Inspired by _ Marc Koenig’s 100 Roam Tips | Beginner to Advanced Roam Research Guide the aim of the text is to review personal progress made in learning Roam Research. Yes, it’s an expensive note-taking app you need to actually learn how to use it effectively. The teaching of it happens around a community divided between slack, discord, and youtube. Productivity or its aspiration requires an investment at varying levels. There are times when notetaking does feel like a form of procrastination.
The original title of this text was 40 days learning Roam, notetaking, and digital productivity; thinking about writing 03. It has taken me more than 40 days, around 45ish to get all this in place. I started writing this on the 40th (3rd April 2021) day after sign up but delays, this, and that so here we are. I did try out a version after seven, ten, a month, and finally had to close the task. This was done just for me to get a hang of the progress I made till now and what I think working with Roam should be for me.
I must confess the workflow was still quite traditional putting this together. I didn’t plan writing in this particular format and to finally get the task done the list seemed the way forward. Roam, may want you to pull different ideas from the 40days of use and put together a coherent document in an hour, a relatively small amount of time. On that account Roam may be useful for just an outline, writing ideally is better elsewhere.
Marc’s use case, at least what comes out from the video is to organize, manage personal information. Personal knowledge management, my primary or only Roam use case requires methodologies distinct from his, and therefore how I see or engage with the application is then seen from that point of view. A distinction exists when looking at information and knowledge where information is required to get tasks done while knowledge is required to create new knowledge. Processing needs in both are different.
For the very short review do skip to the end. Marc’s video is one of the only ones which gives a complete rundown of the application and ideally instead of all the other myriad attempts in explaining Roam, this is the only one to look at to save time to get around at all the possibilities with the app. I have copied the content tabs of the video and written my take on the situation. Marc explains each of them but there is some amount of disconnect with the video. Thus I don’t have the 1 to 100 numbers listed.
Section 1: Introductory Tips
Keeping up with changes — I never anticipated that Roam will at least for me have such a high learning curve but it is what it is. Since there is no one particular way to do Roam, you end up looking at several possibilities in hoping to find your right framework. Anxiety to optimize workflow is a productivity killer and unnecessary.
Sign up— They cleared my scholarship application and thus have access to Roam for a year. It is probably the only reason that I am trying Roam out. I feel indebted to Coner et al. in Roam for the opportunity. In addition to this, there is Beau’s note-taking evangelism. It antagonizes me. I feel like I have indulged in notetaking sin till now and need cleansing.
Theoretical underpinnings of creating Smart Notes by Sönke Ahrens and principles of building a Second Brain by Tiago Forte promoted by the team make the association more of a research exercise rather than just using a notetaking app. Though a distraction being part of community discussions could help to rethink foundations on how knowledge creation and therefore its production may be optimized for the 21st century.
Roam app — Competition for Roam is a bit frustrating. If it was the only app around I could have had added Roam as an Item tab in a funding application and asked for some money and pay for the bidirectional links. But now since even Evernote has implemented it (in some capacity), getting funds to use it is well close to impossible. Next year too looks bleak. ’23 maybe, I am hopeful I can get some money to be a Believer.
Daily note — My first encounter with the daily notes pages is absolutely exhilarating. The emotion is best captured in Tiago Learns Roam, Ep 1: The Peace Summit at 3:13 he says “I have the feeling that this is a historic moment”. I felt that too on the 23rd of February 2021. But now in the present, the past seemed to have a better future for it than what it has today.
Making bullets — I like the pop the bullets have every time I press enter. It’s quite satisfying. On Evernote (Tiago’s is responsible for influencing me in part to relook my Evernote usage system), though it seems a bit better on that front and has multiple of those UI pops, or I assume it has. There is a certain relationship I think exists between the font used and the nature of the transition pop, whatever it’s called.
Collapse & expand — If it was early 2020, collapse & expand in Roam would be super cool. But the other day I found it on Visual Studio Code as stock. WorkFlowy too has similar features, they implemented a while back. Its got its uses, especially not get overwhelmed by content, but toggling bullets on and off to access the material within it sometimes could be irritating too.
Doc view & numbered lists — It is fine I guess. Numbers can only be used in a primary child/ren block and not in any subsequently. I don’t use them often and I haven’t worked on any document in a doc view yet.
Multiple lines, one block — The problem with thinking in tools is that you end up using features as markers to think, make things around them. Fragmenting thought in multiple models of representation I find unproductive. This along with doc and numbered lists I am unable to think in and around them.
Drag blocks around — A very nice implementation, from all the ones I have used from Word to Evernote. Notion, I think also does a decent job too here. Bullets, lists are an interesting indication of how thought is ordered, and dragging blocks around in that context has extended takes to look to understand how a tool for thought (text | review) works.
Syncing updates— Too many app updates are good. It builds certain confidence in the app. But at times it can get annoying too when to check for updates, is an application usage tick. It may help if there is a schedule like once a week or ideally happen in the background. Sometimes there are updates several times a day. That green dot that shows all your edits are up in the cloud is nice. Roam does definitely need a native desktop app. Being offline to write also helps productivity since it reduces distraction avenues.
Making To-Do Lists — Everything on Roam seems a bit not there yet. ToDos especially is something like that. But it also depends on how you use it too. It may be doable with some custom CSS code to trick the feature up for specific use cases. Now I use it as an aid to sort open and closed writing projects.
Using dates — I stay on the daily notes section of Roam. If I was a page-centric user then I would probably have used the feature a bit more. I do use it. I have also started to think in dates as a result of this. It's funny how little application quirks have a significant impact on how your understanding of work, in this case, on how to write changes the way to look at things.
Using timestamping — Avery linked discourse to the usage of dates, time stamping is one of those things I have learned to immensely appreciate.
Zooming in & out on blocks (pt1+2) — Sometimes I zoom in. In most use cases I prefer to work in the context of other ideas I have logged during the day. I haven’t started dumping too much content yet and most of what is written locate somewhere between fleeting and literature notes.
Navigate back & forward fast — I just can’t wrap around keyboard shortcuts yet. Most of the videos like this one are of those working on a Mac. On a PC after I have translated the codes, it should be me, I am unable to use them. Going back and forth at least I would like to get used to in the future.
Return to daily note — The same as above.
Make a new page — Rather than create new pages, or have a page-specific workflow, I would prefer a daily notes workflow, where everything is generated on a timeline and productivity is therefore measured accordingly. For eg, the number of days I have worked on a page, when was the page last edited, etc. These intelligence trackers could come in handy at times.
How to think about pages — Right now pages are just a collection of blocks. Then it shows how this collection of blocks are linked else were to other block collections or just blocks themselves. Per page statistics in this regard will ideally help. The idea of a productivity app like an activity tracker to optimize is conceptually missing.
Linked references — A note-taking app is not a productivity app and therefore features in both may be implemented differently. Linking notes together is almost like putting things you want to be placed together in a folder, but here as tags. But unlike folders, these links act more like references to produce a paper, essay, or post.
Unlinked references — What you forget to link shows up in unlinked references. It’s a good feature. My problem is that I only have very specific links and therefore almost never have any unlinked references. It may be because I am used to putting my ideas in folders and have extended the workflow into tags.
Filtering backlinks — I work around daily pages therefore filtering backlinks don’t throw out too many situations for me. For it to be applicable in my case, it will probably take some time to get there. For unorganized content dump and tags, in extension backlinks filters work.
Filtering on page — The page as a unit of knowledge, the way I have understood it, needs structure and a certain order to find how a set of blocks are compiled. Only writing for a single project is my goal with using Roam for this year. Hence a limited frame conceptualizing a page and its contents.
Graph overview — When I came across Roam the very first time, I was under the impression that the graph is self-generated. But adding links manually and having it all only display as connections without any statistics is quite disappointing. The graph doesn’t do anything but just show things are linked with each other. A standard design crit question is, so what?
Favorite pages — Is another way of query, I think, tagging pages mostly. It’s a good way to keep track of working projects or it can manifest into controlling pages based on how the system is programmed.
Change page names — As far as possible I try and work within the daily notes interface. Work on the first draft, mostly fleeting notes, and when it's ready for its second edit, I make a page for it. I use hashtags as project markers to gather various versions of fleeting notes under a topic, a project index.
Sidebar (edit multiple pages at once) — Is a quite nice touch. It gets a bit confusing on what opens where but I guess I will figure that out in time.
Open sidebar fast — I am struggling with shortcuts.
Expand, collapse, move & close sidebar items — Interesting.
Search bar — The search is good because what you are looking for most of the time shows up and if you get the name, words right, faster it shows up. But would I want dependence on search? Self-discoverability is also a virtue to reach when looking at, accessing one’s own work in time.
Use the search bar to make pages — The anticipated search behavior is to write something and press enter. I haven’t particularly tested it but if I search for a term I would like to hit entre and go through the results. This I cannot do, get myself to do since that will make a page if it is not there. It’s a neat move though to make a page from a search. But I really question myself a lot before making pages since making pages is making pages in Roam ether.
Section 2: Intermediate Tips
Open Sidebar from search bar — This is the thing with pages in Roam, it’s possible to forget that a page was created, especially if it’s not linked with some other block. The same is not possible in say Evernote since you are always in some capacity made aware of it. You know it’s there, but you may end up not doing something about it, that is a different problem but here, there’s a possibility of actually forgetting about it here because pages made are pages made if you don’t actually access them.
Organize page content using sidebar — This is interesting.
Open sidebar fast— I use sidebar less.
Navigate text with hotkeys — I am getting there.
Move blocks with hotkeys — Same as above.
Format text: highlight, bold, italics, strikethrough — Text inputs on any note-taking app is generally fleeting. Especially if it's for a post, article, essay, or paper. The draft happens or is made on it. Using formatting options is not a requirement, though not completely useless either.
Format text: headers — This text, because the list was really long that I have used headers. Formatting ideally is finalized on the finishing app.
Format text: quote boxes — Sometimes.
Format text: horizontal line break — I like this.
Upload images & files — The popup message is irritating. The potential of daily notes is mostly lost because of not being able to upload images efficiently. Being a text-first note-taking app all other media is not as efficient. There is therefore a reason too this post is mostly text.
Adjust image sizes — I don’t see it as a necessity to have to do that. Also, I have started limiting images and documents I upload on Roam.
Link external pages + page aliases — Evernote has this interesting quirk where its internal links are green and external web links are blue. It is really helpful as a feature where types of links are differentiated. Here it's almost there. Page links, block links, and weblinks. I may also need to load some custom CSS for that.
Section 3: Practical Application
Best way to use bullets— It's good to keep in mind that bullet fun is only possible the way it's possible in Roam. In other places (text publishing situations) beyond two or three child bullet tires, things get getting unreliable. Medium only allows a single tire. Over nesting of ideas isn’t advisable or isn’t something I pursue in my use case.
Best way to use pages — There are no best ways here in Roam is what my last 40days have taught me. All ways are best ways and what matters is to get work done. Till now I find myself process planning. Which I don’t know if it's a good thing or bad. Page anxiety is a very Roam-related state for me which has two parts to it. To make blank pages with no linked content and constantly worrying that I will forget the pages I have made.
Aspiration pages — I do not have these. Especially since there is no mobile app, collecting aspirations on the laptop is quite a waste of time.
Upgrading the TODO page — TODO’s here in Roam I find odd since it's a block. In dedicated TODO apps, there are ways to track and structure the list items and in several cases incentivize making and completing TODOs. The first task in Roam to getting things done is first to keep track of the task list. As with everything, everything is just all over the place till you sort it.
Project Pages (Project Management) — Tagging ideas from todos to manage pages is a project in itself. Roam is like a set of Lego blocks. You can make what you want and anyhow. The more advanced features you know or are interested to use, the more useful the app will be. Others are not like that. Here you are making yourself productive, elsewhere it’s the app doing that for you. Very do-it-yourself rigamajig kinda app. Its price forces you to be productive in a way in addition to the disciple you yourself are building.
Morning Pages (Journaling) — I like the daily notes quite a lot. That is probably the only reason I am still working on it. It's also probably the only reason I may stick with the app but I don’t particularly journal like everyone else does or monitor my habits. At the moment I try as much as possible to work on at least one idea per day on Roam.
Brainstorming Tags — Every tag is a page and like all pages need to be kept track of. I find this idea very scary of creating tags that I will forget about. I only make project tags and monitor them. The goal is to sync workflow with Evernote and use Roam only for writing.
Quick Capture — I uninstalled the Roam mobile bookmark the other day. I really didn’t like how it was implemented and it's easier to quick capture on other apps. Evernote still is the easiest to take images and scans on the go. Stray text notes on Onenote. To plan, think your lists though Notion is really good. I can’t use Roam to quick capture.
Reminder Tags — This requires some skills to implement and would involve creating a lot more tags to keep track of. To remind yourself of the tags you made is not productive I must say. Tagging between Evernote and Roam is quite a bit of a project in itself. To make it is one. Implement and optimize is another state altogether. Repeating myself again, productivity apps have to make you productive here you are making the app make you productive.
Quiz Cards (Anki) — NA
Section 4: Advanced Tips
Best way to use Favorites bar — Favorites bar is a dummies content tracking, queries setup of sorts. I like it very much. It acts almost like a control node for all your content and is easily configured.
Introducing Block References — This is very good in creating indexes, content pages, or any other pages monitoring use cases. Collect block references together and summarize the connections into a broader idea.
Create Block References — Getting used to this, is a bit tricky, easy after you get the idea and as possibilities unfold. The problem with Roam since it's a set of parts that are structured or ordered in any given way, time to figure an optimal use case in relation to what a workflow is tiring.
Block Reference Codes & Search — Blocks definitely do gets interesting if you are able to use them interestingly. Its got more potential than pages but as mentioned earlier it definitely depends.
Block Reference TODOs — This is how it gets fun. It's one of the ways I guess though. There may be other possibilities especially with some scripts but I intend to keep my Roam experience to plain vanilla. At least for now.
Fully Embedding Block References — I don’t understand the fully well. How is it better than just embedding? Various possibilities with this case create types of pages that remain as undiscoverable as before.
Embedding Pages — This is how things in Roam from a simple write and connect state escalate out of hand.
Using Templates — I don’t think I will have repeated tasks. I also don’t have plans to implement them. I always avoid templates on any platform.
Best way to use indentation — All my tags and links are top-level items, or that is the disciple I follow. I may need templates to frame all my notes within a similar structure but I have to get there.
Backlinks formatting types — I use my pages and tags distinctly. Tags link ideas, pages are at the moment only for writing exercises. Everything else is on the daily notes page under its appropriate project tags.
Attributes backlinks — I did not know this existed till I saw this video. Even after multiple watch sessions I still don’t clearly understand it.
How to think about metadata — I have way too much anxiety about unnecessary metadata. Roam should ideally be about content production alone but if an effort is spent on making metadata about the content made becomes a productivity block, then it’s a problem or so I am of the opinion. Metadata glut is also another issue that roam should address. Too many links can only make a map that looks like a lot of work was done.
How to avoid premature optimization — After more than 40days of use, I don’t think I have gotten anywhere close to an optimal use case. Templates only introduce block sets on pages but when it comes to other things like how you want everything to look as or work it can get maddening from there.
Capture tweets — Roaman’s and their obsession with tweets is a new discovery for me on Roam. Thinking in Twitter chatter rather than say books, papers or videos is a newer model of knowledge production situation, I would look at it in detail in time.
Capture book & article quotes — More apps in a workflow isn’t a good thing. Too much content capture too will get daunting in the future. In time you will want to read the newer ideas out there instead of the treads you captured in your past. Unless you have plans to make something with it, capture without ends is just plain capture and potential resource hog.
Capture screenshots quickly — There isn’t anything extra quick about this, whatever is possible with the stock Mac or PC screengrab option is the best out there. Keyboard shortcuts definitely save time.
Quickly save a bunch of links — Anything done quickly will take time to process later. As far as possible I see my use case of Roam evolving, it is more to stage fleeting and literature reviews and keep the system as light as possible. Have faster access to ideas I create.
Best way to use tag links — Is to use fewer tags. Have more focused content creating sessions than confused dumps to clean or edit out later.
Jump to an existing daily notes page — In stock Roam, I don’t think it's possible. With Roam42 maybe or I haven’t looked at it yet. It will be really good to have a timeline for a graph.
Word count tracker — This is nice.
Word count in page header — This is nicer.
Character counter — I would ideally move to another app for this. Didn’t know though it could be useful to actually write down tweets.
Pomodoro timer — Something ticking down while you are trying to concentrate may get distracting. If you are writing a long piece of text, and the timer stops without any notification, its purpose would ideally get lost.
Big picture date tags — I haven’t understood this. A simple way, repeating myself again is to map pages or tags on a timeline.
Introducing Queries — I intend to find my notes rather than search for them. Discoverability works in my favor, or so is my workflow. For now, I am optimizing my existing workflow and not trying to create one dependent on Roam’s proprietary tools.
AND Query — NA
OR Query — NA
Combining Multiple AND & OR Queries — NA
NOT Query — NA
BETWEEN Query — NA
Query by Blocks & Hiding Queries — Again, I have tag anxiety.
Using Text Expanders — textexpander seems fun. I don’t as far as possible have repetitive tasks that I automate.
Getting creative with search terms and pages — It would make sense to have specific pages made for images, pdf, or any media references.
Media embeds (Spotify & YouTube) — I almost always avoid embedding content from external sources.
Code tags — Has other possibilities in displaying texts like quotes instead of only code blocks.
Backing up Roam — I wish backup would be simpler. Manual backup is frustrating. Especially after coming from Evernote, Onenote, or Notion where you don’t need to think about your notes are safe. It's all there almost seven-year-old ones too. Isn’t this a deal-breaker?
The best ways to name pages— It's all lower case everywhere for me.
Making tables— Seems alright don’t know if I want to use it.
Using kanban boards — I think there are other places that do kanbans better and those are preferred. Roam should get their act of writing, creating text aids in place like navigators in text editors. Maybe even a better font and some colors. A minimal shade selection would do.
Resolving text formatting issues — I don’t format much for now.
Using slideshow mode — This is Marc’s hack but I wish there was something possible. Evernote had a really cool presentation mode in its previous edition. It's unfortunate they took that out.
Version control (block) — I want to use this but the current workflow doesn’t allow for it since I tend to make final texts on the app it's published from.
Encryption (block) — Roam feels insecure. Especially with how it backups your content, I always ask myself how safe is my content here. Evernote seems safer at the moment. Even OneNote too.
In-line calculator — It is unnecessary.
Slider bars — Folks seem to like and use them but it’s another feature to add to the glut. Roam only looks minimal at first glance. How it gets used as a result of all of this is quite a different discussion.
Using Roam makes you think that you are productive. Especially with the combination of bullets, page links, and template customization opportunities adds to a sentiment of getting work done. The initial time you save in writing your thoughts is spent in connecting it and then later creating rules to find them. To use Roam you need time, understanding, and resources. If you have all three then Roam works, if not it's best to find something else. You need patience more or less I guess and a bit of hope.
That said, there are three personality types of note-takers they say, 1. librarians (those who collect their notes), 2. gardeners (those who gather their notes), and 3. architects (those who plan their notes). In simpler terms those who are organized and those who aren’t. If an ordered content gathering workflow isn’t something you identify with then Roam definitely works in your favor. You can dump your ideas and use the app to search them out whenever and however based on the skills you have.
Roam is an early implementation of bidirectional linking, hence it’s necessary to cut it some slack. They are also a research project, all large-scale experiments need five to ten years before they can achieve anything substantial. But this is also tech. At a point, I used write fervently. It is a great app directed only at writers and writing. It was also inspired very much by text editors. But then I went back to Evernote and Word. Roam Research Research Club as an idea makes me think about that a lot.