If you’re tried keeping a git repo in an iCloud (or Dropbox) folder before, you know it works fine — until it doesn’t. Something inevitably happens one day while one of your devices is syncing, and your repo is corrupted, such that a bunch of your files look like they’ve been changed. A workaround I’ve been playing with is custom $GIT_DIR set via direnv. Here’s how I set it up.

For a little more background, I’ve been using Obsidian for about 6 months to manage my notes for work. I had previously been using a simple ~/work/notebook directory full of Markdown files and editing in Vim. I keep a private git server on a Raspberry Pi that I use to backup my notebook.

When I made the switch to Obsidian, I naturally wanted to access my notes from my mobile devices. I already knew that git + cloud syncing was a bad idea, but feeling lazy, I tried syncing my whole notebook directory1.git/ and all. It worked fine for a month or so, until I would randomly switch from my desktop to laptop and git status would report a bunch of changed files.

I knew about $GIT_DIR, which Git Internals - Environment Variables describes as:

GIT_DIR is the location of the .git folder. If this isn’t specified, Git walks up the directory tree until it gets to ~ or /, looking for a .git directory at every step.

I already use direnv, so setting a shell variable in a specific folder is easy.

First, I moved the .git/ dir out of the main project folder (notice the subtle difference with the 2nd /):

mv ~/work/notebook/.git ~/work/notebook.git

Next, I told direnv to tell Git I’d like it to use that separate directory:

echo 'export GIT_DIR=~/work/notenook.git' >> .envrc

Testing that it works:

cd ~/work/notenook
git status
## master...origin/master

This has been working pretty well for me for a few months. I still get the peace of mind of having my content backed up to git, and iCloud hasn’t gotten in the way.

I have run into a couple minor issues:

  1. I use Vim to work with my notes sometimes too. I use vim-plug to manage my Vim plugins. If I try :PlugUpdate while inside ~/work/notebook, it refuses to run because I’ve set $GIT_DIR. Not really a big deal — I just cd to bounce home (you did know that cd without args takes you $HOME, right?) then try again.
  2. git clone --bare does not work for duplicating this setup on a new machine. I had tried git --bare clone git@git.local:notebook.git ~/work/notebook.git, but cd ~/work/notebook; git status reported fatal: this operation must be run in a work tree. I had to git clone git@git.local:notebook.git ~/work/notebook-new && mv ~/work/notebook-new/.git ~/work/notebook.git.

Hopefully this setup continues to work 🤞

  1. I actually keep the real files for my notebook in ~/Library/Mobile Documents/iCloud~md~obsidian/Documents/notebook. But, that’s a pain to cd into, so I symlinked ~/work/notebook to it.