Chaotic and Inefficient Note-taking in Roam: In Defense of (My) Mess
Roam is inviting. Roam is captivating. Once you give it a finger (other than the middle one), it will take your whole hand and lead you to into a fascinating rabbit hole. From basic simple steps of outlining, through understanding the key concept of unity between [[pages]] and #tags, to block referencing and embedding. Don’t be mistaken: That is just the beginning.
You will not be alone on this journey. There are many other pilgrims travelling with you that are willing to help and initiate you into the mysteries of #roamcult . There are also masters, on top of mountains of Twitter followers, spreading the Good News of Roam through their posts, newsletters and courses, providing the secret art of querying, organizing, optimizing, perfecting and finally, maybe creating.
And then, there is my mess. To be completely honest, I was never able to have a stable order in anything. My order and structure of notes is always fluid, temporarily established for different projects and then again abandoned and reestablished. Metadata, metastructures, metabrains (?) are being born and fade away. Often I ask myself: Do I use the full potential of Roam? And the resounding answer is: No. But does it matter?
If you are like me, the number of courses for Roam may seem overwhelming. Their titles often seem to promise panacea for all our issues. There is Andy Henson’s Effective Note-Taking With Roam Research, Nat Eliason’s Effortless Output with Roam, Lukas Kawerau’s Galaxy Brain and even Lisa-Marie Cabrelli’s Magical Academic Note-taking (and many others with more ordinary titles, to be fair, like Shu Omi’s Roam Research Guide — check the whole list on Roambrain). Don’t take me wrong: these are great! And I think you should definitely check them. Yet, to be completely honest, if you are like me, you are probably aware that any amount of similar training will never make you “effective”, your brain “galactic” and your academic work “magical”. Unfortunately. Nevertheless, luckily, Roam is here also for us — chaotic, distracted, yet passionate members of society.
My workflow is simply to note what I feel is important. I make notes for articles I read, people I meet with, the things I have to learn. I am making drafts here and there, lists of tasks and just write anything I feel is right. I even create various metadata but they are not perfectly stable or organised. I change them constantly. I would even write much more, however, Roam still suffers from slow loading. There simply is not so much plan behind my note-taking. And yet, Roam still works for me and it is still the best note-taking app I ever used.
The magical moments in Roam come for me when things start to appear suddenly, in new contexts, by chance. I feel often like stumbling upon old information when inserting something new. Shortly after I started to use Roam, I had the first meeting with a researcher that I did not know previously. I inserted his name into Roam as part of my preparation for the meeting and then I realized that it was already there! I checked the page and I found that I actually read one of his articles some time ago. That article was completely unrelated to the matter we were going to discuss but it created a new connection in my brain that was previously missing. These moments are one of the reasons, why I love Roam. I stumble upon things, I find gems by chance and I have great hopes that Roam will become better and better at this.
First, I love tinkering. Second, I like exploring possible paths of thought. Thirdly and finally, I firmly believe that I need to make my personal notes really personal. Note-taking apps and especially outliners tend to become anonymous and sometimes almost infinite walls of bullets. This is not only the issue of Roam; Workflowy, Dynalist, Obisidian, RemNote, Logseq and others suffer from the same problem. This is made even worse by focusing in and out of blocks (or zooming in and out) and — in case of Roam and some others — their anti-hierarchical structure. In Roam, there is no master directory, no master folder, but all connections are being made by the user. While this is great for associative thinking it is also horrible— at least in my case — for memory.
I think that our minds need both associations and structures. Often we remember things in paper books by visual indications, like that something was somewhere in the middle of the book, somewhere on the bottom of the right page. The book has its weight, dimensions and other properties that make it unique and the same is true about the page. This stability of position and uniqueness is something that at least my mind urgently needs.
Therefore, I try to hack Roam. I give it different colors, abuse LaTeX to create diagrams, play with animations. I try to give every page a different feeling to make it mine. Do I succeed in it? Well, difficult to say but at least, I try and I have a lot of fun while doing so. Luckily, Roam allows me to do this thank to its immense adaptability.
Have you expected that I was a productivity guru? I hope that I did not disappoint you. To my defense, have you ever seen a productivity guru/duck? However, if you like this, you can also check my other articles here on Medium or follow me on Twitter, where I spread [[quacks]] and CSS/JS hacks for Roam.