5 min read

Less Structure, More Capture - My Setup for Capturing Thoughts

Update 2023-01: I have now switched to a paper-based note taking workflow. Still have to figure out where Obsidian fits in this flow. There may be another post in the future.

As humans we have a long history of recording, storing and structuring ideas in just about every format imaginable. Humanity as a whole has developed a myriad of standards for the data that is produced as a result of this. We have languages for communicating ideas and writing systems to store and retrieve them. Technology has enabled us to speed up those processes, to create new forms of capture like video and music, and even to generate new ideas without human input.

While the ancient greek philosopher Socrates lamented the forgetfulness that comes with capturing our thoughts, without this system of storing information in written words, the world would be at a great loss of knowledge that has been accumulated throughout the ages. You can look up just about any piece of information you can think of.

[Writing] will introduce forgetfulness into the soul of those who learn it: they will not practice using their memory because they will put their trust in writing, which is external and depends on signs that belong to others, instead of trying to remember from the inside, completely on their own

Socrates, as written down by Plato

The thing you cannot look up, however, is how to look up a specific bit of knowledge. You have to know where to look, what factors to look out for (i.e. biases in information presentation, affiliations of the knowledge provider etc.) and even then there is no certainty in having really grasped the concept, fact, idea or whatever it was you have been looking for. In addition to that, just looking up something may not even be the best way for you to gain any insight. Maybe you need to read another explanation of a concept explained by another source, maybe you need to put down an explanation in your own words to better understand it, maybe you need to discuss with another person to check for blind spots in your understanding, in short: humans are wildly different in the way they best approach a topic new to them.

I have been thinking about this a lot lately. Why is it that some ways of learning something just feel natural to me while others quickly become a bore or aren't working at all? One conclusion I arrived at is that every system that imposes too much structure on me right from the start (i.e. before actually capturing something) won't work for me. It's just not how my mind works. As an aside, these systems also often need way too much maintenance because they're too customizable. This is something I can easily get lost in and spend way more time in than actually consuming something and capturing from it.

Things I encounter repeatedly get ingrained into my memory and I can recall most of them when I see a connection or a matching pattern. Bits of knowledge like that just pop into my head. So it seems to ring true, at least for me, what the Russian writer Vladimir Nabokov thought about reading: "one cannot read a book: one can only reread it". Of course, rereading is more a form of recognition, while retrieval gives a more accurate measure of knowing something.

You've got to put it somewhere

I ultimately settled for Obsidian as my tool of choice due to its community, customizability and the possibilities for integration into my workflow. As you may have seen already, it is by no means the only tool in the note-taking app universe. It just suited my needs best, but the following core aspects of my setup could be achieved with many other tools as well.

Almost no folders. This is a big one, as an imposed structure tends to be accompanied with a cognitive overhead for me. I don't want to decide where best to put something, so there is almost nothing where something can be put. I have one Journal folder with nested yearly folders where all my daily notes go. Only used occasionally when I want to capture something that happened on that day. Obsidian Meta is the second folder where I store attachments and templates.

One single inbox note where everything goes first. If I notice I am capturing similar things repeatedly (i.e. through search or recall), I refactor them into their own note and link to it from the inbox note (using the Note Refactor plugin). To capture new input as quickly as possible, I use two iOS/macOS shortcuts that basically just open the Inbox file at the last line (using the Advanced URI plugin):

  • iOS shortcut in the widgets section left to the home screen
  • macOS shortcut assigned to a global keyboard shortcut (⇧⌘O)

I've also played around with a shortcut for daily notes that pulls some additional data to view the note in some context.

The text snippet that prepends contextual information to the YAML front matter

At first, I had the shortcut also take the input, though I wouldn't recommend it as the GPS tasks take quite some time depending on your reception/location which jinxed my whole input a few times. Now, the shortcut just prepends the above data and I can edit the rest directly in Obsidian.
Additionally, the file is pinned as a tab and has two underscores prefixed so it's always on top when sorting by file name A-Z and I can quickly find it while working in Obsidian itself (the global keyboard shortcut also works here, of course).

One note for sources that also has an underscore prefixed. Here I put bookmarks to articles with short summaries so I can find them better via search. This also helps me in understanding and retaining the information in the sources. I am currently exploring how to quickly and logically file away book notes. At the moment, they just get a $ prefixed. Maybe I just pull them into the sources note via the Dataview plugin by filtering for the dollar sign.

Everything I want to find is done through search (using the Omnisearch plugin to get an Alfred/Spotlight-like search window within Obsidian). Sometimes I still use the built-in search as this gives me an always available window while Omnisearch disables the editor for the time of searching. Maybe they can be used in conjucntion: built-in search for more complex search tasks and Omnisearch as a quick note switcher.

Example search of "avocado" using Omnisearch

Basically, the whole system is geared towards quick capture and quick retrieval with as little imposed structure as possible.

The plugins that help me achieve this setup are

  • Advanced URI for appending to the inbox file and prepending data to the daily note
  • Dataview for (eventually) pulling the single book notes into the sources note
  • File Explorer Note Count for a current glimpse into the amount of notes I have, just a nice visual addition
  • Note Refactor for creating a new note from a selection. I use the "Extract selection to new file - use first line as file name" command (assigned to ⇧⌘N)
  • Omnisearch for quickly searching through my vault
  • Paste URL into selection pastes links "into" text for convenience, although it's not really that much faster than selecting text and pressing ⌘K
  • Periodic notes for quickly creating weekly or monthly notes, not used that often

My main windows are setup to have everything available at a glance:

  • left side pane: folders and (built-in) search
  • main window: pinned tab with inbox note
  • right side pane: outline of current note and local graph

Now, I am not saying that this is in any way the correct way of setting up Obsidian and there are countless videos and tutorials that show how to maximize the app's functionality. However, what I have summarized here is what works for me and the way I think and write.