I view life as a perpetual learning opportunity, with each day presenting a chance to gain some kind of new knowledge. Whether it’s a concept, a skill, or something to practice, I think life’s difficulties become a little more bearable when I choose to see things that way.
Philosophy aside, I needed a way to keep track of all the new information I was starting to collect. And as I learned more about the Zettelkasten (opens in a new tab) method of studying and taking notes, I needed a tool to build what is called a second brain. And I found Obsidian (opens in a new tab).
If you want to improve your study and note-taking habits, let me tell you about this invaluable program.
What is Obsidian?
Obsidian is a powerful yet simple markdown editor that functions as a knowledge base in addition to basic text (.md) files. There’s no funky formatting or anything. You can freely edit the notes in another app or manually add your markdown files to your Obsidian Vault.
The community has a host of plugins in addition to those that come with Obsidian itself. I haven’t exploited many of them since the app does what I want it to do at this point – and I’m still learning its intricacies. But you can expand obsidian as you wish. It’s really what you want.
Obsidian’s goal is to offload much of your knowledge base from your head into software that can manage and map it for future reference and connections. The space in your brain is finite, so you will lose information over time and absorb new knowledge.
It’s called a second brain, and Obsidian facilitates it better than any other app I’ve tried. Although I wish it was open source, you can use it offline and save your chests wherever you want. Obsidian offers two official methods of syncing your notes, Obsidian Sync and iCloud, the first of which is a $9.99/month subscription.
No other services are technically supported. Personally, I sync my vault with my NAS, which allows me to switch between Windows, Linux, macOS, and android quite easily without paying anything. It’s just that I’m unlucky when it comes to my iPhone (opens in a new tab)which only supports official sync methods due to Apple’s file system restrictions.
What is a second brain?
Don’t let the sci-fi connotations of the term “second brain” put you off. Creating one simply means designing a system to capture, connect, disseminate and retrieve knowledge. You register thoughts, ideas, connections and reflections, freeing up space in your real brain to absorb new information, which you then register ad nauseam.
A second brain can take many forms. You can use the notecard system from the original Zettelkasten system, a mundane book, or something like Obsidian. I use a combination of all three, combining the Zettelkasten method with obsidian. I have a separate commonplaces book that I carry with me everywhere. I record ideas and things that I have picked up throughout my day that I find interesting.
The advantage of creating a digital second brain in Obsidian means that you can easily link and search for topics. It’s also more portable, especially if you sync with the mobile app. You can also implement your own marking system, further organizing your knowledge.
How I use obsidian
Everyone uses obsidian in their own way, which means the way I do things may not work for you. I keep my Obsidian workflow and setup simple so I don’t get distracted by too many bells and whistles – unfortunately I’m very sensitive to that.
First I set up a template for the new notes. It automatically extracts the title of a note as Heading 1, then adds a timestamp, then a references section. I’m very picky about citing my sources and linking my notes, so I usually fill my references box to the brim.
With my template ready to go, I’m ready to create a new note. Since I aim to follow the Zettelkasten method, I have three types of obsidian notes. The first are ephemeral notes, where I record spontaneous ideas from a book or article I’m reading, a podcast I’m listening to, or a video I’m watching.
Most of my note taking takes place in the next two sections, Literature Notes and Standing Notes. In the first case, the files look like what you might be used to in school. I write the concepts that come to me from a text or a lecture. Since Obsidian uses markdown, keeping things formatted in an easy-to-digest way is a breeze.
The permanent notes are where most of my knowledge resides. This is where I take ideas from my ephemeral notes and concepts from my literature notes and combine them into authentic notes and reflections. This is where I do most of my information processing, going back and forth when my mind notices a connection. You’d be surprised how much similarities seemingly disparate subjects can share, such as philosophy and data analysis.
I also use Obsidian for my personal documentation because I run so many different projects around my house that I find it hard to keep up. This can cause issues when I try to replicate a solution in the future, so I use Obsidian to combat it. I also have a huge file of definitions that I come across in my studies that I can easily link and reference while taking notes.
Using Obsidian as a knowledge base, a second brain, takes time to develop. This system that I have comes from months of work and fine-tuning. I am still perfecting it. Don’t be discouraged by the range of possibilities. Find someone’s system that speaks to you and adopt it, then adapt it to your needs.
I still consider myself a novice with Obsidian, performing basic functions like note binding and essential organizational structures. However, it completely revolutionized my study habits. Whenever I read or watch something informative, I have Obsidian open to jot down notes in my Fleeting Notes section.
If you really want to build a second brain, you should give Obsidian a try. I think you’ll be impressed with its power and versatility, as well as the fact that it’s basically future proof, even if the app itself is gone tomorrow.
So give it a try, implement it into your study habits. We should all seek knowledge whenever we get the chance, so let Obsidian walk that path with you.