Struggling with atomic notes/linking

I’ve been at this for a little while, but I’m still struggling with the concept of atomic notes and how to most effectively organize and interlink things. My current process (predating Obsidian) is that when I take notes from a book I make them all in a single file but as almost a bulleted list. So each note is its own little paragraph, but they’re all in a single note with the name of the book, etc. In Obsidian I can also enter headings to section them out and, on occasion, if one seems to warrant its own separate note, I’ll pull it out to a new note and leave a link to the new note as a placeholder.

What I’m getting stuck on is that some things seem too brief to warrant a full note, but then I’m not sure what to do with them.

If I lay out my current use case, could someone walk me through how you would handle this if it were your data in your vault?

Book #1: I read a book called Essentialism. One of the tenets this book talked about was “space” – as in, leaving space in your life/schedule. This stuck in my mind; however, the only actual note I made of this within my Essentialism note was “the Sabbath, among other things, creates ‘space’.”

This doesn’t seem to warrant a whole note, although it would logically link to/from notes about Sabbath.

Book #2: I’m now reading a book called Delighted, about youth ministry. It has a line I’ll pull out for my notes on this book that says, “There is no faster way to forget to celebrate than overscheduling. Even spontaneous celebration is less likely to erupt if there is no space to do so.”

Obviously, this concept connects to the “space” concept from the first book. But I’m not sure what to do with it. If I make this line a note, and the snippet about the Sabbath a note, and all of my notes are set up that way, I’m quickly going to have tens of thousands of notes that are like 10 words long, and it’s going to feel messy to me since most of them were in the book notes to begin with. (I already have about 8000 notes as it is, without breaking most of them out from their book notes.) I could theoretically link to the heading in the Essentialism note, but the problem there is that, going forward, there’s no way to give it an Alias or anything and every single link back will have to be manually aliased.

Part of me feels like I’m overthinking this, but part of me feels like if I can’t get my head around how to manage the right degree of atomization, I’m going to have a constant struggle.

So…what would you do?

1 Like

First off, what do you (want to) use your notes for? This can guide what you do. If you’re not going to do anything with the concept of space, you could just leave those quotes where they are. Not everything you note in your reading necessarily needs to be pulled out into general notes.

If having those notes is useful, then try to get over the idea that this is a bad thing. :woman_shrugging:t2: I’ve gotten more comfortable with the idea because sometimes a small note is all you need, but I’m not all the way there. I also try to avoid having too many thousands of files in a single folder because I worry about how other apps or the system file explorer will handle it.

You could do nothing and rely on your memory.

Or you could make a note called something like “Space in your life” containing the quotes, links to sources, and your thoughts.

Or you could write in the book notes something like “Related: Delighted also mentions this”.

You can also link to things without creating the note, so both books could link to Space (with autocompletion after the first link) and you only create the link of you click on it to add something or look at its backlinks.

3 Likes

Pardon me, this answer is going to meander around.

I like that quote and book a lot! And a similar quote is something I keep in one of my core documents that I review frequently.

From Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much

What happens when we face scarcity? We tend to “tunnel” i.e. we focus disproportionately on the task at hand, at the expense of other equally or more important tasks.** For example, someone struggling to pay their bills will easily ignore a class on better finance management (even if the class helps them). This is not due to a lack of intelligence or motivation or information, but because the brain is often incapable of thinking outside the immediate crisis; it’s in “tunneling mode”

The idea of tunnelling, and this concept of “space” or “margin” or “slack” is important in a wide variety of ways.

For example, if you have some extra space in your luggage, it makes packing so much easier.

Often, great ideas come to you in the shower, or when you’re resting.

If you have some extra margin in your project estimates, you have more freedom to weather potential problems in a project, and wow your client in a way you couldn’t if you were straggling along.

Some unscheduled wandering time in your vacation might mean a chance encounter meeting a new life-long friend, or finding something outside the guide books.

Some notes are just doodles in the margins.


I don’t have a strong point to make with all this rambling. But I wonder how you can take this idea of space, and map it to the idea of your notes. For example, in some article, Tiago Forte talks about JIT (just in time) management. Only pruning/fixing/connecting things when it’s needed, and not before. In that article I read, he was talking about using a random function to randomly select a note. This is something I do often in Obsidian.

I think the “Random Notes” plugin is one great way to let serendipity reveal a note once in a while. I have a lot of notes that aren’t linked or connected to anything.

So… my loose and vague point is that maybe you could let your structure breathe a little. If you let some of these notes just “be”, and leave some space/margin/slack within the bounds of your structure, they can loosely orbit until they are ready to say something to you.

(Disclaimer: I’m not very productive with my notes. I haven’t been publishing or blogging very much in the past few years. So depending on your goals, being casual about structure might be bad advice.)

2 Likes

To add to this, I cannot help but think that the right set of 10 or so word notes just existing and mingling within the canvas would lead to some useful structure that would otherwise be more difficult to accomplish with larger notes.

I have recently begun experimenting with recording some of these unique ideas or plans that I don’t yet want to add to a note or create a new note with directly into the canvas as cards. By the nature of the process, you are already making decisions by choosing which canvas and what position and dimensions each card will be. Of course, this sane logic for the ease of use for small notes also applies within the rest of Obsidian.

I’m early in this exploration, but already feel inspired and excited that the nowhereland like existence of the canvas might break some of my bad habits and begin a new era for me. I can’t say I haven’t felt this way before, but surely I have to believe this time it’s the real deal.

Thanks!

1 Like

I’m somewhat simple minded (and don’t have that large a vault (yet)), but I would consider the option of just making the note about the concept which triggered you, namely space.

Why overcomplicate it, if that’s an interesting concept to you, then that’s an interesting thing to have a note about. Even if it’s presently a very small note, with maybe just a few paragraphs, it’s still something you found interesting. Maybe in due time it grows to be something substantial in your life?

I for sure, treasure the value of having space available in my life to allow for unforeseen things to happen, and for life in general to happen. I also am a strong believer of working out of rest, and not working until you can rest. That also requires space to be an active part of your schedule.

1 Like

The whole concept of or rather I think the expectancy of “Atomic Notes” I find to be misleading in myself anyway. My first vault was a mess of atomic notes in the way you are drawn to, trying to make loads of atomic notes from the outset. I then got caught in that terrible productivity loop where my system became the dominant factor not the joy, discovery and learning. I was capturing notes but not really immersing my self in the book or subject.

So now for example a book note I just make all my notes in one file all of them. I put them under chapter headings. Latter I read through and re-summarise each chapter I then turn each chapter into a sub note of the book page. Later I may then summarise each of those chapters and create one or two more sub notes within them or simply catalogue each chapter with tags that seem relevant to stand on their own. I do this sometimes on a Sunday as that is my “space day” by random noting and breaking that note down to more atomic parts.

So my method that has “unblocked me” is to be in the process of atomising my notes over time rather than trying to atomise them before I begin. A kind of atomic reductionism.

2 Likes

In my opinion, no note is too small if you wrote it down with intention. The tricky part is how to not let a small note get lost in an ocean of many more notes, some with more substance. A couple comments:

  • If you have a file (note) for a book that holds only one note you wrote, make sure that file holds metadata information about the book. That way, the file serves as holder of your thoughts, as well as anchor of future thoughts.
  • You can add signals in that small note to other notes so that you can see them as backlinks in other files or show in your tag manager. Tagging your insight “the Sabbath, among other things, creates ‘space’.” so that you can easily find it later. Add a small section at the end of that note like Related Notes where you put link you [[Delighted]] note for example, as well as other notes that talk about space in this way.
1 Like

Thanks, all!

To further clarify, I’m not necessarily opposed to 10-word notes on principle. I just don’t want to end up with a huge fault of ridiculously small notes for no reason other than “but that’s the way notes are ‘supposed to’ work.” I want them to be as atomized as they need to be, and no more. I’m just having a hard time figuring out what that sweet spot is and why.

1 Like

I think to some extent you just have to feel it out by trial.

2 Likes

This is one reason I’m interested in outliners or at least the ability for Obsidian to act like an outliner. Blocks are standing out to me as desirable as the number of notes in my vault continues to expand—especially with metadata being difficult to change in all notes other than going one-by-one.

1 Like

‘Need’ makes the assumption that there is a definable purpose.
There ought to be a big dfference between notes taken to supplement memory, notes taken as pre-writing, and notes taken to reflect upon. Etc.

One issue with 10 word notes is that they assume that you will remember the meaning of the content words. In this case, ‘space’ is already in inverted commas. If you don’t remember all the nuances of the word, you need a longer note, or a linked network of notes instead of this one short note.

1 Like

How do you retrieve information in your vault? Do you thumb through related notes? Do you use hashtags? Do you primarily use the search functionality?

What I would recommend doing in your situation, is to either add the note to an existing note that is more relevant (picture below) or create a miscellaneous note that you add these types of notes to until they are ready to become their own note.

In my mind, a note is ready to become its own note when you are able to link it to a couple of other notes. Otherwise I would keep it a sub note of a different one that is most relevant or part of a miscellaneous note.


  1. Is the piece of information from a source that has its own bibliography note? If yes, then add it to the bibliography note. No, go to next line.
  2. Have I added a lot of commentary to the piece of information and it links to multiple other ideas in my vault? If yes, then make it into its own note and create links to other notes. No, go to next line.
  3. Does this piece of information closely relate to an existing note in my vault? If yes, then add it to that note. No, go to next line.
  4. If no to the above three then add the note to the miscellaneous page
2 Likes

@lizardmenfromspace, those are great questions!

I tend to use the search function most often, I think, because I usually remember the general idea of what I’m looking for, and just have to be able to retrieve it. My brain makes the connections between ideas most of the time without Obsidian’s help; Obsidian would merely record those connections.

To answer a previous question, I use the notes for a variety of purposes, including writing and for passing on to a friend when they have a related need and I think “hey, I recently read something about that.”

As I’m thinking through this, I’m realizing part of the difficulty might be that my brain doesn’t organize the information the way I think a lot of people organize their notes. I think my brain works like MOCs, so maybe I need to lean heavily on a note structure that does, too.

e.g. “learned helplessness” is a concept I’ve noted recurring in my reading. But the kind of connection my brain makes is more like, “I read about learned helplnessness in this book and this book and this book and also this other book.” It seems like the way we’re ordinarily told we “should” structure a note system, “learned helplessness” should be a note in paragraph form – so then it doesn’t make sense to me to make that note if I don’t have anything new to write. But if the way my brain works is to say, “Learned Helplessness: okay, here are all the resources that were related to that” and list them, that’s probably what my note should look like (or at least start as).

I think of myself as a “collector” or “curator” by nature, so I probably need to give my notes permission to be structured as “collections” and not necessarily more than that.

3 Likes

As you say, much of the advice you will read is directly opposed to the way you want to organise notes. So you need to ignore that advice - maybe stop reading such views - or you need to change your ideas about what your notes are for.

1 Like

It’s interesting, my experience as my vault has grown, and after being in Roam for years, is that blocks are much harder to catch than pages. Pages hold enough information so that finding them is much easier than blocks, and if they are well developed, they hold other contextual information adding extra information.

I guess it depends on how people are using blocks or pages. Maybe my response says more about me than it does about the apps I am using/think I need, haha.

Truth is I’ve hit sort of a wall that I think is really caused by metadata frustration. I spend a lot of time struggling through this, trying to decide what metadata I need or would use, and then I think of something new and have to add it to hundreds of notes.

Regarding blocks though, the appeal for me became apparent when I saw Tana’s “supertags”. I don’t use Tana, but the concept of a supertag really appealed to me and seems to make working with blocks more feasible.

Your experience sounds interesting though. Obsidian is my first “tool for thought” outside of Zotero and MS Word haha. I like the option of having pages of course, and I love Obsidian, but I sort of see blocks as a fairer representation of how my brain retrieves information, i.e., as “statements” or “assertions”. I guess it doesn’t matter where these live, i.e., a bulleted list in a daily note, or a line on a concept page.

1 Like

Atomic notes is very misleading.

I like to imagine my notes like threads of tweets.

Zettelkasten, in luhmann sense imo is like that twitter threads where noone but you could saw it.

If you believe what luhmann said about zettelkasten, then you believe inside that twitter threads there’s that mysterious “persona” that you could communicate with, eventhough the only person who created that threads is you.

Serendipity would be like finding a tweet that directly against your current thought, like finding your embarassing political “arguments” in 2016.

1 Like

Nailed it in the first response!

Why are you taking the note?

When I stumble across a single quote or concept that inspires me, for example, my answer to that question is “it motivates me. And so I want to reencounter it often.”

How often?

Some things I want to reflect on daily, others monthly. Do I have a system for that? Where and when?

I decided I like hearing them read out loud (by Siri), first thing in the morning. Because im never going to sit down at my computer and feel like reading through random quotes.

So I designed a little shortcut to do that.

This process took me years to figure out for myself. But now I no longer take notes every time I hear something “interesting”. If notes don’t / won’t have a purpose, I don’t create them. I can Google something just as fast as I can search my notes for it.

An analogy: Even though hard drive space is essentially unlimited, my energy for managing notes is not. So I treat it like I my home: there’s a high barrier to entry.

Or my new favorite motto borrowed from software development: YAGNI

Meanwhile, this is one of the reasons I do keep notes – because I tend to keep notes on the kinds of things Google conveniently makes disappear, so I want them on my hard drive to preserve them.

I say that not to debate the value of this, but to highlight how much differing purposes should lead to different approaches.

1 Like