Every intellectual endeavor starts with a note. - Sönke Ahrens, How to Take Smart Notes
A little less than a year ago, I started using a note-taking tool called Roam Research. It completely changed how I think about knowledge work and introduced me to "How to Take Smart Notes," by Sönke Ahrens. I am immensely thankful for the mental models that Roam has given me. They will stay with me forever. However, I feel it is time to try something new. For now, I will be giving Obsidian a spin.
Trust and Ownership
For a while, the iterative, wherever the wind blows, development approach of Roam was exciting. New features would be released surreptitiously, with notification coming from Twitter. Learning about some unknown or hidden feature made it feel like I was part of an insiders club.
I have known about Obsidian for a while but never gave it a fair shot because Roam seemed so revolutionary. The more I used Roam, the more valuable my notes became. This increase in value made me realize that I needed a little more trust in the developers' approach to release management. It wasn't always clear how changes would affect my workflow. With Obsidian, I can choose to have complete control over my notes.
The final catalyst for me to seriously explore Obsidian was a perceived trend of elitist interactions in the Roam community. For some, there is no room for any other than Roam. That's fine, but that was no longer working for me.
A Kick-Ass Community and A Markdown-Centric Approach
Since Obsidian is based on Markdown text files, this offers some unique advantages over Roam.
- Portability: Markdown files are just text files. I prefer to stay in Obsidian for most of my workflow, but nothing says I need to do so. For example, creating and publishing a blog draft in Roam required copying, pasting, formatting, and editing. Since this page is a text file, I can open it in Ulysses for some final tweaks and publish it to my blog from there.
- Trust: I trust myself with my notes more than anyone else. While there is an optional sync service (or sync via dropbox or a myriad of other options), I don't need to use it or depend on a server for note-taking. As for the development of Obsidian, the developers are very approachable and share a public roadmap.
- Interoperability: Quite simply, anything that can open, edit, manipulate, or view a markdown text file can be a potential note endpoint or UI. I have already set up some workflows that use Zapier to send new notes with a specific tag from Evernote to Obsidian while converting them to markdown along the way. I can programmatically manipulate or automate my note workflows very quickly. Full regex is also supported since I'm working with text files.
- Community: I cannot say enough good things about the Obsidian community. From the moment I reached out for tips on Twitter, the Obsidian users met me with enthusiasm and genuine willingness to help. The official Obsidian Discord and Forums are just as welcoming and filled with a flurry of awesome activity. For a deeper dive, I highly recommend Roamhacker's thread review of the community on Twitter.
Finding My Flow
Had I tried to learn Obsidian before developing the mental models and workflows that came with Roam, I don't think I would have had as much luck or insight into what I wanted. With that in mind, I set out to approach learning Obsidian by framing its capabilities within some critical features of Roam that I used heavily. While I use and appreciate community extensions and plugins, these make the experience click for me.
- Daily Notes Page: This was a must for me because I trained myself to use the daily notes page in Roam almost exclusively. Thankfully, Obsidian offers the option to create a Daily Notes Page upon opening each day.
- Block References: Obsidian can do this too. It's not as feature-rich as Roam's implementation, but I am happy to have the option.
- Transclusion: The ability to embed block references or entire pages within other pages was a game-changer for me in Roam. This feature is available in Obsidian as well. The implementation is different in Obsidian due to its page-centric nature, but it is still beneficial.
Pages Versus Blocks
I love the granularity of blocks in Roam Research, and I don't think Obsidian's implementation is as feature-rich. I can reference certain lines of text (or blocks) in Obsidian, but I cannot (yet) drag them around to place them anywhere within my system. This UX is something that I do miss from Roam, but I'm finding that adapting to Obsidian is more manageable than I initially thought it would be.
After reading Robert Haisfield's excellent write-up on how he is adapting to Obsidian as a former Roam user, I find that I am missing blocks less than when I started with Obsidian. This post in that same thread resonated with me:
The post author explains that in Roam (at least the way I was using it), everything links out from the Daily Notes Page. In Obsidian, your day's work links back into the Daily Notes Page. This distinction made it easier to grasp how I would work with Obsidian. I would work on my pages and link them back to the Daily Notes Page to have a record of what I worked on that day.
Easy Wins for Obsidian
- Long-Form Writing: This is hands-down a much better experience in Obsidian. The text flows smoothly, the interface is snappy, and moving from draft to published is nearly seamless. Obsidian's markdown-centric approach wins here.
- Style and Formatting: I was pleasantly surprised by how Obsidian handles styling the UI elements. There are community themes that you can enable. For more minor UI tweaks, Obsidian employs a CSS snippet system that allows you to store CSS snippets in a folder. The snippets in the folder can be turned on or off with a toggle in Obsidian appearance settings. Compared to the chaotic nature of handling CSS in Roam, this was a welcome feature.
- The Graph Display: Quite simply, it's beautiful! I can easily filter what is shown based on any search that I can perform in Obsidian. I can also group-specific notes by color (again with searches). These capabilities mean that, unlike with Roam's native graph display, I can glean helpful information.
I am just getting started with Obsidian, but I love it so far. I miss some features from Roam, but I'm not finding the switch nearly as daunting as I initially thought it would be. I may do deeper dives into some of the features as I am learning them. For example, I am in the process of working out my Zettelkasten / Smart Notes system in Obsidian. I may write it up once I establish a permanent workflow. For now, I am happy to have landed here. I love the community, the developers, and the product. I'm looking forward to the journey.