How to Set up an Obsidian Vault Using the Johnny Decimal System

Ric Raftis

Introduction

If you have been around Obsidian for any length of time, or any personal knowledge management (PKM) system, you will have no doubt been exposed to methods of structuring your system or vault. So before we get into the detail of this article there are a couple of rules that you need to understand when it comes to Personal Knowledge Management.

Rule 1 – Personal Knowledge Management systems are Personal
Rule 2 – If in doubt, refer to Rule 1

Now that we have got that out of the way and removed any constraints around how you choose to structure your PKMS, let’s talk about a few structures that you may have seen around the web.

Starting Out in PKM

Structural Systems

The two most common systems for PKM I see around the place are Nick Milo’s ACCESS system, which has recently evolved to ACE, and Tiago Forte’s PARA system. For the purpose of clarity, I will include the meanings of each of those acronyms. Nick’s ACCESS system stood for Atlas, Calendar, Cards, Extras, Sources and Spaces as the main folders for an Obsidian vault. This has since evolved into ACE which stands for Atlas, Cards and Efforts.

PARA on the other hand stands for Projects, Areas, Resources and Archives. There is nothing wrong with any of these systems. In particular, Nick Milo stresses there is no right system and you need to develop one to suit you. Any of these will make a good starting point for your Personal Knowledge Management System.

The Johnny Decimal System

The Johnny Decimal System has been devised by John Noble and there is an entire website around this work 2. The major difference between this system and those mentioned above is that the Johnny Decimal system was not developed for PKM, but for the organisation of information generally. Consequently, it can be used, not only for your PKM, but also for your Documents folder for example. So, there can be consistency in organisation systems between your PKM and all the other files on your computer. We will be focusing on PKM though in this article.

How it Works

Essentially, the system is based on setting up all your folders with a prefix of a decimal number. Instead of trying to cut down on folders, as promoted by the PKM gurus, the Johnny Decimal system gives us permission to create homes for anything at the top level. This suits my style of structured thinking. I like the conscious relationship between a note and its home. The example of a structure from the Johnny Decimal home page is below. Please note, that this example is not intended for a PKM system.

Figure 1: Sample Johnny Decimal System

Example Johnny Decimal System
Source: Johnny Decimal Website

First Steps

The first step in setting up your Johnny Decimal system is to create the major areas. I found this somewhat challenging initially. I then realised it was because I was trying to do a real life version of the structuring with real notes instead of an abstract one with simply creating the categories. As a result, I came up with the following main categories for my system:

Figure 2: The Author’s Johnny Decimal System

The author's Obsidian Vault image
Source: The author’s Obsidian Vault

It is a reasonably simple system as you can see. My main requirement were somewhere for my interests such as photography and travel. I also wanted to keep my creations such as any articles I write or videos I do in a separate area as well. The Professional category contains information on Board and Committess I am on, Presentations I’ve delivered and courses I’ve written and anything else to do with my professional life.

The Sources category contains Books, Articles, Podcasts, Videos and the like. Learning and Education is for anything to do with both online courses as well as major areas of study. Finally, the Personal area is obvious. The website for the Johnny Decimal System suggests that the order of the categories should be in the same order as frequency of access. I read that after setting my system up, but it suits me as it is. You might also notice I have included a couple of Blanks for future use as they arise.

My Obsidian Area

I wanted to have a separate category for my Obsidian vault because it is such an important area of my life. So I have broken up this category as some would break up a main vault.

Figure 3: The Author’s Johnny Decimal System for Obsidian

The author's Obsidian category breakdown
Source: The author’s Obsidian category breakdown

Any notes I write in Obsidian will still go into the categories in my Johnny Decimal system, but there are a couple of unique Obsidian areas where I needed to store things. Attachments is where all my images, PDFs and any other files are stored. Linked files are for things such as Word or Excel documents that are attached to a note. Plugins stores information about Plugins, not the plugins themselves. Templates is where I keep all my templates for Notes, Daily Notes, Articles, etc. Training and Courses is for any training of a PKM nature and finally MOCs is where all my Maps of Content are stored.

Conclusion

I am so pleased I found this system as it really suits my style of organising my files and thoughts. It may not suit you, or you may prefer some variation. The important thing is simply options on how you will store your knowledge to make it easy to reference.

The notes on the Johnny Decimal system website are extensive and should be your first port of call. There is also a blog and a Forum to interact with other users. I find the system both flexible and well structured and it is working very well in my Obsidian vault.

NOTE: You will find a supporting video on the video page on this site or you can go to Youtube to watch it.

References:
  1. LYT Kit (linkingyourthinking.com)[]
  2. Home | Johnny‚ÄĘDecimal (johnnydecimal.com)[]
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4 thoughts on “How to Set up an Obsidian Vault Using the Johnny Decimal System”

  1. HI Ric,
    Thanks for a great video and writeup.
    I’m new to Johnny Decimal & to Obsidian. Was searching on how best to combine them & came across your video.
    Can you clarify your comment: “Any notes I write in Obsidian will still go into the categories”…
    How do you implement that?
    So folders may be outside your Obsidian folder described above, and the notes are created & saved in their relevant JD folder elsewhere, but remain accessible from Obsidian?

    1. Hi Andre,
      Refer to Figure 2. 30- Obisidian is where anything to do with Obsidian goes, but all other notes go into the category they fit. I have just converted my entire Google Drive to a matching JD system so numbering is consistent.

      Cheers,

      1. Hi Ric,
        I follow ’30 – Obsidian folder’ & how that works.
        When you say “all other notes go into the category they fit”… I understand those folders to be JD and outside your Obsidian vault. Are those notes still created, edited and accessible from Obsidian? Even though the notes are stored outside the Obsidian vault? That’s where it’s confusing…

  2. Hi Andre,
    No, they are in my Obsidian vault. Obsidian notes go into the vault. When I say I have Google Drive setup the same, that is for things other than Obsidian. I use Obsidian for practically everything. So basically, I have two “drives”; an Obsidian drive (vault) and Google Drive. Obsidian is local and Google drive remote. Not everything can go into Obsidian, although I wish it could. An example might be I have a lot of information on my consulting business in Obsidian, but my financial statements, budgets and correspondence with clients would be on my Google Drive. I hope this makes sense.

    Cheers,

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