Organizing Your Notes on Obsidian

I use a note-taking app at work called Obsidian, but only recently did I get around to learning how to use more of its functionality.

For the uninitiated, Obsidian is a note-taking app that uses markdown, which is a markup language that’s simple to learn and readable.1 The advantage of a markup language is that it makes your formatting explicit in what you write. If you’ve ever struggled with manually adjusting unexpected indentations, spacings, etc. on Microsoft Word through a maze of drop-down menus and pop-up windows, that’s the kind of situation where a markup language would be helpful. On the other hand, the downside of a markup language is that it makes your formatting more restrictive. For example, in Microsoft OneNote, you can create multiple cells of text anywhere on the page; this would be prohibitively difficult to do in markdown. There’s more to be said about why markdown is popular, but I’ll leave it here for the sake of brevity.

What I want to talk about in this post instead is how to organize your notes on Obsidian. This has become an increasingly pressing issue for me as I’ve accumulated more and more notes.

PARA Method for Folders

Because I had an already existing folder structure for my notes, I didn’t completely abandon my folders. However, I did update my folders’ organizational structure using the PARA method. The PARA method says that every file can be classified into one of 4 categories: 1) Projects, 2) Areas, 3) Resources, or 4) Archive. Projects are for active projects (i.e. things that have a definite timeline). Areas are ongoing responsibilities (e.g. hiring, professional development tasks). Resources are evergreen notes (e.g. guides or notes on topics you’re learning). Archive is anything in the previous three folders that’s no longer active, but that you might want keep around as a reference. This concept is explained in more detail in this blog post. Using this method simplified my top level of folders and also provided more of a mental model for how the folder system should work.

Johnny Decimal for Naming

Lastly, I’m experimenting with the Johnny Decimal system to name and organize my folders. For me, the main advantage comes from the fact that on Obsidian, the folders and notes are organized alphabetically, so using numbers to begin each folder name allows me to specify the order of my folders. And having a system to decide how to number the folders is helpful for internal consistency. I don’t intend to strictly follow the system, since I’m no longer reliant on folders as the primary organizational structure for my notes. However, I’d like to mull over the whole organizational philosophy behind the Johnny Decimal system a bit more, as it may apply to other organizational needs in my life.

  1. It’s widely used in many contexts. Git repo README files are written in markdown. R Markdown, as the name indicates, is written in markdown. This blog post, using the blogdown R package, was also written in markdown.↩︎

  2. This concept was best explained to me in this reddit comment. Shout out to u/i_hate_shitposting.↩︎

  3. This structure was inspired by another helpful redditor.↩︎

  4. Obsidian does let you display backlinks for a note natively, but Dataview is much more powerful, as it lets you customize how you want to display them.↩︎

  5. We could also use Dataview tables to display notes from a folder or a tag, but backlinks are still the more flexible and streamlined way to “tag” your notes.↩︎

  6. If there’s a good use case for it, however, I would love to know.↩︎