(Almost) One Month of Daily Notes in Obsidian

I’ve been using the Daily Notes feature in Obsidian for the past month for journaling and logging my days, and it has been one of the best practices I’ve taken up this year. I’ve known for a long time (i.e., years) that I should be journaling consistently, but it’s taken a long time to find a process and a tool that makes the process simple, repeatable, and reviewable.

One of the first times that I started to recognize the importance of writing things down was 2018. I took a StrengthsFinder test (now CliftonStrengths) and several pieces of advice from the report were directly related to writing things down:

Devise a system to store and easily locate information. This can be as simple as a file for all of the articles you have saved or as sophisticated as a computer database.1Tom Rath, Strengths Finder 2.0 (New York: Gallup Press, 2007), 126.

Find ways to track the progress of your learning. If there are distinct levels or stages of learning in a body of knowledge or skill, celebrate your progression from one level to the next. If no such levels exist, create them for yourself. For example, set a goal of reading five books on one subject.2Ibid, 130.

List your ideas somewhere. Revisiting your thoughts can lead to valuable insights.3Ibid, 134–135.

A few years later, I picked up Essentialism by Greg McKeown in which he discusses why journalism is important for personal development:

Being a journalist of your own life will force you to stop hyper-focusing on all the minor details and see the bigger picture. You can apply the skills of a journalist no matter what field you are in-you can even apply them to your personal life. By training yourself to look for “the lead,” you will suddenly find yourself able to see what you have missed. You’ll be able to do more than simply see the dots of each day: you’ll also connect them to see the trends. Instead of just reacting to the facts, you’ll be able to focus on the larger issues that really matter.4Greg McKeown, Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less (Crown Currency, 2020), 75–76.

And then I started to wrap my head around some piecemeal elements from David Allen’s Getting Things Done methodology, in which he advocates having regular reviews (weekly and monthly). Of course, effective reviews hinge on effective documentation.

The resounding point is that writing things down is a very, very valuable practice for a person of my temperament and personality. The overarching question for the past few years has been: How do I make it happen?

My Struggle with Pen and Paper

I’ve had a on/off relationship with pen and paper journaling. I love the immediacy of writing, the tactile feedback, and the flow of ink. But then I encounter problems. If I want my writing to be understood, I write in all caps.5Truly, writing in all caps for legibility is a dubious prospect. I recently went to my municipal utilities office to set up water service for my new place. I filled out the form in print, in all caps. After I submitted the form, the secretary came out from behind her desk and said, “I’m sorry, but I can’t read your handwriting.” She then proceeded to fill out each field on a new form for me, just for legibility. I had to spell out everything, field by field. If I write for speed, I write in cursive. Writing in all caps is a liability in that it limits the rate of data transfer to the page to dial up speeds. Writing in cursive is a liability because I sacrifice penmanship for pace.

Side-by-side comparison of my print and cursive handwriting. I’m sure I’d make my penmanship teacher proud.

Why spend the time writing things down if the record will be too fragmented for review? And why write if a third of the review time is spent on forensic linguistics?

And then there’s the issue of having the notebook and pen handy at all times. I almost always keep my journal in my work backpack, but I don’t carry my work backpack with me everywhere. The one thing I keep with me virtually everywhere is my phone.

Enter digital note taking.

What is a Daily Note?

In Obsidian, a Daily Note is a note that’s titled with the current date. When you click the calendar button, it creates a new daily note. If you’ve already created a daily note, it opens that note in the window. That’s all there is to it. The Daily Note feature makes it super simple to create a sequentially-titled series of notes for each day.

My Daily Note Template

Daily notes can be created according to a template. Having a template for my Daily Note is extremely useful for keeping my notes structured, which helps for the weekly/monthly review. My current template includes the following sections:

  • Things That Happened Today: I use this section to write down big events or experiences that happened during the day. This includes sweet interactions with my kids, out of the ordinary events at the office, and other moments that don’t fit neatly into the following sections.
  • Things I Did: In this section, I record concrete tasks that I completed—regardless of whether they were on my to-do list or not. I try to keep this at a high enough level so I’m not spending an inordinate amount of time documenting my accomplishments, but granular enough so I can track work trends or the progression of larger tasks. I include any task, job, or chore from home or the office in this section.
  • Things I Learned: I learn new things every day. Some of the things I learn are immediately actionable; some are not. The point of this section is to document progress and to highlight some of the smaller learning wins that I might overlook if I didn’t write them down. 1% better every day still means compounding gains over time.
  • Things to Do Tomorrow: This is a brain dump of everything that seems important at the end of the day that I want to pick up tomorrow. It’s a natural catch for unfinished tasks or new ones that popped up during the day.

Bonus Sections

Sometimes I include two additional sections depending on the day:

  • Quotes: Great quotes from books or articles I read that I want to reference later. I include a simple citation so I can find the source again, and sometimes I include a full citation from Zotero. I keep quotes in the daily notes to help me see the context in which they appeared and also to help trigger ideas when I review the notes later.
  • Ideas: This is a place for me to put anything and everything that comes to mind for future exploration and (potential) execution.

Functional Benefits of Digital Journaling

I think there are many benefits to this approach personally and professionally, but there are several functional benefits of digital journaling:

  1. I can type faster than I can write. It’s also actually legible.
  2. I can dictate notes if desired, and I can copy and paste useful pieces of information for later retrieval.
  3. Using a template makes each entry consistent. This is helpful for review.
  4. There is no constraint on space. An entry can be as long or short as needed.
  5. I can add notes under each section throughout the day in real time, which helps make journaling a process that I work into my day instead of a singular task at the end of the day.
  6. I can go back to previous days and add details that I forgot. If I tried to amend an entry in a physical journal, I’d be landlocked by previous and subsequent entries. With a digital journal, I can go back and add details to earlier entries whenever they come to mind. I find this extremely useful, especially on days when my journaling gets crammed to the very end of the day. On those days, I’m likely to forget things, and I appreciate the option to go back and add notes to their proper days.

What I’m Learning and Gaining from this Approach

I think the single most important and fulfilling benefit from this approach is that it gives greater weight and meaning to my days. Because so much of my work happens on a screen and through conversations, I don’t always have something concrete that I can point to and say, “Look, I made this.” or “See, I fixed this thing that was broken.” Writing down what I did helps me see how much I’ve accomplished in a day, even if it’s not tangible.

If someone starts going to the gym, they can take a picture of themselves at the beginning and then another one six months later, and they will see a major transformation. When it comes to knowledge work, growth is more nebulous and sometimes more difficult to perceive. If I write down what I’m learning, I can go back and see the growth, even if I don’t feel like I’ve progressed all that much. The notes tell a different story.

About three weeks into this process, I realized that I hadn’t included a space where I could write down my general impression of the day (i.e., how the day felt), which makes sense because I tend to be more of a left-brained thinker. For the past month, I’ve recorded what has happened without always providing commentary on how I felt about it. I’m considering adding a new section to my template that provides a space for general impressions and a more qualitative analysis of the day from the heart and not just the mind.

The process of documenting and cataloguing the day’s events creates micro gains in that it helps me reflect on each day and the significant moments in each day. I think this aligns with the Biblical admonition to “number our days.”

The micro gains compound into macro gains in the sense that McKeown describes because consistent journaling does help me see the big picture. I did a light monthly review today of my notes from September, and it was really cool to reflect on surprising and serendipitous conversations, to see how many multi-part tasks I completed and where there’s momentum in my current initiatives, and also review how many things I’ve learned in a single month. Journaling is an incredible way to do your future self a solid.

There’s a lot. And that’s just what I wrote down.

I want to remember. I want to grow. I want to see progress. Daily notes help me do that. When the fruit of a practice is clear in just a month, it makes me excited for what it will yield in the future.

Recommended Reading

  • 1
    Tom Rath, Strengths Finder 2.0 (New York: Gallup Press, 2007), 126.
  • 2
    Ibid, 130.
  • 3
    Ibid, 134–135.
  • 4
    Greg McKeown, Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less (Crown Currency, 2020), 75–76.
  • 5
    Truly, writing in all caps for legibility is a dubious prospect. I recently went to my municipal utilities office to set up water service for my new place. I filled out the form in print, in all caps. After I submitted the form, the secretary came out from behind her desk and said, “I’m sorry, but I can’t read your handwriting.” She then proceeded to fill out each field on a new form for me, just for legibility. I had to spell out everything, field by field.
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