Like many others, in the Spring of 2020, I had an excess of time on my hands. Even more-so for me because I was in my final semester as a graduate student, and my course requirement count had dropped precipitously in the wake of the pandemic. Realizing that I would feel horribly guilty if I spent all this free time watching Tiger King and Stranger Things, I enrolled in two online MIT courses and got to studying. In the mornings, I would read and study. And in the afternoons, I would browse the internet for new and interesting topics or ideas.
On one of those quarantined days, I stumbled across the book How to Take Smart Notes by Sonke Ahrens. In the book, Ahrens presents a concept called The Zettelkasten or "slip box" in German. The Zettelkasten -- or Zettlekasten -- is fundamentally, a note taking system. It was developed by Niklas Luhmann, a sociologist known for his high content output -- due in part to his ruthless adherence to the system's rules. In brief, the system is hierarchical, reminiscent of software like Evernote. But it also is flat, in that, the hierarchy is flexible and always changing as new notes are added and linked to existing notes. The Zettlekasten system traditionally leveraged pen and paper as it's medium, but has found new life in the modern age with the growth of notetaking software.
A Diagram showing an example of how the Zettlekasten method can connect ideas across and within broad concept areas
While some notetaking software tools attempted to create an exact representation of the Zettlekasten system, other tools like Obsidian and Roam Research repurposed the best ideas into a new, abstracted system. The core of this new notetaking system is bi-directional linking. In the diagram above, each node or note can be directly connected to another -- either across a concept area or even within its own concept area (e.g. 1d to 1a2). In Roam Research, a note can be created and "linked" to another very simply, recreating this same flexibility across concept hierarchies. The big step here is that with Roam's tool, the linked note automatically includes a "link" or reference to the original note. This is called bi-directional linking and it can create a massive, interlinked web of ideas and notes. The image below is my graph or web of notes. It now has 2 years of notes on books, meetings, journals, todo's, ideas, projects, and more. Each grey dot is a note and each line is a link or linkage. The more the linkages, the larger the node. And, what's cooler, is that I can click on any of those nodes and open the note itself.
An image of Rob's Second Brain
So what's the big deal? Well, for Luhmann, the linkages shown in both of these diagrams were useful in that he could almost automatically manifest research papers out of a series of linked notes. A node -- or note with many linked notes -- that became quite large, upon reaching a certain threshold, might be ripe for development into a research paper. The work put into taking notes, connecting them via general themes and concepts, made it easy when the time came to rearrange the ideas into a paper for publishing. That's likely why Luhmann was so prolific in his ability to produce new content.
For those of us that aren't social scientists or interested in writing research papers, this system is still very helpful. Built in Markdown and Clojure, Roam has added traditional project management tools like kanban boards, embedded tables and diagrams. Even more, Roam has embedded a query syntax that allows a user to query for pages based on specified tags or metadata (the search function also works pretty well).
Screenshot of a simple Kanban board from my Roam Research home page
Building a project management workflow in Roam feels seamless and fluid. A typical day starts with a quick check of the calendar and creating a new note on my "Daily Time Blocking" page. The new note consists of each hour in the day and any meetings (in the form of titled notes). Then, I query of all todo items related to my current workload (todo's that didn't have an #archived tag). Using the drag and drop feature, I can pull my todo item to my main page (either electing to bring the original todo from where ever it was created or make a copy of it that will update the original upon completion). These todo items fill out my day where I don't have meetings or appointments to attend.
A real, day-in-the-life of my Roam Research workflow
Throughout the day, I can enter my meeting notes, take my notes during the call and add any tags that came to mind. For instance, say during the call we begin discussing Snowflake as a potential avenue for the client. I can add #Snowflake as a tag and that will reference the Snowflake note. Quickly, I can click the #Snowflake bi-directional link, pull up the Snowflake note in a side-by-side view, and refresh my memory on any notes I previously took on the subject. This could similarly be done for a meeting attendee whom you may have some notes on from a previous meeting.
Example view of Roam Research with a Project Meeting note open and a side-by-side view of the Snowflake note
All of the text in this view is user created -- Roam does not come native with any templates for meetings or tools, it's what you make it
There are many applications for Roam Research and other similar tools in your project management / consulting workflow, and these are just a few. All of it, though, is built upon a structure of bi-directional linked pages, derived from Luhmann's original Zettlekasten system. With each new, connected note or idea, your notes will develop deeper meaning, and you might find that you're able to discover relationships that were previously unknown.
To answer a few questions that may pop up:
This is not a paid endorsement of Roam Research, I just really like the tool
Roam is a paid tool ($15 / month, $165 / annual or $500 / 5 years)
Obsidian, another tool linked above, does just about everything Roam does but it's free
Obsidian also has additional security benefits that Roam does not. However, Roam does include an encryption option for your entire graph database as well as line-level encryption for any privileged information.
Finally, Obsidian offers local storage for your data where Roam stores your data for you on their server.
Technology or Software, as Marc Andreessen says, is eating the world and one of the most recent delicious morsels has been notetaking systems. I love technology and I'm excited to see what unknown problems it will be able to solve for us in the future. For now, I'm thankful for discovering the Zettlekasten system and for the teams at Roam Research and Obsidian for developing these incredible tools.
By Rob Grabowski