Note-taking 101: from Evernote to Obsidian

Over the years, I’ve accumulated thousands of notes and a personalized GTD system (with tags and notebooks) in Evernote. I use my own flavor of the Zen to Done method, where I capture pretty much everything (from recipes to articles to read, and from project notes to grant deadlines). I’ve come to heavily rely on this second brain, both professionally and personally.

Evernote has served me well for almost a decade. However, the latest update is so annoying (app is super slow, note export to html gone, ) I’m planning to abandon ship. For now, I’ve downgraded to the last useable version on my devices (thanks, reddit!). Getting some great advice from Twitter, I decided that this is the time to invest in a note-taking solution that’s sustainable for the future.

Taking a step back, these are must-have features for me:

  • Sustainable format, i.e. avoid locking myself into another app that may break or change in ways I don’t like. I’d like to avoid repeating this ordeal in a few years from now.
  • Import from Evernote (.enex or .html) – I have way too many notes to manually port them
  • Quick capture across devices
    • Single text note for brain dumps should be very quick on phone and laptop
    • Web clipping
    • Email forwarding
  • Organizing with tags and notebooks (and ideally cross-linking notes)
    • Shortcuts or saved searches to different combinations of tags
  • Embedding figures (and other attachments)
  • Good search
  • Some additional features (e.g. Kanban-style project management, reminders) would be a plus, not a must

Based on excellent advice from a number of people on Twitter (thanks!), I looked at a couple of apps. Here’s a quick comparison:

AppPhilosophyMarkdown filesEvernote importAndroid appWeb clipperEmail forwardingTagsPrice
Roamno
Notionno
Bearno
JoplinNotesyes, sync with e.g. Dropboxyes, .enexyesyesnoyes, but not hierarchicalfree
ZettlrZettelkastenyesmarkdown (https://forum.zettlr.com/discussion/153/import-from-evernote)not really (https://docs.zettlr.com/en/faq/#are-there-any-plans-of-porting-zettlr-to-mobile-phones-and-tables-for-android-or-ios)yes, https://forum.obsidian.md/t/markdownload-markdown-web-clipper/173IFFT: https://forum.obsidian.md/t/add-note-via-email/1407
ObsidianMind-mappingyesmarkdown (https://github.com/akosbalasko/yarle)not really, https://forum.obsidian.md/t/how-do-i-work-with-obsidian-on-mobile/471yes, https://forum.obsidian.md/t/markdownload-markdown-web-clipper/173IFFT: https://forum.obsidian.md/t/add-note-via-email/1407free
DynalistOutlineryesno (https://talk.dynalist.io/t/import-evernote-files-enex-files/371)yes
Feature comparison of some note-taking apps

While Notion, Roam and Bear all look very beautiful, I decided against these to avoid future vendor lock-in. Dynalist lacks Evernote import, making it a no-go for me. I reviewed Joplin, an open-source replacement for Evernote. It has the same look and feel, and allows for seamless import of .enex files. However, the interface is pretty bare-bones and I was curious to use this opportunity to explore less linear kinds of note-taking.

Which brought me to the Zettelkasten method, and the Obsidian and Zettlr apps. Both are essentially a layer on top of a folder of Markdown files. Markdown is unlikely to go anywhere soon, and the notes can be synced in any way you like: I put them in my Dropbox folder.

First step: export my Evernote files to Markdown

  • Downgrade to Evernote 6 (the newer, awful v10 doesn’t allow export of more than 50 notes as a time)
  • Export each notebook as a .enex file, making sure to click the ‘export tags’ checkbox
  • Use this excellent converter to export all of these notes to Markdown: https://github.com/akosbalasko/yarle
  • This worked beautifully, and converted all my notes (but took a while for ~7GB worth of .enex files)

Web clipping to Markdown

The Markdownload plugin https://github.com/deathau/markdownload clips webpages to a Markdown file, which should go into the Inbox folder with notes. I used the following settings on the plugin, to ensure that clipped and exported notes have the same structure:

# {pageTitle}

_Tagged: #WebClipper {keywords}_
_Created: {date:YYYY-MM-DD hh:mm}_
_Source: []({baseURI})_

---

I also turned off image downloads – Obsidian beautifully renders web images, and I figured this would reduce note size considerably. It does come at the risk of breaking in the future, but for most images that I clip from the web that’s OK.

Organize Obsidian

Between Zettlr and Obsidian, I picked the latter (but they seem very similar and can both access the same structure of files).

To rebuild some of my Evernote workflow, I enabled the ‘Zetttelkasten prefixer’ and ‘Calendar’ plugins. The former allows creating a quick note with a Zettelkasten prefix (YYYY-MM-DD_HH:MM:SS) and a template structure (e.g. date created and updated), and the latter launches a daily/weekly/monthly note from a template (with goals, projects worked on, habit tracker).

To create a simple Kanban list, I used the following useful template https://github.com/masonlr/obsidian-starter-templates#kanban-with-embeded-queries which organizes notes (by tags) in a table.

I also starred some important ‘meta’ notes and saved searches.

Email forwarding: IFTTT + Automator

I have a habit of forwarding important reference emails, or emails containing tasks to do, to my GTD inbox for both safekeeping and project management. Obsidian doesn’t have an email forwarding setup, but I hacked together the following:

  • on IFTTT, select ’email’ as trigger, and pick ‘Send IFTTT any email’. This will give you the trigger@applet.ifttt.com email address, to which you can forward emails.
    • warning: if you have multiple inboxes (home, work, etc) this will only work when you send from the email address associated with your IFTTT account. In my case, this is my gmail. I could probably add an IFTTT account for each of my email inboxes, like my work email.
  • this email will trigger Dropbox (where I keep my Obsidian Markdown database) to create a text file. I used the following Markdown syntax
  • Unfortunately, this will append a .txt extension to the file you’ve just created (which is not recognized by Obsidian). On Mac, we can build an automator workflow: it will monitor the Inbox folder for files called .md.txt, and remove the .txt extension.

Missing features

Obsidian doesn’t have a mobile app, so ubiquitous capture (for quick ideas) is tricky. For now, I’m going to use Google Keep as an inbox on my phone, and process that one daily.

tl;dr Turns out, the structure of all of my second brain is rather pretty!

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