[LFR] Letters from a Roaman - Letter XXXXI

Happy Tuesday,

A big thanks to those who responded to my last newsletter, the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive for this new shorter, more focused format. My hope is that by alternating the focus, I can spend a little more time refining my ideas and writing while still maintaining the bi-weekly cadence.

In Letter XXXIX, I wrote about the power of simple systems, and how a block-based system gives you a lot of flexibility by thinking about the structures in layers, building the complexity only when it’s needed to support your workflows.

When you have an organised, but simple system for writing notes of any type, it means you never have to stare at a blank page again. You can pull up a template and begin laying out your thoughts.

Thinking Out Loud

Today, let's talk about the processes for doing the actual work. After all, it’s fine to have the structures to work within, but you also need to be prepared, and able to work with them effectively.

A good system is to writing and thinking as meditation is to breathing. When we are intentional about the process we use to think and write, it will aid our ability to quickly get started or pick up where we left off.

Leave yourself a trail of breadcrumbs

Many of us don’t have the luxury of hours of uninterrupted deep work. We have to take the time when it’s available, 15 to 30 minutes at a time. This means being able to jump back to where you left off, and you need a way to rebuild the context quickly to make the most of the time slot.

Henry Ford’s production line innovation may not have seemed all that ground-breaking in terms of work organisation, but, like a chef’s mise-en-place system, an organised process flow can bring enormous production benefits from even-minor seeming changes.

Ev Chapman uses a simple breadcrumb> tag to identify the next step she needs to take. In this example, she left herself a question to answer when she came back to this note.

Sidenote: Notice how Ev has used a greater-than symbol in the tag name. This is a good practice to help you easily identify that the tag is used for a specific purpose within your system. It is particularly useful when you’re using single words to denote a special meaning. I wrote more about good tagging practices on my website where I dive into this in more detail.

In this example, Ev also has a Meta block where she stores additional data and connections.

This is all a perfect example of those simple structures layered together to help Ev do her work efficiently. (FYI, if you're interested in learning more about how Ev runs her systems, she's running a cohort-based course centred around exactly this - becoming an effortless creator)

In our production line analogy, adding these tags are akin to you bolting the next piece of the car onto the chassis. You can think of the simple template structure as the starting point, and as you progress in your process, you bolt on additional tags to layer up the complexity as you create your artefacts, and use other known tags to leave a placeholder or reminder for the next person down the line (future you).

Bring your notes to where you’re working

So, how do we bring our in-progress notes to us when we’re ready to return? There are a variety of ways we can tackle it in Roam.

You can use the Kanban Board slash command to create a board where you can use the columns for the stages or way-points for your note production flow. Simply add a block reference to the relevant parent block so that you can jump straight to the note structure, review your breadcrumbs to reload the relevant context and get to work.

Or you can use the linked references for the primary parent block tag, and use the filters to look for any which have breadcrumbs.

For an automatic inbox-style system, you can use the query function. In my graph, I use [[👀 Where to Next]] (with the emoji as a visual reminder that this tag/page reference phrase is used for a specific purpose).

By nesting this tag inside anything I’m working on and want to return to later, assuming I have followed my own advice in setting up my block structure then I have several ways to return.

For example, I may start capturing a quick note in my zettelkasten when I get interrupted. Since I’ve templated the block structure of the note, I can append my [[👀 Where to Next]] tag at any level, safe in the knowledge I can quickly find it with a simple query:

An image showing the results of my query
Honestly, I didn't plan this. This is a note I haven't yet returned to, but this essay itself is helping to answer it. (I've now added block references to my essay drafts to this note)

You can see that I've also added a [[TODO]] as a further signifier that I have work to do on it which I use to distinguish between things where I need to do, vs using the [[👀 Where to Next]] tag as an identifier for "I'd really like to come back and revisit this idea sometime as time permits".

For the latter case, I'll have likely added some other links to related ideas or concepts so again I can query for distinct things.

A verbundance of ideas

If, as you work, you add in additional references or connections to existing ideas, you'll naturally be creating dense networks of ideas. I think it's a key part of creativity that ideas are everywhere, they are like a flowing stream, no, a gushing river, that are always all around us, splashing over us, every droplet of water an idea - if only we can grasp it and save it to be drunk, replenishing us with creative energy.

Verbund is a term used in the chemical industry where the byproduct of one process becomes the resource for another, and so on until you have an efficient network of production lines which are inextricably tied together. It will get to a point where no-one else can get close to your output.

Each block is a droplet, which when combined form into puddles, and then into rivulets, and gradually a stream. As you continue building on your ideas incrementally, these connections and interlinked ideas will eventually form a flood. Even as I write this, I'm exploring my zettelkasten, following my trails of thought through the block references I've made. In fact the catalyst for this essay was sparked by a note on Henry Ford and adjacent linked notes about verbundance, which gave me the insight linking the idea of a production line process with this layered approach–a perfect example of the verbundance being created through my system.

I love receiving your emails, even if I can't always reply in a timely manner. I'd love to know what you thought of this essay, and if you prefer this shorter form email. If there are particular topics you'd like me to cover in future essays, just hit reply and let me know. I read every one.

Until next time,


P.S. 💖 Thank you once again to Minh for your kind support. If you too enjoy my work and find value in the ideas I share, please consider contributing to my running costs. I accept donations via Buy Me a Coffee.

If you'd like some help or guidance for making the most of Roam in your own workflows, I offer a few private 1-1 Roam coaching sessions.

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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