Table of Contents
My most used tool that I use on my computer is called Obsidian. It is a free note-taking app that can be as simple or as powerful as you like. It makes writing notes for just about anything super easy and friction-less. I use it to organize my thinking for almost everything in my life.
I can go down so many rabbit holes into the inner workings of Obsidian and personal knowledge management in general but I will save that for another day. I can also talk about file organization for hours but, again, that is a can of worms for another day. This guide is specifically how I use Obsidian on a daily basis in Morocco as a PCV.
This is also just a teaser to hopefully pique interest, inspire, and show the possibilities, not an in-depth guide. You’ll have to do your own research to really understand and use this tool to its potential. Alternatively, contact me and we can talk about it anytime for as long as you like!
Quick and Dirty Markdown
Every note that you write in Obsidian gets typed in and formatted according to a language called Markdown. Basically, instead of clicking buttons to format the page you type symbols to denote formatting.
For example, to make a big heading add an octothorpe/hashtag (#) before the heading words. If you want a smaller header, use two. To bold words, wrap them in two asterisks (*) on either side. For italicizing words, wrap them in one asterisk. Lists are made with either dashes for bullet lists or numbers for ordered lists.
Those are the basics to get started but I wrote a longer piece on this a while ago if you are interested and there is a good cheat sheet available.
This is a list of the use cases in my work as a PCV, roughly in order of usefulness. Again, this is just to exhibit the possibilities and uses of Obsidian, not a full how-to guide.
As every PCV knows, 4MAT is your friend. I write all of my lesson plans in Obsidian, usually according to 4MAT. My lesson plans look like this:
# Lesson Name **Duration:** 60 min **Session Objectives:** 1. By the end of the session... ## Motivation ## Information ## Practice ## Application
Under each heading are either paragraphs or bullet points detailing all of the steps and information that we need for the lesson.
Of course, some activities don’t follow this form and for those I just write down what makes sense. For example, I have a conversation circle activity and that note is just a long list of bullet points of questions.
It has probably been highly recommended to you to start or maintain a journaling practice during your service as a form of mindfulness or documentation.
Built into Obsidian is an option for Daily Notes. You click the icon and it opens up a new unique note for that day. It is incredible for journaling as it really reduces the friction between thinking about it and actually writing.
You could also use your daily note for task management, habit tracking, or whatever else you want to make a note of each day. My journal entries have the location I am writing from and just paragraphs of what happened that day and how I am feeling.
Making simple presentations in Obsidian is easy and it is wonderful having your presentations and lesson plans all in the same place.
All you do is write the slides in Markdown like normal and when you want to create a new slide, add three dashes (—). All Markdown rules apply like italicizing and bolding. For example, here are some translated slides for a Python workshop I did. This is exactly what I typed in the note:
### Programming - Computers follow instructions - When we write code, we are just writing these instructions --- ### Python - Easy programming language - We can do a lot of different things with it - Easy to learn, easy to understand --- ...
Then I just right click Start Presentation and the slides open up directly in Obsidian. You can navigate between slides with your mouse or arrow keys like normal. This example rendered as a simple black and white presentation with three slides and big headers and bulleted lists underneath. It may not look the prettiest but it is incredibly easy and gets the job done.
I keep notes on each major city that I visit. This is nice for when other people ask me for my travel recommendations or I need to remind myself when I am going back. A standard travel note looks like this:
# City Name **Relevant journal posts:** ## Getting There ## Lodging ## Food and Drinks ## Things to Do
Under Getting There, I keep track of my modes of transportation and how much it costed. This is really only for me since it’s usually travel from my site to the destination.
I also write down the places I’ve stayed and how much those costed under Lodging. I will include a link to the Airbnb if I would stay there again or recommend others stay there.
Lastly, I keep track of places to go for food and drinks as well as other things to do. This is just a simple bulleted list with a little blurb about where it is, what I liked about it, and other notes.
Training is often described as a fire hose of information and it is almost impossible for it all to stick into your brain immediately. You will likely want to take notes so you don’t lose all of the information.
I use pen and paper during sessions and rarely have the gumption to digitize them. However, I do take notes on the virtual sessions in Obsidian. These are usually bulleted lists that I will clean up after the session and send out in the group chat for others to use.
I do digitize notes post session if I am thinking about them again and want to remember the information or find myself flipping back to those notes often enough.
I am the self-appointed scribe in my committee because I have a good note taking system. Yet again, these are usually rough bullet points that I clean up after the fact to share with the rest of the committee members.
Depending on the content of the meeting, there will be a clear outline that I will add before the meeting but sometimes it just goes wherever it goes and bullet points work just fine. There are also times when we send out emails to the cohort or staff members and I will write them in Obsidian as a means to draft them and archive them at the same time.
Dungeons and Dragons
I think the majority of my cohort is in at least one DnD group. You and your party will be grateful to have someone taking good notes. I’ve got a whole elaborate system for tracking items and characters but it’s a bit much. The majority of use comes from the session notes.
Each session, I create a new note title
Session X where
X is whichever session we are on that day that looks like this:
## Session Summary ## Recap ## Log ## Loose Ends
Under Session Summary is where I put a 5-7 sentence summary of the major plot points for the session. I like to do this the day after the session while it is still fresh in my brain. My philosophy with the summaries is that someone should be able to read all of the summaries thus far and get a rough idea of the story.
The summary of the previous session is under the Recap heading. It’s easy to get it to automatically fill rather than copy and pasting but that is a bit too technical for this.
Log is where the magic happens. I take pretty rough notes during the action because I am trying to focus on what is happening in the game. These are just bullet points that summarize what happened on each players turn or what the party is doing in general. I also do a quick comma separated list when the DM is describing places or things. Important details get bolded and stuff outside of the game gets put in parentheses.
Lastly, Loose Ends is a bulleted list of important stuff the party might want to return to, interesting items that we picked up, or ideas for stuff to try at a later session.
These are more general concepts that you can use to upgrade, automate, and organize the above use cases.
In Markdown, frontmatter is a way to add more information and metadata to notes without that information being seen. Many of my notes have the date in the frontmatter since I want to keep track of that but I don’t necessarily need it to be seen in the note.
To add frontmatter, add three dashes, a new line, and another three dashes. Whatever is between those sets of dashes is your frontmatter. It is typed in using
key: value format. For example:
--- date: 2023-07-05 tags: english/adults, english/youth --- # Comparative Adjectives ## Motivation ...
This English lesson now has the date and some tags added to the metadata. The most relevant thing is the tags which I will talk about next.
There is a huge fundamental debate in the personal knowledge management circles of which is better for note organization: folders or tags. The consensus is to just build a system that works for you. Personally, I roughly follow the simple mantra of “If a note can fit into multiple folders, consider using a tag. Otherwise, put it in a folder that makes sense.”
Take English teaching as an example. There are multiple levels and different groups to teach and, logically, each group should get a dedicated folder. But what if I am doing the same lesson for multiple groups? I’d have to copy and paste a whole note and try and remember to keep them in sync if I changed the lesson.
Instead, I put all of the English lessons in a folder called
lesson_plans and tag each lesson for which groups it applies to. In the example above, that lesson plan can be used for either adults or youth but not little ones. Consequently, I put it under the
When I am looking for lessons for a specific group, I open the tag tab and click on
english/adults and it shows me only the notes with that tag.
You might have noticed that a lot of my notes are repetitive; lots of lesson plans that look the same, lots of journal entries that look the same, etc. No, I’m not copy and pasting every single one. Instead, I create the notes based off of a predefined template.
For example, if you have specific journaling prompts that you like to do everyday or want to do daily habit tracking, you can have your daily note be created based on a template. I stole the idea of adding the location to my journaling so I wanted each note to have “Location:” at the top. Instead of typing that out each time, I just put it into a template note and it automatically gets pulled in when I make that day’s note.
To use templates, I made a separate
templates folder to dump all of them into. Each individual note in this folder is a template. Write out exactly what you want the note to look like from the start, whatever all notes of this kind are going to have in common (usually headings).
Then to pull in a template, create a new note, open the command palette with Ctrl + P and type Insert Template and select which one you want. This will populate the new note with whatever was in your template note. You do not necessarily need to create a new note to use a template. You can embed smaller templates into already existing notes.
Most people aren’t using Obsidian but sometimes you need to share your work. Obsidian makes it very easy to export to PDF. Your fellow volunteers will think you are a “king among men” when you drop your session notes as a PDF in the group chat. It is also nice for things like committee meeting notes or if you want to share your travel notes.
All you need to do is open the command palette from the note you want to export with Ctrl + P and type Export to PDF, select options, and export.
A major selling point for Obsidian is the ability to link to notes from other notes. There is a big philosophy of “linking your thinking” in the personal knowledge management circles. With enough links, your Obsidian notes will start to turn into your own personal Wikipedia.
A thorough example of how I use linking is with my DnD notes. Throughout the session, I will link to existing characters or locations that we have encountered so I can quickly click through to those other notes and remind myself of important features. This is done by using the [] syntax. Whatever note name is inside the brackets will be linked to.
Linking can be extended to embedding. Under the Recap heading, I embed the last session’s summary so it automatically populates and I don’t have to copy and paste and try and keep them in sync. Embedding is done with the ![] syntax.
Further Reading and Resources
There you have it, the high level documentation of how I use this tool in my daily life as a volunteer. I hope it helps someone out there to clarify their thinking, organize their work, or be more productive in their lives.
Below is a short list of resources I have used in the past to go deeper into Obsidian. Again, feel free to contact me with any feedback, questions, thoughts, suggestions, or advice.
- Obsidian website. To get the general idea and selling points of Obsidian. The documentation is also very good for getting syntax correct and learning more advanced things.
- Obsidian subreddit. People sharing their vaults and asking questions.
- Nicole van der Hoeven YouTube channel. She has so many videos and a full course on getting into Obsidian.