Just over a month ago, I gave an intro tour of Roam Research to the Wildbit team. We have a call of this type on the first Friday of each month, and I'd wanted to do this for a while as a few people on the team started to use it. But each person seems to come away from the first few log-ins to Roam with this same question:
How do I use this thing?
The truth is, after months of using it, I still didn't have a firm sense of how I wanted to use Roam myself. Ever since Drew Coffman introduced it to me early in 2020, I've taken a very slow, cautious approach to using it. But after 6–7 months, I still found myself wondering what things I should add to Roam and how to structure it all.
What to put in here
The thing with Roam is that it could replace so many other tools and services you use. Here are the ones that come to mind from my current tool set:
- Day One: Roam's daily note set up can replace any journalling habit you may have (although it may not replace your journal where you collect family memories)
- Ulysses: I use it mainly for notes and drafts of my writing, which Roam can handle just as well, and in some cases, better
- Things: you could craft a complex GTD set up in here
- Instapaper: if I want to get highlights and quotes and interesting reads into Roam, why not skip the middle man?
- Pinboard: and if those highlights, quotes, and general references to other materials are going to live in Roam, do I need Pinboard?
So when you come to Roam, it helps to have a clear picture of what you want to use it for. Is it going to be your journal? Your task manager? A place to store notes about every single thing?
It's too easy to start to find yourself with a mess of notes in various places. And despite the claim that you can "throw everything into Roam" and somehow come out with order on the other side, that has never been my experience. For any tool.
Using Roam (or any tool of this sort) will have greater benefits if you have a clear picture of how you want to use it. Finally, I'm in that place. Putting together a short intro demo helped, but while I was doing that, I also came across a few other resources that helped me define a usage I'm happy and comfortable with.
Backling is not very useful — often even harmful
First was this post on the Zettelkasten blog. Sasha and Christian discuss the potential drawbacks of automatic backlinking. Since the automatic bidirectional linking of Roam (and now other tools that have followed along) is one of the big selling points, I was intrigued by the title. And their argument is convincing.
Just think a moment about how difficult it really is to use the internet and its web in a productive way. The single most productivity-destroying problem with using the internet is the temptations link provide. The same is true for your Zettelkasten if your link structure is not well-groomed.
As I considered what to use Roam for, I knew one thing for certain: it would be the place to build a Zettelkasten collection. It is perfect for that use case. However, Luhmann took great effort to explicitely and purposefully list out other notes that related to whatever note he was working on. Having the slipbox do that for you takes away some of the thinking that makes the Zettelkasten to valuable.
Roam's backlinks won't necessarily negate the benefits of the slipbox. But reading through this post helped give clarity to what I wanted Roam for.
Implementing Zettelkasten in Roam: A practical guide
The second article was exactly what I was thinking about: how to use Roam as a Zettelkasten. Zakk Fleischmann walked through his set up and it helped me solidify how I was putting stuff in Roam. Book notes are easy and obvious, but I'd also already been posting links to web articles (or sometimes pasting entire article) in Roam.
Zakk's walkthrough helped by giving distinctions between reference, literature, and evergreen (permanent) notes.
And there was one more step in my setting up Roam. I realized the kinds of notes that don't need to be in the same place as my Zettelkasten set up. Things like my weekly review process, or Scripture verses I'm memorizing, or gift ideas for my wife. The kind of notes that are important to have easily accessible, but don't necessarily add to my personal knowledge base.
However, they do need to be located in app that is easy to access on all devices, quick to use, and doesn't have problems syncing quickly. Up until now, I'd been keeping those items in Ulysses and was considering moving them to Roam. But Craft came along … and I loved it right away.
It's fast, smooth, and (so far) syncing has been immediate. It treats content a little like Roam, but reminds me more of Notion. But it's far less clunky. And as it's a true native app on all Apple platforms, it's accessible everywhere I want it. I started moving my various notes that do not belong in my Zettelkasten, and happily paid for a years subscription.
An aside on a great writing app
I'd like to talk a little about Ulysses. It's been my main tool for … 4–5 years now. It's fantastic. But as I started to use Roam more, there was an inverse drop in my use of Ulysses. I use Ulysses in two ways: to start almost all of my writing that will end up somewhere else, and to store notes.
Once I started to use Roam more, the long form writing in Ulysses basically stopped. If I want to be able to take advantage of Roam's strengths, my words have to be in there, not in another tool. So I started to write drafts and store older content in Roam.
As for the other use case, Ulysses simply does not excel at being a note tool. Due to its reliance on hierarchical structure (yes, you can use tags, but it's designed to encourage the use of groups), it takes time to get to where you want. And worse, I found it's performance became worse over time on iOS or padOS.
My main use here was to refer to my short list of notes that I'd designated as Favorites. I would have things like a list of Scripture verses I'm memorizing, my goals for the year, or my wish list of items I'm interested in purchasing at some point. On iOS, it became common to open Ulysses, tap on Favorites, and only see 3 of my 10 or so notes. The app would dump the contents of my library when resources are scarce (at least, that was the team's explanation when I reached out in 2017).
That's understandable, but there is a big problem; it takes a really long time for the contents of my library to get back into Ulysses. So much so that I'd have to move on from what I was trying to do. And I would walk away frustrated with the app. Whether that's the fault of the Ulysses team, or it's due to iCloud syncing being slow, I have no idea. I do know that it contributed to my decision to use Craft instead.
Ulysses is a fantastic tool, but it now fits me less well than a combination of a focused notes tool (Carft) and a PKM tool (Roam).
End this, Bowler!
So, all those words to say, if you're considering using Roam but haven't been sure how, or what for, I hope this may help. You'll get more from it if you have a clearer sense of purpse. For me, this means:
- I journal my daily activity in Roam, not Day One (but I still use Day One for family memories)
- All Zettelkasten-type of notes are in Roam (reference notes, literature notes, and evergreen notes)
- Process and reference lists go into Craft
Have any questions? I'm more than happy to chat about this topic. At length! Just reply and ask away.
Next up: why Obsidian might be a better option than Roam for many people 😳