I use Roam Research for many things: daily journaling, project management, and CRM.

But my primary use for Roam is knowledge management.

After 3 months, 1,500+ pages, and 300+ permanent notes, this is how I use Roam as a personal knowledge base, or digital Zettelkasten.

Steps 1-2 of the workflow are about gathering knowledge outside of Roam.
Steps 3-9 are about getting that knowledge into Roam and processing it there.
Steps 10-12 are about making all of that knowledge personal - summarizing, elaborating, and synthesizing for my own writing projects.

1. Takes Notes on Anything that’s Interesting

In addition to books and online reading (which we’ll get to on step 2), I try to stay connected to a wide variety of inputs for new and interesting ideas.

I listen to podcasts, audiobooks, lectures, and sermons. I watch YouTube channels, online courses, and documentaries. I follow interesting people on Twitter. I pay attention when I’m in conversations with people who have unique experiences, vocations, or interests.

And while I do all of this, I take notes. Sometimes, I write it in a small notebook that I carry around, but most of the time, I just use my Evernote inbox.

Since Roam doesn’t have a mobile app yet, I don’t use it for quick capture, but once the mobile app is done, I expect that I'll add these notes to the Daily Notes pages in Roam.

2. Highlight Extensively while Reading

I normally read books on Marvin 3 and blogs in Feedly. I also use Instapaper as a read later tool for processing links from blogs or newsletters.

For books that I'm not sure are worth reading all the way through, I sometimes start with a StoryShots summary.

As I read, I highlight anything that catches my attention. Since Roam automatically indexes everything that I put into it, I don't worry too much about being selective at this point.

If I like a quote, I highlight the entire paragraph. If I feel like there are multiple interesting ideas in a larger section, I don't take the time to isolate each of them in the moment. I just highlight the entire section.

I've even experimented with importing entire eBooks into Roam. In fact, there are quite a few public domain books already formatted for Roam and available through Roam Public. For example, I uploaded the Scriptures (Old and New Testaments) from Roam Public, and it only took about 10 minutes.

I also imported the entire text from a three other books. Unfortunately, I'm not aware of quick and easy way to import books from ePubs right now. I just had to copy them into Roam a few pages at a time.

If I could find a way to speed up the importing process, I would definitely consider adding more full books to Roam. Right now, it just takes too long for this to be practical option.

3. Add Source Notes to Roam

All of the notes or highlights from a source (book, podcast, etc.) get added to unique [[Source Notes]] in Roam.

For books, the highlights are copied from my eBook reader. For articles and blog posts, the highlights are usually copied from Instapaper. For other sources, I copy the notes from Evernote or my physical notebook.

Recently, I’ve been experimenting with the Roam Highlighter Extension. This tool from Daniel Wirtz lets you highlight quotes on any webpage and copy/paste those highlights directly into Roam.

I title these source notes using a basic citekey format that I borrowed from Lukas Kawerau's Cite to Write course: [AuthorLastName] + [PublicationYear] + [TitleKeyword(s)]. So "The Abolition of Man" by C.S. Lewis becomes [[Lewis1943Abolition]].

Under the title, I include the following meta data:

  • Page Link: [[Source Notes]]
  • Title: Full title and subtitle
  • Author
  • Source Type: e.g. Articles, Books, Interviews, Sermons, Podcasts, etc.
  • Topics: Main topics of the book and sub-topics that are relevant for my research, thinking, or writing (for sub-topics, I try to include the chapter, so I can easily find it later)
  • URL: link Amazon product page
  • Outline/Contents: For books, this is just the table of contents. For other sources, I create my own outline for quick reference.
  • Adversaria: interesting information about the context of the book, not the content (e.g. author, purpose for writing, biographical details, public reception, historical significance, etc.)
  • Related Resources: Study Guides, Discussion Questions, Articles or Lectures about the Book, Author interviews, Reviews, Author's Blog, etc.
  • Main Ideas: the main ideas of the book, summarized in my own words (3-5 bullet points)
  • My Review: brief and personal (1-2 paragraphs); often copied to or from my Goodreads account
  • Highlights & Notes: all the highlights (quotations) from my reading and all my personal notes (summary, interaction, questions, etc.)

I don't fill all of this information in for every source, but I fill in most of it for most books.

4. Highlight & Bold Key Ideas

Once the notes or highlights are added to a source note, I re-read them, highlighting and bolding as I go.

As part of this process, I also add tags to flag bullet points for how I want to use them later or how I want to connect them to other ideas. Currently, I use topic tags, genre tags, and knowledge type tags (more info on these later).

For tags, I use the following format: #[[Example Link]]. This allows me to get the tag style but still use spaces in the title. And since Roam treats links and tags the same (both create pages), this keeps everything consistent.

Another important part of this step is creating links for any key concepts, terms, or proper names. In Roam, just select the word or phrase and press {[[}. Rome will automatically wrap the text in double brackets.

Even if I don't immediately return to these notes for the rest of these steps, this initial, cursory processing - highlighting, bolding, tagging, and linking - is still incredibly valuable.

5. Create Literature Notes

Next, I add literature notes for each source. I used to create a new page for this step, but after taking Lukas' "Cite to Write" course, I changed my workflow. Now, I indent these notes directly under the book quotes.

It takes half the time to process book notes now, because most of my notes stay in the original context as a child block under the original quote.

I just work my way through the original quotes, adding thoughts or ideas, writing down questions that come to mind, and tagging/linking as needed.

6. Create Permanent Notes

A few days later, I return to these literature notes and decide which ideas are important for my thinking, writing, and research. Those ideas are used to create [[Permanent Notes]]. Some people call these evergreen notes.

Since I've started nesting literature notes under the quotes in the source notes, my permanent notes have become much more focused and valuable.

In Roam, each block is node in the network. These atomic blocks can be referenced, quoted, and transcluded without creating new pages for them. They're also automatically indexed, so they show up as "linked" and "unlinked" references on other pages.

Currently, about half of my 300+ permanent notes are concepts or terms. These are the pages where linked and unlinked references are especially valuable.

The other half are short propositions. I try to make sure these page titles are memorable, linked to multiple sources, and important for writing projects I'm working on.

Under the title, permanent notes are given the following meta data:

  • Page Link: [[Permanent Notes]]
  • Knowledge, Topic, and Genre Tags: (see points 7, 8, and 9 below)
  • Sources: links to sources that are key to understanding this topic or relevant for my own research
  • Related Notes: other permanent notes that are tangently related to the topic (these are the links that often create serendipitous connections later); I also link to project notes where I think these ideas might be useful
  • My Notes: my own thoughts or interactions based on my thinking and reading on this topic
  • Chrestomathy: selected quotes to aide in learning or explaining this topic
  • Questions: unanswered or unexplored questions related to this topic; also includes objections to permanent notes that are titled as propositions

The "Related Notes" links are my key takeaway from the Zettelkasten system. They create the connections that help you create thought trails through your notes and find surprising connections between ideas.

To help me identify related notes that might not be immediately obvious, I use the questions that Sönke Ahrens provides in his book, How to Take Smart Notes.

  1. How does this fact fit into my idea of …?
  2. How can this phenomenon be explained by that theory?
  3. Are these two ideas contradictory or do they complement each other?
  4. Isn’t this argument similar to that one?
  5. Haven’t I heard this before?
  6. And above all: What does x mean for y?

7. Add Knowledge Type Tags

Each Permanent Note is tagged with one of ten [[Knowledge Types]].

1. [[Idea]]

Definition: a concept that forms the starting point for a debate, argument, or (in some cases) an entire worldview.
Examples: basic belief, foundational belief, axiom, presupposition, form (Plato), Syntopicon idea, etc.

2. [[Term]]
Definition: a word or phrase used to describe a thing or to express a concept or idea, especially in a particular kind of language or branch of study.
Examples: definition, encyclopedia entry, glossary, lexicon, etc.

3. [[Proposition]]
Definition: a statement or assertion that expresses a judgment or opinion.
Examples: claim, statistic, point in doctrinal statement, fact, conclusion of an argument (inductive, decuctive, abductive, etc.), etc.

4. [[Question]]
Definition: a subject or aspect that is in dispute or open for discussion
Examples: clarification, objection, challenge, etc.

5. [[Narrative]]
Definition: a way of presenting or understanding a situation or series of events that reflects and promotes a particular point of view or set of values
Examples: biography, historical account, personal story, case study, news story, etc.

6. [[Practice]]
Definition: the actual application or use of an idea, belief, or method, as opposed to theories relating to it
Examples: practical instruction, principle, advice, strategy, exercise, habit, etc.

7. [[Symbol]]
Definition: a thing regarded as representative or symbolic of something else; often a second layer of meaning for other areas of knowledge
Examples: metaphor, liturgy, lyrics, art, analogy, illustration, parable, archetype, myth, etc.

8. [[Resource]]
Definition: a source of information or expertise
Examples: reading list, digital tool, etc.

9. [[Structure]]
Definition: something arranged in a definite pattern of organization
Examples: procedure, process, list, subject outline, visual illustration, graph, etc.

10. [[Commentary]]
Definition: a set of explanatory or critical notes on a text.
Examples: Scripture commentary, interactions between authors, book review, etc.

These tags also help when I am gathering notes on a specific topic, because I'm able to search my database for notes that fall into each of the other knowledge types.

Using a few notes from each of these knowledge types, it's remarkably easy to gather material for a blog post or essay on a specific topic.

8. Add Topic Tags

Every permanent note also gets tagged with topics that I'm interested in studying and developing.

In the Zettelkasten system, topic tags are chosen very, very selectively. I’m a little less rigid about the limits on tagging, but I still try not to add more than 3-5 tags.

First, I add at least one relevant topic tag from the Syntopicon index. Over time, I hope to create my own customized and expanded version of the Syntopicon.

Second, I add 1-2 topic tags from my own personal list, mainly philosophical and theological topics.

Lastly, I add topic tags that are connected to current areas of interest or active writing projects. For these, I don’t ask: "How should I store this note?" Instead, I ask: "How do I want to stumble upon this note in the future?"

9. Add Genre Tags

For both permanent notes and literature notes (as I mentioned earlier), I’ve recently started adding genre tags.

I don't remember where I got this idea, but I read about someone who annotated their physical books using handwritten shortcodes.

I took those examples, made a few changes, and came up with my own list:

[[1,2,3]] = numbered lists that organize the author’s ideas
[[AN]] = Anecdote, an illustration or story
[[BIO]] = Biographical reference
[[BK]] = Book, a book is mentioned
[[COM]] = Commentary, explanatory or critical notes
[[CS!]] = Controversial Statement
[[DEF]] = Definition, definition provided or needs to be looked up
[[DES]] = Description
[[DLG]] = Dialogue
[[EX]] = Exercise, habit, ritual, liturgy
[[FCT]] = Important fact or data
[[FP]] = Foundational Principle (often in Theological or Philosophical works)
[[HIST]] = Historical Reference
[[INT]] = Interview
[[LA]] = Logical Argument
[[LF]] = Logical Fallacy
[[LST]] = List
[[LYR]] = Lyric
[[MET]] = Metaphor
[[NS]] = News Story
[[PL]] = Punchline or joke
[[QS]] = Question
[[QT]] = Quotation, a quote I might like to reference later
[[REF]] = Reference, external to the source
[[RS]] = Resource
[[RV]] = Review
[[SUM]] = Summary
[[TEMP]] = Template
[[TS]] = Thesis Statement
[[VI]] = Visual Illustration

These genre tags are for blocks in permanent notes, but they're also used to tag blocks in the "Highlights & Notes" section of source notes.

I also use these shortcakes when I’m reading physical books, which helps when I’m ready to move those notes into Roam.

10. Progressively Summarize

Progressive summarization is a key step in processing reading notes. This also happens in the source notes.

I first learned about progressive summarization from Tiago Forte. If you want more info on his approach, you can check out this blog post on the topic.

My approach is essentially the same. But instead of pulling these summarizations out of their context, I keep my personal notes (again) nested under the quote. The main benefit here is that when I reference those notes in the future, I can easily scan the original quotes to get context.

Any time I return to those notes, I can add new summarizations and nest them in another bullet under the original quote. So over time, it's possible to see how my thinking has developed on those specific ideas.

11. Expand and Connect Permanent Notes

This really is where the fun begins in Roam. And here's the best part: the more you put into roam, the more fun it becomes.

After months of adding sources notes, creating literature notes, and adding links to both, I know have over 300 permanent notes. On many of these permanent note pages, I've already started to gather, organize, and remix knowledge.

But even the pages without any blocks of content, there is still hidden value, because at the bottom of every page, I can find both linked and unlinked references to that page title.

For example, I recently read about the concept of Sehnsucht (from an essay on the works of C.S. Lewis). It was interesting, so I created a permanent note with that title. Then, out of curiosity, I scrolled down to the "Unlinked References" and discovered that this idea was discussed in another book I read this year. I also saw that I had previously connected it to the idea of "Northernness" in Lewis’ fiction.

This is the kind of thing that happens all the time in Roam.

If I create a page titled [[Wisdom]], it may look blank at first. But in reality, it's already connected to every other page in my database that mentions "wisdom".

In seconds, I can view those references at the bottom of the page, copy text into the main body of the note, and start creating my own content based on that information.

12. Create Project Notes and Start Writing

For many people starting a new writing project, this last step is actually their first step. They open a new document and stare at a blank page, hoping for inspiration to strike.

But a powerful note-taking system like a digital Zettelkasten combined with a powerful tool like Roam gives you a huge headstart on your writing.

It's difficult to describe how addicting it is to research and write in this kind of environment. I'm never staring at a blank page, wondering what to write about. I'm never left struggling to find a topic to write about. I'm never without new ideas to connect to my active projects.

As Sönke Ahrens puts it in his book, How to Take Smart Notes, this kind of note taking system becomes a "dialogue partner, main idea generator, and productivity engine".

With a few clicks through my permanent notes, I can locate (and many times rediscover) ideas from my previous reading and research. And here’s the amazing part. Most of the time, these notes already include ideas that I've summarized in my own words.

Conclusion

These are the basic steps in my current workflow. I’m sure there will be changes in the future, but I can’t imagine implementing this system anywhere other than Roam.

I tried doing stuff like this in Evernote, DEVONthink, and a dozen other applications. All of them required far too much time to use consistently. And none of them felt like they worked with the way my brain gathered and processed information.

If this workflow seems helpful or interesting to you, you should really check out Roam Research, and if you want more information about the note-taking system described above, you can explore the links below.

Sources

On the Original Zettelkasten System

How One German Scholar was so Freakishly Productive
The Zettelkasten Method

On Taking Smart Notes using the Zettelkasten System

Sönke Ahrens’ Site on Taking Smart Notes
Andy Matuschak’s Summary of Taking Smart Notes
Tiago Forte’s Review of "How to Take Smart Notes"

On using Roam as a Personal Knowledge Base

Nate Eliason’s Review of Roam Research
Implementing an Idea Management System
Stop Taking Regular Notes; Use Roam Instead