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How To Take Smart Book Notes in Obsidian

10 July 2021 | 5 min read | Read more about Books & Reading


Reading has been one of my favorite things to do for many years. Because I've been reading for such a long time, I have read a lot of books by now. Around 154, according to my Goodreads profile.

In the beginning, I really struggled processing the amount of information in each book. I didn't take notes, I forgot a lot of ideas, and my return on investment (ROI) wasn't very high.

I started writing down a few things here and there — but mostly, I was highlighting things that stood out. This helped the problem a bit.

Later, I introduced a system for taking book notes, which brought much needed order to the chaos. While this gave me something to stick to — a structured approach to taking notes — it was still too much 'file and forget'.

What comes next completely revolutionized how I process information and massively increase my ROI.

I happened to read How to Take Smart Notes, which allowed me to further refined my process. I saw a massive increase in what I gained from each book.

However, that was not the biggest gain of all. Since I began separating the ideas from the books into atomic notes, I could relate these to other ideas that I've previously stumbled upon. This is where I began seeing compound interest in my knowledge vault.

The total value of my knowledge vault increased exponentially with each new note because it could be linked to existing notes.

My workflow for taking smart book notes

First; why Obsidian? Because it enables two powerful aspects of the workflow; linking and automation.

The workflow starts on my iPad, which is where I read the books, make highlights, and write notes to those highlights.

I have one rule for highlighting: always explain why. It ensures that I don't shallowly process what I'm reading, and that I know why I highlighted it. This is especially important later, when I'm processing my notes.

Once I've read the book and finished taking notes, I'll send them from my iPad to a service called Readwise. I do this because it allows me to easily format my notes and extract data about them easily.

After doing so, I try to wait a few days before processing the notes. I will have had time to ruminate on the ideas, which helps me to separate the important from the filler; the signal from the noise.

Now, the question is, how do I get the notes into my Obsidian vault? For this, I have made a QuickAdd script which automatically fetches the notes from Readwise and formats them to my liking.

The process is quite automatic - all I have to do is to select the 'Add book notes' option.

QuickAdd menu

Then I select the book that I want to import my highlights for. It always shows the most recently added book at the top.

QuickAdd Readwise script menu

Once I've clicked there, I'll have this new page in my vault.

A new note file

The author has automatically been pulled in from Readwise, along with the highlights and notes. For the title of the note, I try to separate my literature notes from my notes by denoting them with some symbol. As can be seen in the image, my symbol for books is the {.

My notes will be imported as seen in the below image, where highlights are in block quotes and my notes for each highlight is below it.

Highlights imported in a new note file

And now, the actual processing starts.

Generally, I'll delete the highlight — but not my note — unless it's a quote that I particularly like. If that's the case, I'll save it in my collection of quotes. My reason for deleting highlights is to ensure that my notes are in my own words. This is an absolutely crucial point. If you cannot give a clear and concise summary of the ideas you are presented with, you do not understand them.

I go through a few steps to do the actual processing.

  1. Summarize content; remove highlights unless they contribute to the whole.
  2. Process further, synthesizing these into atomic notes — or link to existing notes.
  3. Create meaningful links between notes.

Step one is the initial cut. It's where I trim the unnecessary and make clear what is important. I try to make the ideas as concise and as simple as I can.

Step two and three is where Obsidian's magic comes to play, and where much value is created. It's where the compounding process starts for the new notes.

Once the notes have been processed, I write down my thoughts on the book and give it a rating — to complete the review. Then I'll fill out a summary of key points, and write down actions that I'll take based on what I've learned. I generally add a task to follow through on these new actions that I'll undertake. If it's a one-off task, I'll just complete it when I can. If not, I'll add it to my systems such that I may adopt it as a habit under trial.

The finished* note will look something like this, which is what I post on my website.

The processed note

If you're interested in the book I've used as an example here, you can read my notes on The Richest Man in Babylon here. And if you want to hear from me when I release new content, please do sign up for my newsletter below.

* A note is never finished. You can come back at any time and update it if your understanding of its contents change.

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