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How I use Roam to take notes

How I use Roam to take notes

Two things come to mind whenever I hear about Roam, the buzzy new note-taking app: the B-52s and one of my tattoos. The Gen Xers will recognize the catchy pop jingle “Roam if you want to, Roam around the world” and when I ejected from the corporate hamster wheel, I celebrated with a tattoo memorializing our roaming adventure around the world. And yes, these are consistent with a note-taking app that lets you roam the edges of your physical and digital brain.

A web crawler for your digital brain

Roam bills itself as a “note-taking tool for networked thought” and it is truly a unique and differentiated approach to how you collect, query and store your notes (which has ensued into an epic note-taking beef). It was founded by Conor White-Sullivan, has a small team of 3 and recently raised a seed round.

Now despite being a Notion power-user (and course instructor) I’m always on the hunt for complex tools that give you the building blocks to customize your own system. Systems (not tools) have insane ROIs and this philosophy has led me to:

  • Omnifocus to Implement David Allen’s Getting Things Done (GTD)
  • YNAB to deconstruct my financial needs, wants and “nice to haves”
  • ConvertKit to maximize personalized email communication with segmenting and sequences
  • Notion to double-down on what’s Important, but not Urgent

The game-changer: Bi-directional links

We live in a hyper-linked world, clicking between related documents and files. Yet the way we view links is linear, sequential and hierarchical. Here’s a brief video showing how bi-directional links work:

When I saw this, I immediately said to myself, “Holy crap. You basically have the potential to crawl my entire digital workspace at the most atomic level – the idea.

Let’s contrast this with a hierarchical structure, like taxes in Evernote. To access your 2020 taxes, you’d go on the following expedition:

  • Go to Notebook stack: Personal Finances
  • Find Notebook: Taxes
  • Find individual Notes: Taxes 2020

The navigation is linear, you literally hit the back button to move to the prior point in the hierarchy.

Now, there are alternatives to to this hierarchical approach: search and tags. We can probably discard search, since “tax” is unlikely to yield any meaningful results. Tags would work better, but they’re cumbersome to insert at the note-level AND we’d be limited to tagging notes.

And here’s where Roam gets extra-spicy. If you’re reading this, you’re probably familiar with Notion’s blocks (a bullet, check-box, header or paragraph). Imagine you could tag every. Single. Block.

Here’s a short video how you could quickly roll-up your taxes in Roam.

Here are a few other of my early use cases for Roam:

Roam as a CRM

I’ve argued in the past that a personal CRM is a solution looking for a problem. But I like have quick little notes on my contacts, mostly to jot down how I can be helpful to them.

In Roam, each contact becomes a tag and I can seamlessly attach text and ideas to each contact.

Here’s a short video on Roam as a CRM.

Roam to annotate books and posts

Since every paragraph can be tagged, you now can tie ideas together quite seamlessly. In my case, I write often about topics like FIRE, mortality, and solopreneurship — so I’d have corresponding tags in Roam each pointing to paragraphs, bullets, or even individual sentences that match.

Here’ s a short video on using Roam to annotate posts.

Where I get stuck

I’ve always found tagging to be challenging, even in hierarchical structures. In Evernote and Notion, I’m very parsimonious with my tag usage. I believe that with tags you need to be either all in or minimalist. But Roam’s command-line approach makes it quite tempting to go tag crazy.

I also struggle with the implicit hierarchies within tags. For instance, if I had a tag called SPORTS but also MMA, NBA and NFL. An idea could correspond to both the parent (Sports) and the child (NBA). Right now, you can’t roll child tags into parent tags. This leaves me lost in my tagging taxonomy.

Lastly, you can tell the app is being built by a small team. It’s a bit slow and buggy, but that’s expected at this phase. Plus, it’s hard to truly appreciate Roam’s potential without a dedicated app.

Systems stick

As a systems geek, I’m excited by the potential and how it’s re-writing (no pun intended) the rules of note-taking!

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Khe Hy
[email protected]

Khe Hy is the creator of RadReads.