Context Overwhelm, Concentric Vaults, and Sensemaking - Thinking On Thinking In Notes

TL;DR

I often find it hard to actively do thought work in Obsidian with a large collection of notes across a large number of subjects. I find this troublesome, because I agree with Andy Matushak that “Better note-taking” misses the point; what matters is “better thinking”.

I suggest that this is unavoidable while using a single vault in Obsidian while maintain multiple “thought contexts”, suggest some potential paths around it, and ask the community for insight on the validity of the problem statement.

Read This If

  • You have multiple projects and find them difficult to manage.
  • You also have trouble thinking in Obsidian.
  • You really like cool titles for abstract PKM concepts. :upside_down_face:

Thinking On Thinking In Notes

Terms I Made Up, Or Otherwise May Not Be Clear

"Active Sensemaking" - Creating notes on the fly, while simultaneously reading through and using previously created notes to spur new thinking.

"Thought Contexts" - An area of thinking that is either mostly or wholly segmented away from other areas of thinking. For many people, this might be “personal life” and “work”, for instance.

"Context Overwhelm" - A phenomena that occurs when you have a massive amount of information collected in one spot, such that any discovery action returns information across too many contexts to easily parse through.

"Contentric Vaults" - My term for vaults within vaults within vaults. Is there a given term for this already? I dunno!

Introduction

I am almost sure that the ideal environments for recording, organizing, rediscovering, and sensemaking (thinking), are all different. (I have written more specifically about that separation, and will publish those writings soon).

It makes sense for us to want to accomplish these things in one app (an “integrated thinking environment”), but I don’t know of any apps that lean into this core differentiation between phases of knowledge making at their core.

That being the case, we must work with what we have, and the best we have is currently Obsidian.

Thinking in Notes

This topic of “sensemaking” / thinking within notes came to mind recently as I began to think through how to publish a set of notes I wrote around a video game concept I want to push forward. The easy thing to do is just put those notes in my PKM vault from which I publish my notes. Instant success! But at a price…

If I do this, I will constantly be seeing game notes while doing any PKM thinking. And vice versa. These are nearly entirely separate thought contexts, and when they collide, I notice a severe negative effect on my thinking. Of course, you can filter your search queries when doing searches, but you can’t filter Obsidian’s suggested links, which I use much more frequently for note discovery. If I type “var” looking for “variables” and instead find “variants of healthy salads” and “Var’Elun, God of the Sun” or whatever else happens to be adjacent… That thinking session is over right there.

When I am trying to think about programming, searching through my notes and linking things, it is very distracting to see notes from my game with similar titles popping up.

When I am working on my game, the opposite frustration occurs.

Now multiply that concern by the ~10 thought contexts I actively participate in.

And, of course, I don’t want to keep these collections entirely separate. I do want to link between them in an organizational phase. I just don’t want to be thinking between them in the sensemaking phase.

The only solution within Obsidian (that I am aware of) is a notion I call “concentric vaults”. Which, to my knowledge, Obsidian does not strictly support, but they do work. Sort of.

In this architecture, you have vaults containing other vaults, which themselves may contain vaults. This allows you to open a vault within a given thought context (e.g. the game), then switch to a “higher-order” vault (e.g. “all public notes”) in other phases of knowledge development. This comes with some (potentially) useful side-effects, such as the ability to sync or backup specific sub-vaults to specific machines.

This also creates some frustrating side-effects, such as having to remember not to create links in a child context from a parent (the pathing will almost certainly get screwed up), and having to copy and maintain vault settings across all vaults.

These concerns seem programmatically solvable to me. Perhaps they can be solved directly by a plugin. Maybe they’ve already been solved by a plugin and I’m behind the times!

In looking around the Obsidian forums and Discord, though, this seems to be a perennial problem. Personally, I can imagine multiple solutions, including Obsidian simply being the wrong tool for this “active sensemaking” I am trying to use it for. I can also imagine that my initial problem statement: “context overwhelm”, is somewhat limited in who it effects. I am, admittedly, particularly distractable!

So, I wanted to lay these ideas before the greater community. Together, I know we can find both the problems and the solutions and all become better thinkers together.

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We had some conversation about this in Discord, starting at the following message: Discord.

@EleanorKonik and others offered some insightful questions and feedback on some potential alternate ways of thinking about the issue at hand. We confirmed that this isn’t a problem for at least some people with a “monovault”.

We all agreed that nested vaults, as they stand, are a pain.

I read the discord discussion and found it very helpful. I just want to validate the issue youre having. (I also have ADHD)

What brought me here is because I’m considering making a separate vault for recipes. They have such a specific context. I never want to see/link anything about a recipe except when I’m cooking! (And when I’m cooking, i have no patience for fiddling with advanced searches)

Given the available solutions of folders and filtering etc, i think it does still make sense to keep separate vaults if you’re certain you don’t want those notes to cross pollinate.

Lots of people with big vaults complain about the limits of the quick switcher, so I think we can assume it will evolve.

I suspect that some of the “OMG Obsidian is the answer to all my organizational problems” sentiment is in part because it’s new. New users are testing it out with a hundred notes and love how easy it is to navigate, go figure! It’s like that feeling when you get a brand new paper planner… I can put everything in it!!

But even among the power users, there are such different ways of using it. I wish we all shared our vaults publicly… I’m someone who is using 1 folder for notes, and 1 sub folder (for assets). So someone who is all-in a Jonny decimal folder setup, with more sub folders beneath each, is really speaking a different language.

We’re talking about using cutting edge software to manage our life’s work - so above all: go easy on yourself! :slightly_smiling_face:

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Thank you so much for validating the concern here! The discussion on it has been fascinating, but mostly along the lines of “I don’t have that problem”. Very valuable to hear that another ADHD’er does have this problem. Not ready to say it’s just an ADD thing, yet, but… Maybe!

Thanks again, and I hope you’ll report back on how that recipe experiment goes! That sounds exactly like the sort of context I was talking about. :slight_smile:

I’ve always struggled when trying to create a vault that has atomic-linked notes. I also struggled with this when I tried Roam Research. For some reason, I get very distracted when I start to link smaller notes together.

I still love Obsidian and have been using it and Obsidian Publish for my website. But I have the graph and backlinks turned off.

I’m still experimenting with my other notes, trying to find a solution that works better for me. So far, just a folder full of notes that I can easily find through search is working just fine.

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