Every now and then I ask myself: "Who the hell am I to be pontificating about notetaking best practices?" Self-awareness is hard and on the whole I try to err on the side of humility.
With that in mind: I strongly recommend approaching my workflow writeups with the attitude that they aren't really how-to guides. I am usually trying to model a particular behavior, not prescribe it. I do not like to tell large groups of people what they should be doing, and if you want someone to help you figure out the best workflow for your usecase, I strongly recommend setting up an individual consultation with me or attending something like Nick Milo's Linking Your Thinking workshop.
That said, I am a certified, tenured, US-based teacher and as part of my job I have attended what feels like endless trainings on how to teach notetaking. I have seen hundreds of teenagers use a multitude of different notetaking and study methods, and even written about why teaching notetaking is harder than most people think, for reasons that aren't obvious. I have also spent many, many months hanging out in the personal knowledge community adjacent to the Obsidian notetaking software. As the lady who maintains the weekly Obsidian Roundup, I make it a point to read through the vast majority of the workflow resources and personal knowledge management systems and system I settled on for myself has worked out great for me on every metric I care to measure:
- I produce articles significantly faster than I used to, which you can verify for yourself if you feel like checking the timestamps on my blog.
- I've been paid professional rates for my articles, in publications I highly respect (SFWA, Tor).
- I've finally gotten to where I'm able to write on a consistent schedule, for the first time in my life, which means that I've been able to successfully monetize a weekly fiction newsletter.
More importantly from my perspective:
- I'm reading more non-fiction now that I have motivation to use the information I come across instead of just letting it percolate through my subconscious.
- I find it much easier to share interesting things I've come across with people, which has led to a richer intellectual life for me than I've ever had, even when I was in grad school.
- I am much more relaxed because once I get something "out of my head" and into an organized filing system, I don't have it floating around in my head anymore nagging me.
Of course, what works for me might not work for you. Some things aren't generalizable and I'm the kind of person who passed the bar exam without studying, got solid grades without looking at her notes, and wrote college papers off the top of her head. I read very quickly and interpret things into my own gestalt understanding of topics easily. I retain information I've read for a long time and can often find the original sources on my own.
I do answer a lot of questions in the Obsidian community, though, and I've seen a lot of different explanations of what works for different people, and more importantly why, so I'm going to do my best to distill that down into something linear for the folks who don't want to spend a year reading every single message that comes through the server.
Part of the reason that I'm doing this is because I remember what it was like when I first started out with Obsidian. A friend recommended it to me and kept talking about it and Git workflows and version control and all sorts of things, and it took me a while to figure out obsidian, it wasn't until I rejected three or four or five other tools that I finally decided to dive in and give it a real go.
A tale of two optimizations
When I was growing up, the shower and the laundry room were both in the basement, but my bedroom was upstairs. I used to drive my mother crazy because I would put off taking my clothes upstairs for as long as possible; she got on my case about this all the time. I was considered pretty lazy. Eventually I finally complained about how silly it felt to carry my clothes all the way upstairs just to have to carry them all the way back downstairs again to get dressed after my shower. I promised that if we moved my dresser downstairs, I would actually start putting my laundry away.
Friends, I am in my thirties and my favorite thing about my current house is that my laundry room is less than ten feet away from my closet, which is less than ten feet away from my shower.
I like whole loaf bread; I bake it, I buy it. I keep it in a little wooden breadbox because I read somewhere that's the best way to keep bread fresh but not stale. I keep a knife in there and cut the bread directly on the wooden bottom. I'm sure this makes some people cringe; I'm ruining the breadbox! But am I? A good quality wooden cutting board costs a couple hundred dollars and it gets knife scratches all the time — is it ruined?
There's an old saying that you can have something done fast, done cheaply, or done well — pick two. I usually err on the side of "fast" and "cheap," but that's not always the best way. "Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good" is a vital mindset for an education but a pretty terrible philosophy when building a two ton death machine. Do not take anything I write as a prescriptive "you should do it this way..." kind of thing. I am definitely cutting corners, and you need to evaluate whether that's something you can afford to do.
Still, I'm hopeful that something about my methods will be valuable for someone out there, so with that in mind, here's some advice I hope is generalizable:
Whenever somebody shows up in the Obsidian community discord server looking for advice about how to get started, I tell them to start with what they know.
Learning a new tool is hard enough without learning a whole new paradigm of thinking.
Be willing to do stuff inexpertly
As a teacher, I see a lot of students who are afraid — not so much of failing, per se, although there is a lot of that, but of wasting time. It's really common to think of doing something wrong as being wasteful. It feels like a waste of time to write a bad first draft, to sit down and brainstorm a bunch of ideas we won't use, and time is precious. Making mistakes is something most of us get embarrassed about.
David Perell has an article about how we should train our thinking skills the same way that we train for sports. My friend Tahereh prefers to simply say that writing is an art, and takes as much time to learn as any other fine art — you wouldn't expect to join a pro ballet company after your first year of lessons, would you? But for me, optimization and expertise is about being willing to have an idea not work out.
Start learning the software with a situation and paradigm you understand, look for pain points, and then look for how to fix them. Don't worry about "doing it the first time" — focus on doing it.
My favorite way to improve my writing is to read fiction I don't like so I can understand why I don't like it — it's a lot easier than trying to figure out why the good stuff was effective. Ferrett Steinmetz has an absolutely wonderful "intergalactic hopepunk" scifi adventure novel called The Sol Majestic about this phenomenon: the protagonist becomes a chef, and the whole book is an ode to this sort of learning process. I highly recommend it.
There are a bunch of different methods out there for project management, notetaking, knowledge management, article writing, fiction writing, and more. I've made it a point to expose myself to as many as possible so that when I hit the point where they would be useful to me, I was aware of them and could apply the principles as they started to make sense to me. But when I talk with folks new to taking notes and organizing them, my biggest recommendations are that they make it something they can understand and maintain with a minimum of stress.
What that looks like will vary for everyone.
Note: There are a couple of affiliate links & codes scattered around, but these always come from links I was already recommending and usually I share them because they benefit you too (i.e. getting you extra time on trials).
Check out one of these related posts
An evaluation of the viability of using Obsidian for long form content as opposed to tools like MS Word, Google Docs, & Scrivener.
On the importance of knowing when to sit down and dive deep into your notes... so you don't get overwhelmed always keeping them neat.
Old, simple tools are often still useful, especially when paired with a practice of frequent check-ins with your goals and mental state.