Obsidian is a wonderful and potentially life-changing app. But it’s also a complicated app, and getting started with Obsidian can be a challenge. If you’re new to Obsidian and not sure where to start, then this is the article for you.
Table of Contents
- What is Obsidian?
- Who should use Obsidian?
- Can I use Obsidian?
- Getting Started with Obsidian
- An introduction to links
- An introduction to Markdown
- Organizing your notes
- Advanced (but incredibly useful!) Features
- A Note on Community Plugins
What is Obsidian?
Obsidian is a beautiful and versatile app created by Shida Li and Erica Xu (also know as Licat and Silver, respectively).
The Obsidian team set out to build a more modern note taking app—one with modern amenities such as version control and syntax highlighting. They also built Obsidian to be local-first, super extensible, and crucially, they designed Obsidian around the idea of linking notes together. Linked notes might not sound that impressive, but just wait, we’ll come back to that in a bit.
The core ideas behind Obsidian are nothing new: many of these features have been used by programmers for decades. But Obsidian is one of the first apps to make these ideas easy to use and accessible to everyone.
However Obsidian’s strength is also its weakness. These ideas are new enough to note taking that they can be daunting at first. Our goal with this article is to demystify the core ideas behind Obsidian, and showcase how you too can create something amazing with Obsidian. Hopefully getting started with Obsidian has never been easier.
Who should use Obsidian?
Obsidian is a great note-taking app. Not everyone needs high-quality notes, but whether you need them or not, you may find that Obsidian is invaluable. Here are a few situations where I would recommend Obsidian:
- If you feel like your brain is too full
- If you feel like you’re never able to remember all the things you want to remember
- If you’ve tried to take notes in the past, but they’ve never stuck
- If you like to journal
- If you like to write, read, or research
- If you’re curious to know what “all the fuss is about”
Can I use Obsidian?
Obsidian is available as a cross-platform app, which means it works on all the major operating systems—Windows, Mac, and Linux. However it is an app that you have to download, which means if you don’t have the ability to download apps on your machine, then it may not work for you.
Obsidian also has excellent mobile apps for both iOS and Android. Getting started with Obsidian has never been easier, no matter what device you have.
Is Obsidian free?
Yes, Obsidian is 100% free for personal use. You can download the app directly from their website, free of charge. If you want to use Obsidian for commercial purposes, then there is a small yearly fee. The Obsidian team also allows you to purchase a Catalyst license if you only use Obsidian personally but still want to support the team.
The Obsidian also offers two other premium services: they are called Sync and Publish.
Obsidian Sync allows you to sync your notes between your devices. There are many other ways to accomplish this, but Obsidian Sync is one of the easiest and cleanest. If you have several devices and want to sync your notes between them, this is one of the easiest ways to accomplish this.
Obsidian Publish allows you to easily publish your notes. Publish allows you to publicize your notes at your own domain name. Like sync, Publish makes it effortless to publish your notes. If you’re looking to create a knowledgebase-like website, Publish is a great option for it.
Getting Started with Obsidian
Download the app
Before we use Obsidian, we first have to download it. If you haven’t already, go to obsidian.md and download the app.
Creating a vault
Once Obsidian is downloaded and installed, open the app. The first thing it will ask you is to Create a new vault:
Click the purple button and give your vault a name and a location. I like to put my vaults in my Documents folder, but you can place it wherever you want:
Once you click “Create”, Obsidian will create and open your first vault.
Choose a new theme
The default theme can be a bit overwhelming for beginners, so I suggest you change your theme right away. To do that, click on the gear icon in the bottom left corner, and select the “Appearance” tab:
On the right you should see where it says “Themes”. Click “Manage” and Obsidian will show you available themes. We recommend you start with the “Minimal” theme, and you can always change this later as you become more familiar with Obsidian.
Create your first note
Now that you have Obsidian installed, running, and with a better theme, it’s time to create your first note!
There are many ways to create a new note in Obsidian, but the simplest is to click the “New Note” button in the top left corner.
I recommend you start with a Home note. Your home note will be your starting location every time you open your vault, and it will show you where to go.
What do you put in your home note? Anything that interests you at the moment! It’s a good idea to start with a simple list of your most important linked notes. For example, a simple home note might look like this at first:
# Home - [[Interests MOC]] - [[Work MOC]] - [[Home MOC]]
The text above may confuse you. What’s with the funky square brackets? Well, let me introduce you to wiki-style links.
An introduction to links
One of the most important tools in Obsidian is the ability to link notes together.
You’re already familiar with links and how useful they are online—in your own notes they are even better. It’s hard to overstate how incredible linked notes are. Most note apps support folders and/or tags, but linked notes are far more flexible and powerful. Folders and tags can be useful, but they tend to get messy over time. Linked notes are far easier to keep organized.
Linking two notes together couldn’t be easier. Obsidian uses wiki-style links, which look like this:
[[link to a note title]]. Obsidian also autocompletes existing notes, so as soon as you type
[[ a helpful window will pop up. This dialogue shows you the most recently used notes, and you can keep typing to search for any note in your vault.
An introduction to Markdown
All notes in Obsidian are stored in a format called Markdown. Markdown is a simple way of formatting your notes in plain text.
Markdown may seem like a pain at first, and I hear you ask “why can’t it work like Word”? But there are many benefits to markdown, and once you get the hang of it, you’ll be able to write much faster in Markdown than in Word.
What benefits does Markdown have? Here are a few things:
- Markdown is future-proof. Even if Obsidian goes away, your notes will still be accessible and readable.
- Markdown is viewable and editable in any other text app
- Markdown is quick and easy to write, once you get the hang of it
Below are some basic Markdown commands that you should know.
Headings: To create a heading, simply type # followed by the heading text. The number of # symbols you use will determine the size of the heading. For example, ## heading will create a level two heading, while ### heading will create a level three heading.
Bold/Italics: To create bold or italicized text, simply surround the text with asterisks (*) or underscores (_). For example, *this text is bold* and _this text is italicized_.
Links: We’ve already gone over wiki-style links, which look [[like this]]. To create a link, simply type the link text in square brackets  and then the URL of the link in parentheses (). For example, Obsidian will create a link to your Obsidian app. If you have trouble remembering this, you can always use a keyboard shortcut (cmd/ctrl+k) or the Paste URL into Selection plugin.
Lists: There are two types of lists in Markdown—ordered and unordered.
An ordered list is created by typing a number followed by a period for each item in the list. For example:
1. Item one 2. Item two 3. Item three
To create an unordered list, simply use asterisks (*) or minus signs (-) instead of numbers. For example:
* Item one * Item two * Item three
Blockquotes: To create a blockquote, simply type > before each line of the quote. For example:
> The problem with internet quotes is that you cannot always depend on their accuracy. > --Abraham Lincoln
As you can see, markdown is quite simple to use! With just a few basic commands, you can format your notes in Obsidian to be more readable and easier to navigate. Feel free to experiment with different styles of formatting to find what works best for you.
If you want to learn more about Markdown, we recommend checking out this helpful resource: Mastering Markdown.
Organizing your notes
You likely already have notes stored somewhere else, perhaps in the “Notes” app on your phone. When getting started with Obsidian, feel free to transfer old notes into Obsidian, and link to them from your home note.
There are infinite ways that you can organize your notes. And what works for you might be totally different than what works for me. But there are a few principles that have helped me out, and I think understanding them will help you too.
Read through these ideas now, but don’t worry about implementing them yet. When your vault grows to a state where you need an organizational strategy, come back to this article to learn more about these topics.
Maps of Content
There’s a popular concept in the Obsidian community called MOCs, or Maps of Content. MOCs are a way to visualize the structure of your notes and see how they’re all interconnected.
MOCs are notes that primarily link to other notes, giving you an index, or a small Table of Contents that you can create for any particular topic. And MOCs are one of the best ways to quickly organize notes in Obsidian.
If you’re researching a topic, MOCs can be incredibly useful for organizing related notes. You can create a MOC for each subtopic and then link those MOCs together to create a master MOC. This gives you a high-level overview of your research and makes it easy to find specific notes when you need them.
You can also use MOCs to create a knowledge base for yourself or your team. This is a great way to store information that everyone needs to know, like company policies or standard operating procedures.
Creating a MOC is easy- just create a new note and link to other notes from within it. You can even link to other MOCs, creating a map-of-maps, so to speak (like our home note example above).
You can then link to your MOCs from your home note, and build an organic “note structure” from within your notes.
Learn more about MOCs here: Maps of Content: Effortless organization for notes.
The PARA Method
Another popular method for organizing notes is called PARA. That stands for:
- Areas of Responsibility
Popularized by Tiago Forte, these four words represent folders for holding digital files. So if implementing PARA in Obsidian, you would start by creating the four above folders.
Each of these folders is meant to represent a different state for your files. Projects are things you are actively working on, Areas are projects that are ongoing, Reference is for materials that support your projects, and Archive is for everything else.
If you want to implement PARA, one helpful tip is to put all of your current notes in the Archive folder. This allows you to start with a “clean slate”, but you still have your old notes available if you need them.
To learn more about PARA, see Forte Labs.
The Zettelkasten Method
The Zettelkasten method is a note-taking system that was developed by German sociologist and historian Niklas Luhmann. The word “Zettelkasten” means “slip box” in German and refers to the physical boxes that Luhmann used to store his notes.
Luhmann was a prolific writer and is estimated to have written over 90,000 index cards throughout his career, which he used to write 600 publications and 60 books. His system was designed to help him make connections between ideas, and find relevant information quickly.
Zettelkasten focuses on the creation of permanent notes. Each note that you add to your Zettelkasten should be future-focused, and you should be able to look back at any given note and understand the core idea. These are also sometimes called Atomic Notes.
People who practice Zettelkasten have a process for creating these permanent notes. In a nutshell, it goes something like this:
- Make a fleeting note whenever you run across information that interests you. Fleeting notes are fast “back of the napkin” notes to remind you of an idea.
- Review your fleeting notes routinely (daily is best). As you review them, you should:
- Rewrite the note for an audience. How would you explain this concept to someone who knew nothing about it?
- Make sure a similar note doesn’t already exist in your Zettelkasten (if it does, merge this one)
- Find a related note in your Zettelkasten to link it to
- Find other similar notes and link the new note to them too
Zettelkasten is a writing tool that is meant to help make writing more fun, faster, and more effective. But the core principles are applicable no matter what system you use: create future-proof notes, and you will benefit for years to come.
To learn more about Zettelkasten, see our article on Getting Started with Zettelkasten.
Advanced (but incredibly useful) Features
You now know enough to start taking notes in Obsidian. However, there are a number of advanced features in Obsidian that, if you learn them, might make your work in Obsidian more enjoyable and efficient. Getting started with Obsidian isn’t just about taking notes, it’s also about making it fun.
Keyboard shortcuts are the key to efficiently using any app (assuming you’re using a keyboard and not a touch screen!). Here are a few keyboard shortcuts that may be useful to you:
Note: for convenience we use “super” in this list, which means either the command key on Mac or ctrl on Windows and Linux.
|Shortcut||What it does|
|Super+p||Open command palette (more on that below)|
|Super+Shift+p||Open quick switcher|
|Super+n||Create new note|
|Super+w||Close current tab|
It’s also worth noting that you can change or add your own hotkeys in the settings:
The Command Palette and Quick Switcher
These are more advanced tools, but it’s crucial to learn how to use them. Maybe not immediately, but remember these tools and come back to them if you don’t want to commit to learning them now. They are tremendously powerful and useful tools, even for those just getting started with Obsidian.
The Command Palette is a tool that allows you to quickly run any command that Obsidian supports. You can use it to format your text, you can use it to create, open, or delete notes. It can add tags, embed files, or even export your note as a PDF. It also allows you to search for a command and see the keyboard shortcut (if one exists), which is also quite useful.
To use the command palette, press
cmd+p on Macs). Then you can search for a specific command, or view a list of all possible commands.
You can also press
cmd+shift+p) to quickly switch between files. This is probably one of the features I personally use the most in Obsidian, the quick switcher is incredibly useful.
Once you’ve linked together a few notes, you might wonder: how can you see the relationship between those notes?
Obsidian has a few different tools for that. One of them lives in the right sidebar, and it’s called the Backlinks Pane. This tool shows you a list of other notes that link to your current note:
The more links you create, the more useful this tool becomes!
You can also see links in the graph view, which is fun to look at and play around with, but is generally less useful than the backlinks pane. I rarely use the graph view, but it is fun to look at.
Obsidian also has a robust search tool, one that you may end up using often. If you can’t find a note that you know you stored in Obsidian, then search can help you find it.
You’ll find the search tool in the upper left hand corner of Obsidian, right above the file picker. If you’ve ever used a search engine, you’ll know how to use it: type in your search term and the results will appear as you type. It’s as simple as that.
If you want to learn more about search, see our article about five hidden features in Obsidian Search.
A note on Community Plugins
No article on Obsidian would be complete without mentioning community plugins. Obsidian has a wonderful community behind it, and a large ecosystem of “community plugins”, which are plugins built my members of the community, rather than the Obsidian team. Community plugins are a big part of why Obsidian is so great, and it’s worth your time to look into them.
However, since this article is about getting started with Obsidian, that’s all I’m going to say about them. If you want to learn more, see our articles on getting started with community plugins and the best Obsidian community plugins.
In conclusion, Obsidian is an incredible and powerful note-taking app, and if you give it a shot it may change your life. Hopefully this article has made getting started with Obsidian a less daunting task.
If you have any questions or concerns, feel free to drop them in the comments below, or contact us directly.
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