I have changed the way I add date tags to my PKM notes. It used to be in the form of #2021- #2021-02-26. This as my main viewer on these notes, Obsidian, only supports search on full tag names, so searching on #2021- does not surface #2021-02 as tag. In December Obsidian introduced nested tags, which you can do by adding a / in between, like in #maintag/subtag/subsubtag etc. Normally I am adverse to sorting tags into hierarchies, tags are not categories after all. But for dates a nested hierarchy is useful: now I can add #2021/02/26 as tag, but in search that will return results for #2021/ and for #2021/02 too. It took a bit of time, but I’ve now replaced all my old date related tags with the new nested tags. An added benefit is that it cleans up my taglist enormously, as all tags related to a year are collapsed into one.
Writing my Notions and notes these past months as part of my revamped personal knowledge management system, I realised as the collection grew that using the collection as a thinking tool also requires remembering more of what is in there. Not to make the notes superfluous but to have more top of mind material that serves as a starting point in interacting with the notes I have, as well as to be able to weave that more easily into current tasks and work. I also expect it to aid creativity, as a large chunk of creativity is recombination of previous elements, and remembering more elements lowers the threshold to new combinations.
Both in Andy Matuschaks notes and in this long article by Michael Nielsen about his use of Anki, spaced repetition is discussed in the context of note taking, and it got me thinking (I write ‘thinking’, but it was as much working through the mentioned material and distilling the concepts key to me from it, as it was chewing on it mentally and adding that to those same notes. Thinking is more interacting with my PKM, rather than sitting down looking into the middle distance as per Rodin’s bronze).
Anki is a tool (on laptop and mobile), that allows you to train your memory with flash cards and spaced repetition. I’ve used it in the past, e.g. to increase my vocabulary in French and to better read cyrillic script, but not with much energy or effect. It felt uncomfortable to be using card decks made by others for instance. Making my own flash cards from scratch always seemed a daunting task as well.
With my now much better set-up of notes however I have a great starting point to create my own decks of flash cards. As I am obviously not the first one to realise the potential of notes collections for flash cards, there is already an Obsidian plugin that pulls out questions and answers from my notes, and puts them into Anki. It comes with a wiki that documents how to set it up for yourself, including how to mark various types of questions and answers in your notes.
The key feature is, that I can add a question and its answer as a part of any note, and the plugin will pull it out and export that to Anki. It means I can e.g. end a note on three key aspects of distributed applications, with an Anki question and answer about those three aspects, which will get exported to Anki. Better still, I can add multiple questions in different forms about the same thing to that note, e.g. a follow-up question for each of the three aspects. Having multiple versions of basically the same question means I can phrase them for different memory hooks in parallel. This will enhance my own understanding, and allows me to place notions in specific contexts for instance.
I have now installed the Obsidian to Anki plugin in Obsidian, and the Anki Connect plugin in Anki (so it can ‘listen’ for automated input).
Some things I hope this will yield benefits for is:
- making it a more deliberate choice what I want to remember long term
- making it easier to remember the basics of a new field of interest
- making the effort to remember a habit
- improving my skilled reading
- using remembered material to better connect new notes to the existing corpus
- making it easier to internalise new / relatively new material
The way I’m approaching it is to have all my flash cards, whatever the topic, in the same single deck. This as I see my notes collection and all the stuff I remember as a interlinked network of topics and material. Splitting it up in some sort of thematic structure precludes a whole range of potential connections and associations, and is artificial in that it makes a current perhaps logical distinction the norm forever.
The coming 12 weeks or so I’ll work on two habits:
- adding questions to my notes as I work on those notes, and
- using Anki daily to review those questions.
There are multiple ways to access Kindle highlights.
There are multiple ways to access Nova2 highlights/notes:
Over the past few weeks I have described how my usage of Obsidian has evolved since I first used in early July. This is the final post in the series. Where the previous posts described my personal knowledge management system, and how I use it for daily project work, task management, note taking, and flow using workspaces in this final post I want to mention a few more general points.
These points concern first my overall attitude towards using Obsidian as a tool, second its current functionality and third its future development of functionality.
First, what is most important to me is that Obsidian is a capable viewer on my filesystem. It lets me work in plain text files. That is my ‘natural’ environment as I was used to doing everything in text files ever since I started using computers. It’s a return of sorts. What Obsidian as a viewer views is the top folder you point it to. The data I create in that folder remains independent from Obsidian. I can interact with that data (mark down text files) through other means than just Obsidian. And I do, I use the filesystem directly to see what are the most recent notes I made. I add images by downloading or copying them directly into a folder within the Obsidian vault. I use Applescript to create new notes and write content to them, without Obsidian playing any role.
Next is that Obsidian allows me to rearrange how I see notes in different workspaces and lets me save both workspaces and searches, which means it can represent different queries on my files. In short Obsidian at this moment satisfies 3 important conditions for decentralised software: I own my own data, the app is a view, interfaces are queries. Had any one of those 3 but especially the first been missing, I would be exchanging one silo (Evernote) for the next. Obsidian after all is not open source. A similar tool Foam is. Foam is currently not far enough along their path of development to my taste, but will get there, and I will certainly explore making the switch.
When it comes to current functionality I am ensuring that I use Obsidian only in the ways that fit with those three conditions. There is some functionality I therefore refuse to use, some I likely won’t use, and some I intend to start using.
I refuse to use any functionality that creates functionality lock-in, and makes me dependent on that particular feature while compromising the 3 key conditions mentioned above. Basically this covers any functionality that determines what my data looks like, and how it is created (naming conventions, automatic lay-outs etc). Functionality that doesn’t stick to being a viewer, but actively shapes the way data looks is a no go.
There are other functions I won’t use because they do not fit my system. For instance it is possible to publish your Obsidian vault publicly online (at publish.obsidian.md, here’s a random example), and some do. To me that is unthinkable: my notes are an extension of my thinking and a personal tool. They are part of my inner space. Publishing is a very different thing, meant for a different audience (you, not me), more product than internal process. At most I can imagine having separate public versions of internal notes, but really anything I publish in a public digital garden is an output of my internal digital garden. Obviously I’d want to publish those through my own site, not through an Obsidian controlled domain.
Other functionality I am interested in exploring to use. For instance Obsidian supports using Mermaid diagrams, a mark-down style language. This is a way to use diagrams that can port to another viewer as well, and doesn’t get in the way if a viewer does not support them.
Mermaid is a way to describe a diagram, and then render it. Seen here both from within Obsidian.
Future functionality I will explore is functionality that increases the capabilities of Obsidian as a viewer. Anything to more intelligently deal with search results for instance, or showing notes on a time line or some other aspect. Being able to store graph settings in a workspace (graphs now all revert to the default when reloading a workspace). And using the API that is forthcoming, which presumably means I can have my scripts talk directly to Obsidian as well as the filesystem.
I’ve now been using Obsidian for 122 days, and it will likely stay that way for some time.
Having described my overall system and how I use Obsidian in more detail for daily work, task management and networked note writing, in this posting I turn to how I arrange for low friction flow in Obsidian.
An important functionality of Obsidian is that you can arrange different panes in which you can show files or other things. This is useful in various basic ways, e.g. to have a note you are editing open twice, once to edit, once seeing the preview. Or, as in the image below, to have a note open, with search results, a graph of connected ideas, and an overview of backlinks.
Basic pane layout in Obsidian, search results, a file, a network graph and backlinks
Every pane can be split horizontally and/or vertically, and again, up to the point it fills your entire screen. This allows me to for instance in a client conversation have my task list for that project, notes from our previous conversation as well as in-depth notes about the work, all in one overview, next to the file in which I’m taking notes from the ongoing meeting itself. While in parallel to all that I still have the ability to pull all kinds of other information or conceptual description during the meeting. This allows me to quickly bring up things in high detail, and easily switch between high-level and low-level things, organisational aspects and the topic at hand etc.
Where this functionality comes into its own is where you can save specific pane / screen set-ups and switch between them as different workspaces. Since recently there is a workspaces plugin that does this. You can also do it by hand or scripted in the background. The current set-up is always stored in a file called workspace in the Obsidian folder in your vault. It’s a JSON file describing the screen lay-out. If you copy and rename that, you have saved your workspace. If you put it back and reload Obsidian you have reinstated that workspace. The plugin does the same thing but smoothly from within Obsidian itself.
This means I can switch between workspaces at will, such as:
- The daily start workspace (which includes today’s daylog, yesterday’s daylog, the root task list and month map, the quarterly goals and an #urgent search)
- The weekly review workspace (quarterly goal list, weeklog, review template, root tasklist, monthmap)
- The month map workspace (#urgent, root tasklist, last month map, this month map, quarterly goals)
- The conference call workspace (Project main note, project task list, last call’s notes, new notes, project details)
- Note writing (search, graph, pane with relevant other note(s), note being written)
The workspace I use at the start of the day: #urgent things on the left, today’s log and yesterday’s log in the middle, full taks list, quarterly goals, and month map on the right.
This list of handy workspaces may still grow over time I suspect for different aspects of my work.
There’s one more posting on my use of Obsidian left. It will be more of a summary, on what makes Obsidian work well for me, and why it fits my preferences.