Folder-first organization: I quit Obsidian, then came back

I quit Obsidian a few weeks ago after coming to the conclusion that I have been trying for YEARS to become a zettelkasten/linking-your-thinking guy, and finally threw my hands up in the air and said no, I am not that guy. I am a folders guy.

I use Obsidian for writing articles online. I’m usually juggling several projects simultaneously. And I organize projects using folders. Been working that way for more than 20 years.

A few weeks ago, I switched back to DevonThink on the Mac. I used that extensively 2018-21, and was very familiar with it. And loved it at first. But then I began to bump up against the reasons I have given it up before: I don’t use the advanced features. Also, DT’s Markdown editing doesn’t suit me.

So, I switched to the Finder. But I found I missed Obsidian’s fast keyboard navigation between documents. And Obsidian is the nicest Markdown editor I’ve found. And sometimes I do like to link between documents—I’m not a complete caveman!

I eventually realized I was trying to re-create Obsidian with other tools. So I decided dang it I’ll just go back to Obsidian.

I also realized that I had made Obsidian too complicated. I had unique codes for every project. I used Properties extensively. I created container notes for non-markdown documents. And I wasn’t using most of it; i was making more work for myself.

My new rule: Only add a new complication to my documents and folders when I bump up against a block to using Obsidian quickly.

I don’t even use Daily Notes anymore, which formerly were an everyday tool for me. Instead, I just have one big scratch note.

I’m looking for other folder-first Obsidian users, and I’m interested in your tips on how you organize your vault so you can find all the documents you need, and other tips for your daily use of Obsidian.


Interesting. I think I am proceeding with Obsidian and DT in parallel. DT to a large degree as an email/document/clipping organizer, and Obsidian for self-created content. I do use day notes in DT because of the nice macro. I keep my Obsidian vault indexed in DT, so presumably (though I haven’t made much use of this yet) I can crosslink a DT item in Obsidian and vice versa.

I am also migrating over to a Johnny Decimal structure - so I am folder centric as well on both platforms.

I tried only using Obsidian for a while (first migrating a lot of old Evernote content to it), but really don’t like how it handles attachments - which is one of the limitations of strict markdown, I suppose.

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I can definitely see it when your main workflow are projects, I assume PARA systems would be something you, or you already use it.

However, I think linking could be useful for you to create dedicated notes (atomic notes) that you would use everywhere, so you don’t duplicate info. Like Customer Note for example, with all information about the customer and then links to the project for that customer.

I’m a “search guy” first :slight_smile:
So folder aren’t important, I search for my information, by filename or full-text search.
I create notes for my projects, draft inside this And refactor out to separate multiple atomic notes.

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Been down this road, for sure.

I am folder-first. Not having files sorted into folders melts my brain.

I never use links and I enforce a controlled vocabulary for tags, which I only use for “knowledge notes” and nothing else. Personal journal entries are made by hand.

Some qualms I have with Obsidian currently is its linear-first formatting. Arranging images into a grid with captions is frustrating or not ideal, even with helpful features offered by Minimal Theme, for example.

How do you find Obsidian lacking in handling attachments, compared with DevonThink?

You might find the DB Projects, DataView and/or Projects plugin helpful for your grid/captioning problem. I vaguely remember seeing something about grids in one, two or all three of those.

I have no folders, just a network of links, in the folder that has my conceptual notes. I have other folders for anything execution oriented and project like, and for GTD-style areas. The conceptual notes in that one folder are the core to me, the rest while more structured is around that networked core, fed by it and feeding into it.

I don’t have attachments in Obsidian. They live in the file system and in Zotero for annotation (which flows into Obsidian). I link to attachments in Obsidian.

I don’t like having attachments in separate folders rather than in the note itself, which would greatly complicate any migration should it need to occur. Just looking at the attachment name, there is no way (other than sticking with some strict naming convention) of figuring out what note(s) it is associated with.

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Ideally it would be a core feature. Of course there are many powerful plugins available but even the ones you mention I haven’t to be a little too meticulous/technical for me.

But thanks for the recommendations!

@ton I suspect your no-folder approach might be workable because your vault is all one thing. I’m working on multiple projects in my vault—three or a half-dozen at any one time, dozens over the course of a couple of years. Is your vault all about one subject?

How do you link to documents in the file system? Or do you not bother?

I have attachments inside Obsidian but I often work with them using the file system. I use a Mac; the file system is the Finder.

@ChuckHaas I view attachment folders through the file system. Often I link to individual attachments from notes, where I describe the document. I have tried creating “container documents”—Markdown documents that are blank except for some Properties and a link to an attachment. I may go back to using container documents.

However, yes, I do need to work around Obsidian’s choice not to treat PDFs and Microsoft Office documents as first-class citizens.

@ryadaj I am not technical but I have made Projects and DB Folders work. However, I don’t currently have use for them.

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Hi Mitch, thanks for sharing your story!

I’m also a folders-first Obsidian user. I usually use folders for “types” of pages. At work, I have folders for Contacts, Products, Projects, etc. For creative story vaults, I often have folders for People, Places, Things, History, and so forth.

I really like the feeling of each note having a “home”, a place where I know I can find it. I’m also a heavy Dataview user, so keeping similar pages together keeps my queries simple and easy to maintain.

For finding documents, I use Ctrl-O to search files by title, and I use Obsidian’s search feature to search by content. I also keep everything indexed using Dataview queries. This helps me see, for example, all my projects by products, or by due date, or priority, or whatever view I need.

For keeping items within a project organized, I use links. So a given project page has links to associated Contacts, Products, reference, journal entries, external links, whatever I need. I like this approach better than using folders to organize by topic, because I can organize the links in the order that makes the most sense for that project – most important links first.

One of the things I love about Obsidian is how it enables me to organize my vault the way I think, instead of imposing an organization scheme. It also makes it easy to adjust the organization of my vault as my needs change.

Anyway, I hope this helps. Happy noting!

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Hi @MitchWagner, I didn’t mean to say no folder. I have a no folder zone within the vault (that zone is a folder though, but no further division within it). My learning and conceptual stuff takes place there. Anything wrt doing things is in folders, main ones for areas of activity like in Getting Things Done, and within those folders for each project. My vault contains everything, work and private as I use it for GTD. Like you I tend to have a lot of different things in parallel.

As to linking to attachments. I link to filepaths in the filesystem (I’m also on Mac). Those will open in the default applications for the linked filetype. Like file:///users/me/Documents/somedoc.odt (mind the 3 /) You get those links by selecting a file in Finder, right click and then hit option, which gives an option to copy the filename as filepath. I paste that into Obsidian adding file://.
Most of my source literature (papers, law texts, articles) I keep in Zotero. That is also where I annotate them (and the annotations get pulled into Obsidian). I link to those with an app specific link: zotero://select/library/items/5VQ9B5K6

All of which is just to say: you can have a no folder and folder approach living next to eachother in the same vault, if you have a clear mental image of what things go in each. That separation for me is ‘concept notes go into the no-folder zone’ and ‘execution related notes (which includes information etc.)’ go into the folders.

Good point about both approaches to folders being compatible. Have you tried Hookmark for linking to documents?

Thank you @MitchWagner for pointing to Hookmark, that looks extremely useful! I will try that out.

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I use folders pretty extensively in my Obsidian vault. It is similar to what you are doing with projects, etc. I keep all related material to each project in that folder. I don’t use Zettle. at all. I find that with folders, I can pretty quickly use File Explorer (Windows) or Copernic Desktop Search to find data if necessary, but of course use Search function in Obsidian (though sometimes have difficulty finding a certain document) . I use Daily Notes to keep track of activities and also use it hold links to certain projects that I am working on. I also journal in Daily Notes so that I am able to search my journal for necessary info. There is a lot more I need to learn about Obsidian, but have found it to be vital for my data having moved from Evernote.


@MitchWagner , I am just moving into Obsidian from an app I have been using for the past 8 months or so and trying to find out which one I like better. Perhaps you might want to walk into the opposite direction and take a look at ? It might be what you are looking for.

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Since the beginning, I have been using folders like everybody, but hoping that hyperlinks will be available also to us. As time passed, I lost my research to OneNote and Scholar’s Aid.

Obsidian suggests a new way of working which is contrasting to my habits of organizing with folders. It is very promising to use links, tags etc. yet, I’m quite timid about putting all my files into a single folder. I know how much it hurts to lose your work.

What I decided to do is to get all the external knowledge into a single folder and use the tags for corresponding disciplines. At the same time, I’ll put all my ideas into another folder and link to the knowledge base in the other folder.

I’m still not sure how much cumbersome it will be to make sure that my ideas vs. other’s ideas will not be mixed up and appropriately tagged.

This is my solution as a beginner to Obsidian. Hopefully it will work until the day I die. :thinking: