Roam Research has been a revelation. It has been so life-changing that recently, when with friends, I have described my life as pre-Roam and post-Roam. I have been using it religiously for almost two months, but I found it difficult to communicate my love for this app. This is my attempt in written form. Last update to this article is May 27.
In productivity applications – simple is sustainable. I came across this notion when browsing through content on productivity and it stuck with me. I have tried my hand in a suite of productivity tools but none have stuck around. The most frequently used productivity-related app I use is Todoist for task management. Even then, I still find myself jotting to-do lists on my notes app or on a piece of paper. It is not that Todoist is difficult to use, the natural language processing for inputting tasks and integration with Google Calendar are its redeeming features. But even then I get lazy to open the app to get tasks down. It is easy to use, but not simple.
‘Simple’ would be integration with digital assistants would be great. Imagine telling Siri to input the tasks instead of having to go through the additional step of opening the app. This is where my love for Roam Research grew from: it is just SO frictionless to input stuff into it.
What is Roam Research?
Roam Research is a tool for networked thought. The easiest way to explain it is that it is built to reflect how your mind remembers information. Traditional “note-taking” applications like Notion or Evernote have a hierarchical structure. This taxonomy works well if the information you are putting in the system lends itself to being hierarchical. But if a set of notes can go in different parts of the hierarchy, it becomes difficult to assign it appropriately.
For example, you have meetings minutes. Normally, you would put it under the team folder or file in the structure. But in this meeting, there was a lot of information that could be useful in the project branch of the hierarchy. So which one do you put it in? With hierarchical structures, you can either choose one branch or duplicate the notes. The former means that the value of the information is harder to access while the latter makes the system messy.
Roam Research solves this issue entirely. Long gone are the days requiring users to put notes in arbitrary categories, the tools allows us to connect it to as many categories as we would like through bi-directional linking. Thomas Frank demonstrates the power of the tool here.
Why Roam Research?
On a daily basis, I write morning pages, notes from content I consume, blog posts, random thoughts and ideas, and an reflection. For the use-cases I have for Roam Research, there are three key elements of the overall experience that make it stand out:
Writing (typing) experience
The process of typing down my thoughts onto the daily notes (home) page is unmistakably delightful. I always write more than I intend to. One thought written sparks another, and another, and before you know it you have written 300 words.
You might be asking how does this differ with similar note-taking applications? The intentional demarcation of each (non-nested) bullet point being it’s own entity in your Roam Research database.
This structural division between bullet points allows you to seamlessly hop from one thought to another without losing any momentum.
The result is almost a gamification of the writing process and encourages you to jot down every disparate thought because you know Roam Research can handle it. This is a fundamental point of differentiation from other note-taking apps which follow a hierarchical structure to organising notes. You are unable to conveniently hop from one train of though to another without the overhead of deciding where in the hierarchy the note should be stored in. It eliminates the friction.
The writing experience is simply delightful. I have never considered myself a writer. In fact, it has transformed writing into something I do for pleasure; something that would alienate the high school me slogging through essays for English and History.
Ease of connecting different ideas
As you jot down notes, you can add bi-directional links (associations) which serves many functions, the most basic of which is as a tag. These links act as an association between what is written within the bullet point and the tag.
For example, a link that I use daily is [[Thoughts]] which is my catch-all for consolidating random thoughts and ideas I have. That way, if I go on to the [[Thoughts]] page, I can see everything I’ve written where I’ve mentioned [[Thoughts]]. It allows me to easily parse through my thoughts, and that’s how I have been using that bi-directional link. Sometimes I expand more on a thought and associate it with other bi-directional links while other times I just leave it as is.
What makes the process of mentioning bi-directional links is that you do not need to previously create the page for the link, for example if I associate this sentence with the [[random]] link, the page is automatically created. When you find yourself writing a lot, you need just to make sure to type in appropriate associations (bi-directional links) so that the thought is not lost and there is a way for you to rediscover that thought.
The ease of connecting ideas enhances the discoverability of old notes you have written – an important quality that is conducive to sparking new ideas.
Database-quality for parsing through all written words
Imagine you are able to query your brain. For most people, the most common form of querying is googling something which is somewhat analogous to the world’s brain. The more you write in Roam Researh, the larger your database. It serves as a snapshot of your thoughts i.e. your brain. The search function in Roam Research is powerful, and when you add in the embedded associations you have made along the way, it is just unfair.
The ability to query yourself is a game-changing. For example, say you were interested in finding out more about politics. All you need to do is type that into the search bar and more often than not you’ll re-discover things that you have previously written on the topic.
You are probably still skeptical and I would not blame you, because it did take me a few days of using Roam Research to realise what I had stumbled across. Lets examine Roam Research’s value by looking into each of the listed use-cases in turn.
What makes Roam Research great for my needs?
I sought out a space where I can capture my unfettered thoughts be is structured or unstructured. Specifically, I use Roam Research for the following things: morning pages, daily reflection, capturing interesting thoughts, writing blog posts, and notes for books, podcasts, videos, and articles.
In this section I will go through each in turn and outline how Roam Research’s defining features applies to elevate my overall experience and make me a stan.
If you are unfamiliar with the concept, it involves making a habit of writing three pages (~750 words) every morning. There is no agenda with which to write to, simply to try to capture your stream-of-consciousness as best you can. This practice is designed to bring clarity, exercise creativity, engage in self-reflection.
Linked here is a video that encouraged me to begin.
The delightful writing experience has me writing for longer than I thought I could for a morning pages session. On April 6, I started my morning pages using Roam Research for the first time at 8:10am and wrote in silence. The clock on my laptop was turned off, and I did not have any other tabs opened. After what seemed like a 20 minute spell, I finished up and went to check the time on my phone. It was 9:30am. Astonished, I checked the word count of my ramblings and it was over 3,000 words. As a reference point, the longest academic essay I wrote was 2,500 words and my previous record for word count on morning pages was 800 which was done on Google Docs.
The ease of adding associations has helped to foster some of what I wrote into ideas for projects and areas of further research. Something that previously completing it on Google Docs had not chance of doing.
The database-view Roam Research has makes it easy to reflect back on my morning pages. If I every feeling nostalgic, I can read through what I wrote last week. Roam Research’s features has amplified the impact morning pages has had.
I do a daily reflection as a means to practice gratitude, savour experiences, and check-in with goals that I set myself. Before Roam Research, I used the DayOne application on iOS to capture my answers. It was crude since I had the free version but it offered more flexibility than simply righting down notes.
The questions I ask myself don’t change from day to day so I have made a template of them that I copy/paste every time I come to do it. Roam Research’s right sidebar allows you to have 2 pages open at the same time. I am able to have my daily notes page open in the middle, and my daily reflections page opened on the right-hand-side, so I can copy the questions over and get on with writing my reflection.
The database-view Roam Research has makes it easy to reflect back on the answers I gave for each question. If I every feeling nostalgic, I can read through what I wrote on any given day.
A common piece of advice I have heard over the years is to jot down all the interesting thoughts and ideas you have in a notebook. I have tried across multiple time periods to practice this habit but found myself failing a week into each attempt. I tried physical notebooks, notes applications like Evernote, Google Sheets, Word, you name it. Each was just a little too inconvient for me to continue with.
I capture thoughts during my morning pages and whenever inspiration strikes. My thinking around why I enjoy Roam Research as a tool for capturing thoughts is similar to why I enjoy using it for the practice of morning pages. Writing down thoughts is fun. Making associations is easy. Knowing these thoughts may become useful thanks to the query capability is a powerful motivator to add as much as possible to your Roam Research database.
Writing down notes for books, podcasts, videos, and articles
This is something I started in Notion to build out my Resonance Calendar. After a few days of using Roam Research, the power of bi-directional linking unveiled itself. I have since started transitioning my calendar onto Roam Research. I have not yet figured out a way to structure it such that I am happy to share my calendar, but I am confident it will come with time as even know I am still uncovering neat features built into Roam Research.
The primary reason I am transitioning this calendar onto Roam Research is to leveraging the associations made between different notes. The more I input into my Roam Research database, the more connected and powerful tool it will become for me in the future. The search and query capability made possible through associations means that any notes I write note will be future-proofed in that I’m almost guaranteed to re-discover them should I explore that particular topic.
Writing blog posts
Since all the my notes are already in Roam Research, it is so easy for me to parse through them for inspiration on what to write. I have notes open in the sidebar, and my draft on the main page. It is a design feature that I have loved since Day 1. It has undoubtedly contributed to the writing of 42 (and counting) consecutive blog posts on this site as of May 27, 2020.
Roam Research’s learning curve is worth it
Roam Research is inherently complex because it upends the conventions established of note-taking / writing / productivity tools. There is a learning curve which spans:
- Familiarising with markdown commands
- Bi-directional linking – learning a method to navigate associations e.g. Zettlekasten
- Roam Research-specific commands e.g. sidebar
- Embedding blocks onto other pages
The above are just the areas that I am using regularly. There is plenty that I don’t know about. But the encouraging thing is that with my novice-level knowledge of Roam Research, I have gained so much. Imagine how powerful a tool this can be once you spend months mastering it.
Roam Research is not perfect
Roam Research is by no means perfect. There are plenty of ways to improve it, but it does one thing amazingly. Inputting things into Roam Research is frictionless because it is the way our brain thinks about things. This is feature that has unlocked my desire to write.