Emily T. Burak
Roam Research and ADHD notetaking: cultivating the messy garden
Photo by Kreeson Naraidoo on Unsplash
Back at the end of August, I published a blog post regarding Roam Research for learning code. It is by far the most-read piece on my website, and I'd like to follow up on it with my triumphs, trials, and experiences, especially framed around a simple fact: I have really intense ADHD.
ADHD can impact executive functioning, dopamine regulation, lots of things we don't fully understand and are out of scope for this article. I'd like to instead detail my own thought process and how I work with Roam to ease some of the toil and pain of those impacts, talk about the nature of tools and ADHD for myself overall, follow up on some lofty things said in the first post, and put down in a concrete way how I am looking to use Roam moving forward. A lot of my current thinking and working around ADHD is inspired by the book ADHD Pro, which I highly recommend, and just like that book, this is not medical advice or anything of the sort, to get that out of the way.
Let me say plainly: Roam Research is a fantastic tool. It is powerful, it has changed the way I think about taking notes, it is what I have wanted since I started learning about, and thinking about, concepts such as mind mapping or even earlier in life, a fascination with memory palaces, mnemonics, and other cognitive devices to "brain hack" myself(mostly out of frustration with what were, in retrospect, brain things from ADHD.) However, I find myself very able to put down my thoughts, lots of them even, but not in an organized way. My use of Roam may differ from most people who use it, and I'd love to hear in comments or on social media(LinkedIn and Twitter) what people think of how they use Roam in comparison -- I have plenty of scattershot notes, a lot of empty backlinks, and more symptoms of my ADHD are on display in my Roam. I'm not completely down on the software, quite the opposite: Roam allows organization to grow out organically, rhizomatically one could say, especially when incorporating daily journaling recently. The "daily" there is a bit of optimism more than prosaic reality.
A snapshot of part of my personal graph regarding DevOps, mostly.
Beyond allowing organic complexity and organization to flourish, how do I use Roam? First and foremost, shortcuts are what I live by, I'll forget about other pages until I start going to the graph and backlinks from a concept when doing a "deep dive". I try to keep a few, very few, notes updated/iterated on/extended from at any given time. This avoids the overwhelming task paralysis that can come with ADHD, at least some.
I have a page for blog posts, notes on productivity/learning, a "reading inbox" to work through of interesting articles(often on Roam-related topics), and most complex would be my notes on learning DevOps as the main focus of my tech career currently. That's honestly a bit much, and deserves paring down -- there's so much to be said for the various brain hacks around atomic habits, just doing one thing(or two things or whatever arbitrary getting-the-ball-rolling amount you can manage), and more that float around in the literature of productivity/my brain/my notes on productivity and learning.
I think the most potent "one thing" I accomplish semi-regularly is daily journaling, which done correctly is an emotional valve, a place to think on the day, cultivate gratitude, and more, but also a launching pad (through backlinks) to more.
Speaking of more, I've been reading more about the Digital Gardening concepts, Second Brains, contemporary uses of Wikis(which fascinated me ever since they came onto the scene but I've never quite implemented well) they're all fascinating but lead to one question: will this work for me? Like many with ADHD, I've tried countless planners, whiteboards, Agile apps like JIRA (and I love Agile!), more, I think in the end that what works for me is what works at the moment. ADHD involves a lot of losing interest and hyperfixating in turn, and tools go by the wayside as they stop working -- which is one of the interesting things about Roam, that I've kept up with it at least nominally. One of its best uses for me as a tool is the braindump, which I include in my daily journaling as well, this blog post (shocker upcoming) originated as a braindump, and I'm not going to edit it (much) out of a respect for that technique.
There's various techniques I've used with Roam, and I'd like to following up on the previous blog's suggested techniques:
Take Notes!: "The important thing is to write, write, write what you learn and create and need to remember." I've gotten better with taking at least daily notes, due to their emotionally fulfilling nature. Writing notes on technical subjects is harder when I'm compulsively task-switching most of procrastination-filled days.
Link ideas with tags: "Maybe this is just my bias here, but adding a pop of color visually makes it so much easier to navigate a complex space of ideas and to shout out to your future self that say, something is very important or needs more investigation or whatever you may use tags for when the sky is the limit. " Honestly, I haven't been using tags much, mostly I've been caught up in note taking and not note annotating, if that makes sense. Finding a stable set of tags that will be applicable to your work and setting them up in Roam seems to be the key, and something I haven't gotten down yet.
Save snippets and commentary: "I would save especially code snippets from your formative work, gists, existing work" This came to mind while producing some images of beautiful code(well, the images were beautiful, the code wasn't) using https://carbon.now.sh/. I tend to be a very visual learner, and while reading code is joyous, reading pretty code may just be the way to fully implement this in a way that works for me.
Put it under a learning plan: "I mentioned the love-hate of Kanbans, but it's a feature growing on me in Roam. You could put your learning plan for developing as a coder in Kanban in Roam and reference across what you learn, a very powerful technique for learning management." I do have a learning plan, but it's scattershot and subject to change and stumbles to say the least. This is probably my biggest difficulty, and may be for me using the tool of Roam in a way that doesn't work for me: as a planning sort of productivity app. I have a Notion page where I've got my vague to-do list and an accompanying reward for each to-do -- reward systems sometimes work for ADHD, just as much as anything sometimes works -- instead and that's working alright for now.
Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash
Those are some of the ways I use Roam and some follow-up to the ways I suggested using it to a general audience for technological learning and productivity in my previous post. I know we all read a lot, and I appreciate you taking the time in your day that you could spend reading something else(even if it was doomscrolling social media, which is its own post with regards to ADHD and productivity...) to read this. So here I am, putting down some words that I hope will become actions on how I will use Roam in the future, to work with and around my ADHD:
I will continue to take daily notes and try to include more linking within them to kick off future work.
I will cultivate a proper graph, and fill out notes that are stubs or blanks for now, when able and when the inspiration strikes.
I'll get together those tags that work for me, because that visual impact can be very potent.
When I produce code or documentation that's meaningful, I'll make it pretty and put it on my Roam graph.
There, that's some resolutions for Roam, let me know if you have any, or if this piece sparked any thoughts of your own!