Category Archives: software

Journal in Obsidian Notes?

Once I got the hang of how Obsidian worked for me, once I realized the power of its linking capabilities, and that it really did everything I wanted a note-taking app to do, it was natural to consider what could go into my vault. Daily notes were a given, of course. All of my reading notes, and even a version of my reading list could go in there. Borrowing some concepts from Zettelkasten, it could become a kind of digital commonplace book, something I’ve always wanted. What about my journal? With all of the other information in one place, linkable and searchable, it seemed to make sense that my journal should go there as well.

The thing is, my journal has always been handwritten, going back to 1996. There were times when I experimented with it in a digital form, but I always came back to the handwritten form. In the current incarnation (since late 2017), they fill eight Moleskine Art Collection sketchbooks.

My collection of journals.
My collection of Moleskine journals

As it turns out, how I keep my journal lends itself Obsidian linking. Rather than an entry-per-day, I number entries, beginning at 1. Each discrete entry gets its own number. I date the first one of each day, but there may be two or three entries in a day, each of which will have its own number. I did this thinking ahead: if I ever wanted to index the thing, I wouldn’t have to worry about what volume or page and entry was on. All I’d need was its entry number. (I took this lesson from Isaac Asimov’s description of how he numbered entries in his Biographical Encyclopedia of Science and Technology in order to avoid the tedious work of tying index entries to page numbers.) Thus, I have 1,782 unique “entries” each with its own number. This makes it ideal for linking in Obsidian.

Several weeks ago, I decided to give it a try, and I began writing my journal entries in Obsidian, giving each entry a unique number, continuing from where I left off. I liked being able to link these entries to other notes.

Journal entries listed in Obsidian
Journal entries in Obsidian

Something nagged at me, however. I missed writing in my journal. I missed how the pages contain more than just writing. I paste pictures and clippings in the pages. Sometimes I sketch things. It just didn’t feel the same typing the entries rather than writing them out in my journal.

A typical multimedia page from my journal.
A typical “multimedia” journal entry

It occurred to me that I might have the best of both worlds with a little effort. At the end of each week, for instance, I could type up the entries I’d written in the Moleskine notebook, copying the entries into Obsidian. Then they’d be there for searching and linking. After a little thought, that felt like a monumental waste of time.

Last night, I decided not to keep my journal in Obsidian and to continue with the notebooks. I did this for several reasons:

  1. I still think there is a compelling argument for how long paper lasts. Digital media has been around half a century or so. Paper has been around centuries. Witness John Adams’s diaries or Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks.
  2. I don’t actually search through my journals that much to make it worthwhile to put every entry into digital form.
  3. When I do search them, I enjoy the feel of flipping through them, seeking out what I am looking for.

But there was one other thing that occurred to me that sealed the deal for me. My Daily Notes in Obsidian serve as an index to my life. If I needed to know when I wrote about something in my journal, I need go no further than my daily notes. I can search them for the appropriate reference and then use the date of those notes to look up any entries in my journal. Moreover, if I write something in the journal and want to make sure I can find it easily, I can just add a reference to the entry number in my daily notes.

That seemed to satisfy me, and with that, I began this morning, transcribing those entries I made in Obsidian back to my Moleskine notebook. Going forward, the journal will stay in a notebook, but I’ll rely more and more on the daily notes as a kind of compass for finding what I need.

How I Capture Reading Notes in Obsidian

In addition to automating my daily notes with Obsidian, it quickly became clear to me that Obsidian‘s note-linking capabilities would allow me to capture my reading notes in Obsidian in a really useful way. Moreover, because of Obsidian’s powerful linking capability, it occurred to me that my Obsidian vault could serve as a database for my reading. To describe how I managed to do this (so far) in a step-by-step manner will required a little history first.

A Brief History of My Reading List

I began keeping a list of every book I finished reading back on January 1, 1996. Although I am no longer certain of why I started keeping the list (was it part of a New Year’s resolution?) I am fairly certain that I was influenced by an early reading list I found on the Internet, Eric W. Leuliette’s “What I Have Read Since 1974“.

As a developer (even back then), I decided I would build an elaborate relational database to store my reading list. Over the years, it went through many iterations, and forms. When time became short, I moved the list out of the database and into Excel, or Google Sheets. Finally, several years ago, I settled on a plain text file using Markdown format, and that is how I’ve kept my list ever since.

But I’ve been bothered by shortcomings on this list. There are redundancies I don’t like about it. I have no easy way of referring to books or authors separate from the list. There are things I’d like to automate about it but that the format makes tricky.

A Brief History of My Reading Notes

With all of the reading I do, I have trouble remembering important details of what I read about. So I started keeping notes on my reading. This evolved out of how I kept notes on my reading back in college, and has continued to evolve over the decades since. It was in college that I first decided it was okay for me to write in my books. After all, if I was spending so much money on them, I might as well make them my own, right?

These days, I highlight books, writing margins, and with e-books, I highlight and make short notes on my Kindle devices and apps. But I still have no good way of aggregating these notes into useful groups, categories, and certainly no way of readily searching them.

As I started using Obsidian, and began to see how I could better organize my books and reading lists in its vault structure, I began to get a hint of ways that I might start to link my reading notes back to the books they are associated with, my reading, and other notes.

Enter Zettelkasten

I’d never heard of Zettelkasten before I started using Obsidian. Zettelkasten was originally invented as a way to link paper notes together to be able to easily create connections (links) between then. While it was workable on paper, such a process could be greatly improved with hypertext tools, and it so happens that Obsidian’s note-linking capability is idea for this.

One important idea from Zettelkasten is that a note should contain a single thought or piece of information (say, a passage highlighted in a book). That note is given a unique identifier. In addition to the passage, one would add their own thoughts to the note, and perhaps further link that note to other notes and ideas that are related to it. Zettelkasten has its own unique numbering system for “naming” the notes. Obsidian has a plug-in for creating a “Zettelkasten number” for this purpose that is based on the date/time the note is created. I wasn’t particularly fond of that identifier because it duplicates information already contained in the note itself. After all, the note is just a file in the file system, and has its own create and modified date/times as part of the file. A good identifier does’t embed real data. It’s just an identifier.

I also struggled a bit to figure out how this would work for my reading notes. I originally imagined that if I had a note for each book I read, I could simply add my highlights and annotations to that note. Zettelkasten, however, suggested that rather than adding that highlight to the book note, I’d create a separate note for just the highlight or annotation, and then link it to the book note–as well any other notes it might make sense to link it to. This took a while for me to process, and I thought about it a lot as I built out my reading library in Obsidian.

My Obsidian Library

So how did I decided to structure my reading notes in Obsidian? I’ll try to go through the step-by-step process I have for putting this all together, in case someone is interested in reproducing this.

Step 1: Establishing the structure

I decided that because of Obsidian’s great linking capability, I could use the file system itself as a relational database. In deciding this, I further decided that there were 3 main “objects” I wanted to be able to capture at a kind of atomic level. That is, three things that make up the structure of my reading library:

  1. Things I read, e.g., books, articles, stories, etc.
  2. Authors: the people who write the things in #1.
  3. My notes as they relate to #1 and #2.

From this, I established the following structure of folders in within my Obsidian vault:

My folder structure for Reading notes in Obsidian.
  • Commonplace Book contains all of my reading notes.
  • Library contains all of the “atomic” notes that make up my reading library:
    • Authors: a single note for each unique author in my library
    • Articles: a single note for each unique article (often not tied to a book) in my library.
    • Book: a single note for each unique book in my library
    • Essays: a single note for each unique essay in my library; these are often related to books.
    • Stories: a single note for each unique story in my library.

Step 2: Deciding what goes into a note

Once I had my structure, I had to decide what goes into a note of each type. What is it I want to know about authors, books, stories, etc.? This was fairly easy for me as I’ve been thinking about it for a long time (years, actually). I had in mind an idea that I could write an API that uses these files as a database to query them and produce results. With that in mind, I decided to start by keeping things simple, knowing that I could add detail as needed going forward.

For authors, I wanted just some basic information. Here is a typical author note, in this case, for Alan Lightman, whose new book I read earlier this week:

A sample author note for Alan Lightman.

The backlinks section is generated automatically by a script that I have that runs nightly. I know that I could just click on the “Linked mentions” in Obsidian to see all of the backlinks, but I wanted the related books on the note as a reference in case I access the file outside of Obsidian.

For books (or essays, stories, articles), I also kept things simple. A typical book (or essay, or article, or story) looks like this:

A sample title note for In Praise of Wasting Time

Note that in both authors and books there are links back and forth between the files. The book file refers to the author. The author file has link references back to the books. Moreover, you’ll note that in the book, there is an “Annotations” section with a list of links. These are auto-generated links to my notes and highlights for the book. I’ll have more to say on these shortly, but the important thing is that each note and highlight is a separate file (in the Zettelkasten vain) and is included with the book as a “transclusion” link, meaning that when I view the note in preview mode, it “includes” the links files as part of the note, like this:

Title note in preview mode with transcluded annotations visible.

Step 3. Populating the database

Once I had the structure I wanted, I needed to populate my database. I was fortunate in this regard on 2 counts: (1) I happened to recently create a SQLite database of my books, and (2) I can write code relatively easily. I wrote a script that crawled my book database, and from it, creating the notes for books and authors in Obsidian. This turned out to be a surprisingly simple exercise. (The Python script was 130 lines.)

My digital commonplace book

I first learned of commonplace books reading a biography of Thomas Jefferson (in this case, it was Williard Sterne Randall’s Thomas Jefferson: A Life.) Jefferson (and others in his time) would copy passages from their reading into a book. This helped with memorization, but it also provided a resource where they could add notes and observations. I’ve always liked this concept, and I decided that Obsidian would finally allow me to put it into action in a way I’d envisioned.

It is trivial to create a note and add it to the note containing the book to which it is related. But what if the note ultimately relates to more than one thing? Reading about Zettelkaten provided me with insights into how I might handle this. The naming convention in Zettelkasten (and the way it is implemented in Obsidian) bothered me. Neither made much sense. How do you search for things with essentially coded filenames?

I was in the shower when I finally had a breakthrough insight on this. I’m not searching for a filename, I’m searching for file content. If each annotation and highlight I can link it to as many notes as makes sense. Furthermore, I can add tags to each note. The name of the file doesn’t matter. What matter is how it links to other notes, and that all files are searchable.

I still didn’t like the file-naming scheme for Zettelkasten in Obsidian, which essentially uses a datetime stamp down to the current second. So a file might be named: 20210215084456. Given that one is not likely to create two of these notes within the same second, it guarantees uniqueness. But from a database perspective, identifiers like these are not supposed to embed any information. They should be strictly identifiers. Moreover, the with the date embedded in the note title, I would be duplicating information that already exists in the file properties.

I decided instead to use a Guid, or what is sometimes called a UUID. This is another form of a unique identifier that doesn’t embed information, just produces a unique code. (For those tech-savvy folks reading this, I used Python’s UUID4 which doesn’t use the MAC address as part of the identifier.)

When I have a new note or highlight for a book, it goes into my Commonplace Book folder in Obsidian. These notes also have a specific structure. A typical one looks like this:

A typical note, Zettelkasten style.

Each annotation begins with a Source that links back to the source for that annotation. It may or may not have tags associated with it. That is followed by the body of the annotation, which may be a highlighted passage. Finally, there are my own notes related to the specific passage. In the above example, my notes also link to another book, making this particular annotation related to more than one note. That is, a link has been created between Creativity, Inc by Ed Catmull and Amy Wallace, and On Writing by Stephen King.

Automating my annotations

Over the weekend, I got a start on automating these annotations. I wrote a Python script that reads a CSV files exported from Kindle, and creates a unique note for each annotation in the file, relating it back to the source book in my Library. My process is roughly this (I say roughly because this is still new):

  1. When I finish reading a book, I export the annotations from my Kindle, which sends me an email. That email has a CSV attachment which I save in a folder.
  2. A script runs, and processes and CSV files I have in the folder, creating the notes and links.
  3. The script, outputs a list resulting annotations for each file. I copy this and paste it into the “Annotations” section of the source book or article. That makes it easy to view the annotations inline when previewing the note. An example of the output from the script looks like this:
Output from my annotation import script.

Toward an API for my books and annotations

I am able to do the above automation because I have a standardized structure to my books and author notes. That standardization allowed me to write an API for my book library. From this API I can, for instance, check to see if a title exists in my library already. I can grab information about a book or author and then use it in some way. The API typically returns data in JSON format. For instance, if I call the function biblio.search_by_title("Beyond"), I get a JSON formatted return containing the following:

[
   {
      "title":"_Beyond Band of Brothers: The War Memoirs of Major Dick Winters_",
      "link":"[[Beyond Band of Brothers (334)]]",
      "type":"book",
      "authors":[
         {
            "author":"Winters, Richard",
            "authorFirstLast":"Richard Winters",
            "authorLink":"[[Winters, Richard]]",
            "gender":"None"
         }
      ],
      "source":"",
      "date":""
   },
   {
      "title":"_Beyond Apollo_",
      "link":"[[Beyond Apollo (58)]]",
      "type":"book",
      "authors":[
         {
            "author":"Malzberg, Barry N",
            "authorFirstLast":"Barry N Malzberg",
            "authorLink":"[[Malzberg, Barry N]]",
            "gender":"m",
            "alternateNames":[
               {
                  "name":"Barry, Mike",
                  "nameLink":"[[Barry, Mike]]"
               }
            ]
         }
      ],
      "source":"",
      "date":""
   },
   {
      "title":"_Beyond the Blue Event Horizon_",
      "link":"[[Beyond the Blue Event Horizon (259)]]",
      "type":"book",
      "authors":[
         {
            "author":"Pohl, Frederik",
            "authorFirstLast":"Frederik Pohl",
            "authorLink":"[[Pohl, Frederik]]",
            "gender":"None"
         }
      ],
      "source":"",
      "date":""
   }
]

The results so far

I’ve linked all of this together using my master reading list note. This note contains a list of everything I have read since 1996 and serves as a kind of index to my reading:

A sample from my reading list index note.

A big part of the way Obsidian works is that it can show you the relationships between your notes. While I am still working on importing all of the notes I have in my Kindle, I can already see a a network of relationships when I view the graph of my Obsidian vault:

A graph of the relationships between all of my notes.

Most of my notes are book and reading-related at this point. That big dot in the center is the master reading list illustrated above. If I highlight it, this is what I see:

Sample of a highlighted node on the graph.

From there, you can see other nodes and relationships that have started to form. For instance, if I hover over one of the Alan Lightman books I finished yesterday, In Praise of Wasting Time, you can see a little network of links coming off that book:

Some of those links point to annotation files. Another points back to the note for Alan Lightman. And a few of the annotation links point to seemingly unrelated notes.

Here is another example. One of the big nodes is for John W. Campbell, editor of Astounding Science Fiction in the late 1930s through his head in the early 1970s. I read many of those old issue when I was taking my Vacation in the Golden Age of Science Fiction. So Campbell shows up a lot on my master reading list:

Highlighting an author node on the graph.

You can see that Campbell is linked to all of the issues of Astounding that I have read. I have started to bring my notes in for those issues. If we look at the July 1939 issue, for instance, you can see this is related to all of the stories and articles and authors in that issue:

Currently, the notes for each story are part of the story note, but I plan on breaking those out into their own Zettelkasten-style notes as I’ve done for my other notes and annotations.

Conclusions

Keep in mind, that this is all being done with plain text files, something that I like because the format is compatible virtually anywhere. This could be done as easily on a Windows machine as a Mac. It could be done easily on a Linux machine. The openness and longevity of plain text (which has been around for fifty years now) is a big part of what I like about this system.

The linking that Obsidian provides from within its application makes all of this useful. But once established, those links are just as useful outside Obsidian with a little coding–as I’ve done with my API for books and authors. And this API is extensible. This week, I plan to add capability for the API to return any annotations when returning a “book” object. So in addition to what is returned by the JSON format illustrated above, that will soon contain a node for annotations related to that book.

Mostly, I am satisfied that I now have a simple way of keeping my reading notes in a useful form. These are easily searchable, they are easily linked. I can continue to capture highlights and brief notes as a I read. The import function allows a nice step to expand on my annotations as I review them after they’ve been pulled into Obsidian.

It did take me some time to get the infrastructure in place, but now that it is there, I am able to focus on reading, notes, and let the system organize them for me.

Automating My Daily Notes with Obsidian

ETA: 4/1/2021: I have now posted my code for my daily notes automation script on GitHub. See this post for more details.

For nearly a week now my Daily Notes file in Obsidian is generated automatically each night after midnight. I wrote a Python script that creates the note, and having the script running as a Launchd job–which these days is recommended on Mac OS over cron jobs. So far, this has been working out beautifully for me. Of course, this is in large part because Obsidian itself works so well for me.

I use my daily notes in much the same way as I used daily notes in my Bullet Journal days. Indeed, I store my daily notes in my Obsidian vault in a folder called “Bullet Journal”. In addition to having reference information right up front, I use the Today’s Notes section of my notes for jotting various notes down throughout the day, that serve as a kind of log of activity, ideas, and things to do.

The basis of the design of my Daily Note drew inspiration from this post on the Obsidian forums.

Here is a look at my annotated Daily Notes file for today, Monday, February 8.

An annotated version of a daily notes files automatically generated by my scripts.

1. Note title

My Python script generates a note title for the note in yyyy.mm.dd.www format. I used this format back when my Bullet Journal was on paper and so I’ve kept it going here.

2. Navigation/weather bar

My script generates a navigation bar to the previous day’s notes, and to tomorrow’s note (which doesn’t exist yet, of course). It also make a call to a weather app to pull in a very short version of the weather for the day for my location.

3. Agenda

Next, the script generates the “Agenda” section of my note. It does this by calling a command-line program called “icalBuddy” (for Mac OS) which allows you to grab information from your calendar. The published version of icalBuddy had an issue with accessing calendars from a cron job or launchd, but I found post where a person was provided with an updated version of the binary that fixes the problem. The only place I’ve been able to find that binary is in that post, but it worked perfectly once I replaced the original binary.

Each night, a call to icalBuddy is made and the resulting events on that day’s calendar are returned. I then render those events in the Agenda section of my Daily Note.

4. To-Do

This section lists all of the tasks I have that have not yet been checked off. This was a little tricky. The script searches for all tasks in my notes and splits them into 2 groups, completed and incomplete. It then hashes the tasks and removes any “incomplete” tasks that appear in the “completed” task list. This prevents seeing uncompleted tasks that were completed on a subsequent day. The result is that I only see tasks that I haven’t completed.

4a. Illustrates what happens when tasks are carried over day-to-day without being completed. My script appends a note indicating how long the task has been open. For instance, that “Add functionality for notes timeline” task has been open for 2 days (since Saturday).

Throughout the day, I’ll check off tasks here and add new ones and those get incorporated into the next day’s runs.

5. Reading

I try to read at least one feature article from the various magazines I subscribe to every day. This is where I record what I read. I’ve actually developed a fairly elaborate reading and book notes system in Obsidian that I will write about in a future post. What I do here is jot down the article title, author, and source in a specific format (e.g., “Article Title” by Some Authors | Source: Magazine (Month Year)) and a separate script adds this information to my Library notes.

6. Today’s notes

This is where my bullet journal-style daily notes go. These can be virtually anything that I think is noteworthy. As you can see, when I opened the paper this morning, I saw that George Shultz died, and noted that here.

I’ll put to-do items here. If I am working on a something, I’ll make notes about what i am working on. Ideas get logged here. Funny remarks I hear throughout the day might find their way here. It can be quite a mish-mash of stuff, but it ends up being a useful reference.


I suspect that some people will ask if I can share my scripts. I am happy to do that, but not quiet yet. I tend to write scripts the way I write stories, the first draft is quick and dirty and functional. The second draft is cleaned up and organized. Once I get the “second draft” written, I’ll post what I’ve written on GitHub and anyone who wants can make use of them.

Some of this functionality is built into existing Obsidian plug-ins, but it is either not automated, or not quite the way I wanted it, so the scripts that I have written are tailored to my specific needs and behaviors. It’s nice to wake up in the morning, open Obsidian, and see my daily notes file waiting for me.

Notes with Obsidian: My Initial Impressions

Now that I have been using Obsidian fairly exhaustively for the last 5 days, I think I’ve got enough experience with it to share my initial impressions.

I mentioned earlier that Obsidian was the notetaking tool I’ve been looking for all my life. That begs the question: what is it that I’ve been looking for in notetaking software to begin with? Here are a few of my requirements. (Your mileage may vary.)

My requirements

Notes should be plain text

There are two kinds of notes I deal with:

  1. Ephermeral notes, or those notes that I am jotting something quickly for later use, but that can ultimately get thrown away because they will be transformed into something else. Examples of this might include a person’s name, or phone number, or a rough set of notes from a phone conversation.
  2. Permanent notes: the kind that I’ll continue to use, update, and search into the forseeable future. Examples of these include how-to notes, daily notes, notes and clippings from reading. Drafts of blog posts, lists I maintain.

When I think of notes, I think of the need for versatility. I keep a Field Notes notebook in my pocket at all times to capture many of the type 1 notes above. I’ve found over the years that is much quicker than pulling out my phone, unlocking it, finding a notes app, and tapping out what I want to capture. To that end, the most versatile file format for digital notes, for me, anyway, is plain text. Plain text has many advantages:

  • I don’t have to worry about the file format. Plain text files created in the 1980s can still be read today with any old text editor.
  • Plain text files are easy vehicles for automation. Automation is a big reason why I’d want to keep notes in digital form in the first place.
  • Plain text files are cross-platform compatible.
  • Plain text files are easy to search and are the perfect targets for advances searches with regular expressions.
  • With Markdown, even plain text files can be rendered with formatting.

Notes should be rendered as Markdown

When I have looked to convert all my notes (and even my writing) to plain text in the past, one thing that has help me back is the lack of a good tool for rendering the Markdown in the files. It never looked like how I wanted it. Most text editors are really for writing code, and they bias their features in that direction.

This is one place where Obsidian excels. It has a great UI, one that is designed for notetaking (instead of code) and one that renders Markdown well. It is also flexible enough to allow custom themes so that really, you can make your plain text notes look pretty much however you want.

Notes should be easily linkable

A few years back, I tried to put together a system that allowed me to create links between my notes. I understood intuitively how useful this would be. But it seemed like a difficult problem, and really, I didn’t want to spend my time writing code, I wanted to work with my notes.

Obsidian’s note-linking capability–one of its central functions–eliminates this problem, and removes all the roadblocks to linking notes. Not only have I jumped on this feature, I have even started down the Zettelkasten rabbit hole (something I will discuss in a future post). Being able to easily link notes, follow those links, and see the relationships they form is a huge plus in favor of Obsidian.

Notes should be kept locally

I like that underneath it all, these are just plain text files sitting on my local file system. Of course, I can store them in iCloud or Dropbox or some other cloud service if I want to, but the actual files are local. This just helps with automation.

My initial impressions of Obsidian

Where to begin?

  • I just love the UI. It is clean, and easy to use. It makes me want to live in the app when I am working on the computer.
  • The linking is fantastic.
  • I also love that is has a folding feature built in which allows you to easily show and hide sections of a document.
  • I love that moving notes around (which I do often for organizational purposes) keeps the links up-to-date. I don’t have to think about it, it just work.
  • I love not having to save the notes. They save as I type. Important since more and more tools work this way and I’ve gotten use to not having to manually save documents.
  • Great searching capabilities! I can even search regular expressions, which comes in hand.
  • The Daily Notes feature is awesome and I’ve started using it to create a kind of digital bullet journal.

I’ve liked what I’ve seen enough that I became an Obsidian Supporter. I find the forums and documentation both useful.

Some use cases to illustrate and illuminate

Let me illustrate some of what I like about Obsidian with some real use cases that I’ve got just in my first five days using the tool.

Reading notes

I take notes when I read. I mark up books (real and digital). Ultimately, I like to get those notes together in some useful fashion. (This is the one area in which I have really started to explore Zettelkasten, and I’ll have more to say about it in the future.) Here is one simple example of what I have started to do in Obsidian.

I try to read one feature article from the various magazines I get every day. When I finish an article, I create a note for the article with information about the author(s), source, date, a link to the online version, if available. I also tag the note.

In order to build a kind of searchable index, I have started to create a note for each author. On the article note, I’ll link to the author note, like this, for example:

An Obsidian note for an article in Smithsonian by Glenn Adamson

Note that I have linked to the the author on this note. So when I go and look at the note I have for that author, I see this:

Obsidian note for author with backlinks section listing all of the backlinks

The “Backlinks”section on the note is created automatically through some automation I’ve written. Again, I’ll talk about how I automated this in a future post. I know that I can just go to the backlinks section on the sidebar to see backlinks, but I like seeing the actual references in the note itself.

Presenting with notes

Block folding is incredibly useful. That is, being able to close some blocks and keep others open while looking at a note. Here is an example of this post (yes, written in Obsidian) so far with most of the blocks closed.

Obsidian note with folded headers

I find this allows me to use my notes as presentations in meeting. I’ll jot down the topics I want to discuss in the meeting. List out the points under those topics, and then, before the meeting starts, close all of the headings, so that I can walk through them one by one, sharing my notes on the screen. It allows us to focus only on the open block at hand, while still having a context for the rest of the discussion. No need for slides!

Searching for daily notes

One test I have for any good editor is how well it can search. In addition to the great capabilities that Obsidian has for searching already, it also passes my test for being able to do regular expression searches. Here is a regular express search I have ato surface all of my Daily Notes:

A regular expression search for my daily notes: /^\d{4}\.\d{2}/

I have actually gotten quite a bit of mileage already out of the daily notes features, especially after I added some automation to make it even better.

How I’ve got my Obsidian configured

I’ve already had people asking me thing like what themes I am using, so here is a summary of how I have Obsidian configured for my Macs:

![[Pasted image 20210131113120.png]]

Obsidian configured with my preferences.
My Obsidian configuration

Theme

I’m using Pisum (from the community themes). Incidentally, I did spend time loading every community theme to find one that fit well. I kept a note open and moved the ones I liked to the top of the list as I discovered ones I liked better.

Plug-ins

I’m currently using the following plug-ins:

  • Calendar
  • Daily Notes
  • Zettelkasten prefixer

Other settings I’m using

  • Fold Heading
  • Tab size: 8

Questions I’m still pondering

There are some things I am still trying to figure out, and I’ve been searching the forums to see how others approach these issues:

  1. What should be in my vault. When I started, I created my vault as a Notes folder within my Documents folder. From there, a sub-folder structure began to evolve. But I’ve found that I want to link to documents that are not in the vault, so I am beginning to wonder if really, the vault should be my entire documents folder. I’m looking for advice on the scope of a vault in Obsidian.
  2. Zettelkasten. This seems like overkill for a lot of the notes I have. Put it seems like the perfect solution for how I have envisioned organizing notes from my reading. I used to have a note for a book. All my comments and highlights would be in that note. Now, I have a note for a book, but highlights each get their own note with (a) a link back to the book in question, and (b) a reason for the link. I’ve even started linking some of these extracts to other notes, formiing the web of relationships that Zettelkasten is all about.
  3. Best format for my Daily Notes. I’ve actually done some automation here and getting happier with what I’ve got. But I’m still figuring it out. Here is an example of my Daily Note for today:
An example of a daily note
An example of a Daily Note

Automation preview

So far, I have automated 3 things using Obsidian notes and the plain-text framework:

  1. Collect “to-read” references into a single note. This collects tags marked “to-read” throughout my notes into a single “To Read” note so that I have a single list to look at. My script will ignore items tagged to read if they have already been checked off.
  2. Update People index. This is the script that scrapes notes for backlinks to specific people notes and adds the “Backlinks” section to that person’s notes.
  3. Daily Note generation. This genarates the daily note for the day (just after midnight). I pulls in the agenda from my iCloud calendars. It pulls the to-dos from incomplete to-dos found in other notes, and from any incomplete items in my Apple Reminders. It then formats the other sections and creates the note.

I’ll write about these automations in more detail in a future post.


So there you have it, my initial impressions of Obisian. I’m looking forward to exploring it more. And I’m eager for that mobile app that’s “coming soon.”

Going Paperless: An Epilogue

In 2012 I began an experiment to see how much paper I could eliminate from my daily life. I was motivated by the elusive paperless office. Much discussed in the 1990s, I had yet to see an office that was truly paperless. The goal of my experiment was to see how far it was possible to go. It was not my intention to stop using paper entirely.

In April 2012, I wrote the first of what ended up being more than 120 posts on the ways I was using various digital tools—Evernote foremost among them—to go paperless. I called this series of posts “Going Paperless” to reflect my goal: that this was an ongoing process. I wrote these posts across several years, completing the last one in March 2016.

It recently occurred to me that these posts ended without any real conclusion. How did my experiment fair? How paperless was I able to go? What has happened since? This post provides those answers as a kind of epilogue to my going paperless experiment. I’ve drawn four conclusions from my experiment. As with all my going paperless posts, the conclusions are based on how I work. Here is what my experiment taught me:

  1. Paperless works well for automated storage of infrequently accessed documents.
  2. Paper works better as a short-term memory substitute.
  3. Paperless works well for sharing documents with others.
  4. Paper is more reliable as a long-term storage medium.

1. Paperless works well for automated storage of infrequently accessed documents.

I find Evernote to be extremely useful for automatically storing stuff that I don’t look at very often, things like statements, contracts, bills, correspondence. Either by scanning these documents into Evernote, or better yet through some automated mechanism like FileThis, having these documents in electronic format saves me time, clutter, and physical space. That is a definite plus in the paperless column.

2. Paper works better as a short-term memory substitute.

I have tried countless apps, some of which I have written about over the years, that allow me to quickly capture notes that, for me, act as a substitute for short-term memory. Examples might include shopping lists, what needs to go into my kids’ lunches tomorrow, the office number on the 9th floor that I need to visit, an idea for a story that occurs to me while on a walk, the score of my kid’s soccer game, the RGB color code for a screen background, etc.

None of the apps I have tried for this have proven better than good old-fashioned pen and paper. For several years now, wherever I go, I have a Field Notes notebook and a Pilot G-2 pen in my back pocket. These notebooks serve as my short-term memory repository. When I fill up one, I have another ready to go.

Evernote, and other apps, have tried to make this easy, but the infrastructure surrounding these apps make it harder. It takes just a second to pull out my Field Notes notebook. To do the same in, say, Evernote, I have to pull out my phone, unlock my phone, start Evernote, wait, it the green plus button, optionally title my note, and start tapping away. With my notebook, I could be done by the time that Evernote is starting.

And it is not just Evernote. I’ve tried Apple’s Notes app, OneNote, Drafts, and many other note-taking apps. They are all the same in this respect. Then, too, Murphy’s Law dictates that the one time I really need to get something out of my head, my phone has no power. I don’t have to worry about that with my Field Notes notebook.

Also, these are, strictly speaking, ephemeral notes, there to remind me of things—a grocery list, the title of a book I want to look at, movie times, whatever. There’s no need to permanently store this information. That said, I do keep the completed Field Notes notebooks, and number them chronologically. Occasionally, I flip through them (something almost impossible to do in a tool like Evernote or OneNote) and it’s like a walk through what goes on inside my head.

3. Paperless works well for sharing documents with others.

One thing that is very hard to do with my Field Notes notebooks is share them with others. For one thing, I use a kind of shorthand I’ve evolved over the years that would make it impossible for most people to decipher what I’ve written—not out of any sense of privacy or security, but because I can record things faster that way. That alone makes it hard to share.

Evernote makes it easy for me to share documents with others, especially those in my family. Having a centralized place to access documents means that my wife can get them as easily as I can. We don’t have to worry about managing multiple copies, or which one is current. They are all stored in one place that we can both access.

4. Paper is more reliable as a long-term storage medium.

My experience going paperless has taught me that there are two aspects to reliability: (1) how reliable a medium is for entering information; (2) and how reliable a medium is for storing information.

Interestingly, I’ve found over the years that I will be more consistent about, for instance, keeping a journal, if I do it on paper. I’ve tried doing this in Evernote, and in Day One, but I’ve never been able to do it consistently, whereas when I kept a journal on paper, I went years without missing a single day. The thing about paper, in this case, it that it is a highly available user interface.

I’ve given a lot of thought to the second aspect of reliability: that of long-term storage. I recently read Walter Isaacson’s biography of Leonardo Da Vinci and one thing that impressed me was the fact that something like 7,000 pages from Da Vinci’s notebooks have survived to this day. 500 years later, we still have them. That is pretty remarkable to me. The journals I kept 20 years ago are still there on the bookshelf, collecting dust. I can’t find most of the journals I’ve kept in digital format, whether online, or not.

The desire to keep this information online stemmed from two ideas I had early on: (1) if my journals were online, I could access them anywhere, any time; and (2) I could more easily search them. It turns out, however, that I am much more likely to write in a journal consistently on paper than online. And it turns out that I rarely have a need to search. And when I do, I’ve learned ways of indexing my paper journals to make searches easier.

Given that my journals from 20 years ago, paper though they may be, are still safe and secure on my bookshelf, and electronic versions have gone the way of the Dodo, I’m inclined to think that we still have to prove the viability of long-term electronic storage. I have no problem keeping the types of information I put into Evernote there because, for the time being anyway, I have no worries about it going away. But I also export that data and back it up regularly in case it does go away. It would still be in electronic form, and that would be something I would need to manage going forward. And perhaps it will turn out that 500 years from now, like Da Vinci’s notebooks, the stuff we put online will still be there for eager historians to lust over.


My experiment proved to be a mixed bag. I found that going paperless was useful in some areas, but that paper was more useful in others. I suspect that is why that I still haven’t found that elusive paperless office. And I suppose—given my growing fondness for Field Notes and Moleskine notebooks, and the sound of a pen across paper—that I am glad. Paperless is good for saving time, decluttering, freeing up physical space. But still like paper.

Using Evernote to Write Product Reviews

There are generally four types of writing that I do:

  1. Fiction
  2. Nonfiction
  3. Blogging
  4. Product reviews

For my fiction and nonfiction, I use Scrivener these days. For my blogging, I generally write the posts in Ulysses before publishing them. But for product reviews, I use Evernote. It seems to me that in my entire Going Paperless series, I never mentioned this particular use case, so I figured I’d talk about it now.

I don’t write reviews nearly as much as I used to. However, I’ve found that the interfaces provided by places like Amazon and Apple to write reviews are clunky and awkward. Rather than writing the reviews directly on those sites, I tend to write them first in Evernote. My process is pretty straight-forward:

1. Create a new note in my Reviews notebook

I have a Reviews notebook in my Reference notebook stack into which all of my reviews go. When I am ready to write a review, I will create a new note in my Reviews notebook. I title the note with the product I am reviewing (often, but no always, a book).

Sometimes, if I am planning on writing a review ahead of time, I’ll create the note before I am finished with the book (or whatever I am reviewing) and jot notes there about things I want to include in the review.

2. Write the review

When I finish the book (or Podcast, or album, etc.) I’ll sit down and write the review. Typically my review consists of three parts:

  1. The review title. Most sites require some short title of the review, and since the review is already associated with the product, the title of the review is something different.
  2. The review itself.
  3. A link back to the review on the site on which it is posted (I’ll come back to this shortly.)

Here is an example of a fairly recent review I wrote on the iTunes store for the Track Changes podcast (a podcast that I highly recommend, by the way).

Evernote Review example

I do the first 2 steps here, providing a title, and writing the review. The third step (creating a link back to the review) comes later.

3. Post the review

Once I’ve got the review the way I want it, I go to the site that I want to post it–in the case of the example above, the iTunes store–and I post the review.

4. Add link back to the posted review

Once the review is posted I add a link to the post on the Evernote review note itself. That way, if I happen to be skimming the reviews I wrote in Evernote, and want to see the review on Amazon, or iTunes, I can just click the link in the note to get to it.


I like having ready access to everything I write. For fiction and nonfiction, my writing rests in Scrivener files on my computers, or in cloud services like iCloud Drive. For my blog posts, I have them in Ulysses, and they are once again easy to access.

Reviews are different. They are more ephemeral, and scattered over lots of different places once they are posted. Then, too, it is possible to write so many of them that it is easy to lose track of what you wrote. So I collect them all in Evernote, and can always review them there without having to go to the places I posted them. It is easy to jump to my Reviews notebook and take a look at the List View to scroll through the reviews I’ve written.

Reviews List

For me, this is the most useful way to centralize all of the various reviews I’ve written over the years.

Going Paperless 2.0: Searching in Evernote, Part 4 of 4: “Where?”

In last week’s post, I described how I take advantage of the native date searching capabilities in Evernote to quickly find notes and documents in a specific time frame, answering the “when?” question of searching. This week, in the final post for this mini-series, I take the “where?” question.

Location services

Evernote can automatically capture the location each note is created. This requires location services (on Apple devices) to be enabled. Without location services enabled, capturing location has to be done manually.

Notes on a map

If you’ve enabled location services, you can get a nice picture of where your notes were created by going to the Atlas view. On Windows machines, the Atlas view may not be visible on the sidebar by default. To make it visible, go to the View menu, click the Left Panel option, and made sure Show Atlas is checked.

By default, I can see a summary of places where I have created notes.

Evernote Atlas

I prefer to look at this on the full map, however. I can this by clicking “All Notes”. What I get is a map of the United States. Scattered across the map, you can see counts of notes that I’ve created in various places.

Evernote Atlas, US

This map is zoomable, and as I drill into different areas, you’ll see the counts split into more detailed representations of exactly where I was when the notes were created. For instance, back in 2013, I attended the Launchpad Astronomy Workshop for writers at the University of Wyoming, Laramie. Zooming into that part of the map, I see my notes break down as follows, across the campus:

Evernote Atlas, Wyoming

The note flags tell me how many notes where created in each location. Clicking on the flag and then clicking the View All Notes option takes me to a list of all of the notes created in that location:

Launchpad Notes

Descriptive searches

On Evernote for Mac, it is possible to search notes by place using “descriptive searches.” Descriptive searching is a way to do natural language searching, which gets translated into an Evernote-style search for you.

Once, while visiting Maine, I jotted down the name of a few plants that I wanted to remember to add some verisimilitude to a story that I was working on. Of course, once I returned home, I had difficulty finding the note because I couldn’t recall the name of the plants. So I used a descriptive search as follows:

plants in castine

Castine being the name of the town that I was in when I made the note. When I typed this search into Evernote’s search bar, it translated it into a descriptive search:

Descriptive Search

By clicking on the descriptive search option, I got a list of matching notes—which happened to be a single note, and the very note that I’d been looking for:

Descriptive matches

Practical vs. Fun

“Where” searches are probably the least practical searches that I do. While I occasionally search for something by location, I can usually find it through other means. For instance, I could have found the note on plants by searching for notes between the dates that I knew I was visiting Maine that summer. I would have had to scroll through a few more notes, but I would have found it.

Still, I think it is fun to browse notes in this fashion from time-to-time. Location gives notes an added dimension, beyond that of just the timeline that I normally think of when I think of how my notes are organized.

And there are a few practical uses. For instance, when I park my car in a parking garage at the airport, I will snap a photo into Evernote of the parking zone in which I am parked. Because I have location services turned on, I end up with the exact location I parked my car, making it easy to find when I return from my trip.

Going to a new restaurant, I’ll create a note with the name of the restaurant, and sometimes jot down what I ordered. With location services turned on, I get the exact location of the place so that if I need to remember where it was that I had lunch with an editor on the Riverwalk in San Antonio, I can locate the note and see where it is on a map.

But again, these tend to be less practical uses for me, and more fun.

Summing it up

When I search for things in Evernote, I tend to think of the “who”, “what”, “when”, and “where”? But these aren’t the only ways to search. Evernote has some powerful search capabilities that go far beyond the basics. I can search for notes by their content type, or by their input source. I can search for notes containing to-do items, or reminders. I can search for notes that I have shared.

When I scan documents, Evernote makes the contents of those documents searchable as well. It even does a pretty good job of making my handwritten notes searchable.

If you are interested in learning just how rich Evernote’s search capabilities are, I’d recommend checking out this document on Evernote’s search grammar. It goes into detail on all of the various ways you can search Evernote, including many that you were probably not even aware of.


If you have a suggestion for a future Going Paperless post, let me know. Send it to me at feedback [at] jamietoddrubin.com. As always, this post and all of my Going Paperless posts is also available on Pinterest.

Last week’s post: Searching in Evernote, Part 3 of 4: “When?”

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Going Paperless 2.0: Searching in Evernote, Part 3 of 4: “When?”

In last week’s post, I described how I narrow down searches for specific types of things, like forms, statements, or receipts. This week I am going to address the “when?” question. How I search for things by date in Evernote.

Notes on a timeline

Every note that goes into Evernote gets a create date. The create date is assigned at the date and time at which the note is first created. If you create notes more or less in real time, then by sorting notes by create date, you get a kind of timeline of notes. I find this timeline concept useful because it crosses all boundaries: notebooks, tags, note types. If I look at all the notes I created on a particular day, I get a nice picture of what happened on that day.

This notion of notes as part of timeline encourages me to put things into Evernote in real time. For instance, if I make a phone call, I’ll create a note at the time I make the call. No need to jot down the date/time of the call in the note. It’s captured automatically as part of the note and becomes a part of the overall timeline.

Setting “Create Date” to match document date

Although Evernote sets the create date of a note to the date/time at which the note was added to Evernote, the create date is not written in stone. In the Windows and Mac clients, you can change the create date.

Changing a Create Date

Why would you ever want to change the create date of a note?

I do this all the time when entering scanning documents into Evernote. I do it so that the date of the note matches the date on the document. For instance, I might receive a letter in the mail dated August 3. By the time I receive the letter, it is August 10. After scanning it in, I change the Create Date of the note from August 10 to August 3, so that it matches the date on the letter, like this

Matching Dates

There are 3 reasons I do this:

  1. It keep my notion of a “timeline” consistent.
  2. It accurately reflects the information contained in the letter.
  3. It makes searching by date much, much easier.

Searching by date

Evernote has powerful date searching capabilities. It can search dates absolute dates, or relative dates.

Absolute date search

An absolute date search is one where you know the exact date you are looking for. For instance, if I wanted to find all the note created on March 27, 2015, I would run the following absolute date search in Evernote:

created:20150327 -created:20150328

The first criteria tells Evernote to search all notes created since 03/27/2015. The second criteria, the one with the -created, tells Evernote to limit the search to all notes created before 03/28/2015. In other words, the search returns just those notes created on March 27, 2015:

Absolute search

Absolute date searches are useful for when I am looking for something with a specific date. If I am talking to someone on the phone and they say, “It was referenced in the statement dated October 31, 2015,” I can run an absolute search to quickly narrow down what I am looking for.

Of course, it helps that I change the create date on scanned notes to reflect the date on the scanned item. If the statement was dated October 31, 2015, but I didn’t scan it in until November 5th, searching for October 31 won’t get me the note. Changing the create date, therefore, has become an important part of my scanning routine.

Relative date searches

Perhaps even more powerful than the absolute date search is the relative date search. This search allows you to find notes related to a specific date. The most common relative date search that I use is my “daily review” search, which looks like this:

any: created:day updated:day

“day” is a relative reference to “today.” The search is looking for any notes created since today, or updated today.” The “any” token tells the search to perform an “or” search (this or this) as opposed to an “and” search (this and this). The result of this search is all of the notes I created or updated “today”—that is, relative to whatever the current date happens to be. I run this search in the evenings to review my day.

Suppose, however, I wanted to do a weekly review? No problem. I would modify the search as follows:

any: created:day-7 updated:day-7

This search says to look for any notes created or updated in the last 7 days. The results of such a search looks something like this:

EN Search When - 3

Relative date searches can produce some pretty cool results. Not long ago, another Evernote Ambassador, Seunghoon Park, asked if it was possible to show notes created a year ago today, or two years ago today. I replied with the following search:

created:day-365 -created:day-364

This tells Evernote to look for all notes created since 365 days ago (1 year) and created prior to 364 days ago. Since I am writing this post on February 22, 2016, the results would be all the notes created on February 22, 2015:

A year ago todayYou could store this search as a Saved Search in Evernote and on any given day, see what notes were created a year ago on that day.

Combining “when” with “who” and “what”

Generally speaking, I don’t have more than a dozen notes on a given day, but occasionally I do. Sometimes, I can’t remember exactly when a note was created, but I have general sense. In these cases, combining the various search tactics: who, what, and when, speed things up.

For instance, I can’t recall when exactly I received Kelly’s W-2 form, but I know it was in the last 2 months. I also know that I have received a lot of notes in the last 2 months (395 to be precise). Searching all of those would be too time consuming. So to find Kelly’s W-2, I ran the following search:

created:month-2 tag:taxes tag:kelly

The search is telling Evernote to look for all notes created in the last 2 months (the when) tagged “taxes” (the what) and tagged “kelly” (the who). That search resulted in a single match:

Combined search

Instead of spending minutes searching through a larger set, I found exactly what I was looking for on the first try with a relatively short search phrase.


Date searching in Evernote has proven very effective for me in answering the “when” questions. It certainly helps that I’ve taken the time to change the create dates of scanned documents to the date on the document so that my searches are more accurate. Relative searches are also useful in my daily reviews, or to find out what kinds of things were happening in my life a a month ago, or even a year ago.

Next week, I will wrap up this 4-part mini series with the final search question, “Where?” That post will focus on searching notes by the location in which they were created.


If you have a suggestion for a future Going Paperless post, let me know. Send it to me at feedback [at] jamietoddrubin.com. As always, this post and all of my Going Paperless posts is also available on Pinterest.

Last week’s post: Searching in Evernote, Part 2 of 4: “What?”

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Going Paperless 2.0: Searching in Evernote, Part 2 of 4: “What?”

In last week’s post, I described how I search Evernote for things related to a particular person. I demonstrated how I answer the “who”? question. In this week’s post I am going to address the “what?” question, how I find a particular thing in Evernote based on what it is.

Types of notes in Evernote

Searching for things in Evernote over the years, I have found that I often know what type of thing I am looking for. Kelly might ask, “Do you have a copy of Zach’s school health enrollment form?” Or I might want to know where that recent letter from the Gas Company is. Experience has taught me that knowing the class of note I am looking for can really help speed up the search. I tend to focus on two broad classes of notes:

  1. Documents.
  2. Media.

Evernote has some nice built-in search capabilities for searching for multimedia documents. Using the “resource” keyword in a search makes it easy to find documents containing various multimedia. For instance, if I was searching for a note with an image file, I could type the following into the search bar:

resource:image/*

This would return notes with any kind of image file. If I wanted a specific image type, I could search for:

resource:image/png

This would return notes with PNG images. I could then combine this with other search terms. If I wanted to find notes containing pictures and related to me, I could search for:

resource:image/* tag:jamie

The resource can be any MIME-type, which allows you to find notes for things like sound files and movies, as well.

Identifying documents in Evernote

I think of documents as notes containing attachments that might once have found their way into a filing cabinet. Documents can be things I’ve scanned into Evernote, or things that a service like FileThis has automatically added to Evernote. I’ve found over time that documents fall into 11 categories:

  1. Artwork. My kids’ artwork from school.
  2. Bills. Various bills for things that aren’t paid automatically.
  3. Contracts. Mostly these pertain to my writing, but they can be contracts for anything.
  4. Documents. Legal documents and miscellaneous documents that aren’t captured by other categories.
  5. Forms. Things that have to be filled out.
  6. Invoices. I’ve considered consolidating Invoices and Bills into a single category, but have yet to get around to it.
  7. Letters. Personal letters as well as official correspondence.
  8. Manuals. Instructions and manuals for various things we own.
  9. Payments. Pay stubs and checks.
  10. Receipts. Receipts for things we’ve bought and paid for.
  11. Statements. Bank statements, utility statements, medical statements, etc.

To quickly find these types of documents, I’ve created a tag for each one of them. To make it easier to illustrate, I’ve moved all 11 of these tags into a tag called “.documents” so you can more readily see what they look like in Evernote:

EN document tags

Whenever I add a new document to Evernote, I quickly determine its type, and assign that tag (and possibly some others, like who it is for) to the note. For documents that I scan, I do this tagging as soon as I scan the document so that I don’t forget. If a document doesn’t fit one of the categories, it gets tagged as “document” which is my short hand for miscellaneous documents.

Searching for things in Evernote

Tagging notes with a document type makes it much easier for me to find what I am looking for. If I need to find the recall letter we received for the Kia, I’d do the following:

tag:letter tag:kia

That search is saying, “Show me all letters related to the Kia.”

Kia letter search

Note that I only got 2 results. The fact that the result list was so short is part of the beauty. While a less specific search might have resulted in more notes to wade through, this simple, but specific search resulted in an almost exact match on the first try.

I could have made the search even more specific by searching for:

tag:letter tag:kia recall

Adding the word “recall” eliminates one of the two resulting documents, and I now have an exact match.

Thinking about what the document that I am searching for is helps to narrow things down quite a bit. Compare the above search to a search for the tag “kia”:

tag:kia

Tag Kia

This search returns 40 notes. That is a lot of notes to wade through. Knowing that I was searching for a letter made it that much faster and more accurate.

Combining “what” searches with “who” searches

By combining search tactics, I can improve things even further. I use a “school” tag for school-related documents. So instead of just searching for forms, I can easily search for school-related forms. The same is true for taxes. I uses a “taxes” tag for anything tax-related. If I need to search for a tag form (as opposed to, say, a receipt) I can combine my tag search to include forms and taxes.

But sometimes that isn’t enough. Take school for example. If we go back to that example question I gave at the beginning, where Kelly asked, “Do you have a copy of Zach’s school health enrollment form?” I can run a quick search as follows:

tag:form tag:school tag:zach health

That search returns exactly one match (out of more than 12,000 notes), and it is the exact form that I was asked for. This really happened. Kelly asked if I had the form. I took about three seconds to type the above search into Evernote, get the match, and forward the resulting document to her.

“Yes, I’ve got it,” I said.

“Can you send it me?” Kelly asked.

“It’s already in your inbox,” I replied.


Not everyone uses the same tag structure, but I think that some form of tagging that allows you to capture the type of document you are putting into Evernote can help in the long run. In my experience, most “what” questions come down to what the document is in the first place: are you searching for a bill? A form? A letter? An invoice? Knowing what it eliminates a lot of other documents from the mix.

Knowing who, and what I am searching for are useful, but sometimes it helps to know when I got the thing. How many times have you been on a call when the person on the line says, “It is in the statement dated February 14, 2016.” Or, “I know we bought that TV in December, but I can’t find the receipt?”

Next week, in Part 3, I’ll discuss how I use Evernote’s dates and date searching capabilities to quickly answer the “when” questions.


If you have a suggestion for a future Going Paperless post, let me know. Send it to me at feedback [at] jamietoddrubin.com. As always, this post and all of my Going Paperless posts is also available on Pinterest.

Last week’s post: Searching in Evernote, Part 1 of 2: “Who?”

Enjoy these posts? – Tell a friend

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Going Paperless 2.0: Searching in Evernote, Part 1 of 4: “Who”?

I get lots of questions about how I use Evernote. One of the more frequent questions I get is how to find things in Evernote. Over the years I have accumulated more than 12,000 notes in Evernote, and it is important that I can find any one of those notes quickly. Over the years, I have come up with a framework that makes it possible for me to find things quickly. Over the next four weeks, I’m going to share the framework with you.

My basic framework for searching in Evernote

Although it might be obvious now, it took me a while to figure out that the vast majority of my searches fell into one more of four categories:

  1. Who? I was searching for something related to a specific person.
  2. What? I was searching for a specific thing. A document, a form, a bill, a receipt.
  3. When? I was searching for something in a specific timeframe.
  4. Where? I was searching for something tied to a specific geographic location.

Once I figured this out, I began to alter how I used Evernote to make it easier to for me to quickly answer the “Who?”, “What?”, “When?”, and “Where?” search questions. In this week’s post, I will discuss how I answer the “Who?” question; how I search for things related to a specific person.

Next week, I’ll dive into the “what?” question; I’ll tackle the “When?” question in two weeks; and finally, I’ll address the “where?” question in three weeks.

Relating notes to people

One of the more common ways that I narrow down my search for a note is based on who the note is for. If our accountant says that she needs Kelly’s W-2 form for 2015, I could search for all of the notes tagged “taxes” and then scan through the resulting notes looking for Kelly’s W-2, but that would take a little while.

If, on the other hand, I could do a search that essentially asked, “give me all of the tax notes for Kelly” that would speed things up dramatically.

To answer the “Who?” question and related notes to people, I use tags.

Giving notes name tags

Each person that I need to be able to search for gets a name tag. Because I only need to search for a handful of people, I keep my tag grammar simple: “first name.” Thus, I have a tag for each member of the family, including myself. I also have tags for our pets.

In an organization where there are many people, I recommend using a slightly different version of this tag grammar, calling the tag “lastnamefirstname.” This way, when you look at the Tags page in Evernote, the names are sorted alphabetically by last name.

When I add note to Evernote, I ask myself if the note is related to a particular person, and if so, I tag the note with that person’s first name.

Searching for notes by name tags

With name tags in place, it makes it easy to find notes for a specific person. In fact, there are multiple ways to do this. I can go to the Tag page in Evernote and look for the person’s name in the alphabetical listing:

Evernote name tags

This has the added bonus of showing me how many tags are associated with that person. Clicking on the tag, I can go directly to a list of all the notes tagged for that person.

More often than not, however, I combine name tags with other search elements. For instance, if I wanted to search for all of Kelly’s receipts, I would type in the following in the search bar:

tag:receipt tag:kelly

Instead of just getting receipts, I get receipts that I specifically tagged with Kelly’s name:

EN Search Who 1

For me, a large portion of my searching involves searching for a document related to a person. Kelly might ask, “Do you have Zach’s latest report card?” I could search for the term “report card” and get lots of results, but instead of wading through all of them, I can make things a little easier by searching for

tag:zach report card

This gives me exactly what I am looking for:

Evernote Zach Report Card

More tips for searching by name tags

One my name tag structure was in place and I began using it regularly to relate notes to people, it became much easier to do a variety of searching.

Searching for notes related to one or more people

If I wanted to find notes that were related to me or to Kelly, I could do the following search:

any: tag:jamie tag:kelly

This shows notes that are tagged “jamie” or “kelly”. The “any:” at the beginning of the search make the search an OR search.

If I wanted to find notes that were related to me and Kelly, I could do the following:

tag:jamie tag:kelly

This would only return notes that had both of our names tags on them.

Saved searches

I can speed things up further by creating saved searches using name tag for frequently-searched for things. One example is a search for the kids’ school-related notes. Creating a saved search for each of the kids that returns their school-related notes makes it quick and easy to locate a school document. Since I also tag the kids’ school notes with the school name, it makes the saved searches easy:

For Zach: tag:zach tag:st-ann

For Grace: tag:grace tag:st-ann


I never realized how much I searched by people until I started giving notes name tags. Name tags has made searching much faster. Moreover, I am much more likely to find what I am looking for the first time around when I associate the note with a name tag.

Next week, I’ll discuss tips for searching for specific things: searches that answer the “What?” questions that I often ask.


If you have a suggestion for a future Going Paperless post, let me know. Send it to me at feedback [at] jamietoddrubin.com. As always, this post and all of my Going Paperless posts is also available on Pinterest.

Last week’s post: Using Evernote to Track Library Book Due Dates.

Enjoy these posts? – Tell a friend

Recommending readers is one of the highest compliments you can pay to a writer. If you enjoy what you read here, or you find the posts useful, tell a friend! Find me online here:

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Or use one of the share buttons below. Thanks for reading!

No Going Paperless Post This Week – Digging Out!

I have been busy digging out from the blizzard, and taking care of the kids while Kelly is under the weather, and haven’t had time to finish and post the latest Going Paperless post. And given that I have a pile of day job work, and the kids’ school still closed, and lots of cleanup still to do at home, I am going to have to punt on this week’s post. I’ll get the new post out next Tuesday.

Sorry for the hiccup in the schedule.

Going Paperless 2.0: Using Evernote to Track Library Book Due Dates

Some uses of Evernote are more humble than others. I was reminded of this over the weekend when Evernote reminded me that the Little Man’s library book was due on Tuesday.

I like keeping track of the books the kids check out from the library. I have my own list of books that I’ve read, but mine only goes back to my 20s, and I thought that one day, my kids might like to see the book they read when they were little. Here is how I keep track of them:

1. Snap a photo of the book into Evernote.

Sometimes I do this from within Evernote itself, other times, I just snap a photo from my phone camera and add it to the note in Evernote. It doesn’t have to be a high quality image.

Either way, I use the image to create a note in Evernote. I title the note with the title and author of the book.

2. Tag the note

One of the things for which I find tags particularly useful is associated a note with a family member. So I’ll tag the note with either my son’s name or my daughter’s name, depending on who checked out the book.

I also add a more general tag called “reading-list” so that I can easily call these notes out on a search. Here is what a typical note looks like:

Library book note

This was simple and straight-forward. If I wanted to find the list of books that they’d read, I could simply search for notes tagged with the name and “reading-list”, something like:

tag:reading-list tag:zach

Library book reminders

At some point, I realized that I could use Evernote’s reminder function to remind me to return the library books. On the notes in question, I’d set a reminder for a day or two before the books were due back at the library.

I use Sunrise Calendar because it takes calendars and reminders from many different sources and pulls them into a single calendar view. Sunrise Calendar can pull Evernote reminders onto the calendar, so that when I am looking at my calendar, I can see the reminders along with everything else. Between Evernote’s reminder, and seeing the reminder in Sunrise Calendar, I always know when to put the library books in my son’s or daughter’s backpack to take back to school.

Sunrise_Library_Reminder

When the kids come home with new books, the cycle starts over again.

The reminders have come in handy on a couple of occasions. And so has the list of books. The Little Man sometimes can’t remember which Magic Treehouse book he has or hasn’t read yet. We can pull up the list in Evernote the day before he goes to the library and review it so that he can pick out a new one.

And, of course, other books we read, besides library books, get added to the list as well, but the Evernote reminders are particularly handy for library book due dates.


If you have a suggestion for a future Going Paperless post, let me know. Send it to me at feedback [at] jamietoddrubin.com. As always, this post and all of my Going Paperless posts is also available on Pinterest.

Last week’s post:Quickly Access Frequently-Used Information in Evernote.

Enjoy these posts? – Tell a friend

Recommending readers is one of the highest compliments you can pay to a writer. If you enjoy what you read here, or you find the posts useful, tell a friend! Find me online here:

Twitter | Facebook | Google+ | Blog | PinterestReddit | MediumRSS

Or use one of the share buttons below. Thanks for reading!