Roamkasten - a practical how to guide to optimize Zettelkasten in Roam Research

The final product of my Roamkasten self-dialogue page
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Henry

Roamkasten - a practical how to guide to optimize Zettelkasten in Roam Research

Big Idea: This article is intended to help others understand and implement my flavor of the Roamkasten PKM system.

I consume a lot of non-fiction texts and academic articles to formulate a coherent and consistent evidence-based worldview. Because I read a lot, I also forget a lot, and that makes my mental model a leaky bucket that constantly needs filling. No matter how much I pour in, most of it splashes out the bottom, so I just have to pour ever more to keep the bucket half full (at best).

If that sounds exhausting and depressing to you, then I'm right there with you. I mostly came to terms and gave up on that dynamic ever changing.  Then I found Roamkasten. 

Roamkasten is a recently coined term (kudos Joey Harris!) that refers to implementing the Zettelkasten system in Roam Research. Roam + Zettelkasten = Roamkasten. Cute, right?

Roamkasten notably changed everything in my awareness around personal knowledge management (PKM). Specifically, this system unlocks superhuman powers of cognition and consciousness:

  • 100% retention of everything I ever read
  • Rich, deep understanding of each text far beyond that of my baseline reading style
  • Contextualized rapid recall of core concepts, implications, and reference materials exactly when they are relevant to a project I'm working on or a piece I'm writing
  • Integrating evidence, ideas, and arguments into a diligently documented personal worldview
  • Developing connections between disparate domains that I'd never link with my baseline mental models
  • Actively challenging my own insights and positions by structurally mitigating cognitive biases
  • Achieving all this in a way that minimizes effort, decreases cognitive burden, releases stress and guilt, improves motivation, and positions me for greater success in any undertaking moving forward

Clearly, I'm sold.

But it took me ~8 weeks and over 100 hours of hard, focused effort trudging up the mountain before I saw the epic vistas and fully grasped the glory of the Roamkasten landscape. Once I got over the joy of summiting, I realized that there is a much simpler, shorter path to get here. D'oh!

My objective here is to save time for others by mapping my route for walking the Roamkasten path. This article is written linearly to speak to the what and why before the how, though feel free to skip sections that you already know to save time. After all, my biggest win is getting you to the top of the mountain as quickly and effortlessly as possible.

Quick note: Roamkasten in just one of a handful of PKM systems I've encountered recently. In a future article, I'll compare and contrast the others I have found, and in this write up I'm focusing on the first one that was a step function change in my cognition.

I’ll start by addressing why anyone would ever care about a Roamkasten system - to cure cognitive constipation.

Quick jumps

  • Do you have cognitive constipation? Symptoms, root cause, and the cure
  • What is Roam Research? And why is there a #RoamCult?
  • What is Zettelkasten? And why is it such a compelling PKM system?
  • Why implement Zettelkasten in Roam? What is won or lost with this implementation?
  • Mechanics, templates, and design decisions for an optimized Roamkasten
  • Elements I added on top of strict Roamkasten workflows to tailor to me
  • My outstanding Roamkasten questions and unknowns
  • Where mwe grow from here

Do you have cognitive constipation? Symptoms, root cause, and the cure

Big Idea: Who would care about a PKM system in general? Why might you care about Roamkasten specifically?

For the last 5 years, I had a nagging suspicion my reading style was suboptimal. I felt like I was consuming, but not digesting and processing, so I frequently felt cognitive constipation. Tell me if any of my symptoms resonate with your experience:

  • I would go through binge & purge cycles of reading.
  • I'd get interested in a topic, read a bunch about it, and then feel "full" like I cannot read another line. Beyond not feeling good, this sensation was hugely demotivating and limited my forward progress and intellectual growth.
  • I could not consume any more content until I "cleared" my system (read: forgot a large chunk of what I just read). Oy vey, what a waste of time! Why read at all if retention and recall drop off to near zero as I purge for the next thing I'll soon forget?
  • I could only vaguely remember core concepts and arguments made in books I read not too long ago.
  • I would look at a stack of books that I bought because they genuinely interest me and would instantly feel overwhelmed and uninspired.
  • I was reading without taking any meaningful notes which yielded a shallow level of learning, understanding, and insight.

I was reading good quality information, but not processing it in any way. Reading like this is the equivalent of a healthy literary diet with a twisted intellect gut. Even though I felt good about what I read as I was reading it (healthy meal), the material didn’t offer much nutrition, was largely unsatisfying, and ultimately malnourishing in the long run. No wonder I felt cognitive constipation so much of the time!

If any of this resonates with you, you're in good company and it's perfectly normal. I posit 3 root causes for this experience:

  1. From Pre-K through PhD (at least in the US), we are never taught how to fully digest information or take meaningful notes
  2. There are very few role models for how to actively read well (though this is changing in select rapidly growing communities)
  3. The process to actively read and take meaningful notes is not intuitive and hard to figure out in a vacuum

So the cards have not been stacked in our favor, but I'm about to put the royal flush in your hand.

To cure my cognitive constipation, I knew I had to change the fundamentals of how I digest information. Without any clarity on process, I knew my purpose was to:

  • Increase retention
  • Improve recall
  • Distill core concepts and how I can apply them to my life
  • Feel more inspired and engaged with every book + article I read

I found all that, and surprisingly much, much more, with Roamkasten. Next I'll speak to Roam (a digital tool), then Zettelkasten (a PKM framework and process), and finally how to maximize their value by using them together.

What is Roam Research? And why is there a #RoamCult?

Big Idea: Roam is a new online software with a steep learning curve that is incredibly powerful. People are rightly obsessed because it's a quantum leap in value and power from any other note taking tool I've used before.

Roam Research is a relatively young cloud-based "note taking tool for networked thought". If that means something to you, then you're lightyears ahead of where I was when I first stumbled on Roam. I did not get any of it but I was curious why so many smart people were obsessing about this new software, so back in October 2020, I jumped in to take a gander.

My first reaction was that Roam looks like a funky minimalist text editor that uses bullet points for every line. It felt unfamiliar and unintuitive from the get go, and like many new users, confusion and uncertainty were my first reactions. But trust me, it's worth pushing through the initial discomfort.

The three foundational conceptual assets of Roam are bi-directional linking, blocks + children blocks, and inline creation. We'll use each of these liberally in our Roamkasten.

Bi-directional linking

Bi-directional linking looks and feels a lot like a wiki ... with a twist. Any page or block within Roam can link to any other page or block, much like a website or wiki. But the twist is that once a link is created, it instantly points both ways. So if I link my [[Obsessive Communities]] page to the [[RoamCult]] page like so

 

then on the [[RoamCult]] page the system instantly and automatically links to the [[Obsessive Communities]] page and shows the full linked content block like so

Note: I did not include the other linked references in my screenshot, and they are to this very article because I also write in Roam, but more on that later

Even more interesting, if I mention RoamCult on the [[Kind and supportive people]] page, but do not explicitly link it, like so

then on the [[RoamCult]] page the system instantly and automatically shows the unlinked reference like so

This seems innocuous at first but becomes incredibly powerful very quickly for browsing and discovery. So much so that I now find myself wishing wikis and websites also had this function.

Blocks & children blocks

Each bullet point in Roam is called a block, and it can have an infinitely nested series of child blocks below it. Visually, a child block is indented underneath it's parent, much like a sub-bullet. For example, expanding on my [[Kind and supportive people]] page example,

To put information in a child block inherently suggests a relationship with its parent block. This could be elaboration, observation, referencing another page or block, examples, contradictions, or any other relevancy.

When I want to only see the "big picture" concepts, I can collapse children blocks to the desired level of granularity

or even up to the tippy top

This simple visual trick is tremendously helpful to not get lost in the details of a thought process, written text, project plan, argument, or anything else with child blocks.

Another nifty thing about blocks is that, if I want to only work on one specific branch of thought and reduce distraction, I can focus on that block exclusively

In doing so, I can clearly see where this block sits in the nested hierarchy (in the header section), but I don't see anything else but that one block. This enables me to stay focused and precise on what I'm working on at that moment. When I'm ready to zoom back out, I click back in the browser or click on a breadcrumb in the header section.

Again, this feature seems so simple but the depth of its power is incredible for organizing thought and facilitating focus.

Inline Creation

The third simple but super slick feature is that every time I put double brackets around a letter, word, or phrase (any string, for the developers out there) it automatically creates that page and all associated referenced and unreferenced links.

This makes the page creation process stunningly fluid and seamless. Using Roam, the pace at which I can now think and create has accelerated by an order of magnitude with this one feature alone.

An unexpected benefit of this conceptual asset is that creating pages feels very inexpensive. I can create pages willy nilly and never think twice about how many I have or maintaining them in any way. If I stumble on linking the same word or phrase again, the autosuggest feature immediately shows me that this was already linked before and, because of the bi-directional linking, with a single click I'll be able to see where it came up before. And if I link something but never stumble on it again, well then it wasn't a particularly compelling thought because it only came up once never to resurface again.

This feature empowers a gripping sense of flow state. When I am writing on a wiki or website and I want to create a new page to reference, I have to break my train of thought to pause, hit create for a new page, title it, add a URL slug, then go back and link it from the original source. And only then can I get back to writing or thinking again. In Roam, as I'm writing or note taking I simply highlight, add [[ ]] around that word or concept, and move on. Much faster, easier, and more intuitive.

Expansions and add-ons

There are many, many more awesome and thoughtful features to Roam, especially once you start adding community-built plugins like Roam42, but these three features are what really delineate Roam from any other website, wiki, or note taking tool I've ever used before.

And now that I'm a true Believer, I completely understand what it means to be a "note-taking tool for networked thought". Roam is built on a graph database, which is a technical way of saying it's a mind map on steroids. Individual nodes in the network are linked to other nodes in the network, and as the quantity of links between any two nodes grows the strength of that link becomes stronger. For all you data nerds out there, think of "Roam is to mind map" as "SQL Server (or any enterprise grade relational database) is to spreadsheet". 🤯

Turns out, our brain's neural architecture also operates like a (hyper sophisticated) graph database - we create memory nodes and then reinforce and strengthen connections through repetition and practice. I realized later that although Roam felt unintuitive at first, it actually felt more native and natural as I got versed in the mechanics.

The initial unintuitive discomfort arose because I was stepping out of the "known" paradigm of wikis, websites, and folder-based note taking apps like Evernote. The paradigm shift to graph-based thinking took me some time to grok, but once I got there I sensed a deep sigh of relief and release of tension. That's because I didn't have to force the square peg of my brain's native format (graph-based) into the circle hole of tabular and disconnected structures (folders, labels, wikis).

Oh, and I also found I wasn't losing the "edges" of my cognition that get scraped off when I forced the square through the circle. In capturing all of the square, and many times over on multiple thoughts, I'm finding that my ideas fit together much more firmly and cleanly. And I can stack them atop each other to form a very robust structure of thought (that I could never achieve before with other note taking tools).

There is something oddly relieving to have a digital tool that feels so closely aligned with how my mind already works. And I think that's part of what contributes to the incredibly vocal, prolific, and obsessive community that's grown up around Roam that lovingly calls itself RoamCult.

In the community, there is a general perception that we're at the tip of a monumental shift in how society interacts with information, and that's pretty darn exciting. For the first time in a long time (ever?), a piece of technology has fundamentally changed the way I think and create. And I'll go so far as to say Roam is also making me smarter, more organized, more productive, more integrous, more caring and thoughtful, and more handsome. OK, maybe not that last one (yet, but I have some ideas ...)

If you'd like to dig deeper into why Roam is so freaking awesome, start with Nat Eliason's piece and then scout RoamBrain's intro roundup. If you're considering Nat's Effortless Output course, it was well produced, well organized, and facilitated a huge level up in my Roam skills. Worth every penny (and then some) in my book, but you can find all the content he offers scattered across Slack, Twitter, and blog posts from various sources (if money is less available than time and you have patience to sift through the noise). 

For what it’s worth, I tried going the blog / Slack round for 3 weeks, got frustrated and annoyed, then paid for Nat’s course and today I really wish I had just saved myself the hassle up front. Nat's course quickly spun me up on best practices and the core concepts of Roam, and after a month of active futzing I was starting to see the tremendous potential, but none of that course or the reading I did addressed the root causes of my cognitive constipation.

That's when I blissfully chanced upon the Roam Book Club 2 where they were reading a book called "How to Take Smart Notes" that discusses a funky sounding Zettelkasten something or other. I'm generally skeptical of book (*ahem* intellectually shallow boozy) clubs, and I'm extra skeptical about a framing like "smart notes" (are my other notes dumb somehow?), but I was starting to drink the Roam kool aid so I originally joined to observe best practices from Roam power users. The community and power users have been awesome for sure, but I had no idea the book and its core concepts would completely steal the show for me. Simply put, my life and cognition are forever changed.

What is Zettelkasten? And why is it such a compelling PKM system?

Big Idea: Zettelkasten is a system designed to manage information flow optimized for learning, synthesizing, and publishing through the act of writing inter-connected layered notes.

So if Roam is a note taking tool, then what notes does one take? Roam founder Conor White-Sullivan has a beautiful line that Roam was built with a "low floor and high ceiling". That means you don't have to do much to get started, but you can perform unimaginable magic once you attain virtuosity. I was definitely stuck in the "don't do much" phase until the brilliant flash of serendipity that was Roam Book Club 2.

In that book club we read How to Take Smart Notes by Sönke Ahrens which covers the pros, cons, and how tos of creating a Zettelkasten information management system.

Zettelkasten was the system used by Niklas Luhmann, a prolific and influential German sociologist in the latter 20th century. The man wrote more than 70 books and more than 450 scholarly articles distilling a universal systems theory that connected a wide range of topics such as law, economy, politics, art, religion, ecology, mass media, and love. He was so successful and so well-regarded, people started studying his systems and workflows to understand his epic output.

In his book, Ahrens dissects the individual steps of the process, the value baked in to each step, and how to implement this system for non-fiction (primary academic) writers. The overarching argument of the book is that the simple process of taking smart notes facilitates learning, insight, and producing quality publications.

Ahrens also highlights the system as a conversation and accountability partner. A way to explore one's own thoughts and consciousness in a perfectly safe environment while continually edging the Zone of Proximal Development (my spin, not his).

The way Zettelkasten achieves these wonders is through an emergent web of fleeting, literature, and permanent notes. The overarching flow for the Zettelkasten process is fleeting notes -> literature notes -> permanent notes -> related notes.

Fleeting Notes

First, I read the text and take fleeting notes.

Fleeting notes are wisps of awareness that are triggered by the text. These can span the spectrum from fledgling tickles of cognition to fully formed thoughts and arguments.

The mechanics of fleeting notes depend on how you like to read and take notes. If you prefer physical books or printing out articles and papers, most folks do one of the following

  • Highlight in line
  • Write in the margins
  • Use removable sticky tabs to mark key passages
  • Write ideas with pen and paper on the side

If you prefer digital books on kindle or iPad, most folks highlight and comment directly in the file or highlight and take a screenshot.

There are notable advantages and disadvantages to both physical and digital formats that I'll discuss below in the workflow section.

To be clear, fleeting notes may or may not be related to the text proper. As long as they were triggered by the text, or while I was reading the text, they count. Either way, it's critical to notate the page and passage that triggered this thought.

Fleeting notes sometimes include phrases like "this reminds me of ..." or "concept is similar to this other idea from ..." or "The idea of ... resonates with me because of ..."

For example, here is a highlight I took from the book:

The best way to maintain the feeling of being in control is to stay in control. And to stay in control, it's better to keep your options open during the writing process rather than limit yourself to your first idea. It is in the nature of writing, especially insight-oriented writing, that questions change, the material we work with turns out to be different from the one we imagined or that new ideas emerge, which might change our whole perspective on what we do. Only if the work is set up in a way that is flexible enough to allow these small and constant adjustments can we keep our interest, motivation and work aligned which is the precondition to effortless or almost effortless work. (Page 16)

And here are the fleeting notes I took on this passage:

  • I like the visual that ideas are like butterflies or sprites that float on by. They hang out with me for just a little while, and if I don't engage them they flutter on over to the next recipient.
  • In that way, this system allows me to get the phone number of the butterfly or sprite so that, even if now isn't the right time, maybe we can hang out later when the time is right.
  • Framed in the light of "keep your options open during the writing process" it really begs the question for how to pull more bottom-up thinking into children's education
  • I really appreciate the phrase "insight-oriented writing" and the awareness that, by necessity, such writing is fluid in nature with increasing rigidity leading up to the moments right before publication.

To complete this step, I notate (write, highlight, tab, comment) every meaningful fleeting note in the book or article. I know I'm done with the fleeting note stage when I've finished the book or article and notated everything that caught my attention. 

This step is closest to how US students have been taught to read nonfiction for decades, so this step feels pretty straightforward and intuitive. Unfortunately, this is where most folks usually stop, but the Zettel train is just getting started.

Literature Notes

After fleeting notes are complete, I go back and write up my literature notes.

Literature notes are atomic concepts (meaning one idea unit per literature note) that I paraphrase with a direct reference back to the original text.

To continue the example from the passage above on page 16, here are my literature notes for that excerpt:

  • Insight-oriented writing is inherently fluid in that awareness shifts as one learns, understands, and thinks more.
  • A system that is flexible enough to allow for adjustments to realign interest, motivation, and productivity will bring us closer to flow state.

Notice how I broke out 2 literature notes for that section. I did so because each concept felt distinct so, in the spirit of atomic thoughts, I delineated the two.

It's critical for the literature note phase that I do not project myself or add any of my own thoughts or ideas onto the text. I am simply restating, in my own words, the section of text that caught my attention. 

This paraphrasing, or as Ahrens calls it "translation," is very important for facilitating deeper understanding and improved recall.

From grade school through Ivy League undergraduate, I've never done this type of "translating," so this step definitely felt awkward and clunky to me at first. By the end of working through my highlights, even as a complete newbie and beginner, the flow felt much more natural and intuitive to me. Plus, I walked away with a much deeper understanding of the text and the wisdom it offers its readers.

I know I'm done with the literature note phase when every passage I highlighted or commented on (that is worth summarizing) is transmuted into my own words.

Permanent Notes

Then, I write my permanent notes (I like to call them zettels because that sounds fun).

Zettels are declarative statements that make an assertion related to, but not bound by, the literature and fleeting notes.

Structurally, imagine a zettel as a three-legged stool - the original text, fleeting notes, and literature notes are the three legs of the stool and the zettel is what you can stand on to see further in your intellectual landscape. Later, I'll show you how to stack these zettels so you can keep climbing higher and higher in your own consciousness.

Procedurally, to create a zettel, I reread my highlight and its associated fleeting and literature notes, and then think about what that means to me.

How does this concept fit into the larger narrative that I’m developing? Does that support other thoughts I’ve had or evidence I’ve found on that topic? Does it contradict past ideas?

To round out the example above from Page 16, here is my zettel for that passage

Insight-oriented writing requires system flexibility and fluidity to keep options open and to enter flow state. Rich, interconnected insights are more likely with bottom-up idea generation.

This step was by far and away the least intuitive of the first three and the least well described in the book. I really struggled with this concept and spent the vast majority of my time stumbling through this part of the process.

The concepts of "relating" and "synthesizing" inherent to permanent notes is perhaps the weakest part of the book for me and was clarified tremendously throughout the book club. So much so that I personally break it out as a separate step and discuss it below.

This is where the Roam Book Club was so valuable for me - I could see how other people were doing zettels and I also got extensive coaching from a bright light and mind named Beau Haan. I know I’m not alone too because many folks in the book club shared that they had read the book before but didn’t “get it” until they saw how we were all doing it together.

I knew I was done with the zettel phase when every fleeting and literature note worth leveling up was diligently organized into a more overarching zettel. The extreme difficulty I felt in this step is the precise reason I wanted to do this write up to show you how it works in action (in the mechanics section below).

Organizing & Synthesizing Notes

Finally, I synthesize my zettels.

Zettels themselves are cool and all, but they do not have inherent value. Instead, as Ahrens mentioned when he visited our book club, the most important part is understanding how the zettels fit together.

This is closely aligned with the concepts of a Zettelkasten serving as an autonomous dialogue and accountability partner. By diligently thinking through how the zettels fit together, we begin to clearly see emergent patterns. Some lines of thought are really well developed and thorough, while others are riddled with gaps, inconsistencies, and contradicting evidence.

In my own implementation, which I'll elaborate on in the next section below, I have a book page for "How to Take Smart Notes" where the zettels live and then I have a Zettelkasten page (I adoringly call it Mein Zettels which means "my notes" in German) where the notes relate and synthesize.

During the book club there was a very active discussion about the nature and mechanics of relating zettels. The general consensus, and even Ahrens seemed interested in this as an addition to his current zetteling process, was that there is value to explicitly codifying the relationship between zettels. I experienced tremendous value above and beyond simply creating zettels when I did this step.

Matthew Brockwell, a gem of a man from the book club, brought up the Toulmin argument structure and I really like the simplicity and robustness of the core concepts but the labels feel clunky and unintuitive to me. Later I'll invest some time into figuring out why each word was chosen, but in the meantime I created my own shorthand so it's more fluid for my cognition. In the mechanics section below I'll speak to the exact relationships I use, what they mean to me, and show how they appear in my Mein Zettels page.

The first zettel I ever created on my book page was necessarily on a "blank page" and, in fact, I probably spent too much time writing isolated zettels without understanding their context. I now realize that every zettel after the first must be seen in relation to all other zettels that I've written. Permanent notes make no sense and are largely meaningless without the interconnected web of other notes they are somehow linked to. It's this relating that unlocks the final level of superpowers from the Zettelkasten system, and more on that below.

Mike Kramer, another brilliant mind from the book club, offered a catchy pneumonic that he came up with for his process of synthesis that he calls TRAP. Each step sequentially improves the fidelity of the note synthesis workflow.

  • Tagging - add simple high-level tags for context and resurfacing. This is useful when scanning through "categories of thought" later on.
  • Relate - can I relate this note to any other notes I've created? If so, drop them near each other (for me, in Mein Zettels) and move on.
  • Arrange - is there an order that I can put the notes in? How does the order provide clarity to the overarching synthesis of concepts?
  • Pinpoint - specify the explicit relationship between these notes. Does one note support or contradict the other? Does it speak to an assumption, underscore a gap in awareness, or posit a new line of exploration?

Mike's concepts are rock solid and hugely helpful for me, though I have to admit that I don't like the pneumonic TRAP. I care deeply about vernacular aesthetics and emotional word maps, and don't appreciate the feeling that anyone or anything is "trapped" by me. I tend to lean more to the nurture / care / growing / garden flavor of life, so in short order I'll figure out my own equivalent for Mike's process with my desired wordmap.

That said, my personal peculiar preferences in no way detract from the brilliance of what Mike offers. Specifically, his methodology offers a sort of litmus test for whether a note even qualifies as a zettel - if I can't T, R, A, or P this note in relation to anything else, it probably isn't that compelling in the grand scheme of my internal dialogue.

I know that I am complete with the synthesis phase when I have TRAPped (eek! sounds scary and uncomfortable ...) every zettel. More on what that specifically looks like for me in the next section below.

The value encoded in each Zettelkasten step

Each step of the zettelkasten process has compelling and ingenious value.

Fleeting notes feel deeply honoring and relieving to my intellectual body.

If a thought or wisp of attention crosses my mind, I write it down. In this way, I honor that every thought has value and is worth documenting in that moment. Sometimes when I go back and reread a fleeting note in the literature note phase I realize that thought wasn't so meaningful and I can peacefully throw away that fleeting note. But the fact that I took the time to write it down, and then think about it later, means that I am *always* capturing *every* meaningful thought. That is tremendously powerful for the compound interest of investing into my Zettelkasten - the more I do this, the more new terrain I'll explore in the vast and diverse landscape of my consciousness.

Once I am done with the fleeting note stage, I feel a deep sense of relief for having closed every open loop (to borrow David Allen's term) or niddly thought (to offer my own). That's it - I've written it all down. There is nothing I did not capture. I have never before felt the depth of completeness with a book like when I closed the final page after doing my last fleeting note.

Literature notes require diligent, active reading while translation facilitates understanding.

Throughout the literature note process, I was shocked at how often I would project myself onto the text. I'd write a summary note, then go back and reread the original passage, and realize that half or more of my "summary" was nowhere to be found in that passage. Ahrens writes extensively about the cognitive biases that zetteling alleviates, but this one was genuinely surprising to me. I did not realize how much I was hijacking the intellectual honesty of a text's content by overlaying my own worldview or agenda.

Practicing the skill to delineate my own declarative thoughts (zettels) from what is actually written in the book is hugely beneficial for understanding. In a number of literature notes, once I wiped clean my own overlay, I found that the text was actually pointing in a slightly different direction which unlocked new thoughts and insights. I have absolutely zero doubt that I understand the text on a much more intimate level because I took the time to paraphrase the key passages that stood out to me.

Zettels and their synthesis distill core concepts and refine insights in the context of my own worldview.

Next, taking the time to map the ideas found in the book to my own intellectual landscape feels like activating a nascent superpower. Every zettel I write is, by definition, written in the context of every other zettel I've curated from every other text I've read related to that subject. That means that disparate ideas from arenas I would have never correlated suddenly stand in stark clarity side by side. And I can immediately see if those concepts line up and support each other, or if in fact I need to further refine my awareness because I am holding two contradictory thoughts without any resolution.

This is where the concept of "dialogue partner" and "accountability partner" come into play. As Mein Zettels gets deeper in certain areas of thought, a worldview naturally emerges from the bottom-up. Inevitably, I am pleasantly (or unpleasantly) surprised by what I think on a topic, and now I am having an active conversation with myself. Can I really declare that assertion with so much confidence? Is that a fair or honest statement to make? The cool part is, if I ever want to know how I got there, I have the entire breadcrumb trail back through literature notes, fleeting notes, and original text that I can follow. As I get more dialed and refined in a certain arena, I may go back and refine some ideas with greater context from more reading.

And, to paraphrase Ahrens, when I see two contradictory ideas side by side then it's extra exciting because it means I can iron out a wrinkle in my matrix. Because the Zettelkasten constantly resurfaces information I would have otherwise forgotten exactly when it's relevant for a given thought process, it does not allow me to pick and choose the evidence that is convenient in that moment. I have to honor it all, and in doing so, I build a much more complete, coherent, and consistent perspective on any given topic. And as I gain depth in any arena, previously amorphous thoughts can begin to solidify into opinions and assertions based on an integrous, aligned methodology of diligently examining and refining every aspect of myself. 

Lastly, the act of explicitly codifying the relationship between notes elucidated very crisply how poorly my thought patterns were structured. When I tried to identify if a note explicitly supports a parent note, or is just loosely related to that parent note, what once felt like an easy logical leap now seemed like a gaping grand canyon that I wouldn't encourage the most adventurous daredevil to traverse.

Usually, when I find inconsistencies in my thought patterns it prompts some cognitive dissonance that I find annoying at best and outrageously unacceptable at worst. In the past, this has resulted in varying degrees of negative self-talk that I had to process through before I could actually turn my attention to bridging the divide.

Very curious, and surprising to me, was the experiential shift of my relationship to cognitive dissonance in Mein Zettels. Whenever I saw one of these gaping logical holes, instead of feeling annoyed or upset I was genuinely excited. I don't know the exact root cause of that shift, but I suspect it has to do with whole-heartedly trusting the Zettelkasten process. Specifically, I have zero doubt that, with diligence and care, I can fill in every single gap that I've identified. I don't know that I've ever had that much peace and confidence related to my own gaps in cognition before.

More to the point, I have two completely acceptable and parallel mechanisms to fill in those gaps: organically or intentionally. As I read more on topics of interest, and I create more and more zettels, I'll see where they fit into the larger structure and will naturally fill in gaps and flesh out anemic concepts. In this way, without ever forcing it, the gaps will organically get filled in the areas that matter most to me (and will remain gaps in domains I no longer care about). Or, if I'm ever hell bent on honing in on just the bridges, I can quickly filter down to the gaps of interest and actively seek out literature related to those holes.

And most importantly, I can simply lean into the flow of my interests and daily life and know that both paths are always there, patiently waiting for me to sit down and dip my digital quill whenever I care to devote the time and attention.

Perhaps even more interesting is that, as I was documenting these relationships between notes, I saw how incomplete my original zettels were for having been written in a vacuum. Moving forward, because all future zettels will be written in the context of what I have now, I sense an instant level up on how I think and write to explicitly and specifically relate to everything else.

Practically, that means my worldview is becoming a tightly interlaced net of mental models that can catch any concept ball and gently roll it to the appropriate place in my awareness. And were anything ever to fall through, then I simply weave in a few more zettels threads to fill the hole and viola! We are complete again and ready to play catch with any pitcher from any domain.

Even as I write these words I feel an immense sigh of relief knowing that I don't have to have all the answers now, or that not having the answers is not a subtle signal that I'm stupid / illogical / incomplete / [insert negative framing here]. Instead, it simply means that I've got a few more notes to write, which in turn means I've got a bit more literature to read - and now that's a fun and exciting process!

The Zettelkasten process is content agnostic

One overarching benefit of the zettelkasten process is that it is content agnostic and grows organically. It does not matter if today I care about architecture, spirituality, dental hygiene, bedding materials or anything else - as long as I'm taking meaningful notes the Zettelkasten will support my growth in awareness at every step of my journey.

It's also compelling that I don't have to "pick a topic" and research the crap out of it, like I’ve traditionally done for papers in university. Instead, I simply pick up whatever interests me, zettel that text, and then move on. As I get more and more texts under my belt, without ever taking a directive approach, patterns will begin to emerge on the domains and disciplines that interest me most. And I never have to force it - if I don't feel like reading about topic X for a whole year, all my zettels will be patiently waiting for me when my interest veers back in that direction. And if it never does, then there is no harm and I can peacefully continue focusing on whatever interests me most in that moment.

As a critical mass of insights arise, especially when I observe a narrative that I have not read elsewhere, it naturally becomes meaningful to distill those thoughts into a written form focused on publication. And what joy and ease to have the outline pre-baked for me! I've got the big declaratives (zettels) coupled with their evidence (literature notes) across a variety of texts complete with their relationships (synthesis). Now it's as simple as organizing the flow of the narrative and pouring in the interstitial fluid to hold it all together.

Publish or not, zetteling is a fantastic dialogue and accountability partner

I admit it - I miss the intellectual stimulation of being in a collegiate environment.

In my current social circles, it is relatively rare to dive deep into thoughtful, heavily researched and well-cited primary research conversations on marquee topics that interest me like philosophy, ecology, education, medicine, productivity, business, spirituality, diversity, architecture, musical composition, poetry and many more.

And in the rare instances that such conversations do arise, it is extra rare for someone to have the awareness or the gumption to call me out when I formulate incomplete thoughts or arguments riddled with logical fallacies and counter examples. And in the super extra rare situation that they do, there is no guarantee that I’ll be able to hear or receive it at that exact moment.

The truth is, no one will be more blunt about challenging my core beliefs than I. Better I poke holes in my own consciousness and awareness before anyone else finds them. And how meaningful to know that, were anyone kind and caring enough to question or challenge me, it is simply another gap I can diligently document and am excited to fill in with the appropriate zettel when the time is right (or write? 😉 ).

Zen and the Art of Zetteling

Because the zettelkasten is such a fully digestive exercise, when I am done zetteling a book, I feel totally complete and at peace with that book. I have extracted every possible nutrient from the text that resonates with my worldview and fed those nutrients to grow my intellectual garden. And Matthew Brockwell, much like laying that perfect green stone in you Alhambra, gardening (soil or intellect) is anything but passive!

At the end of finishing Ahren’s book, I felt a deep sense of calm and serenity that I've never felt when reading before. Having released everything from my mind into my zettelkasten, I am again an empty vessel ready to take on the next text with pristine clarity and focus. Now I look at my stack of books and articles with genuine enthusiasm and excitement - the only question becomes how I can optimize my zettel flow. The faster I zettel, the faster I can grow my intellectual forest, and that's exactly where Roam comes in.

Why implement Zettelkasten in Roam? What is won or lost with this implementation?

Big Idea: Roam, implemented wisely, can make creating, exploring, and refining a Zettelkasten substantially more efficient.

Luhmann, working before computers became prolific, built his zettelkasten on notecards with a complex system of coded cross-relations. I appreciate the value of the forced constraint of the notecard, but such a physical system would be a non-starter for me.

  1. I don't have the space in my home to house a large card filing cabinet.
  2. I find the note referencing system to be confusing, exhausting, and overwhelming.
  3. I travel often and would not be able to carry my entire zettelkasten with me everywhere I go.
  4. I type much faster than I write. Although this opens the potential of not being concise, I can practice being concise while still utilizing the orders of magnitude uptick in speed I win on a keyboard.

If I didn't know better, I'd say Roam was custom-built to be a perfect tool just for zetteling. It's not, of course, but it sure feels that way.

Bi-directional linking allows for faster navigation and exploration

The bi-directional linking means I can navigate my zettelkasten horizontally (across topics) and vertically (up and down the text -> fleeting -> literature -> zettel -> synthesis structure) with lightning speed.

Block hierarchies and block references add more relational dimensionality

Blocks, block hierarchies, and block references are a quantum leap from Luhmann's original branching and index notes because they add a third (and fourth) dimension of relation.

Luhmann had a "flat" or 2D data architecture because his cards were all stacked horizontally in his card cabinet. If he wanted to branch to another concept, he had to make a note to "link" to the other cabinet drawer, and then the cards were again stacked one behind the other. The best he could do was put one card behind another to suggest some hierarchy, but that breaks quickly if one card branches into two concepts.

In Roam, I can have a 3D (or 4D?) hierarchy, plus some spooky action at a distance with all the block referencing. Specifically, if concept A branches into supporting evidence A1 and A2 then those can be two child blocks below A. And if A1 has some contradicting evidence, I can nest that under A1. And if that evidence is related to concept D7 somewhere else, I can reference that block and always see where and how it's referenced across my zettelkasten with a simple click and glance. Then if I care to dig into the references, I'm always one click away from exactly where I need to go.

I personally don't like taking my fleeting and literature notes in Roam's daily notes section, but Beau is all about it because he likes to see the date and timestamp for when certain ideas came to him for time-based context. I don't care as much about the time graph concept for my zetteling, but the fact that this is available to those who care about that is extra cool and all it requires is a trivial change in one’s workflow. Just take notes on a day's page (instead of, as in my case, a book's page) and the zettelkasten time graph is instantly unlocked by default.

Inline creation, sidebar referencing, and (almost) limitless storage enhance flow state

Inline creation makes the process of creating and cross referencing notes at every level extremely easy. On top of that, the ability to pull up my book notes on the primary screen side-by-side with my zettelkasten "dialogue" page in the right sidebar is tremendous as I can see the big picture at the exact same time that I'm coloring in the edges with new zettels. This visual ease of access creates a much more fluid and seamless thinking, writing, and creating flow state.

Also, because storage is free and frictionless, I can actually include my source text in line with my fleeting, literature, and zettel notes. This is huge! Luhmann had to maintain a separate bookshelf of all of his primary materials and pulling the original text must have broken his flow and been a royal pain. In Roam, the original text is always just one click away.

Roam integrations create a simple and automate zettel pipeline

Procedurally, Roam's integration with Readwise means I have a simple and automated inbound pipeline of books and articles that instantly plop in my zettel inbox. Even though I prefer reading physical books, I still have a way to get everything into Roam much faster than retyping by hand.

I'll be the first to admit that Roam's "low floor" means that folks could miss a lot of these benefits by implementing a suboptimal Roamkasten. There are plenty of other softwares out there geared to the Zettelkasten method and Roam is by no stretch the end all, be all of anything. That said, by avoiding some common, and very understandable, sandpits within Roam onecan set up a really efficient, compelling, and fluid Roamkasten system.

Next I'll dive into the meat of the mechanics of how I set up and optimized my Roamkasten - take or leave whatever resonates with you.

Mechanics, templates, and design decisions for an optimized Roamkasten

Key Transmission: The way to optimize a Zettelkasten in Roam is with a series of simple, but notably powerful, workflows, conventions and design decisions.

There are 3 global steps to Roamkasten:

  1. Ingest - getting primary source materials & highlights into Roam
  2. Digest - working through fleeting -> literature -> zettel -> related notes flow
  3. Egest - organizing insights into publications and pushing back out into the world

Strictly speaking, the third step is not necessary if you never seek to publish. Even if you're not an academic, I believe there is tremendous value to putting your thoughts and insights into the public sphere, but there is no express need for that step to ever come to fruition. You'll still get all the benefits of learning, understanding, dialogue and accountability if you just focus on steps 1 and 2.

Ingest

I'm a total weirdo and I can't stand highlighting or writing in my books. So I used a series of sticky tabs and sticky notes to take my highlights and fleeting notes, respectively.

I had 4 colors of stickies that I used:

  • Green = meaningful concept that I agree with and want to convert into a literature note
  • Purple = awesome quote that I want to lift verbatim and hold on to
  • Pink = disagree with this idea
  • Orange = primary source I want to flag to review myself later

For all my tech-forward mumbo jumbo, I’m a sucker for good ol’ pen and paper. I plan on devoting a section of Mein Zettels to exploring this, and I hypothesize there is something that happens in the brain with the tactile feedback loop of physically writing with one’s hand. Or if not, then I’m just old-school and quaint, so I used a stack of smallish paper squares (old sticky notes from some random conference over a decade ago) where I wrote down my fleeting notes. When I was done, my book looked like this:

For what it's worth, the reason I don't like altering my books is that I don't want to bias myself or any future reader that I may lend the book to. I find it distracting to see other people's notes, especially when they are nonsensical to me, and I don't want to burden any future readers in that way. Plus, I love seeing a book with worn binding that I know has been well read and loved but never knowing what the readers thought about that book. Feels more free and inspiring to form my own opinions and more honoring of the author to let their work stand in isolation of my own overlay. My flavor of odd, I suppose.

Then to get my "highlights" (read: colorful tabs with Captain Planet decoder ring) into Roam I use Readwise.

The Readwise iOS app has an OCR function where I took a picture of each page with a tab and notated C (for concept, green tab), Q (for quote, purple tab), D (for disagree, pink tab), and R (for research, orange tab) in the note section and the page number. As I captured each tab, I removed the tab so by the end the book was clean again (with an audible sigh of contentment akin to finishing cleaning a messy kitchen).

I admit this was a bit clunky and took extra time. I really prefer physical books for a variety of reasons, so this may be worth it, but I also bought a Kindle to see if I could get used to that flow because it truly does save a chunk of time to highlight inline without taking pictures later. If I do choose to stick with physical books, I'll build a small jig for my iPad mini so I can speed up the picture / OCR workflow. For those who prefer ebooks on Kindle or iPad, the flow for reading, highlighting, and importing via Readwise is much more seamless.

Outside of books, Readwise has a number of other useful integrations:

  • For articles online, I use Instapaper and sync via Readwise to my Roam.
  • They also have direct integrations with hypothes.is (for annotating web pages), Twitter, Apple Books, Medium, Goodreads, Airr (for podcasts), Feedly, Web Highlighter, Pocket.
  • It’s also possible to import from direct files such as txts, csvs, pdfs, Scribd, O’Reilly Learning, and emails. 

Honestly, I haven't gotten beyond Instapaper and books myself yet, but I’m sure I will and Readwise is actively building out their platform. It has quickly become my single point of entry for all external material that I don't copy-paste directly into Roam.

Inside Readwise when you set up the export to Roam you can bake in some metadata to make things really easy downstream. The metadata I use is a very slightly modified version from Nat's Effortless Output course (seriously, it's worth the money, so pay him for his hard work putting that together and go take the course).

Author:: [[{{author}}]]

Full Title:: {{full_title}}

Recommended By:: 

Tags:: {{ "#Books" if category == "books"}}{{"#Articles" if category == "articles"}}{{"#Tweets" if category == "tweets"}}{{"#Podcasts" if category == "podcasts"}} #Inbox #[[fleeting notes]]

Import Date:: {{date}}

{% if url %}URL:: {{url}}{% endif %}
{% if image_url %}![]({{image_url}}){% endif %}

And the sample of what it looks like is:

The #Inbox and #[[fleeting notes]] cues up each import in the first column of my zettel kanban pipeline. Nifty, right?!

Since I read the physical book, I had a series of fleeting notes on sticky notes. Above my "Highlights" section on my book page, I created a "Notes" section where I typed up all my fleeting notes. I'm not convinced that every fleeting note must be bound to a given page or passage (beyond notating that something on that page triggered this thought), so I like to break out a separate section for my notes and reference back to the source material block.

I knew I was done ingesting when all of my fleeting notes and primary text highlights were in Roam. Then, it was time to digest all that material.

Digest

Once I have all my highlights in Roam on my book page, the real fun begins.

Writing up my literature notes

Once all my “highlights” and fleeting notes were fully documented in Roam, I took a few days of break to gain space and perspective. Ahrens writes about how the discrete tasks of the Zettelkasten process offer an easy place to take a break, and how valuable those breaks can be for learning and understanding. I can speak to the value of these breaks first hand through this experience.

With a fresh mind and set of eyes, I went back through each of my C or green tab highlights and parsed them into literature notes.

Each literature note by definition must reference a primary source text, so I include the page number as a linked reference back to the highlight block. I align any fleeting notes that came from that passage with the literature notes from that passage to keep things linear and tidy for back-referencing later. As I reread the highlight and drafted my literature note, I also fleshed out my fleeting notes with any other thoughts or concepts that came up on my second pass.

Once I was done, it looked like this:

The cute formatting for the literature and fleeting note tags is just CSS that was created by Beau for the Roam Book Club 2. I think it's beautiful and adds visual spice, so I ported it over to my personal Roam graph. If you like the CSS, I've pasted it in the addendum section and make sure to give Beau a big shout out (he’s active on Twitter). 

Even though I'd been through the book multiple times now ( #1 read book & tab, #2 ingest via Readwise OCR, #3 type up fleeting notes, #4 write literature notes ), somehow I was still finding more insight and more refinement of the concepts! And again, after the literature notes phase I took a day or so break to gain some space and perspective.

Distilling my zettels

Next, I sat down to write my zettels.

I reread the source text (to validate I was honestly translating my literature notes), my fleeting notes, and my literature notes, and then I thought about why I care about that passage at all.

  • Why did I notate it? 
  • Where does it fit in my worldview? 
  • What does it support or contradict? 
  • What ideas does it flesh out? 
  • Or is it a new idea altogether that offers a new branch in the ever growing forest of my consciousness?

Structurally, my Zettels are a parent block with 3 children blocks

  • Related topics - my tags for resurfacing later
  • Literature notes that support the Zettel
  • Fleeting notes related to that Zettel
  • Looks like this:

Structuring the Zettels in this format has a significant advantage for discovery and review downstream. Specifically, when I open that Zettel in the sidebar, I can see all of the supporting pieces in 1 quick glance

And when I reference that Zettel in more places, I'll quickly see every location right away.

Again, after my zettel round I took a break to gain some space and perspective. It feels FANTASTIC that I can quietly walk away from this book multiple times always to come back with greater clarity and precision in what I'm extracting.

Note: I keep referencing taking breaks, but this is neither necessary or necessarily encouraged as part of the process. I suspect that, as I get more dialed in my zettel practice, I’ll be able to collapse some of these steps into a single sitting. The point isn’t that I *must* take breaks, only that I *can* take breaks without losing any thoughts, ideas, or my sense of flow. If anything, the option to take a break if I want it (without the express mandate to take it if I don’t) provides a sense of freedom and flexibility that I deeply appreciate.

Putting together the pieces of the puzzle

Next, and to me this is the most exciting step so far, I figure out where each Zettel fits in my larger dialogue.

Because How to Take Smart Notes is the crystallization seed of Mein Zettels, I started with a blank page. Of course, that'll never be true again moving forward.

First, I thought about the big picture concepts I care about and how they show up in the book. For me, that was learning (which includes writing), awareness, and productivity. Next, for each arena, I wrote a strong declarative statement that I wish to flesh out, validate, refine, or completely refute throughout my Roamkasten dialogue.

Then, I ran through all of my zettels from my book page and dropped them into each larger branch of thought.

This step was especially interesting because when I first wrote my zettels in a vacuum I did not have a sense of how they would relate. Now, with the clarity of the hierarchy, I can start to see emerging patterns and larger narratives.

Per Beau's recommendation, I included a 1 or 2 word "thumbnail" as a tag at the beginning of each zettel. This helps underscore what's in the content of that zettel as I'm scrolling through quickly and absolutely added to the efficiency of this process for me with just 1 book in my Roamkasten. I can only imagine the exponential value of this as I start to have hundreds or thousands of zettels

Side by side with my book notes it looked like this:

After that, I went back to my book page and organized my zettels into Relevant Notes. Each Relevant Note is effectively a theme in the book.

Just to see what happened, I organized my book page's Relevant Notes independently of looking at Mein Zettels. Naturally there was some overlap, but I was somewhat surprised to see that prevalent themes in the book (like writing and systems) were subsumed into larger narratives within my dialogue (writing under learning and systems sprinkled throughout learning and productivity, respectively).

I think this is a pristine example of the value of having a centralized dialogue space as distinct from permanent notes on a book proper. Although the themes are strong enough to be called out independently from the book, the key points there serve as interstitial fluid for my intellectual body elsewhere.

After setting up the relevant notes, I dropped each of my notes where I thought it felt most natural.

To add some more connectivity, I went back through Mein Zettel and saw what zettels felt like they could be referenced within each of the larger relevant note themes and dropped them in as block refs.

Of course, because I only have 1 item in Mein Zettels for now, I was referencing other blocks from within this text. As I start feeding more and more literature into my dialogue, I'll be able to quickly and dynamically pull core ideas from other texts into the thought process for the current text. (For visual clarity, the bullets with a little golden bar on the left side are referenced blocks from other Relevant Notes).

This exercise is EXACTLY the act of resurfacing, expanding, and connecting that Ahrens writes about in his book. I absolutely walked away from this process feeling like I understood the core concepts and how they mapped to my worldview in a pristine way. And I have no doubt that I learned more, understood more deeply, and felt way more prepared to write this article (and all future articles referencing anything from this book) than I would have if I just read the book and highlighted a few sentences here and there never to look at them again.

Defining the synthesis structure of zettel relations

For the grand finale, I went back through my zettels on Mein Zettels and codified the explicit relationships between them.

I mentioned earlier that I loved the concepts but didn't like the words from Toulmin's argument structure, so here is the structure and nomenclature that I'm currently using. Each "relationship" speaks to how a child block relates to its parent. To that end, my top most block in any branch does not have any relationship (as it does not have a parent). The relationship tags I use are:

  • #[[related to]] - underscores a weak association that necessarily highlights a #gap to fill or a bridging concept to #[[flesh out]]
  • #gap - a non-zettel reference that highlights a gaping hole between the parent and child zettels. These are always framed as a question because the questions are as or more interesting than the statements.
  • #[[flesh out]] - a completely unsupported declaration (read: hunch or intuition) that I want to later build up into a zettel. These are sign posts for where I currently think this thought branch is headed, without the need to rush and explore it right now.

    Note: whenever I marked a #[[related to]] then I felt immediately compelled to acknowledge the weakness of that relationship by also writing writing my #gap and #[[flesh out]] notes. This was my way to nod to myself and say "yup, it's not complete or fully formed right now, and that's OK. When the time is right this is one way to think about filling in the holes I see right now".

    Without this acknowledgement, I felt like I was being intellectually dishonest in the synthesis flow by sweeping incongruencies under the rug. Or perhaps more accurately, I wanted to note that I see this hole right now so that I don't forget (remember 100% retention and recall?) that I see that hole at all. I'm sure as I revisit my dialogue I'll continue to add more and more #gap and #[[flesh out]] notes until I start culling them by adding the appropriate zettels (that fill the gap or flesh out the idea).
  • #[[supported by]] - identifies evidence for or an expansion upon the parent zettel. The rough intuition here is that, if in conversation I declared my parent zettel, and someone reasonably asked "how do you figure?", then I could point to any #[[supported by]] zettel and it should logically follow to speak to that question.
  • To foreshadow to the next step, the #[[supported by]] zettels are the beginnings of an outline for later publication.
  • One limitation I already see is that not all supporting evidence is created equal. There are varying degrees of strength, weight, and precision for any given unit of support, so later on I'll have to figure out how I qualify these characteristics. Perhaps more tags? Not sure, and I don't need to figure it out now, but something I'll explore more deeply in the future.
  • If, for any reason, my #[[supported by]] zettel does not feel right or fit as an answer to "how do you figure?" then I know I have to downgrade that to a #[[related to]] and write down the #gap or #[[flesh out]] to underscore where and how this zettel did not address the "how do you figure?

    Note: As I was doing this step, I would literally read through the branches and ask myself realtime if I would buy that (child zettel) comment as support for the (parent zettel) claim. Much to my surprise, the vast majority of the time my answer was no. The relationships that felt so clear and intuitive in the zetteling phase quickly disintegrated upon closer scrutiny in the synthesis phase.

    I think this "disintegration" of incomplete intuitions by shining light on overly ambitious logical leaps is one of the most brilliant and resonant aspects of this system for my PKM.
  • #[[contradicted by]] - identifies evidence against or a curtailing of the parent zettel. The rough intuition here is that a wise soul, upon hearing my parent zettel declaration, could reasonably say "yeah, but ..." and then claim the #[[contradicted by]] zettel as counter evidence.
  • Because my Roamkasten is nascent, I do not have any of these yet, but I eagerly await their presence to add counterbalance and realism to my broad claims.
  • Just as with #[[supported by]], the evidence offered here will have varying degrees of strength, weight, and precision. Whatever convention I use there should map identically here as well.
  • #flag - this is a brief procedural notation to myself that perchance I misplaced or misconstrued my own zettel within the given branch. Not sure what I'll do with these other than use them as a future filter to move things around when I feel in the mood for some zettel jenga.

That's it for what I have right now, and I intentionally want to keep the relational tagging as simple and direct as possible. Here is what it looks like in practice in Mein Zettels

Note: the "pregnant bullets" (ones with the additional halo of color) indicate that there are child blocks that are currently collapsed. To my point earlier, each and every one of the #[[related to]] zettels have #gap and/or #[[flesh out]] notes below them.

I recognize my relational framework may be overly reductive and that's by design. I wanted to start with the absolute bare minimum that I could muster and still feel complete on the first pass, and moving forward I’ll add more relations and complexity as the need arises. Some areas that I'm noodling on are:

How do I zettel a definition or a refinement of a concept that has multiple interpretations?

  • To focus on the structure of the argument presumes that I know what the words of the argument mean. But that may not be a fair assumption. It seems like sometimes I want to build a bridge between zettels that is a definition or clarifying the word map for a given word I'm using. For example, if I had a zettel that said "XYZ enhances human thriving" then what the heck does human thriving mean? And even if I knew what human thriving meant, what does it mean to enhance such a thing?
  • More over, sometimes when I look up a word or phrase I realize it has multiple definitions and I'm using the one that is 4th or 5th down on the list. If someone else were to read my logic stream, would they have the foggiest idea of what I wrote with their word map? If not, should that be notated in Mein Zettels as a child block somewhere? Looking ahead to writing and outlines, this would have the simple benefit of reminding me that it’s worth clarifying how I define a word or concept so others can key in to what I’m saying.
  • If there is importance and value here, do I need to add one or more tags to capture this subtler relationship? Haven't figured it out yet and I'll keep noodling on this one.

Where do Toulmin's "grounds" and "backing" go?

  • I sense they are related to literature and fleeting notes, but not exactly sure how. Suffice it to say that I do not think those relationships need to be codified in Mein Zettels dialogue directly outside of #[[supported by]] and its underlying primary source evidence.

Is there a place for Toulmin's "qualifiers" in Mein Zettel?

  • For now, I am content to say they are the "interstitial fluid" that I keep referencing coming up in the egest phase. But that kind of breaks if one never chooses to write for external consumption. It's still worthwhile to qualify conclusions internally, but I don't see a super graceful way to do that yet.

Where do Toulmin's "warrants" or more general assumptions go?

  • Right now I consider these captured by my #gap and #[[flesh out]] notes. Specifically, I do not want any lack of evidence anywhere in my system, so I want to design out the potential for unfounded claims. If I have an assumption or intuition, it's worthwhile to notate that, and then go figure out how to back it up. If I genuinely try and can't back it up, perhaps I should no longer consider that a valid intuition or assumption in the first place and it's time to rework my awareness in that domain.

One final comment on my tag selection is that I specifically chose words that feel fluid in a conversational tone, aligned conceptually with the idea of human-readable code. In the best case scenario, someone that is completely blind to the nuances of my architecture should be able to pick any random branch, read through it linearly, and generally get the gist of what's going on.

I knew I was done with the digest phase when every zettel was written and synthesized. It's very possible that I stop here for now until I gain the critical mass of ideas and insights to progress with writing something for external consumption. Or, if one never plans to write publicly full stop, then that person would stop here every time.

In my case, I knew I wanted to write this article so I jumped right into the last step of output.

Egest

Writing has never been my profession or my focus, and strictly speaking one doesn't need to ever write or publish to deeply cherish the value of a Roamkasten.

Even if I cared to write, I did not feel like I had anything worthwhile or of value to share. This is not negative self-talk - there is SO MUCH content being generated right now, the vast majority of which is vapid or void of incremental value, that I did not want to contribute to the proliferating pollution on the interwebs.

With bottom-up ideas, I realized that this really takes the pressure off of "knowing what to write". If some meaningful insight arises from this practice, and I know it's meaningful because I've done the research and taken meaningful notes, then I would feel confident writing and publishing. If nothing of interest arises, then so be it and I know for a fact that I should not bother with publishing half-baked concepts or ideas.

A few weeks into Roam’s book club I read [[Nat Eliason]]'s post on starting a life-changing blog and it further reinforced my desire to start a personal blog. If for no other reason than to connect with you, dear reader, that must be even remotely interested to have made it this far. 

So starting with the backbone of Roamkasten, I now feel fully confident that I am constructing a structurally sound and healthy functioning body of knowledge from which to contribute and connect. That means I have the means and motive to write for you! And this article is the very first example of that. Meta, right?

Once I have enough insights to draw upon to add something valuable to our collective consciousness, I organize my thoughts into a more linear format like this article. 

Writing in Roam for public distribution

When I first open an article page, I give it a title and drop in the following metadata

  • Target publication date (so I can work backwards on writing and editing deadlines)
  • Tags (so I can cross reference articles written in similar domains)
  • Status (for querying within Roam elsewhere)
  • Google doc (for the flatter version and formatting before porting to my site)
  • Reference materials (for quick shift-click to open references in the sidebar)

During writing, the article page in Roam looked like this:

Outline is progressively filled in from 30,000 feet down to blades of grass

In the Outline, I start by breaking out the big picture structure of the article like so

Then I flesh out each section header with a 1 sentence summary. If I can't distill the entire section to 1 sentence, then I'm not clear enough on what I'm saying or I need to break it out into multiple sections.

Once I have the outline skeleton with summaries, I go back and start adding meat to the bones. I peruse my Roamkasten notes as well as other related notes and topics sprinkled across my Roam. I usually keep my writing text in the main screen and use the sidebar on the right for all my referencing needs.

As I write, I add a litany of blocks and child blocks as thoughts arise related to my key transmission for that section. If I ever doubt where a piece is relevant for that arena, I reference back to my outline and see if I should move it elsewhere. Again a few subtle brilliances of flow state writing in Roam:

  • If I’m not sure if a block fits in the larger narrative, I make it a child block and hide it. Then I read through the section again and if it’s more fluid without that block, I drop to the cutting floor or move it to the more appropriate section.
  • If I find I need to move a block, before I commit I can simply reference that block in the new arena. Then I use the trick above inverted (show the child block to see if it adds value to the new section) and if so then I can hardcode the block there and delete the original (or drag and drop the original and delete the reference).

The sacred ground of the haloed cutting floor

I usually write over the course of multiple days and weeks, and every time I sit down to write I start by re-reading what I wrote before. Anything that seems superfluous I drop to the cutting floor section. Somehow, not deleting makes it much easier for me to feel calm slicing and dicing with a vengeance. Ahrens talks about "killing your darlings" - that's a touch violent for my flavor but I appreciate the point to remove everything that isn't necessary until only the core and necessary nuggets are left. Clearly from the length of this article, brevity is not my forte. 

I think the cutting floor works because I've convinced myself that I'm not losing anything - it's always there for me to pick back up in case I think it works somewhere else. In truth, I never touch 99% of what makes it to the cutting floor, but the concept does enable me to cut without reservation or thinking twice.

Once I have my logical backbone (the outline) and put some meat on those bones (the nested block writing in Roam) I then transfer all that to Google Docs and refine it into a flatter, more "normal" writing style that works for posting on my site. By the time my content lands in Google Docs, I'm about 90% done with the process and it's just editing, structure and refinement from there.

“Flattening” text for publishing on a website

Between Roam’s modified markdown and the bullet structure, a straight copy-paste out of Roam will yield a pretty clunky structure in any other word editing tool. To solve that problem, a few folks have created nifty conversion protocols. Most notably, Roam42 has a built in converter that outputs into a variety of formats:

In writing this article, though, I didn’t use this or any of the other conversion tools floating out there. That’s partly because I wanted to see the hierarchy of indents so that I could think through how best to flatten that into a paragraph structure in this writing phase. That’s also partly because I’m still very green to this workflow and I haven’t yet dialed how to structure my Roam writing to be organized for publications.

I suspect that as I get more experienced moving between the two mediums I’ll learn the tricks to organize Roam article pages in a way that’s simpler and easier for export. At that point, I’ll likely be very grateful for the nifty tools that strip out the [[ ]] as well as other markdown that doesn’t convert gracefully to Google Docs or web pages. Until then, I want to feel the burn of removing each bullet and markdown notation manually so I can train myself on how to write better on both sides of the divide.

A quick reflection on porting writing from Roam to Docs to a Webflow web page

Writing in Roam has been an absolute blast and has significantly magnified my breadth and depth of creation. I love the ability to drill into certain blocks, and especially to hide blocks that are currently not relevant to the given thread of thought. Interestingly, there is no such equivalent when writing in a traditional word processor or webpage, and so I am confronted with a ginormous block of text that, frankly, feels kind of intimidating. That may be a valuable visual feedback loop to be more rationed with my words, and I accept that possibility. That said, in some ways, it feels stifling to creativity in that I can always cut what’s there (love that cutting floor) but I can never recapture what is lost to the black hole of doubt and shame.

That said, and this may be a function of practice, in Docs I sensed my inner grammarian come online in a way that he was simply absent in Roam. I edited this article at least 5 times in Roam before porting to Docs, and even still on my first read through I found a litany of errors and mistakes that were hidden in the block hierarchy. Moreover, I found that certain child blocks felt perfectly natural in the context of Roam but I cut them entirely as too tangential in the flatter structure. That may be a reflection of my lack of skill in writing, true, and I also think it’s related to the “low floor” of costlessly hiding a block that doesn’t seem relevant right now (and then opening it when it does). For example, I have an easter egg in my Roam JSON of this article (see addendum) on contextual recreation of zettels related to Matt McKinlay’s observations that didn’t make the cut for this article.

Also interesting is that, because the block hierarchy implies a relationship, I found myself having to add a lot of conjunctions and joining clauses to stitch together thoughts that seemed to flow more naturally in Roam. This change in semantic syntax, coupled with bi-directional linking, creates a decidedly different experiential reality to reading texts written to the native format of Roam (like Luca Dellanna’s recent rBooks). Some have argued that this will dramatically change how we read in the future, and although I have a strong attachment to getting away from the screen and reading a physical book where I can touch the paper and ink, I am inclined to agree. I am especially interested in the opportunities that arise in the context of “choose your own adventure” textbooks for younger generations.

Overall, I can’t imagine going back to limiting myself to “flat” writing ever again. I gain too much from the native Roam format to give that up. But most people out there don’t use Roam, so even though I’ll start there, there is still value to flattening my writing for others. I believe it is a valuable step to make information accessible to non-Roamans, and moving forward, I’ll simply offer both! For every article on this website I’ll include my Roam JSON in the addendum so all you lovely Roamans can import to your graph and read it natively there. It’s 95+% the same, but you may find value in the additional content, linked pages, and other goodies I’ll hide in there.

Finally, porting from Google Docs to Webflow (what this website is built with) is relatively straightforward. As long as I flagged my headers accordingly, it’s mostly a copy-paste with a touch of cleanup to make sure it looks pretty in the web page format.

Elements I added on top of strict Roamkasten workflows to tailor to me

Big Idea: I find tremendous value in the Roamkasten method, but it felt slightly incomplete to me. I found myself craving a simple summary, action items, research triggers, and a quote collection.

It's hard for me to overstate how monumental the discovery of Roamkasten has been for me. I sense a tsunami of curiosity, drive, and ambition knowing that I now have a PKM that conclusively cures, once and for all, my cognitive constipation. I can now run hard, and think harder, with no hesitation and reservation.

And yet, when I finished zetteling the Smart Notes book I still felt something pulling on my awareness as incomplete. The pieces I found I was missing were Quick Summary, Action Items, Research Triggers, Random Thoughts, and Quote Collection.

Quick Summary

Quick Summary is just that, a few sentence summary that draws the big picture overview of what this text covers. The pull for me here is for sharing my book notes with others as well as looking back at a book page many years in the future to quickly grasp the gist.

I enjoy writing haikus, so I also include a quick summary haiku that's more abstract but captures the ethos and feel state I experience from the text.

For Ahren's book, my summary is

Action Items

Action Items are specific elements that I need to do or change in my life as a function of what I've learned

Of course, my absolute top action item was to start zetteling immediately. Mission accomplished thanks to Roam Book Club!!

The other action items are active tasks or writing ideas for the future that I throw into my task management system (also in Roam). Here is what my action items look like.
Note: I did not throw the first task into my Inbox and tag it because I'm already doing it.

Research Triggers

Research Triggers are questions that came up throughout reading the book or primary sources that I want to delve deeper into.

I tend to reference these back to the highlight that triggered this thought, whenever possible. And if it was not triggered by anything, I just drop it in rough chronological order of when that question arose within the book.

Random Thoughts

Random Thoughts are not fleeting notes, literature notes, or zettels. They may not even be related to the book at all, but they came up while I was reading the book. I want them contextualized within the book page, and I want to document them so I don't lose the concepts, but there was nowhere else to put them.

Here is what my random thoughts look like, collapsed to the top child level.

Quote Collection

Quote Collection are direct lines from the book that I can imagine repeating in future writing. These are gems that I'll want to quote again and again in the future

I'm not sure when I'll use these, but they're too good to get lost in the shuffle of my direct highlights

That's a wrap folks!

Once I had each of those sections filled out, I felt absolutely and fully complete with this book.

  • Every ounce of insight that's relevant for my larger dialogue has been extracted (notes)
  • I can easily share my book notes with others (quick summary + organization of relevant notes)
  • Beyond just thinking, I know what I'm supposed to do (action items)
  • I know where I can learn and grow from here, especially as it relates to primary research (research triggers)
  • I have arrows in my quiver for sounding smart (quote collection)
  • I have captured everything that doesn't fit anywhere else (random thoughts)

Now, I can peacefully put this book back on my shelf (or lend it to my friends and family since I keep raving about Roamkasten and they are getting curious about why I dove so deep into this system like nothing before). My overall feel state is that of an empty vessel and empty mind, fully and completely ready for whatever I choose to digest and zettel next.

My outstanding Roamkasten / PKM questions and unknowns

Big Idea: Although I've figured out a lot, and feel really good about where I'm at, there are still plenty more questions I have yet to explore.

I'm still early in the Roamkasten process and I'm sure I'll dial in both the workflow and the concepts over time. A couple of larger questions that I'm curious to explore in the future:

How do I go back and refine zettels over time?

  • As my thoughts and ideas refine, what do I do with old zettels that no longer fit? Or have been debunked? Or are mostly there, but need to be tweaked to get closer to my current concept of truth?
  • I genuinely have no idea how this will work, though I know some folks who likely do and are eager to help out in the process.

How can I make zetteling more approachable and accessible to more people?

  • I sense tremendous value for individuals that zettel in the realm of sense-making.
  • I wish for the world and all animate and inanimate things in it that more people are better at evidence-based sense-making.
  • I know I am capable of being an entry point for this system for otherwise untouched populations.
  • What is the most streamlined approach that feels most intuitive and accessible for other people to start zetteling on their own?

Given that zetteling is a quantum leap in learning and understanding, how can we adapt this process to younger audiences and incorporate it into their educational process?

  • We'll likely have some flavor of homeschool for our kids (none yet, but soon) so we have flexibility to try out new educational models with them.
  • I firmly believe zetteling has tremendous compound interest over time. If that's the case, and Luhmann only started in his 30s, what would happen if we gave a smart human a 30 year head start on Luhmann's insane productivity? I get shivers (the good kind) even thinking about it.

Is Zettelkasten restricted to written medium? How would I implement for the creative arts like music, dance, or sculpture?

  • I suspect there is a way, and I very much intend to figure it out.

What are the developmental inflection points in a Roamkasten?

  • I understand Luhmann had to reboot his Zettelkasten at least once, and was also constantly refining it on a daily basis.
  • What triggered his big reboot? Are there elements in Roam that make that much easier to stomach?
  • What other triggers will require tectonic shifts in Mein Zettels above and beyond the standard refinements over time (that I also don't yet know how to do. Ha!)

How does my version of Roamkasten compare to the other PKM systems out there?

My next post in this line of thought will be comparing and contrasting the other types of PKM systems I've heard about. Specifically, I'd like cover:

Tiago Forte's Building a Second Brain (text, graphical, and video explainers)
  • When I can get accepted to the next cohort, I very much intend to take his course. Until then, I'll chew on the plethora of literature on his website.
  • This methodology has a cult following and Tiago's been really growing his business and his impact rapidly with this product. Curious to learn more about what has resonated so deeply with folks, and how it maps to Roam specifically.
Andy Matuschak's Evergreen System
  • This is heavily referenced in #RoamCult but I haven't dug in yet.
Joel Chan's Knowledge Synthesis
  • This is where I lifted the framing and word for my synthesis step. I love the ideas here and sense a few gaps for my own non-academic flow given the express focus on academic writing.
Anne-Laure Le Cunff's work at Ness Labs
  • Not technically a PKM system as such, though I feel like she's adding a lot to the "how to think and produce well" domain that I'd like to internalize. Also, I'm tired of seeing men dominate the conversations around productivity so I'm keen to hear a different perspective.
Maggie Appleton's writings and illustrations
  • Again, not technically a PKM but her visual treatments are deeply insightful and, well, illustrative. I'd like to become more familiar with her work as I intuit there is tremendous value to flesh out gaps in my own awareness in this domain.
  • Plus, Maggie’s flavor of writing is so pleasant and enjoyable. It’s like a breath of fresh air in the productivity ecosystem.

Thankfully, none of this intimidates or scares me because, now, I have Roamkasten. If ever I have a thought or question I want to diligently explore, I know exactly how I'm going to do it and that it will yield tremendous value and unforeseeable emergent insights far in the future. Heck ya!

Where mwe grow from here

I love Dan Siegal's work and his concept of MWe. It's very apropos here because "me" couldn't have done anything in this domain without the collective "we", but it wasn't all them and it wasn't all me. It was mwe.

So that begs the question, where do mwe go (or grow) from here?

I sense a couple of really important things happening within me individually right now:

  • One root system I'd like to tap into is some version of a mind garden that will act as an entry point for me to share with, learn from, and connect to like-minded individuals. The amount of community and sheer force of intellect that I have felt from dipping a toe in the Roam and PKM communities has been very impactful and I am cautiously curious about what happens when I dive in fully.
  • Another parallel and related awareness, though not necessarily the same thing, is that PKM is very meaningful and impactful regardless of the output (if any at all). I've also already seen the step function improvement in many corners of my life in just a few short months of clunking around my own Roamkasten system. As I refine and level up to virtuosity through diligent practice, I can't imagine how much this will change my day-to-day (but I'm very excited and committed to finding out).
  • I have a series of projects that have bubbled up in my consciousness that are uniquely well-suited for a mind garden seeded in my (lightly modded) Roamkasten PKM. More on that in later posts, but a simple teaser is in order: how do I maximize and optimize evidence-based human thriving? I intend to find out.

I sense a couple of really important things happening in the collective right now:

  • The inundation of mediocre quality information and content online has become untenable to a breaking point. Many smart people are talking about ways to change the recent models of thought, learning, and content to be more aligned with meaning.
  • Most people are pretty miserable at sense-making and critical thinking. This is not a dig on anyone - instead, it's a sad and humble recognition that powerful forces (marketing departments with deep pockets, political structures, legacy mental models) are all aligned with induced apathy because it's easier to maintain profits / power / comfort if people can't think well for themselves. But the change in how we communicate, connect, learn and think online, especially in some of these PKM powerhouse communities, is staggering in its potential for change in the general populace.
  • Academic models of thought are rapidly shifting. Predatory journals are getting called out with today’s online transparency, worldwide collaboration is rapidly accelerating, citizen scientists have cracked some of academia's most entrenched problems, historical biases are being acknowledged (if not yet resolved), and we're just getting started.
  • The global pandemic has forced a lot of people to re-evaluate deeply entrenched habits, default mental modes that no longer serve, and their concept of meaning and purpose in life. Plus, for the first time in many generations, we saw what is possible when a truly global community of citizens all agree one thing (Life) is more sanct and sacred than many other things (travel, consumerist economic engines, much more). The impact on our shared spaces, professions, landscapes, and general world views has been staggering. How we integrate the lessons of 2020 will dictate the course of humanity for the next 100+ years.
  • There is an uptick in interest around researching and understanding the very nature of our consciousness. From spiritual traditions to indigenous communities to neuroscience labs to economic models to artificial intelligence and so much more - this realm of inquiry is having its heyday right now. What we learn about the unique qualities of being this je ne sais quoi presence temporarily locked in these funky meat sacks will dramatically change the course of human evolution.

Taken together, I couldn't be more excited to be alive, thinking, and contributing to the collective right now. There is an electric quality in the air where any moment now everything will change forever. Of course, it won't be quite that dramatic, unless, of course, it is ...


Addendum

Feedback loops are fun

The whole point of this article was to be helpful for you. I’d love to know if I met my objective, and the only way to know is if you tell me. Feel free to reach out to me on the Roam Slack (I hang out there often), on Twitter (I’m just getting started there, but I’m responsive), or via the contact on this website.

If you don’t know what to share, here is a seed of questions for you to reflect back to me:

  • What resonated or did not resonate with you from this article?
  • Does the logic and structure of what I hoped to transmit follow?
  • Did anything not make sense?
  • Are there any content gaps that you’d like to see filled? Something you wished you saw but didn’t?
  • Did you use this walkthrough to set up your own Roamkasten?
  • If so, how did it go?! Where was it fluid and where did you stumble?
  • Do you have any suggestions for how I can make my writing more enjoyable / accessible / comprehendible?
  • What would be helpful for you for me to develop further in future articles?

If you found value in what I offer here, please share this link with your feeds and communities. I welcome wherever this journey will take us with open arms.

A final parting thought: I have no ego in my output and offer only to serve the larger community. Feel free to rip me to shreds and it won’t hurt my feelings in the slightest. If there is even a kernel of value in any diatribe, I’ll gleefully incorporate it into my larger growth trajectory and bow in reverence for the teachings you offer me. Oh, and I have a strong filter for malice and malintent, so don’t waste your time or energy there 😇 .

CSS for Roamkasten from Beau in the Book Club

Click to download JSON for CSS


Article JSON for Roam

For the devout Roamans, here is the JSON file for my article. I personally prefer consuming this content in this format because some of my child blocks may be better left unopened, but I'll leave that up to you to decide.

Also, for what it's worth, not every child block made it into the final writeup. Some of them, though relevant, felt too tangential to include in the flatter form factor inherent to web pages. C'est la site-based vie. Curious what you think of the conversation thread re: Matt McKinlay’s question of “How much of zetteling is contextualized to when we read the book?” that I discuss in the Roam version.

Click to download JSON for Roamkasten article


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