Obsidian Personal Knowledge Tools

Steps to a new ecology of mind

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!

Applications Drafts iOS iPad iPadOS iPhone Mac Productivity Tools Utilities

Drafts – a tool for idea capture

I’ve been using this handy utility for a few years now – but increasingly so over the last year. It’s kind of magical in the functionality it provides. While there are other good note taking apps – including Apple’s Notes app – Drafts is especially useful for capturing spur of the moment ideas for later processing. The developer describes Drafts as “where text starts. Quickly capture text and send it almost anywhere.”

Because Drafts is available everywhere in the Apple ecosystem – Mac, iPad, iPhone and Watch – it’s universally available whenever you need it. Apple Notes is mostly everywhere – but weirdly not on the Watch.

The way that Drafts works is simple but takes a bit of learning to grow accustomed to using it regularly. When you open Drafts on the Mac or iOS/iPadOS, it opens as a blank note – waiting for you to enter something. It’s designed for that quick capture – type in some text – or dictate it – and away you go. Sometime later you can come back to Drafts and review all of the notes you’ve captured – and decide what you want to do with each one.

I’ve put a complication for Drafts on my Apple Watch face so that with one tap I can open Drafts and begin capturing an idea using dictation on the Watch. After I’ve captured my idea, Drafts on the Watch will sync the note containing my new idea via iCloud and make it available to Drafts apps running on my other devices – Mac, iPhone, or iPad – where I can open it later and decide what to do with it. For example, if I have an idea for an email I need to send or a blog post I want to write, I can capture those initial thoughts using Drafts and later go back and “revise and extend” those thoughts as I choose – and then send that final version of the text out via email or into my blog application. It doesn’t get any handier.

Drafts has a number of additional features that continue to evolve as the developer releases new versions and as members of the Drafts community contribute actions and themes which extend the functionality of the app.

Drafts is no youngster – this month the developer is celebrating the app’s 10th anniversary. The app is available for free – but the advanced features require a Pro subscription which is available on a special deal this month (through April 2022) for $4.99 for the first year.

I’m a big fan of Drafts – and a Pro subscriber. It’s become a regular part of my daily tech life. I’m such a fan that I just wanted to highlight how useful it is to me – thus this post – which itself began on Drafts! Perhaps you’ll find Drafts a useful tool as well if you’re an Apple user.

Books Tools

Reading Tools

I’m a fickle reader – and read a wide variety of stuff. As a result, I like to browse a lot of books before deciding to dive in and truly reading one. I’ve come to rely on a couple of tools to help me in my quest for interesting book content.

When I come across mention of a book that sounds of interest, I will typically first search Amazon and take a look at the reviews for the book. I also frequently download the book’s sample so that I can spend a bit more time deciding whether I want to invest time and money in the book.

To quickly accomplish this, I use a Launchbar keyboard shortcut on my Mac’s which invokes an Amazon book search and opens a new browser tab directly on the book’s page. This is super fast and convenient – in a flash I can be there. Sometimes, if I’m in the middle of something, I’ll trigger the search, the tab will open, and then I’ll come back to it later. It will wait patiently for me to return.

In addition to free Kindle book samples, another Amazon feature – “Look Inside the Book” – is also helpful for reviewing the first few pages of a book.

I’ve used this approach for several years and it’s become second nature. More recently, I discovered Overdrive’s free iOS app Libby which performs a similar function for me doing a library search for a book. I have library cards for several of the area libraries and have set them all up in Libby. I can open Libby, enter a search, and see if one of my libraries has the book available in ebook format. If so, I can borrow it – or place a hold to be notified when a copy becomes available. Once I borrow it, I can request that the book be downloaded to my Kindle.

I have the Kindle app on all of my devices: Mac’s, iPhone, iPads, etc. Any book (or book sample) that I’ve downloaded to Kindle can be opened on any of those devices – depending on what’s with me.

The two tools that make this all possible are Launchbar on my Mac and the Libby app on iOS.