Building systems in Obsidian is one of the best things I’ve done in the last two years. Let me explain why.
If there’s one thing you can say about the 21st century that is true for everyone, it’s that life is busy.
We’re all busy.
Some of us are busy with school, some with work, some with kids, some with binging our favorite shows or social media. No matter what we’re doing, we’re busy.
Managing your busyness with goals
If you’re like me, then at some point you’ve tried to manage your busyness with goals. Maybe you were trying to fit more into a day, focus more throughout the day, or just work on personal improvement.
Maybe you’re trying not to feel like a bum.
Goals are all well and good in the short-term. People can do incredible things when they sprint, when they dedicate all of their time and energy to one thing. That kind of focus and attention can be world changing.
But over the long term, goals don’t work. Sprinting is great, but no one can sprint forever. The problem with goals is that they tempt us to try to continuously sprint, and if you ask me, that’s a recipe for disaster. In the world of ideas, attempting to always sprint leads to a thing called burnout, and it isn’t pleasant.
James Clear agrees that goals aren’t the ideal
James Clear, best-selling author of Atomic Habits, agrees that goals are a false target.
Setting a goal may force you to push hard to accomplish that goal, but as soon as you cross the finish line, you lose momentum. Plus setting goals takes lots of time and attention.
Instead of goals, Clear recommends building good systems. If you have a good system to accomplish something, that will take you much farther than any goal.
You do not rise to the level of your goals, you fall to the level of your systems. —James Clear
What do good systems look like?
Let’s look at a real-life example of a good system. Let’s say you have a problem: you always lose your car keys.
As soon as you walk in the door, you set the keys down on whatever surface is empty, and they inevitably disappear. As a result you’re always late for your appointments, because you can’t find the keys when you need them.
There are a couple of solutions to this problem. You could make it a goal to always remember where you put the keys. Every time you walk in the door, you think really hard about where you put the keys, so you can remember later.
This works for a while, but after a few weeks you get lazy. You forget to be intentional with your keys, and you’re late for an appointment again. After a while you realize that the goal isn’t working, and you abandon the idea.
This may sound like a contrived example, but it describes the endless cycle that many of us have when it comes to goals. Goals are great when you have the energy and the motivation, and can sometimes help you to persevere when the going gets tough. But as soon as life gets busy and you miss one of your goals, they become self-defeating.
Going back to the keys problem: rather than setting a goal for yourself, you could create a system. One good system is to purchase a simple hook, and attach it to the wall next to your door. Then you make a habit of hanging your keys on that hook every time you walk in the door.
Unlike a goal, this system only requires one decision: the decision to hang a hook. Then it will take maybe a week to create the new habit, but crucially the habit is easier to do than what you were doing before, so creating the habit is effortless.
Creating great systems in Obsidian
One of the reasons I love Obsidian is that it’s a wonderful tool for building unique systems. You aren’t forced into using a system that wasn’t designed for you. If a certain workflow isn’t working for you, then you can change it.
Here are some of the best systems I’ve found for Obsidian, and some ways you can tweak them to fit your goals.
Creating a home note
If you’re just getting started with Obsidian, you should start by creating a home note. Here are some examples of home notes.
A home note is like a hook in the wall: it’s the first place you go every time you open Obsidian, and it lists the most important things in your vault. Your home note will act as an accelerator to catapult you into your most important work.
I recommend keeping your home note as simple as possible at first, so you can easily edit it. A simple list of linked notes is all that most people need, and the simpler it is the easier it is to fine-tune it for your needs.
Quickly Organize Notes
We found a great Dataview snippet that allows you to quickly and effortlessly organize your notes. Check that out here.
Dataview is a cornerstone plugin when it comes to creating great systems. You’ll see it used in a lot of the below examples. If you’re ready to take your note-taking to the next level, you should learn how to use Dataview.
Managing projects in Obsidian can be extremely useful. Obsidian can be great for projects because it’s great for systems: you can build your ideal workflow, you aren’t limited by anyone else’s idea of an ideal project workflow.
Building a Today view
If you do manage tasks or projects in Obsidian, you might want to consider Creating a Today View in Obsidian. A Today view is a kind of custom notification system, which allows you to schedule and see tasks only when you need to see them.
The Today view is great for building systems that involve recurring tasks, like paying bills or mowing the lawn.
Obsidian is great for journaling. The built-in Daily Notes plugin has everything that you need to create a journaling system, although I also recommend the calendar plugin. You can also create weekly, quarterly, or even yearly notes using the Periodic Notes plugin.
Journaling is a system that really works with every other system you build in Obsidian. Here are a few “hidden features” that you can add to your journals in Obsidian.
Routinely reviewing your life and your work is a good way to make sure you’re going in the right direction. In Obsidian, there are numerous ways to create a good review system.
Setting up a review system can be complicated, because the system depends entirely on what you want to review. But for my money it’s one of the best systems you can build, because it can improve everything else in your vault.
The review plugin is a good place to start, but you can also create a custom review system with Dataview. More on that to come.
Obsidian is also great for tracking relationships. Personally, I have trouble remembering the stories of the people in my life. To make up for my inconsistent memory, I create People notes that allow me to track my conversations with people that I care about over time.
Here’s an advanced example of a people template, but if that’s too involved then you can start like I did: create a note named after a close friend of yours, and write down your thoughts about them. If you’ve never done this before, you might surprise yourself.
Not only do people notes help your memory, they can also help you to become a better conversationalist.
Many people use Obsidian as a Zettelkasten. I personally use a version of Zettelkasten, because I find it improves the quality of my notes.
Check out our beginner’s introduction to Zettelkasten if you’re interested. Even if you don’t want to try out the full system, understanding the ideas behind Zettelkasten can improve anyone’s notes.
Tracking Books in Obsidian
If you like to read, one of the best things you can do for yourself is learn how to take book notes in Obsidian. Seriously: this revolutionized my book game in the last two years. Here are some of the benefits I have noticed from this particular system:
- I remember books much better
- I always have interesting things to talk about
- I’ve improved my writing skills
- I always have a reference for the ideas that I like to talk about
…and many more!
I could go on for days about all the different systems possible in Obsidian. The possibilities are endless, and the only limit is your imagination.
If you haven’t dabbled in creating automated (or even manual) systems in Obsidian, then I’d encourage you to give it a shot. Hopefully the above will give you some ideas of systems that will be invaluable in your life.
P.S. Did I miss any incredibly important systems that you use in Obsidian? Let me know in the comments below!
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