Wonder Tools — A new way to take notes
Roam is unlike any other note-taking tool I've used. It's the best I've found.
Welcome! I’m Jeremy Caplan. Thanks for opening up my weekly 💌 post. How do you take your notes? Today I’m sharing the tool I use for note-taking.
Roam is the tool I use for all of my note-taking. I switched last year after relying on Evernote for more than a decade.
It’s not perfect — limitations are noted below— and it’s not for everyone, which is why I’ve referenced some alternatives at the bottom of this post. But for now, Roam’s the most useful note-taking platform in my toolkit.
Here are five reasons this new note-taking tool has become one of the most valuable tools I use every day.
1. Roam lets me focus right away on putting my thoughts and ideas into words, without having to think about storage structure or picking a particular notebook or file to use
Roam doesn't require me to file a note into a particular folder. Instead, I just start writing on a blank daily notes page. As I put my thoughts down, I can tag concepts, names, topics or anything else by adding brackets around any term or phrase or by adding a hashtag (#). That links whatever I’m typing to other notes that relate to those entities.
Here's an example. Let's say I have a meeting with my colleague Matt. I now use Roam to keep notes for any meeting. I start typing on my daily notes page. (Or if I’m using collaborative notes in Around.co, my video meeting app of choice, I sometimes paste notes into Roam afterwards).
In this hypothetical example, our meeting is about TPS reports. In the course of our discussion we reference a great Medium post by Pat Smith and a stat about journalism newsletters.
Along the way, I type #Matt #TPSreport #PatSmith #journalismnewsletters anywhere in the note, along with whatever other names or concepts may be relevant again in the future.
My note is then available as a reference in multiple places in my Roam account. It’s available on my #Matt note page for all things related to Matt. It’s available on my #TPSreport note page, alongside all other past references I’ve made to that subject. And it’s available on whatever other note pages I’ve tagged. When preparing for my next meeting with Matt, I can refer to my #Matt page.
When writing about journalism newsletters I refer back to my collection of notes tagged with that. And I can filter within any page for things with tag combinations. For example, if I’m trying to remember a particular article I’ve forgotten the name of, I could filter my #Matt notes page for #Medium references.
Because I don’t have to worry about where to “file” any note I take, I spend more time writing and less time filing. And I can start every note from my daily notes page because each note I make, whether a one-line thought or a long thread, ends up connected to other notes without being manually dropped into a particular place.
It's incredibly freeing to just focus on writing, not on organizational infrastructure. Having to pick a particular notebook for a certain note, as you typically do with Evernote, adds a layer of friction every time you want to put a thought down. Over time, that reduces how much you write and breaks your thoughts up from one another.
Here’s an excerpt from Nat Eliason’s great post on why he loves Roam and how he uses it:
“In Evernote, Notion, and most note taking tools, your information lives in a hierarchy. Evernote’s is based on three levels: Stacks, Notebooks, and notes. Each note lives in one notebook, which lives in one stack… In Roam, notes live nowhere and everywhere… Each note has relationships to other notes, but no note lives *inside* another note or notebook. All of the information is fluid in the sense that you flow between notes based on their relationships, not because they’re all in the same folder or hierarchy.”
2. Roam enables me to create a useful collection of notes on the people, topics, and ideas that are important to me
I have Roam pages for each of my colleagues and anyone else I talk with periodically. When I chat with them, I just add a note on my daily notes page with their name on it. It automatically gets added to my collection of notes about that person. So I can easily look back to their page to reference our prior exchanges. I’ve used this on many occasions to remember things people have told me that I otherwise might have forgotten about.
I also like using it for my morning pages — jotting down quick thoughts and journaling about my day. Shu Omi, a YouTuber I like, explains how Roam can be useful in this short video.
3. Roam takes care of organization automatically, reducing the stress of figuring out what goes where.
There is no file cabinet hierarchy. Notes are connected by whatever tags you give them. That’s one thing that makes Roam so convenient: I don't have to create all these pages. They're automatically there when I tag someone's name. And I don't have to open the page to add to it. I just hashtag their name in whatever I'm typing and that particular note gets added to their page. The same is true for quotes. If I come across a notable quote I want to remember I just add it to my daily notes with a tag on it.
If there's a teaching hack I want to try out, I jot one line about it and add the term teachinghack with a hashtag. It's automatically added to my collection of teaching hacks. Over time, Roam becomes a kind of “second-brain” in the popular current parlance of the productivity-minded. It’s a place you can return to anytime you want to reconnect to thoughts and ideas you’ve had. Here’s a detailed Reddit post about Roam as a second brain.
I don’t get paid by Roam (or any of the tools I’ve written about), or have any stake in its success. I do know Roam’s co-founder, Conor White-Sullivan. I met him in 2010 when a previous project he ran, Localocracy, won an entrepreneurial journalism prize from Poynter, where I was a teaching fellow at the time. (I actually began using Roam last year before I realized Conor was its co-founder.) When I spoke with Conor about Roam, here are a few things that caught my ear👂:
It takes 3-5 hours to get situated in Roam, so be patient at first.
“Roam is a tool for anyone whose job is thinking or making sense out of a vast amount of information”
Conor describes Roam as being like “Excel for Text” or a “Github for thoughts.”
4. Roam's atomic unit is the bullet point, rather than the document or note
That means each individual thought or line can be connected to other lines, rather than having to create a separate document or note about a particular thing. That's hugely useful, because you can write out five bullet points, for example, and connect numbers two and three with a particular idea you have for an essay, and four and five you can connect to the person who gave you that idea, without having to split the five related bullet points into multiple separate notes.
5. Roam is a great back office — Notion is nice for presenting to others
I wrote previously about how to get started with Notion, which I love using. The thing about Notion is that while it’s great for creating and sharing wikis and content-rich documents with others, it’s less handy for note-taking. It lacks the connected note structure at the core of Roam. So I use them both, for distinct purposes. Roam is for my note-taking, but it’s not an elegant way to share things. Notion is for sharing digital handouts or information collections with others.
For a quick starter-guide to making Roam work for you, I'd recommend this short video from Shu Omi, whose terrific YouTube playlist about Roam helped me learn how to use it. I just watched his 2-min videos and tried things out.
Roam limitations and alternatives
Roam isn’t for everyone.
It’s pricey. At full cost it’s $15 a month or $165 per year. Students, scholars and others who can’t afford the full fee can apply here for a Roam Scholars reduction or free usage. Anyone can try it for a month free.
There isn’t a mobile app yet. Roam works best on a desktop computer. Evernote, Apple Notes and many other note-taking tools work well on your phone. So if that’s where you take most of your notes, Roam isn’t for you.
Like other Web-based tools, Roam stores notes in the cloud. You can always download your materials from Roam to back them up, but if you’d prefer your notes to be stored exclusively on your own machine, you may prefer a software alternative that stores material on your computer’s drive.
It’s not open source. If you’d prefer an open source tool, Anne-Marie Le Cunff, a brilliant ex-Googler who I admire and follow, has a great annotated list of open-source Roam alternatives. She also has a terrific newsletter about mindful productivity that I highly recommend.
For more alternatives to Roam that enable you to connect your notes to one another in ways that traditional note-taking tools don’t, Maggie Appleton has a great collection of Roam-like tools and resources. She and others are part of a growing digital movement focused on “digital gardening,” which is all about developing your thoughts in public, sharing your notes, and connecting your ideas to those of others. She posted a splendid Twitter thread about it with lots of examples. 👇
One free tool both Le Cunff and Appleton reference, Obsidian, is worth looking at if you like the idea of connected notes but would prefer to store things on your own computer.
Shu Omi, has a nice video about some Roam alternatives as well, which offer some of the features that Roam has.