Obsidian As My Second Brain

As sort of a connoisseur of productivity apps and methodologies, I’ve used a lot of to-do and note-taking apps over the years and followed a couple of different methods around the organization and overall efficiency.

With regard to note-taking, I’ve used both Evernote and OneNote for some time. Lately, I’ve experimented with Notion a lot, where I appreciate the powerful database-like aspects that offer capabilities to organize data by linking, filtering, and displaying it very flexibly. With all of those solutions, there were some things I appreciated (the simplicity of Evernote, the Apple Pencil support of OneNote on the iPad, the versatility of Notion) but also a couple of significant drawbacks: Evernote feels quite clunky for the simple application that it is, although this improved somewhat with their new mobile app. OneNote feels a bit too Microsoft Office-like (all of which I don’t use anymore) and drives me mad with its free-floating content blocks and cumbersome autocorrection. With Notion, I noticed a significant decline in app performance with all the added functionality. In addition, for an app that wants to be a personal database for everything, there absolutely needs to be an option to enable two-factor authentication.

Enter Obsidian

I’ve been following a project called Obsidian for some time and finally decided to make the switch. Obsidian is a knowledge base entirely built on Markdown files that live on your computer. Those are two significant advantages in my eyes, while at the same time, it means that it’s not for everyone. I like the idea of having all my notes and written knowledge in a format that I have complete control over and that is portable like Markdown, but of course, having to write Markdown (which I, for example, do anyways when writing for this very blog) and being responsible for backing up and syncing the knowledge base yourself is probably something for the more tech-savvy users out there.

Obsidian is a startup, and the beta was launched in April 2020. The app is free to use and stores all content locally on your device. They’re planning to monetize the service by offering add-on subscription services like Sync (encrypted sync of Obsidian vaults between devices) and Publish (publish notes from Obsidian as web pages). The app itself focuses on the basics of managing a knowledge base stored in Markdown files and is extensible via first-party as well as community plug-ins.

For me, the most significant advantages of Obsidian right now are:

  • The app is lightning fast
  • Full control over content and formatting via Markdown
  • All content stored in local files that can be synced via iCloud, Dropbox, GitHub, etc. or via their own "Sync" offering
  • Notes in Obsidian can be linked, allowing to build a "network of thought" or second brain
  • Extensibility through plug-ins (e.g., a "Graph view" plug-in to visualize the network of linked notes)

The biggest drawback for me right now is that there is no mobile app yet, but this is being worked on, and mobile apps are said to be coming soon.

Second Brain

Now, what does the "second brain" in this post’s title refer to? Obsidian itself starts as a blank canvas, and there is no prescribed methodology for using it. Alluding to its inherent organization principle of linked notes that function as a kind of "network of thoughts,” Obsidian positions the tool as "a second brain,” which makes a lot of sense to me. The "second brain" is a concept made popular by Tiago Forte. It is "a methodology for saving and systematically reminding us of the ideas, inspirations, insights, and connections we’ve gained through our experience" by using technology to expand our memory and our intellect.

From my perspective, Tiago Forte’s "second brain" approach, as well as another popular methodology called "Zettelkasten" (developed by the sociologist Niklas Luhmann, 1927-1998), are ideal approaches to an organizational system that is needed to use Obsidian effectively. I’ll review and compare those approaches in a future blog post.