Note Taking Apps

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

Learn how to organize and link your Markdown notes with the Obsidian Notes app.
Elizabeth Butler 14 min read
How to use Obsidian Notes: a step-by-step guide
Table of Contents

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.

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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
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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.

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Is Markdown formatting new to you? Read this article to discover why Markdown might be your secret weapon in building a sustainable, future-proof note taking system.

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.
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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).
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Want to build a mindful, intentional note taking system? Tired of trying over and over again to make your personal knowledge management workflow fit into someone else's cookie-cutter advice? The Calmer Notes method for personal knowledge management walks you through a step-by-step framework to mindfully craft a completely customized, tailored note taking system aligned with your own unique goals.

Obsidian themes

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

Ultimate guide to best Obsidian themes | Elizabeth Butler
If you want a fresh look for your Obsidian database and digital notes, check out these beautiful, custom Obsidian CSS themes.

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:

Advanced Tables Obsidian

GitHub - tgrosinger/advanced-tables-obsidian: Improved table navigation, formatting, and manipulation in Obsidian.md
Improved table navigation, formatting, and manipulation in Obsidian.md - GitHub - tgrosinger/advanced-tables-obsidian: Improved table navigation, formatting, and manipulation in Obsidian.md

Obsidian Outliner

GitHub - vslinko/obsidian-outliner: Work with your lists like in Workflowy or RoamResearch
Work with your lists like in Workflowy or RoamResearch - GitHub - vslinko/obsidian-outliner: Work with your lists like in Workflowy or RoamResearch

Obsidian Calendar Widget

GitHub - liamcain/obsidian-calendar-plugin: Simple calendar widget for Obsidian.
Simple calendar widget for Obsidian. Contribute to liamcain/obsidian-calendar-plugin development by creating an account on GitHub.

Readwise-Obsidian Sync

How does the Readwise to Obsidian export integration work?
To begin exporting your Readwise highlights to Obsidian, you first need to install the Readwise Official plugin from within your Obsidian Vault: Click Settings

Zotero-Obsidian Integration

GitHub - mgmeyers/obsidian-zotero-integration: Insert and import citations, bibliographies, notes, and PDF annotations from Zotero into Obsidian.
Insert and import citations, bibliographies, notes, and PDF annotations from Zotero into Obsidian. - GitHub - mgmeyers/obsidian-zotero-integration: Insert and import citations, bibliographies, note...

Raindrop-Obsidian Plugin

GitHub - mtopping/obsidian-raindrop: This plugin allows for basic integration with Raindrop.io, a bookmarking service and Obsidian.
This plugin allows for basic integration with Raindrop.io, a bookmarking service and Obsidian. - GitHub - mtopping/obsidian-raindrop: This plugin allows for basic integration with Raindrop.io, a bo...

Obsidian Notes resources and further reading

Text-based tutorials and roundups

Official Obsidian Help Guide

The Obsidian team runs a comprehensive help guide with thorough documentation and easy search. Start there to see if your question is answered in their excellent documentation.

Index - Obsidian Help
Index - Obsidian Help

Awesome Obsidian

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

GitHub - kmaasrud/awesome-obsidian: 🕶️ Awesome stuff for Obsidian
🕶️ Awesome stuff for Obsidian. Contribute to kmaasrud/awesome-obsidian development by creating an account on GitHub.

Eleanor Konik - Obsidian Roundup

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

Obsidian Roundup
A weekly summary of tips, news, & discussion points for Obsidian.md

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.

Bryan Jenks
🗃️ Curating knowledge with Zettelkasten in Obsidian.🧠️ Navigating the world with ADHD. 💭️ Just a tall man hyperfocused on tools of thought.🖥️ Code, data, research, ideas, technology, productivity & more.📝️ I’m eclectic, lets talk about your note-making system :)

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.

Linking Your Thinking
This is an exciting time in “Personal Knowledge Management”. We now have the power to create something wonderfully meaningful—to us—and the people in our orbit. With [[Linking Your Thinking]], my prime directive is helping you get more joy out of your digital notes. You’re going to be at home h…

Forums

Official Obsidian forum

The official forum for Obsidian users and the development team.

Obsidian Forum
A place for Obsidian users to discuss Obsidian and knowledge management

Obsidian subreddit

A subreddit dedicated to all things Obsidian.

r/ObsidianMD
r/ObsidianMD: Official subreddit of https://obsidian.md

Craft an intentional, effortless note taking system with the Calmer Notes method

Hi friend! If you're searching for advice on note taking with Obsidian Notes, you're probably trying to figure out the best way to structure and organize your note taking system. If you've been exploring the world personal knowledge management online for a while, you may have quite understandably reached the point of analysis paralysis.

You may find yourself wondering:

  • What's the best way to organize my notes? Should I use folders? Tags? Backlinks?
  • How can I choose the right note taking app... so I don't have to start from scratch again every few months?
  • How can I stop losing ideas and spending time searching for files and links over and over again?
  • If I organized my notes exactly like [fill-in-the-blank-productivity-You-Tuber-or-blogger] and bought the exact (pricey) apps and tech they use... would I finally be "insanely, ridiculously, unbelievably productive" like their headlines are always promising?
  • How can I finally build a note taking system I actually enjoy using?

I'm Elizabeth Butler, MD, PhD, and I'm a firm believer that there is not one single, perfect, one-size-fits-all setup for organizing your personal knowledge management system.

I’ve used personal knowledge management to organize my time and knowledge for nearly two decades. I believe that everyone deserves to be able to create a highly personalized note taking system that's perfectly tailored to fit their lives.

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If you’re new to the world of personal knowledge management, welcome! It’s a fun, fascinating place to be. If you’d like to explore more of my articles on personal knowledge management, please do explore my quick-start guide to find some of my most popular blog posts on note taking and personal knowledge management.

Maybe you’re done reading and browsing and searching, though. Perhaps today is the day that you’re ready to dive in with both feet and get starting building your own custom-designed, bespoke personal knowledge management system.

You’re ready to leave behind unsatisfying cookie-cutter solutions and endless internet rabbit holes in search of the “perfect” note taking app. If this is where you're at, Calmer Notes is what you've been searching for.

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The Calmer Notes method is a step-by-step process for creating a personalized, tailored system to organize your notes and files. When you go through the Calmer Notes training (a self-paced course designed to fit comfortably into even the busiest of schedules), you’ll stop spinning your wheels, losing your notes, and investing hours upon hours on systems and apps that never quite fit. Instead, you’ll craft a sustainable note taking system you actually love to use month after month and year after year.

Wishing you all the best on your personal knowledge management journey!

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