Friends, Roam-ans, countrymen, lend me your ears.
It’s interesting how serendipity occurs. Two things have happened to me in quick succession. I came across and read How to Take Smart Notes which is a book about the zettelkasten technique and it turned note-taking as an activity on its head. And then my friend Blair Wadman mentioned he was trying out a new tool called Roam Research. Combined, they have transformed my note-taking and idea generation in a matter of weeks. And I mean transformed. Many others like Drew Coffman, Shu Omi and Nat Eliason are finding the same.
What is Roam Research?
To many, it is and will be viewed as just a note-taking app in a similar vein as Bear, Evernote or Notion. It is undoubtedly that. But seeing it as only that, you are missing out on what it really enables.
One of its most significant talking points is bi-directional backlinks, allowing you to move back and forward effortlessly between notes. That idea in itself is not really new, and it’s easily replicated. Within a few months, I expect that many more competing note-taking apps will have implemented the feature in some fashion.
In my view, it’s the combination of features which makes Roam special. It is not really designed for casual note-takers. The intended audience is the thinker, the academic, the researcher, the writer, the developer or designer.
Beyond note files
It’s not immediately welcoming, and that is perhaps one of the reasons behind the phenomenon of #roamcult – when you get it, you get it.
With Roam, you have to break some of your built-in expectations and assumptions. The atomic unit of a note is no longer a page. If you have only been used to the concept of a note being a page of text with a title, filled with one or more paragraphs you may be immediately put off with the bullets. This is part of its secret sauce. Each bullet, or block in Roam’s parlance, is its own thing. Typically a complete thought. It’s a note in itself. You can indent blocks infinitely, much like an outliner. But then, each word or phrases within it can be turned into references and given its own page. At which point, you can add more blocks of thoughts about that idea or concept, and collect further references to it.
Further, each block can have as many of these references as makes sense to you. They can be inline in the sentences directly. Or you can add them throughout, at the beginning, or the end, as tags. They are the self-same references, but you can use a hashtag style so that they look different. This is how you create multiple connections across your notes database.
That’s right, at its heart Roam is a database. In technical terms, Roam is a graph database. They make it easy to create connections between nodes, which is similar to how your brain actually works to build its knowledge graph. Because it’s a database, it also enables a whole host of other functionality.
You can create and perform queries using boolean logic to find all your notes that are a confluence of specific topics. You can perform calculations and display data in tables so you can more easily visualise things. You can create diagrams and TODOs and track your progress with a kanban board. Oh, and it now also has a Pomodoro timer, amongst other tools.
All this may sound complex, but the beauty of Roam is that it puts this power right at your fingertips. Your efficiency in transferring your thoughts into it is limited only by your typing speed and ability.
There is no friction, you can create and destroy these connections just by editing the text. Your hands don’t need to leave the keyboard or perform convoluted incantations. Just use the markdown-like syntax and Roam will even help you complete anything you’ve already used before across your whole database.
When I have a thought, I don’t have to think about where it goes. I don’t need to create a new note and choose a title, or a filename. I can just write what I’m thinking and apply as many connections as I need as they occur. I have confidence it’ll find me again when the time is right.
Helping you to think more clearly
As I indicated at the start and, as the founders of Roam say themselves, it’s not a note-taking app; it’s a tool for thinking.
It is designed to help you to write more effectively. And writing is just a tool to help you think more clearly.
Roam reduces the friction needed to get the thoughts out of your head and perform what James Somers calls kenjitsu on your words.
You can move the blocks around at will, ordering and re-ordering them as you think things through. You can add metadata and link in sources and references with ease.
When you can do this you can, as Drew Coffman says, “think more clearly. And act on the information. You’ll get more mental clarity and create more, and have better intentional output.”
Our brains are fantastic computation devices; we have a remarkable ability to make connections and leaps between disparate things to create something new or better than what went before. Where our brains are not so great, is recalling those things to help us make those connections at the right time. It’s why we make notes, so we can find the information later to use.
This ability to wrestle and change as you clarify your own thoughts is essential. In Roam, the creation and adjusting of references are seamless and database-wide. If I change the name of a referenced page, it’s altered immediately everywhere else I referenced it too.
Remix and Reuse
Conversely to how we’re generally taught, writing doesn’t start with a blank page. Your brain sees patterns over time. It just needs to be reminded of them. Reading other materials, highlighting what matters, adding your own commentary and connections. Roam makes this easy and helps you to maintain the context.
You may use some words that relate to other things, but then there’s a whole set of connections to which that thought can link to which are orthogonal to the original idea. Insights often relate to multiple ideas at once. This happens through repeated exposure to concepts and through you actively thinking about them.
The building blocks of Roam allow you to pull together disparate thoughts in ways you didn’t even realise when you were making the notes in the first place. They will just surface themselves to you, as if by magic.
What I’ve discussed so far is just the beginning. Ideas don’t pop out of our brains fully formed. Insights are formed through our interactions with others, however, all too often, all we get is the curated end result of others thoughts. We didn’t get to see their wranglings and dead-ends, hypotheses and so on which can inform our own thinking.
What is truly exciting is that right now we’re still only scratching at the surface. Roam’s vision is much grander than just helping you to take better notes. It is to help people collaborate and reason together, leveraging their own and others ideas to create new connections and insights faster.
People are missing the point when they think Roam is just an app for taking notes. I have made a big leap forwards in my thinking, which is almost entirely down to the idea of taking smarter notes.
To be clear, this kind of productivity has always been attainable, you only need to look at people like Niklas Luhmann. He was prolific in his output, due to his zettelkasten method. The problem for many, and especially in today’s world, is the proliferation of information and distraction, and the need or desire to capture it and make use of it. The time and friction to do this effectively wore the “normal” person down too soon to be able to make use of the information effectively.
This has been the real problem with most note-taking apps. You have to put your ideas in a specific bucket, treating your notes as a hierarchy of files and folders. At best you can search all your notes for a word or pieces of text that you then need to trawl and hope you happened to mention the right word at the time to find it again. By then, thought and motivation is lost. There’s no opportunity for serendipity.
You can tell the note-taking app space is broken when there is such a fervour any time a new app comes out promising to make note-taking better. We have seen it time and again. We keep hoping this new tool will improve some part of our workflow, which breaks our flow or impedes the action of getting thought into our system and resurfacing it at the right time. Until now, it’s never happened. This time, with Roam, I believe the hype is justified.
In the chemical industry, they use a term, verbund, where the by-product of one process becomes the resource for another and so on until you have an efficient network of production lines that are inextricably tied together. If you are serious about thinking better and making better use of your thoughts to create your own verbund, I highly recommend you check out Roam Research.