How to use Obsidian Notes: a step-by-step guide

🎉 I'm excited to announce that my course, Obsidian for Minimalists: An Introduction to Obsidian Notes for Busy People, is now available for purchase! 🎉

What is the Obsidian Notes app?

Obsidian is an aesthetically beautiful, powerful Markdown-based note taking app that was originally launched in 2020 by programmers Erica Xu and Shida Li (the talented team who also created Dynalist). Like so many note-taking enthusiasts, Erica felt frustrated by the state of note taking apps, and wanted something that was a better fit.

In the words of the Obsidian Notes team from their About page:

Why build yet another note-taking app? Like the cliché goes, we started Obsidian because Erica couldn’t find anything that can satisfy her need to build a personal knowledge base. She has tried all kinds of software from TiddlyWiki to TheBrain; nothing felt right though. Quarantine finally gave us the chance to start making it.

Obsidian has three fundamental features:

  • Plain text (with Markdown support) is the default format
  • Links (including bidirectional links aka backlinks) are first-class citizens
  • Designed to be highly extensible (to include plugins, themes, etc) and customizable

Those three features make Obsidian simultaneously incredibly powerful… and potentially a bit daunting to use. There are endless possibilities and customizations available— which can easily lead to analysis paralysis.

In this quick-start guide, we’ll go over just the essentials you need to get your note taking system up and running in Obsidian. You can tweak and extend and explore further functionality later… the important thing is taking that first step.

📓 New to the world of personal knowledge management and note taking systems? Check out my guide to building a personal knowledge management system to get started.

Cross-platform availability for Obsidian Notes

One of the reasons that I recommend Obsidian as one of the best note taking apps currently available is that it has great cross-platform availability.

Mac, Windows, Linux

Obsidian currently has dedicated desktop apps available for Windows, Mac, and Linux.

📥 Download the latest version at Obsidian.md/download.

Mobile apps for iOS and Android

Obsidian also offers mobile apps, available for both iOS and Android, so you can access your personal knowledge management system on the go. The iOS version works on both iPhone and iPad.

Is Obsidian a free note taking app? Obsidian Notes pricing details

The Obsidian desktop apps and mobile apps are all 100% free for personal use. There’s an annual fee for commercial use, and they also offer a “Catalyst” tier for Obsidian enthusiasts to offer support to the team and get early access to new features.

Obsidian Sync

Obsidian offers a paid, premium, encrypted sync option, which automatically keeps files in sync on mobile devices. Premium Obsidian Sync isn’t required, but is the most comprehensive option for keeping vaults synced across both desktop and mobile devices. Check out their FAQ for other Obsidian syncing options.

Who is Obsidian best for?

I highly recommend Obsidian as a lightweight, extensible, future-proof note taking app, given its cross-platform availability. It’s especially well-suited to:

  • Programmers
  • University students
  • Graduate students
  • Academics
  • Researchers
  • Writers

It’s also great for anyone looking for a note taking app on a budget, since the basic features are completely free.

Markdown (.MD files) and Obsidian

Obsidian is software that collects and organizes plain-text files saved in Markdown format. This guide goes over the basic syntax of Markdown formatting— if you know any HTML, you’ll quickly feel comfortable with Markdown.

A major advantage of Obsidian using Markdown files rather than proprietary formats is that any personal knowledge base you build in Obsidian is future proof. You can simply move your Markdown notes to another editor, or even search and browse and open them as plain text. There’s no problem if you move from Windows to Mac to Linux.

Obsidian for Minimalists: the busy person’s guide to Obsidian

You’re a busy professional juggling competing projects and meetings (to say nothing of your overscheduled personal life). You’ve heard good things about people using Obsidian to be more productive, but you’re not sure where to start. The YouTube tutorials and other courses you’ve browsed are a bit too esoteric for your needs. You don’t have unlimited time to devote to learning Obsidian. You’re looking for a no-fluff, no-nonsense, actionable approach to building a practical, minimalist note taking system in Obsidian to help you organize your busy life.

If you’re looking for a down-to-earth introduction to Obsidian in a bit more depth than this guide, my self-paced course Obsidian for Minimalists: A Practical Introduction to Obsidian Notes for Busy People is now available for purchase.

Getting started with Obsidian: how to create a note taking system in Obsidian

Step one: download and install the Obsidian app

Download the latest version of the Obsidian desktop app for your chosen platform at Obsidian.md. Install the app on your local system.

Step two: choose where to save your vault

The first time you open the app, you’ll be asked to choose a vault.

Simply put, an “Obsidian Vault” is a folder on your local file system (or if you like, in your Dropbox) where Obsidian collects and stores your notes. You can keep all your notes in one vault, or create multiple different vaults– it’s entirely up to your preferences.

You can choose a vault by clicking through and selecting the folder where you’d like your collection of Markdown files to reside.

Step three: choose your theme

Everyone has a preference between light and dark themes. Obsidian comes set to a dark theme out of the box, but you can easily change it to a light theme if that’s your preference:

  1. Head to Settings (the gear on the bottom left side).
  2. Choose the Appearance tab.
  3. Select your preferred base theme (light or dark).
  4. You can also explore other community themes by clicking the Themes -> “Manage” button in this setting.
🎨 Want to learn more about themes in Obsidian? Check out my ultimate guide to the best Obsidian themes.

Step four: set up your folders

Your new vault might be looking a little empty.

Within Obsidian, you can choose to create some file structure to organize your notes. You’re not obligated to do this— you can choose to rely entirely on backlinks or tags, but many people appreciate having the option to structure their notes using folders.

To create a folder:

  1. Click on the “New Folder” button on the upper left side, in the File Explorer tab.
  2. Name your folder.
  3. The folders automatically sort by name alphabetically.

Step five: create a new note and start capturing

To create a new note:

  1. Press “Ctrl+N” (Windows) or “Cmd+N” (macOS) on your keyboard. Or, click on the “New Note” button on the upper left side, in the File Explorer tab.
  2. Enter your note name in the top (the note will be saved as “your-note-name.md” on your computer).
  3. Type your note, adding Markdown formatting if you like. You can make nested bullets, lists, add headers, highlight text, and bold text. Check out this help guide on formatting your notes in Obsidian for more instructions.

Step six: organize your notes

You can drag and drop your notes in Obsidian to put them in your preferred folder. You click and hold your note title on the left hand side, then drag it to a folder.

If you’re not a folder fan, Obsidian also allows you to organize notes by tags and through bidirectional linking (keep reading below for more on linking notes in Obsidian).

📓 Trying to decide on the best way to organize your notes? Wish you could build a sustainable personal knowledge system to finally organize all those notes and ideas you have scattered across your email, Google Docs, Pinterest, Notion, and your hard drive? The Calmer Notes method for personal knowledge management is a step-by-step framework to help you build a customized, fully tailored information management system that fits your life.

Key features in Obsidian

Backlinks (aka bidirectional linking) is a key feature of Obsidian. As the Obsidian user guide notes:

While Obsidian is great for taking notes, the true power of Obsidian lies in being able to link your notes together. By understanding how one piece of information relates to another, you can improve your ability to remember them and to form deeper insights.

  1. Press the left square bracket twice on your keyboard ([[).
  2. Choose the note you’d like to link to from the drop-down menu.
  1. Highlight your chosen text.
  2. Press the left square bracket twice on your keyboard ([[).
  3. A new note with that name (i.e. your chosen, highlighted text) is automatically created.

Searching your Obsidian notes vault

Once you’ve added a few notes to your vault, you’ll want the ability to search through your old content.

Here’s how to search through your notes in Obsidian:

  1. Press Ctrl+Shift+F (Windows) or Cmd+Shift+F (Mac) on your keyboard. Or, click the “Search” button on the upper left side, next to the File Explorer tab.

You can use a number of advanced search operators within Obsidian to find precisely what you’re searching for.

Extending and customising Obsidian with plugins and themes

A huge part of why Obsidian is so popular these days is that it offers nearly endless customization options. You can adjust the appearance, add plugins with extra functionality, and integrate it with many other apps.

It can feel easy to get overwhelmed when exploring plugins and extensions– don’t feel obliged to install plugins just because they look interesting and other people enjoy them. Make sure that you’re mindfully choosing extensions and plugins that truly match with your own note taking goals.

Be sure to start with system, not software, to build a truly sustainable note taking system in Obsidian (or any other app).

Obsidian themes

Here’s my blog post overview of the most popular Obsidian themes you can use to customize your Obsidian setup to your preferred aesthetic:

Read the post: The best custom, minimalist themes for Obsidian Notes

Obsidian plugins

Core plugins

Obsidian comes with a number of core plugins built in as options within your default installation. To activate these, go to Settings —> Core Plugins, then toggle on and off your preferred core plugins.

Community plugins

Community plugins are designed by developers outside the Obsidian team. This means that they do carry a higher security risk than the core plugins. To use community plugins, you have to opt-in to allow them.

To access community plugins, go to Settings —> Community plugins, then choose “Turn on community plugins” at the bottom of the popup window.

Once you’ve turned on community plugins, you’ll have the option to search and browse through the list of hundreds of plugins.

Some of the most popular community plugins for Obsidian include:

Obsidian Notes resources and further reading

Text-based tutorials and roundups

Official Obsidian Help Guide

Start with the Obsidian help guide and documentation.

Awesome Obsidian

Awesome Obsidian is a thorough list of the best plugins and themes for Obsidian.

Eleanor Konik – Obsidian Roundup

Obsidian Roundup is a weekly newsletter published by Eleanor Konik: Eleanor is a historian, writer, Obsidian community moderator, and wealth of information on all things Obsidian.

YouTube Videos

Bryan Jenks

Bryan Jenks offers comprehensive video tutorials and walk-throughs of his own Obsidian setup on his YouTube channel, showing how he integrates other apps like Raindrop and Zotero.

Nick Milo – Linking Your Thinking

If you enjoy the idea of backlinking in Obsidian, you’ll want to check out Nick Milo‘s YouTube tutorials on linking in Obsidian.

Premium/Paid Obsidian Courses and Tutorials

Updated December 2023:
Check out this dedicated post on the best Obsidian Notes courses.


Official Obsidian forum

The official forum for Obsidian users and the development team.

ObsidianMD Reddit

ObsidianMD on Reddit: a subreddit dedicated to all things Obsidian.

My new course: Obsidian for Minimalists

🎉 My course, Obsidian for Minimalists, just launched in December 2023 and now available for purchase!

About Obsidian for Minimalists: A Practical Introduction to Obsidian Notes for Busy People

Obsidian for Minimalists is a step-by-step guide, showing you exactly how to set up your Obsidian Vault to take minimalist, simple, streamlined, text-based notes. Stop worrying about the perfect knowledge graph— and focus on seamlessly, effortlessly capturing your great ideas and inspiration instead.

Obsidian is a highly customizable, flexible note taking app that puts you in the driver’s seat. But it’s easy to feel pressure to maximize, to use every last feature and customization and plugin available. But just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you should. It’s okay to leave things on the table. To choose a simpler path. To minimize choices and overwhelm. To opt out of too many features and customizations. To come across other people’s complex Obsidian setups and say, without any lingering fears of missing out, “good for them– not for me.”

The Obsidian for Minimalists course helps you take a more streamlined approach to building your personal knowledge system in Obsidian– without the overthinking, rabbit holes of internet research, or hours spent on over-optimization that doesn’t actually help you move the needle on projects that matter to you.

Obsidian doesn’t need to feel complicated. Obsidian for Minimalists will get you set up with an easy, reliable note taking system so you can spend your time thinking and writing (instead of tinkering with endless plugin settings).

This is Obsidian MD for the rest of us.

Learn more about the course >

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