Posted on 2023-11-27

Read Time: 6 minutes | 1148 words

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Workflows in Obsidian

Is the tool worth the work?

I sometimes think that Obsidian is a lot like a Bullet Journal1. They’re tools that sound like a good idea, but too often they become a barrier or another thing to do before you actually start the real work. Advocates of the tool-sets will tell you to start simple. They make it sound like it is easy to adapt and evolve as you use the tool. They forget to tell you that every lesson you learn and incorporate into your workflow probably involves re-factoring everything you have done before. This means you either suffer with a tool that doesn’t work as well as it should, or you go through a ton of setup before you really get going. Because there is so much setup involved, it is very easy to let your Bullet journal or your Obsidian planner become more about the display than the work.

That isn’t to say that Obsidian isn’t an excellent tool. It is. With the growth of DataView, the incorporation of Canvas elements, and the growth of an impressive set of plug-ins, Obsidian continues to improve while never losing its core focus on locally managed markdown files. It is a tool that can do a lot and do it well if you are willing to put in the work to set it up.

Workflows in Obsidian matter. I don’t care whose workflow you follow or if you roll your own (I tend to mix and match to suit my needs), you need to develop a plan. This plan gets complicated when your workflow is heavily focused on research and writing. At least it is for me.

Research Ecosystem

Since I am currently not affiliated with a University (I work for a non-profit), I have to leverage a variety of tools and sources to attempt to replace an academic library2. This means pulling from a lot of different sources and locations. To do this, I leverage Zotero for source management and Raindrop for web content bookmarking and highlights. I use Newsblur as an RSS feed reader which can save the articles I want to keep into Raindrop.

I am also testing Readwise and their tools for this year. Readwise was interesting to me because it’s Reader tool has an Obsidian plug-in that provides very nice interface for reading and note-taking on my Boox Note Air2. This allows me to save a book or an article (web, epub, or pdf) in Readwise and then read it on an E-Ink reader and take notes that are then automatically exported into Obsidian. It is slick, but I am still leery about Readwise’s security model and their longevity. I wish Zotero had better options for that type of work3.

The nice thing about Obsidian is that once the content is pulled in, it is easy to start working and connecting themes and data. I have custom tags and topics identified in the import templates for Raindrop, Zotero, and Readwise. These topics are then linked to a research topics page. I can then use the sources and the highlights to generate thoughts and concepts and connect them with ongoing research which includes those topics.

These concepts and ideas become the outline elements of a written piece. Since I have Zotero and my highlights, I can easily pull together a lit review for any specific element I need as I go. I can also see where my lit review may be a bit weak and research accordingly.

Writing

Once I have pulled together enough concepts and ideas, I can begin to structure the written piece. I write a lot, so my Obsidian structure for writing adapts to each of the mediums.

Articles

Arguable the most complex pieces I normally write. These are often treated as projects within Obsidian. During a research review, I will come up with a question I want to explore. I will dig a bit, find something cool, and then I will deep dive. Once I have enough to think something has legs, I create a project and begin the writing process. This is newer to me as an approach, but I am finding that it has some real benefits. I was a bit worried it would slow down my process, but I think the content it generates is cleaner. At least I hope that will be the case.

Blog Posts

This post was drafted in a subsection of Obsidian before it is handed off to Hugo for staging. I used to write the posts elsewhere, but I found that added step only added more friction to my posting schedule. Working on posts in Obsidian allows me track and manage them with the rest of my writing.

Poetry and Fiction

Most of my fiction is TTRPG related and all of my world and story elements are managed in Obsidian4. I often write small vignettes or pieces to help set up interstitial events or to help give the players a sense of what is happening more broadly. These stories are also written and stored in Obsidian.

I don’t write poems in Obsidian. I did try to store my poetry in Obsidian, once. It doesn’t work. I usually start a poem on paper. If I do start a poem in an editor, it is a minimalist editor and only the page is evident. Markdown doesn’t work for poetry at least not for me. Even in the editing phase when a poem does move from paper to digital editor, I find it easier to work in plain text.

Is it worth it?

That is the question, and my answer is a resolute, “I don’t know.”

The setup was a bear and took a lot of time. While Obsidian can do a lot of things very well, I am not entirely convinced that there aren’t other ways to do this work. I kind of miss my comps workflow where I took notes on paper and then retyped them into a MkDocs site for review. This reinforced my notes while creating a valuable research tool with a lot less actual work than Obsidian.

That said, I am happy with what I built, and it does make my life easier. Maybe Obsidian doesn’t reduce my work, but it does help me conduct research, link ideas, and manage my work in a unified space. That is incredibly valuable. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that it takes so much effort to manage the chaos of my work. Perhaps, that speaks more about me than it does the tool.


  1. See also: Tiling Window Managers ↩︎

  2. The one thing I sorely miss from working in Academia is having access to an Academic Library and its resources. ↩︎

  3. You can do something similar with Zotero, but there are so many complexities involved in setting that up. It is absolutely not a portable solution. ↩︎

  4. There are some truly phenomenal tools for TTRPGs in Obsidian. ↩︎

Author: Geoffrey Gimse

Tags: #obsidian  #workflows  #hugo  #blogging 

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