Goodbye Notion, Hello Obsidian

Goodbye Notion, Hello Obsidian


This is a follow-up to my previous article on Notion. I'll preface this with 3 points: (1) my knowledge and productivity software changes as frequently as my socks, (2) there is nothing inherently wrong with Notion, and (3) I've accepted the fact that I'll never be happy with any single platform.

That being said, I was recently burned by an outage with Notion. The joy of a cloud-based information management platform is that you shouldn't need to worry about losing your data. The downside is that when it's down, it's down, and you don't have access to your notes or data. Unfortunately, I was in the latter category right before a meeting, so I ended up searching for a "local" knowledge repository.

Enter Obsidian.

What is Obsidian?

That's probably easiest to describe from their website: Obsidian is a powerful knowledge base that works on top of a local folder of plain text Markdown files.

Super clear and I can just quit typing, right? Yeah, probably not. I didn't really understand it at first either. Try this: imagine a not-slowly-dying Evernote, combined with a markdown editor, mixed with extensive information and knowledge mapping, and sprinkled with a bunch of tools and plugins to make sense of your data. In reality, you'd likely build a Frankenstein's monster that would smash your desk and shatter your iPad. Instead, you get... Obsidian, and most importantly, it's really good at what it does.

How Does Obsidian Work?

At a simple level: you dump lots of data and notes into Obsidian, leverage markdown for formatting, add some level of tagging and internal links, and Obsidian starts to make sense of the data and shows how everything is related. There are also a ton of plugins that can ride on top of the data to provide additional functionality. I'll cover the useful ones I've found later in the article. However, rather than trying to reinvent the wheel by explaining Obsidian, I'll link to an outstanding video series that covers the basics in 12 minutes:

How Do I Get My Notes Into Obsidian?

Easy! They have a desktop application. You can also sign up for insider build if you're a contributor. Best of all, the notes are simple markdown files that will work with any text editor. I store mine in Google Drive, but any storage provider should work just fine.

The only downside is a lack of a mobile application. There is one in development though, which is supposed to be released shortly. In my case it doesn't really matter: it's rare that I'm taking notes from my phone. When I do, I simply use Nebo or Apple Notes. The rough draft of the notes then gets copied, pasted, cleaned up, and added to Obsidian. In the end they're markdown files and can be opened with just about any editor.

How Do I Organize My Data?

That's really up to you. Obsidian is extremely open and flexible for how you organize your data. Here are a few tips I've picked up over the last few months.

Tags Are For Searching

Tags make it simple to search through your data, e.g. find everything that matches #pilot-notes. This also factors into the graph view since you can quickly isolate the graph down to specific tags. A recent trick I've found is that you can use "nested tags" to improve organization. For example: #pilot/notes, #pilot/active, #pilot/closed, etc. You end up with a nice tree of tags in the navigation pane:

Basically, any major "concepts" should be placed between [[ and ]]. For example, if I've got running notes on a particular customer, I'd always place [[Customer ABC]] in my notes like that. Why? Because then I can quickly find how they're all related. You're essentially building a bunch of internal links on that particular concept or topic. It'll also autocomplete after you type [[ in your notes, which makes it easy to ensure you're always using the same topic.

Templates Are Your Friend

Templates in Obsidian are outstanding. They allow you to quickly add the groundwork to a note without having to type everything out again. Let's say I'm adding a new contact into my notes. I'll hit CRTL+T which I have mapped to the "insert template" function, start to type "contact", and it'll bring up my contact template. Templates look something like this:

created: {{date:LLL}}
tags: [contacts]

| Key     | Value |
| ------- | ----- |
| Name    |       |
| Company |       |
| Title   |       |
| Email   |       |
| Mobile  |       |
| Office  |       |

You may be wondering about that text at the beginning: it's called front matter in YAML terms. I'll explain below.

Front Matter Helps You Organize

Obsidian has a short tutorial on front matter. It's essentially metadata for your notes. The front matter in the template above will insert the date, e.g. created: March 2, 2021 2:34 PM, and automatically add a #contacts tag. It'll look something like this depending on your settings:

File and Folder Organization Is Optional

I cringe when I see people who dump all of their notes and attachments into a single folder. Fortunately, Obsidian doesn't really care about the directory structure in the "vaults" that it uses for notes. I still keep mine organized just because of personal preference.

Useful Community Plugins

As of typing this, there are around 160 "community plugins" for Obsidian. These are contributed by users in the community. The application makes it painless to get them installed: it's literally just a few clicks in the UI. These are the ones that I use regularly.

Advanced Tables

It makes formatting tables in markdown much, much easier. At this point I actually prefer markdown tables to "real" tables that you'll find in Excel. This is basically a must-have plugin, to the point that I'd love to see it baked into the application itself.


This will scan through your notes, look for any checklists, and display them in the sidebar. It's great if you take daily notes and have checklist items that are unresolved at the end of the day. For reference, a checklist item looks like this when it's done in markdown:

- [ ] This is an unchecked item.
- [ ] This is another one.
- [x] This is a checked item.

This will scan through your notes and find anything that's unlinked. As an example, let's say I'm working on a project but haven't created a dedicated page for it, e.g. I've got [[My Project]] scattered all through my notes but never created a centralized page. This plugin will list out all of your files and links that are referenced but don't exist.

Note Refactor

This plugin is great if you use something like Daily Notes as your scratch pad. You can highlight chunks of text and "refactor" them into a dedicated page. The plugin takes care of the links between the two.

Closing Remarks

Hopefully this gets you started down the path of using Obsidian. Fortunately, there is no "right or wrong" path with using Obsidian, just lots of recommendations. I've been using it for 2-3 months without any issues or complaints. Hope this helps!

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