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Note Taking

I have been taking notes since the past ~5 years. I believe I have a not-so-strong memory so I rely on distilling information into short form, whatever that might be of - todos, project planning, personal retros, etc and then reusing them to think more. And through this I have spent a LOT of time in the rabbit hole of note taking methodologies and softwares out there. I wouldn't write about what all things I have explored about but instead only what has worked for me till this point.

Starting out

It started in a simple way whereby I had a need to write down my todos somewhere where they are better organizable and more so to keep a track of what I was doing. I created a Todo.txt file in Sublime Text and put together some tasks that I needed to do for that day. Whenever I finished any task, I shifted it to a completed section. Plain and simple. Later, it did get more complex with tracking, priorities, reminders, etc. but then I shifted to a task management app.

I did start recording some general notes in this but the lack of formatting was something that bothered me. Add to it there was no method to link to other TXTs which is something you would want once you have a lot of notes, it is difficult to have zero coupling between them. But still, this was close to the most distraction-free environment to write down original thoughts. You aren't bugged by structures or templates or anything else.

The want of something better

Then the shiny object syndrome finally caught me and spiraled me into the huge well of note taking softwares and techniques and what not. If you have ever got into this rabbit hole then you would know that arguably the most spoken of software in this space is Notion. Notion is designed in such a way that it is so structureless that you could give it any structure you want. When you first start using it, it is only a blank page and in that now you can create sub pages, tables, embeds and design and showcase it however you want. It is like you have superpowers if you come from really basic things like Notepad or so.

During the initial days of using this, I spent more time fidgeting around how to create the perfect dashboard in Notion than actually writing things in it. If you search up 'notion setup' on YouTube, there are probably 100s of popular videos – some specialize in task management, some in journaling, PARA, second brain and so much more. But not long after, the realization came that this would make no difference in my writings and is pretty much waste of time. I feel like all those templates and dashboards only make sense when you have an actual need, never when you are just starting out replacing your pen and paper setup to something more organized.

Settling down

But then once I decided onto some specific set of categories or say "notebooks" to put my notes into, I began caring less about the structuring and more about the content of my notes. I had different pages to record project ideas, journal some experience, maintain a knowledge repository and even some kind of long term task management. The app was then slower between page loads (I see it is a bit faster now) but it was bearable given most of time was spent on a single page where I write / read.

Eventually though, I started caring more about privacy once I started writing thoughts that I wouldn't want anyone else to read. And Notion not being E2EE is hard to be completely trustable even if they have met some high standards of security compliance in this space. I researched around what all solutions exist in this space and figured that the best option for me is to use something in which your notes stay on your disk and don't leave unencrypted to the cloud.

More control

Long story short, after lot of search and exploration I found Obsidian. Obsidian is for markdown based note taking like VSCode is for code editing. The base app itself is extremely polished and smooth to use that I haven't found something that could be as good to use locally. But the superpowers of Obsidian are in the plugins where it becomes as extendable as any web app you can imagine.

My current setup involves using Obsidian on both my personal and work laptops for all of my note taking. I use CryptFS to encrypt the notes on my local disk and sync that to my OneDrive account and then CryptFS mounts a new drive containing the decrypted notes that can be used with Obsidian. I have set up an AutoHotKey script to encrypt / decrypt the notes mapping it to simple keyboard shortcuts.

Overall, any note that I write goes in one of these folders:

  • Daily Notes: If there is something unstructured, some thought or idea that popped up or anything related to the day (like say todos), I write it down into that day's note created by the Daily Notes plugin.
  • Notebooks: This is for something specific and focused that I also want to keep organized and there are subfolders in this folder (like say Databases, College, Retrospection, etc.) that enable this.
  • Decisions: The planning kind of notes go here, or really anything where there are choices and actions that I would be making. This was inspired by an idea called the Decision Journal that I resonated with.
  • Random: All the other things like temporary scratch notes, writeups that I need to publish elsewhere, or anything that isn't permanently needed goes here.

So, that was all about my note taking journey. I don't see myself switching from Obsidian anytime soon and I do intend to incorporate writing as something I do more frequently.