2.2 The only five RoamResearch functions you need for building a Zettelkasten
Think of Roam like Excel. It has a low floor but a high ceiling. You can use Excel for simple things like a grocery list and create a table. Yet, some functions allow entire businesses to run off Excel sheets.
“Roam is simple but not easy,” founder Conor White Sullivan said in an interview. Unlike Notion, Roam didn’t dumb down to the lowest common denominator. Roam’s strategy is to attract people who are willing to learn using a power tool.
Once you know your way around Roam, you’ve unlocked a programming language for personal productivity and development. Here are the five key things you need to know about Roam to set up your Zettelkasten.
#1 The Daily Notes
Every time you open Roam, you will find yourself on the Daily Notes page. Think of it as your entry door whenever you want to start working with your Zettelkasten.
If you’re used to hierarchical note-taking apps such as Notion, or Evernote, missing folders might feel weird first. But you’ll soon understand how this structure accelerates your learning.
You don’t need folders to store a specific note because you link them with each other. In Luhmann’s words: “We can choose the route of thematic specialization (such as notes about governmental liability), or we can choose the route of an open organization.”
Why it’s relevant: Whenever you capture something, just type it as a bullet in your daily notes page and use tags or pages to connect it with existing notes.
#2 Formatting text
These are the three ways I use Roam to format text: ^^highlighting^^, **bolding**, and making text _italic_. Here’s how it works with shortcuts:
Why it’s relevant: You’ll use these functions when you go through your literature notes or want to highlight specific parts of your text.
#3 Creating pages (and bi-directional links)
See how you can create new pages with brackets [] and hashtags #. Both ways have the same function; they just look different. You can use either one. All pages are tags, and all tags are pages.
Note: Pages are case-sensitive. For example, [[Brain]] and [[brain]] will exist as two separate pages, the one called “Brain” and the other “brain.”
This function is networked thought in action and the reason you don’t need folders. When you create a page Roam automatically adds all related blocks from your database as references to your page.
For example, I have a page called [[quote]] where I collect my favorite quotes. This morning, I saw a quote I liked and typed it into my daily notes. I added #quote behind it. When I now click on #quote (or [[quote]]), it shows up with all the other quotes I labeled with this tag.
Plus, what makes pages even more powerful is that Roam suggests links you haven’t referenced. When I click on the “Unlinked References” on my [[quote]] page, I see potentially related bullets and can add them to my page by clicking “Link.”
Why it’s relevant: You will need pages to create your literature and permanent notes. Moreover, you’ll use them to find relevant references whenever you write or research something. Pages are the engine for bi-directional linking.
#4 Opening a sidebar
See how the sidebar opens by shift-clicking on a page. You can open as many pages on the sidebar as you like.
Why it’s relevant: This is extremely useful when you research or write. When you’re working on one article, you can open the sidebar and find all the relevant pages. You can simply pull notes from them.
#5 Using Templates
To create a template, you can use the following structure:
• TemplateName #roam/templates
• [[Template Title]]
• Your template's content
When you want to use your templates, you simply type ;; and the template name will show up. Here’s what it looks like in my workflow when creating a permanent note.
Why it’s relevant: You’ll use templates for your literature and your permanent notes. Templates save you time and make your structure consistent. I’ll share my templates with you in a bit.
There are way more things you can do with Roam, but these five functions are all you need for building your Zettelkasten in Roam.
Suppose you’re curious what else you can do type/inside your database. You’ll discover some more useful functions, such as TODOs and a Pomodoro Timer.
When you click on the question mark in the top right corner, you’ll discover more shortcuts. For future inspiration, you might want to bookmark RoamBrain’s resources. But as a start, I suggest you go with the above and ignore the rest.