Mario Sundar's Speakeasy

Spero Ventures. Early LinkedIn, Twitter. These are my thoughts on tech, brand, marketing and community.

All Roads lead to [[Roam]] Research

Why Roam Research is the future of project management, note-taking and to-dos

  • To-do’s don’t work.
  • Project Management tools don’t work.1
  • Note taking apps do not work

But… Roam Research just might be the Swiss-Army Productivity Knife we’ve all been waiting for.

The four most beautiful words in the English language are ‘I told you so.’ – Gore Vidal

Who doesn’t love discovering a music or stand-up act before the world does 2 LinkedIn (2006), Facebook (2006), Twitter (2007), Spotify (2011), Quora (2012) have been products I fell in love with before the world did, but I think I found myself my next big obsession – [[Roam Research]] – that others might discover in the years to come.

The first draft of life. Roam Research.

A few months ago, stumbling upon a serendipitous tweet, I dove head-first into [[Roam Research]].

A few minutes of exploration later, and $15 of monthly-subscription lighter, I found myself haphazardly and confusedly creating a “root folder” in Roam Research.

Fast forward to 3 months later, I live my work and (slowly, personal life managed) on Roam Research and can’t imagine starting any work day without Roam.

This is the post I wish I had read when I got started.

Screen Shot 2021-10-24 at 8.47.10 PM

Notion is basically lipstick on a Word Doc! 3

It’s not fair to compare Roam to Notion. Or Asana. Or Todoist.

But, as a platform for connecting-the-dots of life 4, Roam somehow out-performs all of the above at their job, and more.

The problem Roam solves is vastly different from what Notion (a better designed & prettier Microsoft Office or Google Suite of productivity docs) solve, or Medium (a beautiful WYSIWYG editor for organizing thoughts), or Todoist (a robust task management app) try to accomplish, and to be honest they all fall short because of one fundamental flaw in how we work. They are all beautiful siloes.

An idea. Resilient, highly contagious. Once an idea has taken hold of the brain, it’s almost impossible to eradicate. An idea that is fully formed, fully understood.

That sticks, right in there somewhere.

[he points to his head] – Dom Cobb, Inception

There’s many a slip/s between the moment an idea/s has “taken hold of your brain” to “fully formed, fully understood.”

Enter Roam Research.

Now what does Roam do?

How do we build a platform that makes it trivial to track-download those ideas and process them effectively, without dropping them into beautiful lists of to-dos, notes, and projects?! The challenge being each of those categories of information (to-dos, notes, and projects) interact with one another, but not seamlessly and live in separate islands, including the original silo which is pen-and-paper.

Roam connects the dots between islands of ideas

Roam is a breakthrough in that it allows us to navigate each of these islands of different shapes & sizes (to-dos, notes and projects) by atomizing how each of them are built – from a checklist. Not only does Roam make it trivial to input these ideas mindfully 5 outside of their siloes (like with pen & paper, but better – onto a canvas for drawing upon them with structured data.6), and a simple suite of under-the-hood Easter eggs that pop up at just the right time to get shit done (work or life) and manipulate any idea.

Since forever, we’ve done tasks, projects and every single day, in one haphazard way: ideally, by putting pen-to-paper. Then Microsoft Office, brought the hurt to workplace “productivity,” to be followed by a lighter version — Google Docs. And more recently Notion has created a prettier version of Office (not to be outdone, MS Office ripped off Notion just this past week, to strangely rave reviews and dull re-looped critiques 7).

But, then imagine a near perfect way to capture your thoughts, process intelligence and get shit done — in the moment, through every moment of your life?! It’s almost like Anthony Bourdain describing the In’N Out burger:

Bourdain orders his burger “animal style” — a double patty with extra Thousand Island sauce and pickles. He divulged what he loves most about the burger. “This cheese-like substance is just perfect,” he said. “This is like a ballistic missile … a perfectly designed protein delivery system. – Anthony Bourdain 8

Roam is that ballistic missile perfectly designed for downloading ideas, impelled at completion. 9

What Office could not, and Notion does not; Roam does… 10

Targeted, flexible, multi-layered, Roam is “Notion meets Todoist meets Asana” with agenda, purpose and goals. 11

By shifting all your writing into a bulleted list, and giving you the ability to seamlessly vary that list, Roam reclaims your attention from the tyranny of the blank piece of paper that has writers shudder before writer’s block, and cedes immense control back to you. By also giving all that is needed back to the keyboard makes trivial what might have (until now), taken different iOS apps, desktop apps, and a moleskine notebook to accomplish; a seamless mind-meld between your thoughts and fingertips.

Imagine that, but for every idea that permeates your brain, every idea worth taking down, and because of their mutual links you can jot down and literally “connect the dots” (whether it’s tagged by date or topics, or whole sentences and paragraphs – more on that in just a second.) In the public sphere, that’s Twitter.

In the private sphere, that’s Roam. And I can’t wait to see how that might translate to the work sphere.

Microsoft Word or its online evolution Google Docs is quite literally that blank piece of paper, while both Medium and Notion have prettied things up a bit, without reinventing the original grammar of Word which has served its purpose, but it’s time for the Tesla, not a prettier horse.12

Note taking for me has shifted away from [[Google Docs]] and each time I work on [[Notion]] I realize their immense disadvantages to working seamlessly on a platform like [[Roam]]. It is impossible for any other platform for you to basically get started creating, weaving and connecting ideas without you having to hit a Command-F to File or Scroll to Search or Discover.

Here’s how Roam’s Tesla fares against all previous productivity islands.

Roam’s Swiss-Army-Knife of Five:

Roam differs from Word or Docs or Notion in its minimalist interface (no bells, no whistles, no command-F drop-down from a mouseovers and clicks) that belies the powerful mapping engine powering it, that respond to the click of your keys. (snap of your fingers allusions)

Here’s the five-step crash-course, I wish I had at my fingertips when I jumped on the Roam bandwagon, that might have speeded up my learning times exponential.

Five tools in your tool-belt that will get you humming along your Roam journey in no time. My only $0.02, don’t think twice, don’t overthink, don’t over-plan, just start typing…

1. Pick a Topic, Start a Page: Hit the [[ ]] running…

Imagine being able to create new pages on the fly, without hitting Command-F (File), Open New, and create a new document, or toggle between folders unsure of where you’ve these documents saved, but is there a better way to do this right now.

The framework of Roam Research is built on its bulleted checklists, but more importantly on its bi-directional Wikipedia-like links that can be spontaneously created with the subtle tap of [[ ]].

Whether it’s a mini-rolodex or creating groups of individuals around specific categories, words, book reviews, you name it, create a topic, launch a page, while you generate your ideas. I use it as a mini-rolodex, so I add the job title before the name, I create and tag groups of individuals (so folks who are in Sales, etc.) I even use it for all rough drafts of posts I eventually end up writing, including this very post you’re reading.

The rough draft of everything I think; I build and create on Roam Research, starts with a pair of [[ ]].

It’s interesting that V2 or V3 of every idea goes to different apps:

  • Writing: iA Writer, then WordPress
  • Projects: Emails, Docs, Notion (at times) depends on who I’m sending this to
  • To-dos: Rarely, todoist, for the most part all of my to-dos are reviewed and check-listed on Roam Research

It’s hard to explain Roam to someone who hasn’t used it before, Before I continue, I have to warn the users here, that unlike Notion or Google Docs, there is no freemium version of Roam, so be prepared to pay up-front a subscription to enjoy the benefits of Roam, but rest assured, I don’t see myself working on any other product for note taking (Google Docs), Task and Project Management (Todoist), and everything else under the sun.

Roam is as good as your bulleted checklists and topics (like Wikipedia, but imagine for your personal and work-life), and by just typing those magical [[ ]] keys yields a satisfying Pavlovian response the way that red notifications icon felt on Facebook back in the day. 13

While Google Docs, Notion and others are basically “better, faster horses,” 14, what Roam seems to do is build a new grammar of productivity from the ground up.

And, that leads to a network graph of ideas, unlike any I have seen since my days working at a social network or two. The beauty of these brackets and the chance to start off on topics, is the rich contextual data that accrues that one can see at the bottom of each page.

Over time, I’ve also found myself auto-creating a page for each day, which ties back to making Roam a productivity tool. Creating todos, is as easy as Shift-Enter that toggles through a to-do, done and none.

To me, this is where the magic begins, the 140 character magical spin on documentation itself from Roam. Take Roam for a spin, and in a few days, either the double bracket, or there’s a Chrome extension, that creates a double-bracket, when you hashtag (I know, most of you are rolling your eyes, but when you hit that Easter egg, the productivity gains are immense.

For the first time, in my life, my browser has truly become a moleskine notebook, where I don’t have to toggle between taking notes with a pen-and-paper, staring at my iMac browser screen, but it’s all on Roam, and the keys fly as fast as my mind can.

It’s liberating. And, frankly, this post doesn’t do it justice.

2. Finding a needle (word) in a haystack (block): Double Brackets (())

Now imagine losing your thoughts & ideas in paragraphs, making it more difficult to bring them back up on command, since [[topics]] don’t necessarily tell the full story, but what if you were able to bring up paragraphs or blocks on command by just opening up (()) not just the (it’s called “blocks” here), and imagine being able to at random call up each block that searches and pulls up relevant blocks that might have otherwise been lost.

Imagine a tool that basically allows you to do all of the above three seemingly incongruous goals, and blend them into a daily stream-of-consciousness (yes, seems impossible) that somehow gets things done, while allowing you time to ponder over ideas you’re mulling over (whether it’s a blog post – all of my draft V1s start on Roam) or projects you’re planning at work, events you host, I could go on.

This is basically the culmination of what I described as the fundamental issue with to-do apps. Zooming out and zooming back in to our lives is a constant battle & challenge, but I think, I’ve finally found a tool that allows me to do just that.

Now granted, some of you may be intimidated by even trying out Roam Research. The team seems to revel in the community finding itself, vs. building communities (like Notion seems to be so good at doing), so consider the next five tips and tricks, what I’ve learned in the past 3 months that I slowly Easter-egg’d my way into so you don’t have to…

This is a pretty easy way to master the fundamentals of what makes Roam Research such a powerful tool to accomplish all of the above three – note taking, to-dos and project management – and frankly, I feel like I’m just scratching the surface.

3. All Life is a Routine: Double Semi-Colons;;

All of life is a routine. Or a habit.

“Your beliefs become your thoughts,

Your thoughts become your words,

Your words become your actions,

Your actions become your habits,

Your habits become your values,

Your values become your destiny.” – Gandhi

Somehow Roam gets it, and make it trivial to harness its power.

For the life of me, I’ve tried to figure out life-management, that has taken different shapes and forms from Things to Todoist (most recently), tied to RescueTime, but they all hit upon a fundamental snag — context switching and zoom-in and out of our thoughts — what if there’s a way to go from thoughts to tasks to projects to checklists while you’re on the topic and out and in.

Let me give you an example: tasks are recursive projects that might range from a broken stove knob to a major home renovation. They also slip-and-slide priorities to projects to calendars to time itself. It’s one giant hairball that just cannot be undone, until the very framework and its various parts have been convincingly redrawn.

Every single day, pre-Roam Research, I used a different set of tools for note taking, to-dos and project management, and I must have tried a whole slew of them, and all of them failing, since they were separate islands and they never connected.

Routines have a very important place in life. To-dos, time management systems, project management can all be made more efficient through routines, and no time management app makes it easy to create-and-recall routines as Roam does, and only by being immersed in this environment and using routlines for what they’re worth might one recognize its power.

This has to be my easiest time-saver

  • Emails you send (before an event)
  • Processes and steps you need to set up (during an event, before an event)
  • Daily Top 3 tasks to accomplish
    • Ditto for the week

Just like the iPhone made text an indelible part of our lives and relegated phone calls to the merely urgent, and much like the Macintosh made typewriters irrelevant while making keyboard usage ubiquitous. Roam makes the creation and re-creation of routines and habits trivial from the get-go, what a liberating thought that is but I’ve never seen the ease with which one can create a routine, through keyboard shortcuts.15

4. Tables, Kanban, Pomodoro, on the fly: Double Curly Brackets

The last two features I’ll bring up, might seem trivial at first glance, but I bring them up as an example to showcase the power of Roam Research as a platform for productivity.

Evernote is a popular one that many swear by, I’ve personally only briefly used that app, but there are many others. For me, over the last couple of years, it came down to my favorite Moleskine notebook and pen, which truly works to highlight the day’s Top 10 and any other notes that need taken down.

But a moleskine’s advantage (focus) is betrayed by the inability to link to ideas (I know Moleskine has an app that allows to upload your note taking) a digitized moleskine but again it does not solve the fundamental problem, and something that requires specialized hardware and a subscription that I don’t plan on buying.

While creating a table on Roam Research is as easy, as


Yep, hit Enter, and it’ll guide you through how to type in the headings and the respective entry points for a table. But the beauty of Roam Research is how trivial they’ve made the idea of creating a table.

Ditto for a {{Kanban}} table. Or a {{pomo}}doro timer, in case you wish to time your writing a blog post.

5. Isn’t Research All About The Highlights: Command-H

Life needs a highlighter. What I’ve always envisioned in a modern moleskin is the ability to highlight as we go, and it’s always been impossible to do with any of the task management apps I’ve tried thus far. Just select the sentence, and hit “Command-H”

Imagine a tool that basically allows you to do all of the above three seemingly incongruous goals, and blend them into a daily stream-of-consciousness (yes, seems impossible) that somehow gets things done, while allowing you time to ponder over ideas you’re mulling over (whether it’s a blog post – all of my draft V1s start on Roam) or projects you’re planning at work, events you host, I could go on.

This is basically the culmination of what I described as the fundamental issue with to-do apps. Zooming out and zooming back in to our lives is a constant battle & challenge, but I think, I’ve finally found a tool that allows me to do just that.

Now granted, some of you may be intimidated by even trying out Roam Research. The team seems to revel in the community finding itself, vs. building communities (like Notion seems to be so good at doing), so consider the next five tips and tricks, what I’ve learned in the past 3 months that I slowly Easter-egg’d my way into so you don’t have to…

This is a pretty easy way to master the fundamentals of what makes Roam Research such a powerful tool to accomplish all of the above three – note taking, to-dos and project management – and frankly, I feel like I’m just scratching the surface.

The reason being it’s always been impossible to context switch rapidly, especially and most importantly, directly from your keyboard. So you can go from [[Topics]] to ((Blocks and Paragraphs)) to ;;Templates for Routines, and {{Kanban & Tables}} back to a single minded Focus has never been possible, and never from the comfort & luxury of your keyboard.

And the ability to have a daily Top 5 and then some, and then highlight the one you’re working on, allows you to stay focused for as long as you need.

And if you need a timer, all you need is {{timer}} at your hand. Or a {{POMO}}

See the list goes on… Regardless, like a blank sheet of paper, Roam does feel a bit intimidating when you start, and over the course of 3 months I’ve learned what I wish I had known at the start. Building an app ecosystem related to tasks might just takes this to another level.

The key to me, is taking this hyper-invested community of theirs, and move into the mainstream. This post of mine, is just a simple way to describe what has worked so effectively for me — this Swiss Army Knife of Five above.

The four saddest words in the English language, “It might have been.” – Poet John Greenleaf Whittier 16

The Promise of [[Roam]]: Roam is the iPhone to Notion’s Blackberry

Roam’s only competition is itself, and a timeline that competes against Google Docs, who might throw a wrench in the works. But, they are unlikely to move as fast as a nimble competitor like Roam.

What else can they make trivial

To me this is the power of Roam. Any thought process that one can think: topics of interest, blocks of ideas, routines and habits, have been trivialized to a point where your keyboard does the work that normally felt intuitive to pen-and-paper-and-moleskine-notebook.

Ditto for productivity, I feel if they play their cards right, Roam is a far more efficient way to get things done (GTD) than any other tool I’ve ever tried. And if it is, why wouldn’t you make it easy for teams to collaborate off of, and imo that’s exactly what its founding teams would like to do, albeit with religious fervor.

So, what can one expect from Roam Research in the future, and more specifically, what do I wish to see in its North Star.

With a switch of the keys, {{}} or should I say, double curly brackets opens up a world of features that can be summoned at a moment’s notice. Ironically, as well as they connect the various islands of thought on a blank webpage, Roam is the ideal version of Google Docs.

  1. For example: Just this past Sunday, I created a quick overview of my week’s writing with links and a quick hashtag [[time-blocks]] I have created for myself to better manage my time (both at work and in life).
  2. Imagine creating a table on the fly while you let your ideas do the typing. I’ve truly never felt more liberated than when I stumbled upon this easter egg, while planning a sequence of events for the upcoming quarter.
  3. Collaboration (I’d hope) is a simple addition to the foundation they’re building. I find it a huge hassle that I can’t easily share my writing with my peers, colleagues, at work, and I find myself and my content stuck on Roam Island. Ironic, as it may seem.

There’s just so much that Roam could be, and already is, and that can be its greatest undoing as it is its greatest strength. That blank sheet of paper, needs to be defined and communicated effectively to its legions of fans. I see Roam, the way I saw the users of LinkedIn, when I started there back in the day — 2006. Most of LinkedIn’s users were a very active cult of open-networkers (I’m not making this up), and the goal was to create a brand that transcended this core group of users to all professionals, which LinkedIn did.

Ditto for Twitter, that is the closest to the ethos & brand that Roam could emulate. Take for example, how mainstream Twitter’s hashtag and @ mention seem these days, something I’d have never imagined back in the day, when I started using it at SXSW within a core group of insular techie users!

I can’t wait to see what the team at Roam, builds next. But, I’m sure there’s no ceiling for what they can build, but the devil (is always) in the details and execution. And, I am thrilled to continue being an avid paid user of this amazing product.

Just gimme more.

  1. By some estimates, the operations economy is going to be far eclipsed by a project economy and tools to enable these projects are going to become the next Microsoft or Google in the workplace. ↩︎
  2. I remember seeing Abel Tesfaye, way before he became known as The Weeknd, and that’s how I feel about technology worthy of evangelism. ↩︎
  3. Love the allusion to a phrase that has gotten quite a few people into hot water, no pun intended, including President Obama in 2008. That said, I reiterate the absolute hot mess that is Notion, as if “’A hog in a silk waistcoat is still a hog,’ meaning, ‘Circumstances do not alter a man’s nature, nor even his manners.’” proving Charles Spurgeon right, via his 1887 compendium of proverbs, The Salt Cellars. ↩︎
  4. “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever.” – Steve Jobs. One of my favorite quotes from Steve Jobs is from his Stanford Commencement speech that can be found in its entirety here ↩︎
  5. This is vastly different from a to-do app like todoist that makes it trivial to add your ideas from any source, but sometimes constraints are good. They focus the mind on a stack-ranked list, as opposed to adding a bunch of to-dos from every source imaginable only for you to declare bankruptcy ↩︎
  6. Ironically, “Canvas” is what Microsoft Loop – their Notion clone – often calls itself when painting a new vision of office productivity ↩︎
  7. Microsoft Loop is a new Office app for the hybrid work era, via The Verge. “These collaborative Loop components have been the dream of Microsoft for the past couple of years, and it’s clear the company has been adjusting how Loop works to fit the realities of pandemic life. A central Microsoft Loop hub looks like an improved way to track and organize these components — and a clear response to the new hybrid work era to which many businesses are adjusting and competition like Notion.” by @tomwarren ↩︎
  8. Known for his brash, yet honest delivery, Bourdain sets us straight on what makes the In’N Out Burger above and beyond, the best at what it does, via Eater. ↩︎
  9. Getting Things Done (GTD) was a “work-life management system that prioritizes clarity by eliminating chaos that is our heads. Think of it as the Marie Kondo technique for your brain. ↩︎
  10. I’m going to caveat this entire post both with “I told you so,” and this has been my experience. For many MS Office might out of habit, be the norm, and for others Notion might have created an ideal community for habit, but if you were to start from scratch and define “that productivity tool” that has it all; it has to be Roam ↩︎
  11. I remember the early days of both LinkedIn & Twitter, there was no existent grammar to describe them both. They both evolved organically through stellar leadership into what they are today, but no one knew what they were, just that they were incredibly powerful tools and you knew someday they’d fulfil their potential given great parenting. Ditto for Roam; it feels difficult to describe to others, which might drive some folks away, but I hope to put a spin on it, that show folks what I see today. ↩︎
  12. I do understand that the team at Notion has built a great platform that works so well, for so many professionals, here’s an example; but again, so has Microsoft and Google. ↩︎
  13. I wrote about that red notification icon that might have been an attractive addition to Facebook on Facebook that was geared towards that dopamine hit ↩︎
  14. Yes, Henry Ford might have used a variation of the quote, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses,” but trust me all that some people want is a faster horse. Maybe some day they might consider a Model T, or a Tesla, but for the majority of folks we are selling productivity tools to, they just might want a better, faster, prettier Google Doc. ↩︎
  15. Mobile Roam: I’d so love for Roam to release an iOS app, since I can’t imagine the speed benefits of creating routines or any of the other time benefits unleashed by Roam Research. A browser is a great way to get your ideas through, but the explosive power of Roam can best be harnessed on mobile and it’s going to be a herculean task to make that switch seamlessly. Templates in Roam, via hereAlso Capiche ↩︎
  16. Via Quote Investigator: In the passage above Mancroft also referred to “the saddest words” which he linked to Bret Harte. It was true that Harte wrote a comment on this topic; however, he was reacting to an 1854 remark by the poet John Greenleaf Whittier who proclaimed that the saddest words were “It might have been”. ↩︎

Filed under: Knowledge Networks, New Products, Productivity, Productivity Tools, Roam Research, What's New in Social Media, Writing, , , , , , ,

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