Thoughts About Using Obsidian

by: Scott Nesbitt | 02 February 2022

(Note: Just so you know, I planned, outlined, and wrote the first couple of drafts of this article in Obsidian.)

Over the past 18 months or so, several readers of The Plain Text Project (as well as more than a couple of friends and folks I know) have been pointing me towards a certain piece of software. That software? Obsidian.

In addition to getting my ears (virtual and physical) filled with tales of Obsidian and what it can do for me, I read more than a bit about. By September, 2021 I was intrigued enough by Obsidian to cave into peer pressure.

I installed Obsidian on a laptop and spent about a month or so working with it. Not exclusively, mind you, but regularly and instead of certain other tools. Which leads us to the article that you’re reading now.

Here are a few of my thoughts about working with Obsidian.

Obsidian?

Obsidian is a piece of software that bills itself as a a powerful knowledge base on top of a local folder of plain text Markdown files. It’s essentially a turbo-charged note taking tool.

The folder mentioned in the previous paragraph is called a vault. Each file in the vault is a note, which can be just that or an outline or a task list or … well, just about anything you want or need the file to be

You can have multiple vaults — one for each project you’re working on or for specific purposes — for example, research for a paper or a vault containing personal files.

You can also add more featured to Obsidian using plugins. There are several pre-installed, including ones to import files formatted with Markdown and for creating outlines. There are also hundreds of plugins that were created by Obsidian’s community of users. You can use those plugins to, for example, modify Obsidian’s appearance, export your notes to various formats using pandoc, generate a travel itinerary, add a Pomodoro time to Obsidian, and more.

Obsidian’s superpower, though, is its ability to link between notes. That enables you to quickly jump between them as needed. Obsidian can also generate a visual map of the links between notes.

My Thoughts

As I mentioned at the top of this article, I used Obsidian for a month. I’m no expert with it, but I got a good feel for Obsidian and what it can do.

Obsidian is a solid tool, and I can see its usefulness. It’s not for me, though. Why? It’s ideal for bigger projects, for thinking in a grander way than I do or ever will. Obsidian can be useful for, say:

And more. That said, Obsidian doesn’t work in the way in which I work. My own projects are smaller in scope, with fewer connections and fewer moving parts. I tend to think in a more granular fashion. I look at and think about smaller pictures, not larger ones. I don’t stitch those smaller pictures into a larger, overarching one. When I try to use Obsidian, I feel like I’m trying to shoehorn the way in which I think and work into Obsidian’s framework. That's not a comfortable or efficient way to operate.

When I shared these thoughts with a few other people, they tried to convince me that I needed to delve deeper. They tried to convince me that Obsidian is a fresh, innovative tool. I’m not so sure about that. In many ways, I see Obsidian (and applications like it) as just the next step in the evolution of the wiki. A wiki with a few additional bits snapped on, but a wiki nonetheless.

Trying to Be Everything

Obsidian is one of those applications that people can use for everything. And, as I discovered, more than a handful do just that. In that way, it reminds me of Evernote or Emacs org-mode, and the ways in which many people use them.

You can use Obsidian to take notes, keep a journal, log your life, maintain task lists, organize your research, write, cultivate and publish a digital garden and much, much more. I can’t even begin to scratch the surface of what Obsidian can do and what people use it for.

For me, for what I do, Obsidian is just a bit too much. I find that whatever I can do with Obsidian I can do comfortably using my favourite text editor, a set of text files, and a well-planned folder structure. Taking that route keeps everything fairly lean and simple, which is how I like it.

That’s not to say Obsidian is bad. Or useless. It’s far from either. I can see how some folks would find Obsidian to be a boon.

One advantage I see to Obsidian is that you can have everything in one place. And using the right plugins, you can turn Obsidian into a work hub — you don’t need to jump between applications.

Final Thoughts

As I mentioned a few paragraphs ago, Obsidian just doesn’t fit into my way of working. For me, Obsidian offers little or no advantage over using plain text files and a simple text editor.

Features like Obsidian's map view and its abundance of plugins are interesting, but they really only get in my way. And since I don’t often link, or need to link, directly or explicitly between notes that isn’t a selling point for me.

I don’t have enough incentive to spend time adapting the way in which I work to Obsidian. I gave it a close look, but it didn’t work out.

Even though Obsidian isn’t for me, it might be for you. Here are some links to help you learn more about the software: