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🌲When Themed Logs are More Useful than Daily Notes

I group information by purpose, not chronology. This method allows for more focus, easier retrieval, and less context switching.

Eleanor Konik
Written by Eleanor Konik

I write stories & articles inspired by all eras of history & science... so I wind up putting notetaking software like Obsidian & Readwise thru their paces.

12 min read.
jan/feb/march calendar with a box underneath that says "notes"

I spent a lot of time trying to create a daily notes practice. This was doomed for two reasons:

Habits are Hard

I'm good at establishing routines for other people, especially children. I'm good at structure, especially when it comes to organization. But I genuinely believe that I am worse than most at establishing daily habits.

Even something as simple as brushing my teeth morning and night is less of a thoughtless ritual and more of a thing I have to affirmatively tell myself to do, taking note of the feel of my mouth and reminding myself that I will regret it in the morning if I don't brush. To be honest, if I'm tired or just forget before a movies-in-bed night, I occasionally skip the nightly tooth brushing, even though I know how important it is.

I've tried off and on for years to establish a "mindless exercise habit," a habit of eating a "nice" breakfast, a habit of remembering to take my vitamins, a habit of waking up early, a habit of doing spaced repetition of my notes with Readwise... you name it, I've tried it, and it hasn't really worked out.

I eat nice breakfasts sometimes, of course, but sometimes I slam down a hard-boiled egg and a banana and call it a day. I generally take my vitamins if I see the little container they're in. I mostly exercise, in some form or another, as long as I'm not sick. But it's not consistent.

My attempt at a "daily notes habit" fell afoul of the same personality trait. Plus,

Daily Notes are titled by date

It seems obvious, but this was actually a pretty big problem for me. When I search for things in Obsidian (or outside of it...), the most prominent part of the result is the file name. When I'm browsing through links or folders or tags, I see file names. My graph displays file names. This is why I'm so careful about naming conventions, and as much as I love using headings to delineate between sections of notes, it wasn't enough.

Even with a strong monthly review practice.

Heck, I even learned javascript so I could concatenate my daily notes by section to group all the useful bits together, and I am embarrassed to admit that I so thoroughly believed the hype about daily notes that it took me almost a year to realize that what I should be doing is just...

Log everything in a themed file.

When I moved my vault into safe mode to prep for my talk at the Linking Your Thinking Conference, I didn't have calendar, I didn't have concatenation, I didn't have templater — and I didn't start out with most of my notes. I only moved things over as I needed them. And I did sometimes need stuff that was buried in old daily notes.

Stuff about how well my son's development was going, notes about my health, things I was grateful for and liked seeing again because it reminded me of good days. Quick notes about articles I'd enjoyed reading, pieces that resonated with me but weren't yet suited to be deconstructed into a "claim" or a "concept" and filed away, but didn't make sense to archive in its entirely in my vault.

In fact, I realized, all the useful stuff in my old daily notes could be broken down into five categories:

  • audiovisual media I consumed (i.e. quick reviews of how I felt about a particular tv show episode I watched with my husband)
  • notes about something I did or noticed in my garden
  • things I was grateful for
  • notes related to my health, either noting a symptom or logging an exercise report.
  • things I read that resonated with me but were ill-suited to becoming an individual note, either due to time constraints or because it was something I liked but didn't really fit the category of things I take notes on, like a beautiful but sad story about modern politics.

Many people talk about their daily notes being a convenient place to jot down quick meeting notes, and tag them with something like #meeting for easier retrieval, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized that I would rather just ... put all of those notes into a Meeting Log. Dated, still, but ... logged.

Reading log, podcast log, exercise log, dog walking log, accomplishments log, dance log, parties log, romance log, whatever it is that you want to log, why group it by date when you can group it descriptively? Topically, even.

Everything has its place

Honestly, a recurring refrain from people who extol the virtues of daily notes is that they like it because it lets them "brain dump" and not worry about "where to file things." It's the same argument for why people keep everything in a root folder and use search instead of worrying about categorization schema like tags and folders. Heck, some people find naming files to be too much friction, and that's why they timestamp things or rely on tools where "the block is the note" instead of operating at the file level.

I like files, though. I like putting things "away" — it's emotionally satisfying in the same way as putting dishes in the dishwasher instead of letting them pile up in the sink is. My brain works in such a way — and my system is organized in such a way — that it’s very easy for me to remember where things are supposed to go.

I don’t struggle to remember where my dishes go, so why would I struggle to remember where my health notes go? I know where my pens go, where my tape is, and where I've put my vitamins. Similarly, I know that my works-in-process are in 70 Products and my notes about my kid are in 92 Family and the automatic imports from my reading apps are in 10 Pending. This isn't a thing that causes friction for me, not like having to click through a bunch of numerically named files to find the information I'm looking for is. Not like having everything obfuscated behind numbers and bullets and links is.

Not everyone is like this! Everyone is different! But that's similar to the same way that I have trouble with rigid schedules that tell me I should vacuum my floors every 6 days — instead of, you know, when they start to look dirty or I'm about to have guests. Other folks need that rigid structure (or gamification) and really benefit from it, and that's fine, but I'm not them.

Fleeting Cruft

The other thing I've heard people say is that their daily notes are a great place for unimportant "fleeting" notes, where they "get their thoughts out" in a sort of low stress way. Journaling, morning pages, brain dumping, whatever you call the process, I believe that it's useful. I even believe that daily notes are a great place for it.

Just not for me.

I'm not really in a position to develop a morning habit where I free write for 30 minutes; efficiency-brain trips me up and there's almost always something else I think is more important I could be doing with that time. Like writing a short story. Or an article for my newsletter. Or a note about something I just realized.

For "brain dump" type stuff, I prefer to do it on paper, or in a blank file in my inbox, and they almost always turn into works-in-progress to be filed in 70 Products anyway. I just don't take a lot of "fleeting" unimportant notes without a "clear home," so having a dedicated space for them was sort of wasteful. After going back through nearly a year's worth of daily notes, very little of it was "cruft" — and most of those were tasks and accomplishments, which I almost never enter into my vault at all these days. I keep those sorts of things in my analog notebook, or my calendar.

Refactoring

Anyway, I've gotten into the habit now where every time I stumbled across a daily note that actually has content in it, I move the information into the appropriate log file. Once the daily note was empty or had nothing of value left, I delete it.

I could probably automate this process, but it's not worth it. 

I have about 180 dated notes still floating around in my vault, and I poke through them sometimes when I'm too tired to be more productive. It is fun to rediscover those old things. But I prefer to rediscover them when I'm glancing through the log files, because they're grouped by theme and type. This means there's less context-switching, less mental friction, to re-process them periodically and see if there are any gems that are useful for new things I've learned.

For example, I once left myself the following note in a daily note:

This thread from r/AskHistorians does into some amazing detail about the history of fashion and how elitist markers changed with the 14th century tailoring revolution from being more about expensive materials to being more about cutting edge styling. It would be good to cross-reference this with The Golden Thread by Kassia St Clair. It also specifically touches on how peasants and people in different time periods would have experienced societal change over their lifetimes.

I wrote it before I had a dedicated note for fashion, before I had notes about the changing standards of fashion, how fashion always changes, or how fashion responds to socioeconomic fashion. Which means, at the time I read the r/AskHistorians thread about 14th century clothes, I didn't have anything to connect it to. When I learned all that other stuff about fashion changing (during my research about sumptuary laws, according to these notes), I had forgotten about symbols of high status changing in 14th century Europe. It's not something I do a lot with, and wasn't relevant to sumptuary laws.

This is the kind of serendipity people talk about loving in their notes, and I agree! I'm glad I  had the opportunity to properly index in my new note about fashion.

But it is easier for me to deal with it in a long, orderly file with a collection of "misfit notes" about things I read and learned from, than for it to be hidden in a daily note I  have almost no reason to "touch" other than because I'm on a tear about deleting my old daily notes.

Periodic Review

I tried periodically reviewing my old notes, of course. It's an important part of the process, to review what you did, evaluate all the stuff, and process it. But the problem is that, a week or a month or a year later, I either don't know yet that it's going to be useful for my "fashion" notes, or I've accumulated so much potentially useful cruft that it's overwhelming to deal with everything.

I have hundreds of days worth of notes about illnesses and articles and exercise and gratitude and film. The point of the daily note is to put those things into the context of what else was going on that day, but that context is not usually important for me. There's little insight to be had from the fact that I read a particularly article on the same day I had a bit of a morning cough or picked some strawberries.

For me, the value is cross-day. It's knowing that I had a streak of exercising that lasted three weeks before I got sick. It's knowing that my strawberries ripened a month before the blueberries. It's seeing a collection of disjointed articles in one place so I can look for patterns. That's the whole reason I wrote my concatenation plugin, you know?

Besides, we've already established that I'm kind of bad at keeping habits, right? I find "spaced repetition" to work a lot better when I naturally touch files again, same as how I get more exercise when the weather's nice or I'm running around a school building than when I try to force myself to go to the gym every morning at 8am.

Wasted Work

But at the end of the day, this is mostly about the fact that I am pathologically opposed to anything my brain interprets as "extra work." I pride myself on efficiency — in the "found a better way to do this" sense, not the "I am soullessly eking productivity out of every second" sense. I struggle when asked to do things that feel like wasted time.

Writing information into different sections of my daily notes, and then concatenating them by a plugin I have to either figure out or maintain, keep up with or add features to... is a lot more work than putting the information into the correct log file in the first place.

There are plugins to help with that too, of course. QuickAdd is handy for quickly logging information, with a date, into a particular file. I have it set up so that if my husband tells me something about our son that I need to write down, I don't need to mess up my carefully arranged workspace of notes, I can just smack a hotkey and bring up a modal and enter the information. But most of the time, I log the information myself into the file — where I can see the previous entries. They provide context, reminders, and an additional "touch" for something I may have forgotten.

I find it's more useful to be shown things from a few days ago than a few hours ago, in terms of being a memory aid.

Easy Retrieval

The best part of the log files, though, is that it makes information easier to re-access later not just for me, but when dealing with other people. If I'm at the doctor, and they want to know the last time I was sick, or how often I've felt fatigued, I can just check the log instead of sifting through multiple notes. My son's grandmother doesn't care that my kid peed himself the same day that I researched the prevalence of rabies in American bats — she wants to know how many days it's been since the last accident, to have a better sense of how potty training is going. My husband doesn't care that we watched Altered Carbon the same day I took a nap, he just wants to know whether we should watch it or Roswell, New Mexico tonight.

Having information filed alongside its most useful context is a key advantage of my notes structure, and while linking and embeds and dataview offer a lot of ways to re-structure and re-use information, at the end of the day, having it all in the same file to begin with is generally pretty handy... because sometimes I need send my "business expenses log" to my accountant, and that's easiest if I don't have to try to write a DataviewJS script to create a table I can export into a PDF.

And if I ever do need to know everything that happened on a particular day, well, I can still find out. I still date-stamp things in my logs, for example:

🗒️
- 2022-06-05: the potatoes are growing pretty well. the oregano is losing out to the mint in the front bed. Lots of the strawberries seem slightly rotten. The chamomile has mostly dropped its petals. There are a few berries on the blackberry bush but they're not ripe yet. No raspberry flowers yet, I pruned those back pretty far this year. Asparagus is capable of coppicing when pruned back.
- 2022-06-07: got a few new strawberries. The neighbor offered to let me dig some of her runners up to plant in my strawberry bed, I ought to take her up on it when I have a bit more time. #priority
- 2022-06-08: the lavender is just about to bloom purple, right as the sage flowers have died back.

Although in retrospect, I wish I'd put the most recent stuff at the top 😅

Caveats

That said, if daily notes work for you, keep using them! They're probably worth a shot, and too many people like them and find them useful for me to claim they're, like, bad. I imagine they're great if you have a really structured working process where you do need to log what you do in a day and the date actually matters?

I assume it's similar to how task management apps work for lots of people, but never me. I don't really have deadlines for discrete tasks, and hate basically everything about the workflow to-do apps push people into. After years of futzing with different methods in my bullet journal I've discovered that I do better with lists of tasks I could do, or would like to do, separated out by category or prerequisites. I slap a few short-term priorities down wherever I'll actually see it on a given day, and then go about my day.

I stay on top of things, and don't get stressed out trying to manage complex automations and software. But that's just me — lots of people really rely on complex automations, and like them, and make it work for them. Leah is one of them, and if you are too, check out her great Conference Talk on starting & ending the day with a Daily Note.

It's the event that made me finally understand why they don't work for me, and from that perspective alone, I found it valuable. Maybe you will too! The best personal knowledge management system is, as always, personal.

💎
Quasi-related, a month or so ago I tweeted out the original "brain-dump" of what ultimately became this article. It's a screenshot of the original note in my Obsidian vault, but a bunch of folks replied with anecdata about their relationship with daily notes and log files. I also offered more examples and answered some questions. Check out the thread and replies if you're curious, and otherwise, have a great day 💚

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).

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