My brain to get things done: Obsidian

Rather than post another depressive missive about layoffs and career pivots, I’m excited to talk about the tool and productivity system that has kept me sane for the past few years: Obsidian

Back in the day, I had notes in every corner of the hard drive: some text files, some in Evernote, and some in Google Docs. Tasks and reminders were in calendars or other apps. I relied more on my excellent spacial memory to figure out where to search than was healthy for a middle-aged brain.

Over the past few years, a new crop of tools and learning emerged around Personal Knowledge Management (PKM) or Tools for Thought. I think this sums it up best:

PKM is a set of processes, individually constructed, to help each of us make sense of our world, work more effectively, and contribute to society. PKM means taking control of your professional development, and staying connected in the network era, whether you are an employee, self-employed, or between jobs.

I had a job that required juggling a lot of information, people, ideas, plans, and projects alongside a personal life that required as much attention. It was exhausting to keep straight in my head. I tried every app you can imagine, and nothing clicked until I fell into the world of transclusion, and everything clicked for me. Trans what, you say? Most common in Wikis, it creates the interconnected “graph” that turns notes into ideas and ideas into projects.

For example, I can type [[apple]] in a sentence on a note titled “fruit.” Now when I go to the automatically created “apple” note, I’ll see a backlink for the “fruit” note in context.

I explored every tool that existed in mid-2020. It was a fun project. While many were making shortbread at home, I was obsessively trying to figure out which app would store my second brain. Here’s a page with a list of the most popular ones.

After starting with Roam Research for a while, I ultimately decided on Obsidian, and I have no regrets. 18+ months later, and I still love it.

  • Obsidian is an Electron app built to work a folder of Markdown files stored locally. Plain, boring .md files. Simple, boring text files that are yours to keep, manipulate, destroy and store in whatever way you please.
  • Obsidian is as secure as you need it to be. Nothing is stored in the cloud.
  • You can purchase their sync service or bring your own if you need to access your vault of files on multiple devices. I had my work vault local only on my work laptop, backed up to work Google Drive. I had a second vault for personal use that I synced to a remote vault that, in turn, synced to my iPad and iPhone using the Obsidian mobile apps.
  • Obsidian has a collaborative user community helping each other, sharing guides and resources, and building a robust open source plug-in library. There are over 800 plug-ins covering every use case, configuration, and integration you can imagine.

At work, I used Obsidian to take notes. Tons of notes. I then used those notes to build my presentations, talk tracks, promotion docs, and more. The faster I got details out of my brain and connected with similar ideas and notes, the better overall.

For example, I had folders and pages for each team member. I took notes in every 1:1 meeting and cross-referenced the projects they worked on, their challenges, their plans, and the actions I needed to take to support them. When I got feedback or praise on their performance or had questions, I cross-linked back to their page, which was visible for our following conversation.

I kept track of strategic plans, project ideas, and much more. It allowed me to maintain a “bird’s eye view” of everything. It was painful to let that go when my job ended last week.

In my home life, I follow Tiago Forte’s PARA organization method (Projects, Areas, Resources, Archives).

By offloading our thinking onto a “second brain,” we free our biological brain to imagine, create, and simply be present. We can move through life confident that we will remember everything that matters, instead of floundering through our days struggling to keep track of every detail.

A single Obsidian vault is now my second brain behind:

screen shot from obsidian of my daily template page in source mode
My personalized Obsidian Daily Template in Source Mode
  • All tasks and action items
  • Notes related to separating from the job I held for nearly eight years
  • Updating my resume, researching and taking notes on opportunities and related conversations
  • Researching and interviewing financial planners
  • Managing disability services for my adult daughter
  • Notes related to learning and exploring new ideas
  • Research, outlines, and drafts for this blog
  • Goals and journaling
  • And more. It changes and is as flexible as I need it to be.

It’s my hub.

I look forward to sharing my favorite plug-ins and the templates I’ve created in more depth in future posts.


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