Screenshot 2021 09 03 at 19 35 40


I now use Obsidian to take notes about media (books, podcasts, etc.) by creating a page for each thing I read, re-creating the outline of the piece and structuring my notes around it. I then create embedded notes for frameworks/models and mark my own reactions to what I'm reading with relevant emojis.


  • Introduction
  • Levels of information
    • 1. Reverse engineering
    • 2. Module frameworks
    • 3. Reactions and inspiration
  • More valuable notes

Lately I've been thinking a lot about my information workflow. I read a lot of books, listen to a lot of podcasts, save a lot of articles and scroll past a lot of Tweets. As stimulating as this can all be, I've been dissatisfied for a while at how much I was able to retain, apply, reflect on and re-find information and ideas that I'd come across.

Part of this was prompted by experimenting with Obsidian, which is basically a tool to make connected notes. These connections are made through backlinks, which allow you to relate a note to some other notes, kind of like Wikipedia. The advantage of this is that structures emerge through your connections, rather than you having to decide how to file things into folders to remembering to add tags (although you can do both of these if you want).

After a fair bit of experimentation, I think I've found something that works for me now, and helps me not only retain more, but finding the activity of reading and getting my head around a piece a lot easier.

Levels of information

One of the things that feels like a superpower to me (more because of how few people seem to think in this way than it being particularly impressive) is being able to think in, and move between, various levels of abstraction.

Take books as an example. Books have lots of levels of abstraction; volumes, sections, chapters, sub-chapters, paragraphs, sentences, words and letters. Some bright spark decided that they should visualise the upper levels of this hierarchy through a table of contents. Many non-fiction books split chapters up under headings that help to break up the narrative into chunks.

Authors spend time outlining to make sure that this overall structure makes sense. But more than just making sense, these outlines can tell you an awful lot about the book itself and what points it's going to make.

(This, by the way, is all information architecture. It's been around a while.)

When we read a book, we often read it in order - or at least think that's the ‘proper’ way to read it. We might highlight a few parts that catch our attention as we go. But it can be hard to get these insights off of the page and into other contexts in your life and work.

But what if we made better use of all the different levels of information that the author has given us? All the different wayfinding clues work well when you're reading chronologically to keep you orientated, but we don't have to use them this way.

1. Reverse engineering

I start by writing out the outline; creating my own version of the contents page. It might seem odd to duplicate this, but it gives me somewhere to hang all my notes from in the context of the overall narrative, and helps me get much more familiar with it.

A nice feature of Obsidian is the ability to 'fold' headings, so you can collapse the content within them and reopen them when you need to. This makes moving around long notes much easier, as well as giving you a clear sense of where you are in the document.

As I go through chapters, I'll add in further subheadings to represent... the subheadings. Usually I'll write a short summary of them.

Just this act of outlining is something I find really useful. But using a digital tool like Obsidian offers the chance to make things really interesting.

2. Modular frameworks

Sometimes you'll come across something that feels more like a model or framework; not just a pithy sentence but a list of steps in a method, an interesting anecdote or a diagram of some kind. While something like this would normally sit in a digital note I've made for that book, Obsidian allows me to do something better. When I come across something like this, I create a new separate note, and embed it in the note for the book, under the relevant section.

This is a gamechanger; no longer are these ideas stuck inside the context we found them in, but they become notes in their own right that we can revisit, organise, reference and stumble upon in many more ways.

3. Reactions and inspiration

The other thing I've started to do here is to add my reactions to my digital notes. I've been distinguishing these from notes about book content by adding emoji to the front of a new line, e.g.

🤯 I've never thought of that before!!

If something I read gives me an idea, I can mark it with a lightbulb. And I can go one further, by tagging a new note link that I can create later when I have time to flesh it out. e.g.

[[💡 Taking notes by starting with an outline]]

More valuable notes

These three things, combined with the powerful tools Obsidian comes with like the knowledge graph and backlinks, have given me a new sense of the value of notetaking. I often felt before it was a bit fruitless, and either couldn't decide what level at which to make notes on something or felt it was a waste of time as I didn't have any kind of system for revisiting them. Having an emergent notetaking structure like this though already makes it feel more worthwhile, and I expect the value of these notes will only increase as time goes on.