I have used Cultured Code’s todo-application Things a long time, since the end of 2008. I attended a presentation then where Cultured Code explained how they translated their intentions and values into the design of the app, and used their software ever since. It is a beautiful software tool and it has been very useful to me for almost 12 years. And then, since the end of August, I have not used it at all. Before 2008 and Things, I used my employer’s tools (Outlook mostly) and privately used text files. Back in the late 1980’s and in the 1990s I only used text files to keep track of tasks. And that is what I’m doing now again, using Obsidian to create markdown text files.

Important elements to me in using text files for tasks effectively are:

  • being able to link between text files both directly and through tags
  • being able to quickly switch between the task list and the resources needed for a task
  • having the task lists as part of my overall system, not an island

Things is good at using tags for tasks (allowing me to e.g. filter tasks on context or needed amount of focus through tasks). I was also able do some linking between Things tasks and e.g. Evernote notes, links that I manually copied between the two, and copied into Tinderbox which I use as a dashboard map for various things. I also used a script at the start of project to create the right first tasks, and corresponding notes in those applications. That way there is consistency between how areas, projects and project tags are used across those applications. It worked but it meant a lot of switching between applications during the day. In my set-up of Things/Evernote and now in Obsidian, I roughly follow the Getting Things Done method (areas, projects, inbox, and marking things as someday or waiting etc.)

As a side note: I do not use my mobile to look at or add tasks, or mark them completed. I basically always work laptop-first. This means that the availability of my tasks lists on mobile, and the capability to edit them there, is not important to me. In fact, Things is an Apple-only product, and I use an Android phone, so I never have been able to use Things on mobile (I did have Things on my 1st gen iPad back in 2010, but tablets are another thing that never really found a niche in my workflow). In that sense using text files are an improvement: I can read them and edit them, because I synchronise my Obsidian notes to my Nextcloud instance, which my mobile can access (there’s no mobile Obsidian app, and there’s no need for it either, any plain text editor will do after all.)

As I mentioned in earlier posts, going back to text files feels very comfortable to me. Obsidians features make it rather frictionless even, with transclusion, tagging and with linking.

The task management set-up

As described in my previous post on my use of Obsidian, I have a hierarchical folder structure of areas of activity, with project folders within them.
Each project folder contains a file titled ‘0 [project name] things to do’, where I keep the list of actions currently relevant for that project. If there are sub projects, then each of those has a similar own list of tasks, which are transcluded into the general project list.

In the 1GTD12WY folder, where I keep the general material w.r.t. future goals and my 3 month planning cycle, I also have two general tasklists. One is the root of all tasklists (called ‘0 root list things to do’), the other is a list of general tasks for the current month (‘0 this month things to do’). The leading zero ensures that tasklist are always the first file in a (project) folder.


The root and month task list in the general ‘getting things done’ folder.

The ‘this month’ list is filled at the start of each month, from whatever is in the ticklerfile for that month (it might be quarterly recurrent things like, ‘file VAT returns by the 30th’, or ‘check out the book that is scheduled to be published the 21st [link]’), and from general things not tied to any particular project that came up while making my month map (see previous posting).

The root list contains all the areas of activity, and for each project within an area the project’s task lists is transcluded. Every project task list links to the root list, so even when I forget to add it to the root list, it will show up as a backlink. As projects in turn may have sub projects with their own tasklist, you get multilevel transclusion. Obsidian allows you to go 5 layers deep so that is more than enough for my set-up. This way a task is only ever in one single list.

I use tags like #waiting and #urgent to mark task status.


My root task list with the month list and a project list embedded through transclusion

At the start of each project I run a script that creates all the necessities for a project. This includes automatically making the task list for a new project, adding a handful of common tasks to it, and adding the link to the root list.

Task management process

Daily
On a daily basis I work with the task lists, in multiple ways.
I browse through the task root list at the start of the day, and specifically the projects I will be spending time on that day. I look at what is marked #urgent. Both the root task list and the #urgent search filter I have pinned as starred searches, so I can directly go to them from the Obsidian interface. I do not add existing daily habits onto my task list, I might add them for habits I’m trying to develop.


Above: a project task list, in a project folder. Below: the starred searches to quickly switch between e.g. the root list, the month list, the monthly map and urgent tasks

Whenever I am in a meeting on a project, I have the existing corresponding task list in front of me, right next to the notes I am making during the meeting. After, or during a meeting I update the tasklist, through adding, splitting, deleting or rephrasing.
When I add a task to a list, I also add links to notes that are relevant to it, e.g. the meeting notes where the task originates, or the note that contains the rough notes and current status of a task. I link/mention the things I need for the task. This lowers the threshold to start doing a task.

While adding a task I may add tags that help me select which ones are fitting for the current context (e.g. level of energy/focus likely needed, or specific context in which to do them). As I’m only working from home due to the pandemic I currently don’t use contextual tasks yet (in Things I’d tag things with #train e.g. if it something I can well do while commuting to a client’s office).

When a task is done, I copy and delete it from the task list, and paste it into the day log (see previous post). That way the day log contains all the things I’ve completed that day, plus anything else that came along and wasn’t on the task lists. (I use the day log for time sheets and the weekly review).

Weekly
During my weekly review, for each ongoing project I remove no longer relevant or finished tasks, add things I realise will be needed in the coming week(s), and scan the horizon for anything that will become #urgent in the next 3 weeks to mark them as such. I also review the #waiting things to see if anything has slipped my mind.

Monthly
Each month I check if any new projects need to be added, or which ones to close down and remove from the root list. While making my month map I add the resulting tasks to the relevant project list, and I add the tasks resulting from things in next month’s tickler file to the task list for this month.

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
Part 4: Writing connected Notions, Ideas, and Notes
Part 5: Flow using workspaces
Part 6: Obsidian development vs my usage

I am coming around to the notion that I may also want to stop using Things for keeping track of tasks, and do it through markdown text files, similarly to getting out of Evernote. 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 (using Obsidian as a viewer for now), makes it easy to ‘revert’ to my old ways so to speak.

(This doesn’t say anything about Things, which is a beautiful tool, that I have been using ever since I became aware of the Cultured Code company in 2008.)

Replied to https://diggingthedigital.com/4512-2/ by Frank Meeuwsen (diggingthedigital.com)
Ik zit nog geen kwartier in een trial van Things 3 te werken en ik voel dat ik weer een smak geld ga uitgeven voor een takenlijst app. Wat zit deze goed en intuïtief in elkaar. Tot op heden nog exact de juiste balans tussen eenvoud en geavanceerde planningsmogelijkheden. Het is bijzonder hoe je ond...

Op de eerste This Happened in Utrecht eind 2008 was een presentatie van Cultured Code, waar ik onder de indruk was van de focus van ze. Sinds die tijd gebruik ik met veel plezier Things, ook al kan ik het niet op mijn Android gebruiken.

Let wel op, volgens mij is het nog altijd zo dat je taken niet in een volgorde kunt zetten / afhankelijk van elkaar kunt maken (zodat taak 2 alleen in een context naar voren komt als taak 1 af is). Het gaat er dus vanuit dat alle taken parallel kunnen worden gedaan, en geen volgordelijkheid kennen. Dit kan een punt zijn als je het voor GTD gebruikt. Ik heb er zelf verder geen last van.

My Applescript to start a new project both in my todo-app Things and my note-app Evernote throws errors for the Things part suddenly. After upgrading Things 2 weeks ago. Have the applescript hooks changed? Or the data structure of Things? Need to explore.

I use an applescript at the start of new activities. Depending on the nature of the activity (client project, project acquisition, internal, learning, personal etc), it automatically populates my folder system, my todo-app and my note taking app with the right information. Folders, standard tasks for a project, templates for documents needed, bookkeeping requirements, setting a consistent name and tag for the project across all tools etc.