[LFR] Letters from a Roaman - Letter XXVI

Happy Tuesday, Roamans,

I’ll be honest though, I've had better ones. I’ve had a headache all day, but as they say, the show must go on. As I discuss more below, I’m only able to keep writing these letters because Roam makes it so easy for me to work in increments over time. It means I don’t have to start from a blank slate and put in a big-bang effort when the publishing date rolls around.

Without further ado, please enjoy the news and resources I’ve collated over the last few weeks in the Roam ecosystem.

Around the Roaman Empire

SmartBlocks v2 launches

After 11 weeks of development, David Vargas has finished building the new version of SmartBlocks. A new standalone extension that builds and improves on the original version within Roam42.

Learn more about how to install and use it at https://roamjs.com/extensions/smartblocks

Tomorrow, September 15th, 2021 at 4pm UTC (12pm ET), David will join Ramses Oudt in a RoamStack Office Hours session to show how to use and build SmartBlocks. Register for the session via Luma.

How long are you spending in Roam?

One of the features of the new version of SmartBlocks is a store that makes it really easy to get SmartBlocks written by others and stay up to date with new versions.

Fabrice Gallet has updated his timestamps SmartBlock to work with version 2, and he’s added another nice new feature that helps you to calculate just how long you’ve spent in Roam each day!

You'll find it in the SmartBlocks store.

Block References for beginners

Eshan Khadaroo has begun producing some short, fun Roam tutorial videos for beginners. In this video, he explains block references in less than 60 seconds!

Roam Untangled - free for Roam scholars

Jamie Miles has offered free access to his Roam Untangled course for all Roamans who have been accepted as on Roam scholar scheme.

If you’re a scholar, show proof of your Roam scholar status here for free access.

If you’d like to apply for the Roam scholars scheme, you can do so here.

Fantastical CSS

If you’re a fan of the FantastiCal Mac calendar app, you might like this CSS theme from Joseph Wood. With both a light and dark theme, I love the clean colours while still letting you focus on your text.

Conor’s corner

Two videos from Conor that are worth watching if you have the time. The first is a 15-minute impromptu sketchnotes video he originally put together for onboarding new team members. In it, he explains more about the rationale and thinking behind Roam’s design and where they are trying to head.

The second video was an epic 3 hours AMA he conducted to answer questions from the Roam community. He goes into more depth about the vision he has for Roam and some of the challenges they’ve faced in the past year. Also, despite much noise about people switching away to other tools like Obsidian, he shared positive numbers, which mean that it’s unlikely that Roam is going to go away any time soon.

Roam game film

Getting a look at how others use Roam is extremely useful. I’ve been fortunate to have seen many other users graphs by doing Roam tours and coaching sessions. Still, it’s also beneficial to see how others use it in complete workflows. If you know of any other examples of Roam “game film” in the wild, please point me to them so I can share them more widely.

Norman Chella of RoamFM fame did a live stream of him Roaming on his graph on several topics.

Juan Jose Fernandez shared another Loom video, talking through his frictionless workflow, which helps him pay attention to his work over time with little effort. He also shares some great insightful nuggets along the way, as well as demonstrating an excellent use-case for Roam42’s workBench inbox feature.

And of course, there’s my own Roam Sessions video from last Saturday with Jason Griffing, where I walked through my workflow to create this very newsletter and write for my blog.

Thinking Out Loud

I thought I would dive into a few of the key insights that I built my workflows around.

Incremental Processing

The first is around the idea of incremental processing, doing just enough work to keep moving things along.

Ideas and writing take time; they need time to percolate in your brain. I don’t have the luxury of hours of uninterrupted time to sit in my chair to think and write. I want to be productive in the sessions I carve out of my schedule.

For newsletter curation, in particular, I want to inch things along through frictionless capture and chances to review before I spend significant effort or reload context into my brain. Therefore I try to write a brief summary within a day or so of capture and add additional tags to connect it to other potentially relevant notes for my future self.

Lightweight processes

For this to work well, I don’t want to remember lots of different processes or procedures. All my workflows are built on the fundamental building blocks of Roam with just enough structure to give me some guideposts.

Only remove friction from your process when you know they’re there, but the process is otherwise solid. You need to have performed the slower method several times first to be sure. I only created the shortcuts I demonstrated in the session when the friction was threatening to prevent the flow of doing the work.

I didn’t create the shortcuts instead of doing the work either. I wrote about this in Letter XXIII; make specific time to play with your tools and implement the shortcuts to reduce the friction of doing your meaningful work. Again, the tool is a means to an end, not an end in itself.

Writing to think is different from writing to communicate

One of the main reasons I use Roam is to write about topics and ideas that interest me and help me grow as a human being. It facilitates getting jumbled thoughts out of my head and in front of me where I can work with them more tangibly and more efficiently than other tools I’ve used in the past. Roam makes working with and connecting ideas to other previous thoughts far easier too. Writing to think is a fundamentally different activity than writing to communicate. Writing to think is an act of exploration, which Roam excels at.

As Conor mentions in his sketchnotes video, Roam is anti-prose and is really designed to be a facilitator in helping you to extract ideas and arguments from prose.

Writing to communicate can only come after the writing to think stage. When my drafts have the appropriate structure, ideas and arguments, I’ll export the results from Roam into other tools like Grammarly and Ulysses to finesse into a final essay.

Thought breadcrumbs

I mostly write on the daily notes page and use the nested structures within my daily notes templated sections. I write within my Thoughts & Work Log section and capture external ideas and notes under my Resonance Calendar section. Then I nest my various drafting stages under a relevant page or block reference. It’s consistent with how everything is structured in Roam, enabling easier retrieval with queries and then quickly sending the resulting blocks into the sidebar with a few clicks.

One of the reasons I think Roam is so good at facilitating this, is the ease of block referencing and following your idea trails. Embracing the block-based approach is helpful because of the ease of triangulation through time. You can build on existing ideas and thread them like a natural conversation.

I use the same idea to build on my essay ideas. As I progress through the draft stages, I’ll refer to blocks I wrote before by dragging a block reference across. Suppose I want to use it but amend the idea. In that case, I’ll use the “replace with text and alias” feature to edit it to suit the new context but retain a reference to the original idea.

Doing this with ideas from my zettelkasten also gives me another view via the reference counts showing how often I’m using or reusing the ideas I’ve thought about before.

Leaning hard into this linked block reference approach means that I often surprise myself. I’ll often use the advanced block search to search for some keywords and see what blocks come up. I can see the surrounding context – perhaps it’s contained within a fleeting notes section from my zettelkasten, then I’ll traverse the structure upward to the permanent note. From there, I’ll roam to other connections I made.

Or I’ll see that I’ve used the block before because it’s got a reference count. I’ll dive in to see where and when I used it. That often leads me to another insight or idea I’ve had which relates. Each time I encounter it, it’s another chance to refine and clarify my thinking.

As ever, if you have thoughts on this or other tools-for-thought related topics, hit reply and send me an email. I love reading them all.

Until next time,


P.S. I've been a little lax in thanking my generous supporters in recent letters so an extra big thanks to Dal, Josef, Mark, Marco, Pierre and Rita for your donations. 💕

If you enjoy these letters too and would like to help support me with the running costs, you can do so through Buy Me a Coffee. I also offer a few personal 1-1 Roam coaching sessions if you're looking for some private help and guidance with your setup.

Andy Henson

I write Letters from a Roaman, curating community news and resources primarily around Roam Research, though I also include other information applicable to other tools for thought and the area in general. I also share my thoughts on a wide variety of tools for thought topics.

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