together completely from existing Notions.

7 October added a ‘decision log’ to my note keeping.

16 October 100 days in Obsidian, 500 Notions and about 700 other types of notes.

16 October reinstated a thorough Weekly Review (a component of GTD) into my system.

21 October I gave a brief presentation Ethics as a Practice, the second this month pulled together from existing notes.

This all as a first post looking back on 100 days of Obsidian.
Part 2: Hierarchy and Logs
Part 3: Task management

Through my feedreader Jane McConnell tells me she’s started using Obsidian to re-organise her notes into a network of information. She points to a 2001 (!) posting by Thomas Vander Wal, a long time connection of mine, about a model of attraction for information. I’ll have to read that 2001 article by Thomas, and think about what I can use from it (attractors, barriers, patterns and boundaries are important elements in looking at complexity, and feature in my own information strategies as well). Then I realised I hadn’t read anything by Thomas recently, only to find out I was subscribed to the wrong RSS feed. Having fixed that, I stumbled upon his recent posting on his own note taking system and the role of Obsidian in it.

All in all a pattern that suggests I really should add my write-up of using Obsidian for 100 days and contribute it to the distributed conversation.

Extending my note / notion collection in the past three months has emerged a new tagging practice.

I’ve started tagging notes that I encounter with the keywords that led me to wander through the notes and encounter such a note.

A significant difference between my current notes collection and my previous use of Evernote for it, is the ease of linking between notes. Adding new notes means linking them to relevant existing ones. Following those links later means I end up in notes from a thought or association that led me down a path. If one of those notes strikes me as relevant I find myself adding tags based on the thoughts or associations that led me there.

This is an extension of my existing tagging practices, as it adds traces of my searches through the collection of notes, or rather my findlings.

Existing tagging practices already included adding tags naming the reasons and associations why I made the note, what triggered my interest. (An article ‘the 10 biggest tech developments to watch in 2021’ might be tagged ‘prediction’ and ‘2021’ e.g.)
I also use as tags the terms with which I think my future self should be able to find them, tags allowing search in different languages (I write notes in 3 language, but have notes with parts in at least 4 other languages which I can read ok enough to keep the original), and tags denoting some time, status or action (urgent, waiting, sharpen etc, year/month/day of creation) which taken together means usually tags are words that do not feature in the content of the note otherwise (which would already surface in a full text search). I don’t use tags as objective descriptors much, as mostly those terms will be in the article or note already, and they don’t add much meaning for me other than as pretend categories.

The way I look at other people’s tags is how their use of different words than mine for the same things is an expression of socio-professional distance. Others likely will be using their own jargon for things, and the more different that is, the more likely you are part of a different community than the circles I operate in. This lets me use tags as a pivot to find other people and communities of interest and connected to my own current interest. (Allowing me to e.g. extend my feed reading by social distance to additional voices unlike the ones I already follow. This was what I appreciated in the Delicious bookmarking service, as it showed you the tags used for your bookmarks by others, and let you navigate to their collection and profile).

With the new tagging practice, adding tags to a note over time based on how/why I found that note will allow me to see how my own language evolves. This leads I think to a similar measure of socio-professional distance, but now between my past, current and future selves. It will be highly interesting to watch over time if that happens.

Tags to me are a tool to aid associative emergence of connections and meaning, and I think this new tagging practice I find myself adopting will aid in that.

Ever since the Dutch government uttered the words “herd immunity” after the UK gov framed it as meaning doing mostly nothing, internationally the Netherlands is mentioned in lists of countries that are supposedly taking a wait and see approach. That isn’t what’s happening of course. The country is in lock-down all but name, but as is the Dutch way it is implemented as an appeal for collaboration and solidarity (and people are indeed complying), and isn’t implemented heavy handed from the top down yet. It doesn’t mean that in the background there are no emergency decrees signed allowing the enforcement of every measure by police and even military police (it’s just that these are done on regional level, signed by the mayors in that region, so it isn’t on the radar of most people these things have been signed.) It also doesn’t mean no enforcement in practice.

One such example is Tomas Pueyo ‘Hammer and Dance’ piece. I’d have commented there, but it needed jumping to all kinds of hoops to be allowed to comment on Medium, and posting it here anyway is easier for future reference. He writes “Some countries, like France, Spain or Philippines, have since ordered heavy lockdowns. Others, like the US, UK, Switzerland or Netherlands, have dragged their feet, hesitantly venturing into social distancing measures.” “Governments around the world today, including some such as the US, the UK, Switzerland or Netherlands have so far chosen the mitigation path.

The French and Dutch measures are actually much on the same level, only with different cultural accents on the role of central authority, and from what I can see the same is true for Switzerland.

The Netherlands isn’t following a ‘mitigation strategy’ in the ‘weak tea’ meaning in the article as such, but doing much as Pueyo’s article suggests. Bring down the transmission rate, and then release and tighten the measures for the coming months to keep the transmission rate low.

Two quotes from the director of the infectious disease unit (RIVM) who is in charge from an interview (in Dutch).
Based on infection models we use, we estimate the effectiveness of interventions. If we add up the current interventions we conclude from those models that the transmission rate is reduced sufficiently. That is the most important goal.. (Dutch: “Op grond van de infectiemodellen die we hanteren, kunnen we het effect van de interventies inschatten. Als we de huidige interventies optellen, volgt uit die modellen dat de overdracht van het virus voldoende teruggaat om de verdere toename te doen afnemen. Dat is het belangrijkste doel,….”)

…That is why we must align everything, and next to interventions research their actual impacts. It could be we can reduce measures, and later need to introduce them again. It could also be we’ll introduce additional measures, it can go both ways. (Dutch: Daarom moeten we alles zorgvuldig afstemmen op elkaar en naast interventies ook onderzoek doen naar het effect daarvan. Het zou kunnen dat maatregelen versoepeld worden en later weer worden ingevoerd. Het zou ook kunnen dat er dan nog éxtra maatregelen volgen, het kan beide kanten op.”)

Actual behaviour of people will determine this mostly he adds. In short, it’s the ‘hammer and dance’ suggested in the linked article.

In conclusion, what you assume to see from further afield based on choice of words (‘herd immunity’ e.g.), headlines and your own cultural reference points, isn’t necessarily what’s happening on the ground. The same is true here inside the country, many people are making very different assumptions based on what they perceive the RIVM and government doing or not doing. Part of it is that the RIVM isn’t very pro-active in getting information and data out there to put it mildly. The interviews with its director in the past week have provided me with much more clues and understanding of what they are working on than their press communiques or their own website. I assume the director has better things to do than give interviews, so there’s room for much more pro-active disclosure and transparency, as it would free up his time at least. RIVM doesn’t have a knowledge, data or decisiveness issue, they’re clearly following every bit of available science, it has a communication and transparency issue. Key question for me is what we can do to assist RIVM in taking on their data publication and communication needs.