How I Used Obsidian to Build a Personal Knowledge Base
I’ve been using Obsidian as a tool for learning for the past year. I got serious about using it in May 2022 after exploring it earlier for a few months. I like to think I’ve learned a few things along the way about how this powerful tool can be effectively used (at least for me) – and where it might be less useful and, in fact, can end up wasting time instead of helping accelerate thinking and learning.
One of the most important lessons I’ve learned is the power of Obsidian to literally be able to do almost anything you might want a computer to do. It’s such a powerful and flexible platform – with so many others writing community plug-ins that help them accomplish specific tasks – that it’s way too easy to end up creating a “monstrosity.”
By that I mean an almost Rube Goldberg-like creation that can do what you need but is built on a variety of frameworks, plug-ins, scripts, Dataview queries, etc. I began to head down those paths early on in my explorations with Obsidian – it’s almost addictive in providing fun ways to do the things you think you need it to do.
However, I’ve come to realize that the best way to use Obsidian for learning is to keep it simple. Don’t get caught up in the endless possibilities of what you can do with it. Instead, focus on using it to capture your thoughts and ideas, organize your notes, and create links between them.
Based on my experience, here are a few tips for using Obsidian effectively for learning:
- Start by creating a simple note-taking system. This could be as simple as creating a new note for each topic you’re learning about. You can then use tags and links to organize your notes.
- Use Obsidian’s backlinks feature to connect your notes. This is a powerful way to see how your different ideas are related. As you investigate a particular topic and collect notes, you may find it help to create a high level “map of content” which links to those specific notes. Popularized by Nick Milo, the map of content idea provides a very useful organizational tool for helping add some structure to your notes – without trying to use a more rigid folder structure for example.
- Learn the most important Hotkey shortcuts – in particular ⌘-o which allows you to quickly go to any note in your vault and ⌘-p (Command Palette) which is a quick way to invoke any of Obsidian’s commands.
- Don’t be afraid to experiment with different plug-ins. There are a lot of great plug-ins available that can make Obsidian even more powerful. However, don’t get caught up in the endless possibilities of what you can do with them. Focus on using the plug-ins that will help you learn more effectively. Try to use now more than 10 community plug-ins – some of which (like Dataview) are really esssential.
- Most importantly, keep it simple. Obsidian is a powerful tool, but it’s easy to get bogged down in the details. Remember that the goal is to use it to learn, not to build a complex system. Be careful about trying to, for example, use Obsidian for task management or journaling. Both of those areas have excellent purpose-built tools that are available and which work much more effectively in my experience rather than trying to build that capability in Obsidian. Some folks seem to delight in using Obsidian as kind of a “Swiss Army knife” – I don’t and don’t recommend that approach.
- There are some incredible resources available for learning more about using Obsidian – and about how to apply its tools for learning and thinking. I particularly recommend the many YouTube videos by Nick Milo and Nicole van den Hoeven. Both have made great contributions to the Obsidian community – and both offer paid workshops and courses as well. Mike Schmitz has also just announced his Obsidian University which begins its first cohort in June.
- Experiment and play with the LYT Kit “vault” which Nick Milo has made available. It’s a great way to get started and learn. With Obsidian, you can have multiple vaults open – so you could open your personal vault and then also open LYT Kit and flip between them as you learn and explore.
I hope these tips help you use Obsidian effectively for learning. I’ve found it to be a wonderful tool with pretty amazing capabilities. But do try to keep your usage simple!