What I like about Roam (so far)
I read a lot of stuff, mainly on the internet. One problem I’ve always had is keeping track of the important bits of the things that I read. The most important information sticks with you, but it’s not easy to remember everything. There’s always a nagging fear that there’s some importing bit you might be missing, or that you might forget something useful.
This is a common problem. The common cure is to take notes. In this digital age, I wanted to find a way to take notes on my computer, using my keyboard. I do enjoy pen and paper for working out problems, or for thinking in an unstructured way. On the other hand, it’s hard to preserve pen and paper, and it’s much harder to stay organized as well.
I know there are methods like bulllet journalling, etc, but the way I use paper, I prefer just to keep a notebook around for blank sheets, and then go towards organizing things in a more structured and permanent format.
That’s why I wanted to look for a more digital solution.
One of the things I tried first was writing in markdown files. I hard a hard time sticking with the habit. I would manage to follow through with it a few days in a row, but I eventually got out of the habit of visiting my markdown notes. Something I want in a note taking thing like this is that it should be basically effortless to start taking notes on something. I shouldn’t have to worry about opening something up and navigating.
Recently, I’ve tried out Roam. It’s been working very well for me so far. In fact, it’s been working out surprisingly well for me so far. It’s very effortless for me to open up Roam and start taking notes on something, and I feel that I actually get a lot of value with how Roam lets me organize things.
There are a lot of other articles extolling the virtues of Roam, and I don’t think they’re exaggerating (or at least not very much). It genuinely is a much better (personal) way of taking notes. I won’t give you the rundown here, but the key idea is that Roam is based on two-way links between notes. In Roam, you can create new notes very easily, and you can link to other notes based on their title. You can see which notes the current one links to, but you can also see which notes link back to this one! You can see the entirety of your notes as a big web of connections:
The biggest advantage, and “unblocker” for me is the fact that Roam does away with a strict hierarchy. A lot of other note taking apps look like your standard file directory. You have the root, where all the notes live, and then you can create sub-directories for different topics, sub-sub-directories for sub-topics, etc. The problem I had with an organization like this is that it was sometimes hard to to figure out where a new note should go.
If a note is about biology and information theory, should it get in biology, or in mathematics? Should I organize papers by author, or by topic? Sometimes I want to be able to look at things through the lens of an author’s corpus, and other times through the topics.
Another problem with a strict hierarchy is that it’s difficult to leave loose ends hanging. If I’m writing a note about say, bacteria, and then the topic of E-Coli comes up, it’s difficult to not get sidetracked about that topic. It feels like you need to write a subsection of the current note on that topic, since it’s hard to split up a note into small pieces.
With Roam, when you want to write about something, you just write about it! You don’t need to worry about any hierarchy, the organization will come from the topic itself. As you write, you can easily create two way links using the topics you’re talking about. And if you don’t explicitly write a link, Roam allows you to explicitly mark that later, so you don’t even need to worry about that.
Because of this, making notes feels much more effortless. This also helps me to avoid getting side-tracked with sub-topics. If there’s a section of a note that might have warranted a full sub-section in a more coarse-grained note taking app, here I can just create the two way link, and then fill in the note some other time.
Every time you create a link in Roam, it will create a page for it if it doesn’t exist. This is great, because you can just worry about mentioning things related to the current note. You can fill in the details for each of these relations later.
This also prevents duplication of ideas or work. If you’re reading a book, and there’s an introduction to some topic you’ve studied before, you can defer to the note you’ve already made, and then only fill in the new details if necessary. This is so liberating compared to the hierarchical approach, where it’s difficult to avoid duplicating work, because it fills like a summary of a chapter needs to be complete unto itself, whereas Roam encourages you to spread things out into a more natural web.
Roam makes working with the web very seamless through renaming as well. When you rename a note, all of the links to it will change as well, which is extremely convenient. This helps reinforce the feeling of Roam as a magical web that just works.
I also find that Roam matches the way I organize my thoughts personally. That is, I organize it less in terms of hierarchy, and more in terms of similarities, analogies, and connections. I can’t squish everything into strict hierarchies. Instead I look at connections between different ideas, different authors, etcetera.
I’ve really been enjoying using it. I feel like it’s liberated me, in a sense, to more freely and more easily take notes. And having access to this tool makes me feel much more organized in my thoughts, and makes my thoughts feel much more permanent as well.
This was a bit of rambling post, and I don’t intend to edit it very much. I think I should write more free-form posts like this, and I encourage you to check out Roam for yourself!