Yesterday evening, Ton Zijlstra organized the first Dutch Obsidian meetup. I didn’t really know what to expect, and in the end I’m glad I let my curiosity get the better of me, as we chatted for almost two hours on various struggles with contemporary note-taking using the relatively new note-taking player, Obsidian. Read Frank Meeuwsen’s expectations and Ton’s afterthoughts on their respective blogs (in Dutch). Together with Sebastiaan Andeweg and myself, the four of us had a great time showing each other how we tackle digital note-taking. It turned out to be a small but quirky group of like-minded people: all active note-takers, life-hackers, and apparently also IndieWeb-enabled bloggers!
Of course, I took notes, the Brain Baking way: with pen and paper. Here’s the synthesis.
On having a method
We’re all victims of collector’s fallacy. We all love web-clipping stuff, and cramming as much information as possible in what we think is our “second brain”. I loved how Ton mused on the impact Evernote had on his note-taking life back when it was released, while now, we all four got rid of it by somehow exporting enex files. Ton recognized Obsidian as a powerful linking tool that really could change the way he (and we) process information. Contrary to Evernote, we now all try to chain stuff together using
[[wikilinks]], and creating beautiful node graphs as a result.
I was a bit jealous at the sheer amount of notes Ton had, but in hindsight, I think I’m glad I’m very strict in what goes into Obsidian and what does not make it there. I have a couple of strict filtering rules, everything starts on analog notebooks that get scanned in, as I explained before. It seemed important to have a method, and trying to adhere to it. I based my “Brain Bakings” (Breinbaksels in Dutch) method on Andy’s Evergreen Notes and Sönke Ahrens' How to Take Smart Notes systems. We all agreed that we shouldn’t blindly copy others' methods, but just see what works for us. For instance, I completely omit timestamps or IDs - they’re useless in my system1.
Frank asked me how I review my analog notes, if there’s a method involved there. I proceeded to explain my way, but ended up with saying something like “well, it’s a bit ad-hoc”. I liked Ton’s idea of getting up early and starting the day with reviewing and shuffling in your own (second) brain. Cleaning up, linking stuff, reworking bits and pieces. And only then, after an hour or so, you can turn on “the world” (WiFi). I did laugh when Frank said it’s scary to turn off WiFi. I think we’re all a bit information-overloaded nowadays. I never got into Twitter because of that. I admittedly need to be much more strict with this, as it regularly happens that my notes aren’t reviewed or processed at all. Especially lately as I’m not feeling that great mentally. Who does nowadays.
About note gardening
We briefly touched upon storage. There’s a Git plugin, apparently. I honestly don’t care, my work already requires me to type
git push more times a day than I can count, and Time Vault backups are sufficient. I don’t care for note history. But that did bring us to an interesting topic, as someone brought up older Wiki things.
It reminded me of keeping a DokuWiki on my site for my software engineering work - all Java-specific commands and old stuff that might be laughable nowadays, that I luckily got rid of. Still, I think many notes that we store - digitally - should also be re-read to determine whether it’s still relevant or not. Or maybe to add a few links to it. I use Obsidian’s random button for that, but not too often. Sebastiaan is writing a review plugin that takes advantage of the concept of spaced repetition, which sounded really cool. I hope it’ll get published someday.
I did notice Sebastiaan saying “I develop websites, I don’t consider myself a real information worker like you guys”. I found that peculiar, as all note-takers are information workers, and could do with a bit of note gardening! The statement did help me in thinking how to use Obsidian strategically for my work, to come up with ideas worth researching, and ultimately, publish more. Sönke states that using a Zettelkasten-like system is useless if you don’t plan to publish. Why put in stuff when you don’t get something out of it? When I read academic papers, I often get bored. As a result, I don’t add a note - which could have been the golden seed for a new concept.
A few more loose ends
- Context is important, we concluded. I regularly take notes without it, only to come back to the note a few weeks later where I can’t make up the what/how/why and end up discarding it. Whoops.
- Commonplace books are a great way to capture the unique Zeitgeist of the moment(s). Another reason why I do my thing analog, accompanied by stickers, markers, fountain pens, parts of photos, …
- Should you keep work and private in a separate Obsidian Vault? Maybe. I don’t (anymore), and a few important links that cross boundaries have already been made, which I’m quite proud of. Ton mentioned client sensitive info that might get stripped in-between publication: maybe an added layer of processing is needed there?
- Self-documentation is a good reason to blog regularly. Sebastiaan said “I’m my own biggest blog reader” - he regularly rummages through his own writings to find out what he’s been up to.
- Note-taking (privately) in Obsidian has quenched Seb’s thirst to write. As a result, he blogs less often on seblog.nl. Interesting how these two are related to one another.
- I’m ashamed to admit I’m the only English blogger, and I love the idea of writing in Dutch, but I’ve been there, and it didn’t work. Should I reconsider - again?
To conclude, I am really pleased with the way I take notes - even though I should really plan a review process more often. I love the physical act of writing, and it omits the need for a LED screen - which I spend way too much time in front of anyway. Ton showed his eINK digital note-taker which is sometimes a part of his method. I didn’t even know those things existed. It was really great to meet like-minded people, and although we talked a lot about gathering data, we should definitely think about how to manage information overload next time!
I should indeed do a complete writeup on “my system”. Some day. There was also talk about what to publish and what to keep private. I don’t mind publishing my method, but most of my written notes do stay private, as they also contain a lot emotional or family-related things. ↩︎