An algorithm is little more than a series of steps or a set of rules used to solve a problem or produce a desired outcome.
Because we hear the word in association with computers and math, we imagine algorithms have to be mysterious or complicated — and they can be. But if you’ve ever followed a recipe (a set of rules) for baking a cake (a desired outcome), you’ve used an algorithm.
On a broader scale, algorithms govern pretty much everyone’s online experience. Google, Netflix, Spotify, YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook’s mysterious algorithms amount to a series of instructions (or a set of rules) for observing who you are, all so these services can discover what content captures your attention most, recommend similar content, keep you around longer, and earn more money from advertisers (their desired outcome).
From Algorithms to Algorithms of Thought
Algorithms of thought are a special class of algorithm designed to help people think more clearly and make better decisions. They can range from a simple sequence of pre-defined steps to complex, branching questionnaires capable of altering the questions they present based on responses entered by users.
The Cortex Futura post cites an example of an algorithm of thought: a corporate exercise called “postmortems.” (Less morbid companies call these “retros.”) A retro invites participants to review completed work, guiding their reflection with a series of questions: “What did you love about this project? What did the project lack? What did you long for during this effort? What did you learn along the way?”
@CortexFutura notes that internalizing algorithms of thought is harder than learning a physical skill. This is, in part, due to the complexity of these algorithms; it’s also due to the fact that, in addition to learning the algorithms themselves, the user must learn to spot the environmental cues that indicate when a given algorithm will be useful.
He further notes that new, more dynamic Roam Research templates, plug-ins (like Roam42), and SmartBlocks (templated text or code offering varying degrees of interactivity) make developing and sharing algorithms of thought easier. He also wonders whether whether creators will share useful new algorithms freely … or guard them jealously and charge big bucks for them, as they might do with proprietary software.
Encoding Algorithms of Thought
Whether creators give away or sell the algorithms they author, they will have to publish them in some form or another. Today, that’s likely a template.
A template is an easily-copied preset format that guides and standardizes the production of a product or process.
A dress pattern is a classic template: a form that guides the creation of a garment.
The retro session described earlier is just a meeting based on a template: four questions, always asked in the same order, to guide the evaluation of completed work and define improvements for the future.
Many people who keep journals (on paper, in Day One, or in Roam Research) use templates to guide and structure journal entries.
@CortexFutura’s Choice Algorithm, which asks the user to list options and then decisions, is itself a template.
That said: while many algorithms of thought can be packaged as templates, not all templates are algorithms of thought.
When Does a Template Become an Algorithm of Thought?
Consider the aforementioned dress pattern. Following its instructions gets you from A (a bolt of cloth) to B (a dress), but using that template doesn’t necessarily generate a change in the way you relate to the work or your world.
By contrast, consider the four-question template that is the corporate retro. Those four questions — What did you love? What did you lack? What did you long for? What did you learn? — can radically redefine the way you think about everything from a project’s workflow to the workflows used in all future projects.
More importantly, using the retro template shifts people out of a habitual, ingrained behavior (getting mired in complaints and stuck in the blame game) and into a mindset of process improvement. As retros become habitual, participants internalize this mindset, and defensiveness and aggression give way to objectivity and collaboration.
After leaning to lead retros for my own organization, I began to see how this approach could improve unrelated areas of my life. What could I learn by retro-ing my last attempt at writing a novel? The dietary changes I implemented this year? My exercise program? My meditation routine? My relationship?
And there, just like that: a simple four-question template blossomed into a true algorithm of thought — a structure with potential to help me think more clearly, make better decisions, and see my world from a different perspective.
Great Algorithms of Thought I Have Known
SONKE AHRENS: HOW TO TAKE SMART NOTES
Anyone reading Roam Research-related posts has already heard of (and likely read) Ahrens’s masterwork on taking better notes. In it, he outlines Niklas Luhmann’s Zettelkasten system, which favors creating networks of linked, re-contextualized ideas over the filing away of discrete, isolated notes.
While the method in Ahrens’s book is not outlined as explicitly as I would have liked (he describes his process, but never really provides a template for it), the method he recommends for taking and filing notes has the potential to radically redefine the user’s ideas about what note taking is and how it should be done.
Once integrated into my consciousness, this approach — noting information in context and seeking connections and relationships between disparate facts — insinuated itself into the way I see the world. As a result of reading his book, I am more aware than ever that, instead of discrete data points, the world consists of a vast and interconnected web of ideas.
Reading Ahrens’s book changed the way I take notes and write longer posts … but it also changed my perceptions in ways that alter my thoughts and behaviors. Zettelkasten is an algorithm of thought; Ahrens’s book is one means of sharing that algorithm with others.
CHRIS HUNTLEY AND MELANIE ANNE PHILLIPS: DRAMATICA
There is a chance that filling out these templates will alter the way one thinks about writing fiction. But in my experience, when the novelty (no pun intended) of the app wears off, engagement with the app rapidly declines. These apps are more pure templates than algorithms of thought.
By contrast, Dramatica theory and the associated software, both conceived in the 1990’s, present authors with a a fractal model of story that twists, turns, and rearranges itself based on story details the writer provides. Users can approach the model from any number of perspectives, entering information about characters, plot, or theme; the model adapts itself accordingly, narrowing down options until a single “storyform” emerges.
Whether you agree or disagree with the philosophy behind Dramatica’s “StoryMind” model, I can affirm that studying this theory (and reading the book and using the software) radically altered the way I think about stories … and movies … and musical compositions … and religion … and politics … and problem solving. (Its authors believe that the theory reflects the underlying nature of the universe itself.) It’s become a part of me, of how I see my work and my world: a true algorithm of thought if there ever was one.
Author’s Note: If you’re interested in Dramatica, the online version of the theory book is a good place to start. Because of its complexity, though, putting the theory fully into practice requires the software … and tragically, the 1990’s-era app (always a bit clunky and utilitarian at best) won’t even run on modern PC’s. Before you invest $119.00 in the app, I recommend you wait until new versions (“coming soon” for the last two years) are released.
I’ve written books on both Tarot and the I-Ching — systems of divination with the potential to help users see their problems from broader perspectives.
Once you set aside the cliche of the storefront fortune-telling scam artist, you’ll discover that Tarot and the I-Ching offer readings (templates of a sort) that guide the user to consider her question from radically different perspectives, based on meanings assigned to randomly-selected cards or hexagrams. Reflecting on how this random input could relate to the problem at hand produces surprising insights, which, in turn, can lead to ideas for action the user might never have imagined on her own.
As one becomes familiar with the cards of the Tarot deck and, to an even greater extent, the hexagrams and meditative passages in the I-Ching, one begins to notice symbols and synchronicities in the patterns of everyday life. Using the tools gives rise to a mindset, and that mindset impacts the way you solve problems and navigate the world.
Both Tarot (centuries old) and the I-Ching (thousands of years old) amount to templates that encode complex algorithms of thought.
BYRON KATIE: THE WORK
Love it or hate it, Byron Katie’s The Work (as outlined in the book, Loving What Is) is a simple four-question template guiding us to rethink assumptions about our most emotionally-charged experiences. Users choose an aspect of life that blocks, stresses, or upsets them … work their way through the four questions … and recast the experience in a healthier, more objective way.
The process is remarkably freeing; Byron Katie asserts it puts us in touch with reality. I’ve gone through it myself and achieved what I can, without any irony, call life-changing results. And again, once The Work becomes a part of you, this algorithm of thought influences your perceptions in surprising and persistent ways.
So: Have True Algorithms of Thought Finally Arrived?
From my perspective, algorithms of thought been around for centuries, encoded as meditative practices, rituals, scriptures, divinatory practices, theory manuals, apps, and workshops. One might even argue that certain compounds (DMT, LSD, psilocybin), given their ability to catalyze shifts in consciousness that, in turn, lead to durable, life-changing perceptions of the self and its place in the world, are algorithms of thought in chemical form.
Given this, perhaps it’s more accurate to say a number of new tools for encoding and sharing algorithms of thought have arrived — with Roam Research the leader among them — and that these tools are simultaneously becoming more approachable and more sophisticated. This is, without a doubt, grounds for optimism and excitement.
It’s also exciting to think about how creators will use these new tools to share their own algorithms of thought — as plug-ins, or templates, or SmartBlocks, or in some format we’ve yet to imagine. Some, I think, influenced by the old “Information wants to be free” mentality from the heady days of the early internet, will give their algorithms away. Others will undoubtedly try to sell them.
It will be nice to be able to install new ways of thinking or relating to the world with a few clicks of the mouse. In the long run, though, I think it’s more likely that many of these algorithms will be shared and sold as they’ve always been: as journal templates, as blog posts, as books, as sessions, as classes, as workshops.
So: new tools for sharing algorithms of thought have begun to arrive — along with new opportunities, perhaps, for consultants, guides, and gurus to commoditize and package all the associated training.
I suspect, however, that the algorithms themselves — as reflections of the underlying patterns that generate reality — have been here all along.
Roam Research, a thought processor, is hands-down, the best journaling tool on the planet. Here’s everything you need to know to use it for journaling: my free ten-minute course on how to use Roam Research to keep a journal.
Open Roam daily. Write. Repeat. Don’t over-think it. Roam opens to a dated Daily Notes page every day. Journal there.
Check in twice daily. A brief morning entry clears your mind and aligns you with your goals. A brief evening entry captures memorable moments, lessons, and whether or not you met your goals.
Use a template. Eliminate friction with a template — a series of prompts you answer every day. Align the prompts with that matters to you, changing them over time (but not too often).
For a while, I kept my journal template on a page in Roam Research called [[Templates]]. Every morning, Job One was to copy the journal template from the Templates page, paste it into the daily page, and fill it out.
Now, I use TextExpander. When I type “zjou,” TextExpander replaces that trigger with my journal template. It’s quick and easy.
The entire journal template is a bulleted list indented under the keyword #journal, so I can collapse the journal and write other things on the daily page without being distracted.
Capture what matters. A glance at the prompts in my journal template tells you what matters to me in this moment. As of this writing, my prompts are:
The Morning Check-In
Weight. I lost fifty pounds in 2017. I don’t want to gain all that weight back. Weighing daily makes me mindful of my weight, and, as my weight fluctuates, alerts me to patterns (like drinking beer) that conflict with my intentions.
On My Mind. A bulleted list of whatever’s on my mind: short, sweet, quick.
One Thing. Of all the things on my to-do list, this is the one thing I want to achieve today and a quick note about why it’s important to me.
The Evening Check-In
Daily Score. A few years back, I started giving each day a score from one to ten. My average is a seven, which means I have a pretty good life.
Stories from Today. Usually, three or four bulleted snapshots of events from the day. I try to make these things that will matter to Future Me — less “I ate pasta” and more “While circling the lake in the boat at sunset, I experienced a perfect moment: me, Clyde, and the dogs, steam rising from the water, the sky a riot of color, the hawks screeching overhead. I wish I could trap that moment in amber and carry it in my pocket.”
Today I Learned. I take this literally. For example: “There are 900 species of figs, and each has its own dedicated species of wasp that pollinate it. When female wasps lay eggs in figs, entering the fig tears their wings off. Each time you eat a fig, you are probably also eating a mummified female wasp.”
Habits. This is where I monitor habits I’m establishing — never more than three at once. Currently, the three habits are: Meditation Log (Did I meditate? What was the quality of the session?), Gratitude (one things I’m grateful for today), and Writing (Did I write something that mattered to me today?).
One Thing Achieved? Yes or no.
What Did You Notice? A meditative question I learned from working with a consultancy called The Ready. No hard and fast rules govern answers here, but I usually jot something I learned about myself or my life.
Make all prompts into Roam Research links. Doing so makes all my prompts into a Roam Research page of their own.
Write all answers to prompts in short bullets indented under the prompts. Doing so makes it possible for me to visit the page for a given prompt (like “On My Mind”) and see a long list of what was on my mind over time.
Have a morning ritual that includes journaling. My ritual is my religion. It’s non-negotiable. I get up, weigh, make a hot beverage, sit, review Readwise.io daily highlights and ten mastery flashcards, write in my journal, take the dogs out for a one mile walk, meditate for thirty minutes, and then eat breakfast. What’s in the ritual doesn’t matter. What matters about a routine is doing it, every day, day in and day out, rain or shine, whether you feel like it or not, even if it inconveniences others. (That last bit is important if you, like me, are hardwired to be a pleaser.)
As you write in Roam, link liberally. Link names. Link places. Link topics. Link dream symbols. Add keywords (like #ToWrite or #ToRead or #ToBuy). Link, link, link.
Do not worry about re-reading journal entries. Set them free. When you need them, they will come back to you.
Don’t stop. You will break a streak. You will miss a day. Maybe two. No guilt. No whining. No beating yourself up. Stop being boring and get back on the horse.
Are there any “Journaling in Roam Research” courses that will give you more information than this? Yes. Will any “Journaling in Roam Research” course give you more than this in ten minutes? No.
A proposal: steal my free system. Adapt it for your needs. Use it for three months. At that point, you’ll know much more about Roam. You’ll know much more about journaling. You’ll have learned by doing. You may not need a course at all.
If you still have questions — that’s great. Questions rooted in experience are better than questions rooted in ignorance. With specific questions and goals in mind, you’ll be better positioned to shop for a course … and better positioned to get more out of the course you select.
Thanks for reading. Thanks for journaling. Let me know how things go.
I didn’t get up today thinking, “I’m going to create a new, visual way to outline the novel I’m writing.” But thanks to my Kindle, a service called Readwise, a smart note taking process, and a thought processor called Roam Research, several random and unrelated ideas collided, producing an insight I wouldn’t have had on my own.
Many Kindle Books, but Few Bright Ideas
I’m the sort of reader who used carry an extra backpack full of books on vacation. So when the Kindle launched in 2007, I received mine on day one. I love having my entire library accessible through one device — so much so that I’ve repurchased many books I already own, just to get them on my Kindle. Eventually, I became so enamored of the Kindle’s portability and features, I quit buying print books. If a book isn’t available on Kindle, I just won’t read it.
As someone who always circled, underlined, or wrote marginal notes near passages I found meaningful, I was pleased that the Kindle also supports highlighting and annotation. Like their handwritten parallels, these notes were easy enough to make, but, ultimately, neither my handwritten nor digital notes offered much in the way of practical utility. While I would stumble across my notes whenever I deliberately returned to a book, I had no way to surface those notes in any other context, no means of searching all my notes across all my books, and no system for linking related notes from different books together.
New Ways to Link Ideas Together
A few months back, I began using Roam Research, a thought processor with the ability to link information together in interesting and surprising ways. Notes in Roam don’t just sit around. I can link them together, associate them with projects or areas of interest, or explore the relationships Roam suggests. Over time, a network of ideas emerges — your “knowledge graph” — and this, in turn, becomes a tool for combining ideas in unexpected ways. Instead of a notebook, Roam Research is more of a collaborative partner that pushes you to write, publish, or do something with the information you collect.
A Peek at My Roam Research Permanent Note Template
My permanent note template contains ten fields:
Source: (a link back to the place the note came from)
Keywords: ( single-word tags anticipating contexts in which I might want to see this information again)
Project: (an optional field, linking this note to a project I’m considering or working on)
Area: (an optional field, linking this note to an ongoing area of interest or responsibility in my life)
Note: (the note itself)
Similar to: (a prompt encouraging me to consider how this idea is like others I’ve come across before — and an opportunity to link this idea to those)
Different from: (a prompt encouraging me to consider how this idea is different from others that come to mind — and a way to link this idea to those)
Examples: (a prompt to think about ways this idea could be put into action, or to recall contexts in which I’ve seen this idea applied)
Questions: (a prompt encouraging me to list ways this information might prompt me to learn or grow)
Ideas: (a prompt encouraging me to list reflections, insights, or ideas for possible projects)
The template looks long here, but now that my thinking and research have been shaped by it, I fill it out very quickly. This structure, combined with Roam Research’s ability to cross-link ideas, has proven to be a powerful way to make static notes start dancing together (or, as Roam creator Conor White-Sullivan says, “Good ideas come from when ideas have sex: the intersection of different things that you’ve been reading or different things you’ve been seeing”).
Readwise Closes an Important Gap
The longer I used Roam, the larger and more complex my knowledge graph of inter-related ideas grew. One day, as I was highlighting passages in the Kindle version of the book Brave New Work, I realized what a shame it was that none of my Kindle notes and highlights, curated carefully over more than a decade, could get busy with each other in my Roam database.
So I started a project to copy and paste Kindle notes into Roam Research. I abandoned this project pretty quickly, though, in part because the process was brutally slow … and in part because I have 680 books in my Kindle library and, within these, more than 6000 notes and highlights. Even if I squeezed in the time to transfer ten notes a day, every day, from my Kindle to Roam, my project would take a year and a half to complete — more than that, really, since I’m adding new Kindle highlights every day.
One day, as I half-heartedly copied the day’s ten notes over, my Twitter feed brought me word of a new service: Readwise.io. With just a few clicks, Readwise imports highlights from Kindle, Apple’s iBooks, Instapaper, and other services, then surfaces a number of them in a daily email. (You can also convert highlights into flash cards and use spaced repetition — a strategy for integrating information into long-term memory — to keep information you found valuable top of mind.)
For someone with 6,000 Kindle highlights and notes, that proposal alone is intriguing enough. In addition, though, Readwise will export your Kindle notes into Roam Research.
Without hesitation, I plunked down my first monthly Readwise fee (about nine bucks) and clicked twice. In under ten minutes, Readwise pulled in all 6000+ Kindle highlights. I clicked once more, and in less than ten minutes, Readwise exported every single one of those highlights into a beautifully formatted pages in my Roam Research database. Oh, and it also organized them by book, created author pages, added tags, included the full text of each highlight, and added hyperlinks that jump to the related passage in the book from which the highlight came.
Over the months I’d been using Roam Research, my personal knowledge graph had been slowly growing in size and complexity. But thanks to Readwise, in mere minutes, that graph now contained thousands of new nodes gleaned from more than a decade of reading. In practical terms, that meant every idea that ever caught my eye in every book I’ve read since 2007 was now available to be resurfaced, linked, explored, repurposed, and put to work.
Remember that little pill Bradley Cooper takes in Limitless to instantly expand his intelligence? Readwise plus Roam is the digital equivalent.
On the third day after receiving this infusion of information, Readwise’s daily review of previously-taken notes surfaced a highlight I’d made (and promptly forgotten) in David Lynch’s Room to Dream. In it, Lynch mentions Frank Daniel’s “sequencing paradigm” for screenwriters, which involves taking seventy note cards, writing an element of a scene on each, and then organizing the cards into a sequence that makes sense — an outline for a screenplay.
Lynch’s note for screenwriters prompted a vague memory of something I’d once read for novelists. In seconds, a quick search in Roam for the term scenes took me to a Kindle highlight from Larry Brooks’s Story Engineering. In that book, Brooks argues for the utility of thinking of a novel in terms of four acts, each containing fifteen scenes. Brooks suggests writers begin by identifying and fleshing out a dozen or so key scenes (plot points, pinch points, midpoint, etc.), then working to “fill in the gaps” between these as a way of completing a novel’s outline.
As I thought about the similarities between Daniel’s seventy-scene sequencing paradigm and Brooks’s sixty scene approach to novel outlining, I found myself wishing for a tool powerful enough to help me visualize an entire novel at once — a sort of interactive whiteboard, pre-populated with scene cards, that might capture a novel’s structure at a glance. Without really knowing why, I found myself pulling up Roam Research notes from a conference call last week … and right there, in my meeting notes, was a reference to Miro.com, a simple but powerful white board app.
Fifteen minutes later, I’d built a novel outlining template in Miro functional enough to support a hybrid version of Daniel and Brooks’s card-based approach … and more flexible and customizable than I’d found in dedicated software for novelists.
Powerful Tools Yield Powerful Insights
Could I have made these associations and built this tool for myself without collaborating with Readwise and Roam? Maybe, with time … but not this quickly … and, I think, perhaps not at all. Building a visual novel outliner wasn’t on my “One Thing” list for that day … or on my list of long-term projects. The sequence of events leading to that action depended pretty solidly on Readwise’s ability to liberate and surface my notes and Roam’s ability to link and explore them. It was only when Readwise invited my notes to Roam’s “idea orgy” — thanks for that visual, Conor White-Sullivan — that these bits of information yielded useful insights.
If you care at all about the highlights you’re making in your Kindle books, you need Readwise. If you want to expand your personal knowledge graph with rich, meaningful data points, you can export thousands of Kindle highlights into Roam Research in minutes. And if you want a thought processor capable of forging new and unexpected connections among your ideas, there’s simply no better tool out there than Roam Research.
Note: As always, the opinions I express here are my own. I have not received compensation of any kind, including any free services (except for free trials available to the general public) in exchange for this post.
If you’re interested in Readwise, you can get an additional free month of service in addition to the free trial by using this sign-up link. When you do, because I’m already a paid subscriber, I won’t receive anything at all in exchange.
Some links in this post are Amazon associate links; if you click them and buy anything during your visit to Amazon, I may receive a few pennies of Amazon credit, which I will use to feed my hungry babies.
Note:Originally published on 7.20.2020; updated with new information on 4.12.2021.
I’ve been on a quest for a personal “thought processor” — one place to put all my notes, journal entries, and research. I’m tired of shoving notes into anything boxes (and never seeing them again). Most of all, I want note taking to be about creation, not collection. Once notes go in, the system should help me link my ideas together, spark insights, and produce something new.
Before starting my quest, I set some boundaries. To avoid the trap of paralysis by analysis, I gave myself two weeks to find a solution. To avoid the perfection trap, I reminded myself that all solutions have pros and cons. And to avoid losing productivity to endless dithering, I agreed to pick a solution and stick with it for a minimum of one year.
After fourteen days of googling, reading blog posts, listening to podcasts, and putting various candidates through their paces, I found only two options I felt could meet my needs: Roam Research and Obsidian.md.
Roam Research is currently more a service than an app. No dedicated apps exist (yet), so you access Roam Research through a browser. (Technologies exist, though, that can make Roam look and feel more app-like.)
Obsidian.md is currently available for Windows, MacOS, and Linux. If you work primarily in iOS, I would say Obsidian is not yet a good option for you, despite the availability of some clever workarounds. (More on this later, in the Accessibility section.)
Update: As of 04.12.2021, Obsidian.md has an iOS app in beta. Even now, it’s remarkably full-featured. Upon the release of the iOS app, Obsidian will actually have an edge over Roam Research, which is yet to offer apps on any platform.
The Knowledge Graph and the Power of Links
In lieu of categories and folders, both Roam and Obsidian represent notes as nodes on a graph. Any note in your collection can be connected to any other (or to many others). Exploring the resulting constellation of relationships reveals existing connections and suggests new ones.
As Shu Omi recently illustrated on Twitter, this structure allows your thoughts and ideas to swirl in a volatile mix versus being sectioned off in tight little boxes:
You create these connections in two ways. The first, familiar to anyone who has used a wiki, involves creating a reference link from one note to another.
For example: let’s say, after watching the movie Snowpiercer, I create a note (titled “Snowpiercer”) and load it with info on the cast, crew, and my observations about the film. From then on, in other notes, I can surround any instance of the word “Snowpiercer” in double square brackets, like this: [[Snowpiercer]]. Doing so creates a link back to my “Snowpiercer” note, making it easy to jump back to that note for more information.
Back on my original “Snowpiercer” note, in addition to the impressions I recorded, I’ll see two automatically generated lists. The first is a list of linked references: all other notes I’ve linked back to this one. This automatic creation of backlinks is a game-changer, making it easy to form and navigate connections between notes with minimal effort.
The second (and, for me, more interesting) list collects all my unlinked references — instances of a word or phrase that match the title of an existing note, but that aren’t yet linked to that note. For example: on my “Snowpiercer” note, the list of unlinked references displays every other time I’ve used the word “Snowpiercer” without creating a link. I can then convert any interesting unlinked references into linked references with a single click.
When scanning the unlinked references list, I frequently rediscover forgotten notes or spot surprising linkages among other notes in my knowledge graph.
Useful Criteria for Evaluating Roam and Obsidian
Both Roam Research and Obsidian.md support reference links and unreferenced links. In order to choose between them, I needed other points of comparison. While you’re likely to have criteria of your own, reflecting on the factors I considered might help you make the decision that’s right for you.
1. Availability of Training Materials
Passionate users of both applications provide free resources (and a number of paid courses) designed to jumpstart new users. In case they can help you, here are the ones I referred to the most during my two-week survey.
Update: As of 04.12.2021, the video series “From Beginner to Superuser” has been removed from YouTube by its owner.
I must also thank Mike Schmitz, whose off-hand reference to Roam Research during a recent episode of The Sweet Setup webcast caught my attention and launched this entire odyssey.
Once I started looking for information on Roam, I found many videos comparing Roam to other options. These led me to Obsidian.md.
At first, I was disappointed. Many of the videos about Obsidian lacked depth, covered the same material over and over again, or had been produced by individuals who had about as much exposure to Obsidian as I did. But with persistence, I found video like these: The Keep Productive YouTube Channel’s Obsidian: Getting Started, Facts, and Pricing. Similar coverage from a slightly different point of view can also be found in Justin DiRose’s Obsidian: The Basics of Note Taking. I’m told the Obsidian Community Discord is also lively and helpful.
While this may or may not be the case, I get the impression Obsidian has been developed with an eye toward cloning Roam’s feature set in a free, open-source, privacy-first application. As a result, even if you learn the basics from Roam tutorials, you’ll feel very much at home the first time you launch Obsidian.
Be aware, too, that both Roam and Obsidian are being developed at a furious pace. Features useful to beginners and pros alike appear suddenly and frequently. Tutorials more than a few months old remain useful, but will not cover the latest features.
2. Storage and Portability
Roam Research is unapologetically a web-first app. Users create and interact with notes in the browser. Content is stored in the cloud, but can be quickly and easily exported to markdown files when desired.
It is possible that Roam might someday suffer a catastrophic data loss or be acquired by a user-hostile company? Yes. But your local hard drive could also suffer catastrophic failure. Both problems can be mitigated by responsible practices. With Roam, it’s quick and easy to export your notes to a local folder. With Obsidian, you could save notes to a cloud-synced folder.
That said: portability alone is not the only factor to consider when deciding how you feel about where an app stores your notes.
Update: As of 04.12.2021, it’s my understanding that the act of accessing of even a single page in a Roam graph loads the content of the entire graph into the browser. (For more on this, see 10. Publishing, below.) This has significant privacy implications. For example: accessing a single Roam Research note in a browser on my employer’s computer could expose the entire contents of my graph (including, in my case, everything from dreams to medical information) to my employer’s tech support team, if they were inclined to take a look.
By contrast, Obsidian’s notes are as secure as your local computer is — at least until you sync them using a cloud service.
Update: As of 04.12.2021, Obsidian offers an end-to-end encrypted sync service for as little as $4.00 per month that conform to the best “trust no one” security practices.
If privacy is your priority, Obsidian might be the better choice for you.
Because users interact with Roam Research through a browser, their notes are available to them on any internet-connected device. Roam works equally well on my iPhone, iPad, and Mac.
I live in a rural area, so I occasionally wander into regions without cellular data coverage. When this happens, I lose access to my notes. This is frustrating, but it’s definitely a first-world problem.
Occasionally, Roam simply will not load in the Safari browser. When this is the case, I either switch to Chrome or close and restart Safari, which seems to help.
By contrast, after installation, Obsidian’s basic feature set requires no internet connectivity at all. Since content is stored locally, it’s always available — provided you have a Mac, Windows, or Linux laptop capable of accessing those files. (Since I tend to travel with an iPad exclusively, this is a problem for me.)
Because there’s no iOS app, Obsidian users on iPhones and iPads must use a third-party editor (like iAWriter or 1Writer) to interact with their notes. Unfortunately, this interaction is limited to creating new or editing existing notes. Outside of Obsidian, many of the features that make thought processors so powerful — the links, the graph — have limited functionality or become unavailable.
Update: As of 04.12.2021, the Obsidian iOS app is in beta testing, and addresses all of the concerns listed above.
This third-party editing strategy can be perilous. At one point, after opening and editing a document in iAWriter on my iPad, I found I couldn’t save my changes because the file was still open in Obsidian on my Mac.
In my experience, Roam has proven more reliable and more convenient to use. If you place a lot of value on ease of access and consistent behavior, Roam will be the better choice for you.
Update: As of 04.12.2021, I no longer feel this way. Now that I’m able to travel again, I’m frequently frustrated by Roam’s inaccessibility when WiFi is slow or unavailable. Obsidian works perfectly well in these situations, and the new syncing service eliminates the problems I caused myself by locating files in iCloud and editing them with a third party text editor.
Roam’s $15.00 per month subscription raises eyebrows, but I’m in the camp that believes sustainable pricing is vital to the long-term viability of any product or service. In the end, only you can decide whether or not access to Roam is worth $180.00 a year. (If you’re not sure, be sure to use the thirty-one day free trial before signing up, as there is no free tier.) If you become what the #roamcult refers to as a “believer,” you can sign up for five years of service for $500.00. Believers pick up some additional perks and effectively pay $8.33 per month.
Obsidian.md is free forever for personal use. Users may support development by making a one-time donation of $25.00 or more or by purchasing commercial licenses for $50.00 per year. Soon, an $8.00 per month add-on will allow publication of notes. A syncing service is also planned, but given that Obsidian files sync just fine via Dropbox or iCloud, paying $4.00 per month for this would seem to be less a matter of necessity and more a matter of supporting further development.
Update: I should note that Obsidian’s syncing service is now active. Also, during my 04.12.2021 review of this post, I realized I should amend the above statement about paying for that service. Paying for end-to-end encrypted syncing is a good investment — period. That doing so also supports further development is icing on the cake.
If you’re a budget-conscious person, Obsidian.md might be the better choice. That said: be aware that Roam does offer a scholarship program, providing discounts or free service to full-time researchers, people under twenty-two, or those “experiencing significant financial distress.”
Roam Research, by default, offers a simple, uncluttered presentation of content.
A narrow left-hand navigation pane offers a means of switching from database to database and provides access to daily notes, the interactive graph of links, a list of all pages, and a list of shortcuts to favorite pages.
A wider center pane displays the note currently in use; by default, this appears as a page of bulleted black text on a white screen. Links to related documents and a list of unlinked (but potentially related) references appear at the bottom of each document.
On the right, a search field, a filtering control, a collapsed list of features (including sharing and exporting), and a help menu are always visible. A second, pale blue editing pane, capable of displaying blocks, pages, and their associated links, appears on the right whenever a link is shift-clicked.
Clever users offer extensive tutorials on how to use CSS to customize Roam’s appearance. Users may also apply themes created by members of the Roam community.
The Obsidian app environment is even more flexible, but can quickly become busier and more complicated.
Controls in a tool strip along the far left of the app window vary based on the number of plug-ins installed. At a minimum, the strip includes buttons for switching databases, displaying an interactive graph of linked pages, and accessing help and settings. A tabbed left-hand pane can display either a list of folders and documents or the search field.
The center pane displays the note currently in use. If you like, this pane can be split horizontally … or vertically … or both … multiple times. Each of these windows can display multiple views of the same document, multiple different documents, or any combination of these. Unless you’re deliberate in your choices, this can quickly become bewildering.
A right-hand pane displays a list of linked and unlinked (but potentially related) documents.
As with Roam, users can apply custom CSS or any of a library of user-submitted themes to tweak the way the app appears. If you enjoy tweaking settings until an interface is just right, both Roam and Obsidian will indulge you. If you want a clean, minimalist look from the get-go and have little interest in personalization or configuration, Roam might be the better choice.
7. The Graph View
Both Roam and Obsidian present a map or graph of pages and their links, displaying a these ideas in a constellation of relationships.
Clicking any note in the graph highlights its connections. (Double-click to jump to the related page.) Nodes can also be clicked and dragged, stretching the web of ideas in interesting ways and making connections easier to explore. With a right-click of the graph, you can toggle between one of two layouts: Cose (more spherical) or Dagre (flatter and wider). You can also choose whether you want the graph to include or suppress nodes associated with daily pages.
Roam’s graph features big nodes that grow as the number of connections increases, making it easier to spot influential ideas or important daily entries. Large title cards display the related page or block title.
Obsidian’s graph looks more fragile and spindly, but the animation associated with dragging nodes or zooming in and out is smoother and, to me, more satisfying. Page titles, however, are rendered in a tiny, fine text that can be difficult to read, especially in dark mode.
Oddly, neither Roam nor Obsidian offer a search feature that works in graph view. Scanning the graph for a particular node among hundreds of connections grows tedious. A search feature capable of highlighting nodes that match search teams would make a nice addition to both applications.
Note: As of 04.12.2021, Obsidian offers the ability to perform fine-tuned graph searches, including filtering by tags. I’d also note that, with thousands of notes in play, my Roam Research graph has become an undifferentiated block of grey lines and points, offering little value. (Graphs mapping connections to individual pages remain useful.) By contrast, the graph in Obsidian, thanks to the new search and filtering options, remains a powerful tool for insight and inspiration.
Fiddle with the graph views in both apps, and decide which approach to illustrating the connections between thoughts feels right to you.
8. Composing and Editing
In Roam, text is presented as a series of bulleted paragraphs or blocks. Clicking a block selects it and activates it for editing.
Users familiar with outlining apps will appreciate that blocks can be dragged and dropped with ease. Blocks can be indented, making them subordinate to unindented blocks above them; once this is done, subordinate blocks can be collapsed into or expanded from their parents with a single click.
Unlike Roam, Obsidian’s view of document is modal; for each open window, the user must choose whether he or she wants to be in preview or edit mode. For me, this proved irritating, as I often clicked and clicked and clicked a on document in preview mode before remembering to switch to edit mode.
In addition, more than once, I found myself wrestling with an outline in Obsidian that looked fine in editing view, but that failed to indent properly in preview mode. Each time, resolving the issue (which involved clicking around to find invisible, offensive line breaks and backspace over them) required several minutes.
As you consider Roam or Obsidian, weigh how you feel about context switching. If you don’t care to think about it at all, Roam might be the better option. But if you’re accustomed to working in a Markdown editor and switching frequently from editing to preview mode, you might prefer Obsidian.
9. Blocks vs. Pages
In Roam, the basic unit of thought is the block. Pages are made up of blocks. Each time the user presses Enter, he or she creates a new block, which appears as a bulleted paragraph on the page.
Blocks can contain links to other pages, but also to other blocks. Blocks from one page can be referenced (which allows them to be seen) or embedded (which allows them to be edited) in another page. Edits in embedded blocks populate back to all instances where the block is embedded.
In Obsidian, the basic unit of thought is the page. Links go to pages, not to specific blocks within a page. As a result, blocks cannot be referenced or embedded. (They can, of course, be copied and pasted, with manually appended links back to a source.)
Update: As of 04.12.2021, Obsidian does have allow linking to both headings and individual blocks — though its implementation of this not (yet) as elegant as the one found in Roam.
Based on a lively discussion in a user forum, Obsidian’s commitment to working with unmodified Markdown documents greatly complicates efforts to add block referencing to the app. Clever users seem intent on coming up with a solution, but a number commenters in the thread I’ve referenced here seemed to struggle to see the value of a block-based approach.
In my opinion, the block-based approach to referencing information is clearly superior to a page-based strategy. Once, I used to write entire books in Word. The process was (to put it mildly) extremely painful. Because Word struggled with long files, I had to create files for each chapter and use arcane magic to knit them together. The larger the project, the harder it was to maintain a vision of the project as a whole.
These days, I write in Ulysses. Unlike Word, Ulysses allows me to break down a long document into a series of short sheets. Instead of thinking of an entire chapter — or even an entire page — at once, I can focus on smaller “scraps” (or blocks) of text. I can drag and drop these, re-ordering them at will. I can tag individual sheets as drafts or tag them as complete when I’m done revising them. With a simple filter, I can enhance focus and see progress by displaying only the bits and pieces of the work that still need attention.
Once I began thinking about documents in more granular terms, my productivity increased, and my work became easier. My experience with Ulysses taught me that taking a more granular approach to individual units of thought increases the resolution at which all thoughts can be explored.
Roam allows focus at the block level; Obsidian allows focus at the page level. For me, that was the deciding factor between the two apps. I believe Roam’s decision to make blocks the smallest possible unit of thought make it a superior tool for knowledge work. Supporting references to blocks may, in fact, be Roam’s single most important feature.
Note: This section was added to this post on 04.12.2021.
Both Roam Research and Obsidian now allow users to publish entire graphs or pages from those graphs to websites.
Through “Share” settings, Roam Research graphs can be designated as publicly accessible, and the creator can choose to share specific pages or the entire graph with specific people (who must be designated by email addresses) or the entire world by supplying them with a single URL.
A known issue exists: sharing a specific page still loads the contents of your entire graph into the visitor’s browser, making it possible for “a technically skilled person” to “access other pages from your graph if they were motivated.”
A third-party solution, Roam Garden, allows users to tag specific pages for publication while also designating certain blocks as private. A free trial exists; after seven days, you’ll pay at least the early bird $7.50 per month price to maintain your public garden.
Obsidian’s Obsidian Publish service costs $8.00 per month (early adopters can lock in $4.00 per month) and allows users to publish entire vaults or a subset of entries to a publicly-accessible website. Because Obsidian only uploads the files you specify to the web server, there is no risk of anyone accessing pages you prefer to keep private.
11. Multiplayer Graphs
Note: This section was added to this post on 04.12.2021.
Roam’s web-first development approach makes possible a unique form of interaction: multiplayer graphs. When a graph is shared with others (generally, by designating them by email address) owners can choose to provide guests with editing rights. As a result, selected visitors — whether they pay for Roam Research or not — can view and edit the contents of the graph.
Public graphs support robust community formation and group participation. An example of this is the Roam Book Club, where hundreds of participants around the globe come together to read and respond to a selected text by entering their reading notes, responding to daily writing prompts, and building a group zettelkasten (or database) of ideas and insights.
I’ve participated in two sessions of the RBC, and can testify to the deep levels of engagement and insight participation in a multiplayer graph provides. The experience is a bit like reading an ebook and having the ability to see, discuss, annotate, and debate the highlights, marginal notes, summaries, and insights recorded by every other reader. I had read Dan Coyle’s The Culture Code on my own, but reading with the group dramatically transformed my experience of the book. (Specifically: I see the weaknesses in its arguments and approach in much higher resolution.)
Obsidian, which stores information in local text files, does not offer anything like Roam’s multiplayer capabilities. Collaborative editing can be kludged together by storing one’s text files in a publicly accessible location like Dropbox, but issues with file permissions and/or versioning conflicts might eventually spoil the fun.
So: Which Did I Choose?
At the time of this writing, I’ve been using Roam daily for about a month. (When my two-week trial ended, I had zero buyer’s regret associated with ponying up my $15.00 per month.) Even in this brief time, Roam’s impact on my life is much broader in scope that I ever anticipated it could be.
Update: As of 04.12.2021, I’ve been using Roam daily for almost nine months. Roam has become my go-to resource for note-taking. I’ve also become a “believer,” ponying up $500 to secure my space in Roam for five years to come.
That said, despite my resolve to forbid myself from revisiting of this choice for a year, I confess I continue to be intrigued by and attracted to Obsidian. Some months ago, I moved my dream journal to Obsidian, as I felt increasingly uncomfortable storing unfiltered descriptions of my dreams in the cloud.
And, despite a growing online reputation as someone journaling in Roam, over the past few months, I’ve noticed increasing reluctance to write as bluntly and directly as I’d like about certain topics in my Roaman journal … which has me exploring a switch to Obsidian (or back to Day One) for journaling in general.
Some Reasons for Roaming
Roam incorporates a feature called the Daily Page. Every day when I first launch Roam, I’m greeted with a dated page that’s perfect for recording journal entries and planning my day. As a result, my journaling practice — ragged at best, when I was using Day One — has become thoroughly integrated with my daily routine. On my iPhone, I quick capture tweets, posts, articles, and video links of interest, and these appear on my Daily Page as well, making it easier to track when I first encountered certain ideas.
Update – 04.12.2021: Roam’s “full site” feature works better than ever on iOS these days, so I do find myself entering and editing pages directly (bypassing Roam’s “Quick Entry” feature), especially when working on an iPad.
Obsidian users can achieve similar results with the Daily Page plug-in. For me, though, the fact Roam opens to my daily page — versus forcing me to click a link to create one — reduces friction and makes the daily page habit more addictive.
A Boost in Personal Productivity
Since adopting Roam, I’m happy to report I’ve undergone a sort of personal creative renaissance. I’m writing more. But I’m not just producing more text; I’m producing better structured, more thoughtful text … and sharing it more frequently with others. I’ll disclose more about my process later; for now, I’ll just say that combining Roam’s insights with Ulysses’s text management system has launched a new phase in my life as a writer.
The structures I’m using to record thoughts in Roam enhance my memory of the material I read, listen to, and study. The linkages in Roam encourage me to see this material in surprising contexts. The result is a kind of enhanced awareness that extends my thinking in broad and unexpected ways. In conversations, I’m sharper. In meetings, I’m more focused. During study time, I go deeper. During downtime, I’m more present.
The Joy of Discovery
I can also share that any time invested in exploring Roam is time well-spent. The thoughtful little touches and frequent innovations delight me. When I first pasted a link to a tweet into Obsidian, it appeared as a link, rendered in tiny grey text. When I pasted the same link into Roam, it expanded automatically into a beautifully-rendered embedded tweet.
Update – 04.12.2021 – Obsidian is getting better at embedding referenced content of all kinds.
That bit of magic got me exploring the help menus for other tricks. Now, when I take notes on a YouTube video, I embed it into the top of a page and type my notes beneath it as I watch. I enjoy tracking work in kanban boards; with a keystroke or two, I can embed one. When I want to illustrate a journal entry with an image, I just drag one in. When I want to refer to a brainstorm for a story that I created in a MindNode mind map, I generate a PDF, embed it in the related note, and refer to it as I write.
I’m aware that these are just baby steps. But every day, I come across new functionality. (I’m just starting to understand how I might use queries, for example.) I don’t think I’ll ever learn to use every function available to me … but I don’t have to. Even if I never do anything more than stick with daily pages, take great notes, remain intentional about setting links, maintain a habit of scanning for unlinked references, and explore new connections in the knowledge graph … I’ll be earning real and meaningful dividends from my $15.00 per month investment in Roam.
A Roam Wishlist
As I mentioned at the start of this post, no tool is perfect. During this past month of use, I’ve come up with two features I hope to see in future updates.
First: fuzzy searches. Roam finds exact matches to text I enter in the search bar. As a result, even though the terms Mr. Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln, and President Lincoln all reference the same individual, Roam sees these as three unique and not necessarily related references.
A search employing fuzzy logic, capable of finding near-matches or even synonyms, could be very useful. Alternatively, being able to set up a table of associations matching terms to their cognates could greatly expand the value of search, linking, and backlinking.
Second: I’d like Roam to be able to present me with a random note on demand. As a frequent brainstormer, I know that considering random input can be a powerful practice for shifting context and resetting perspective. When inspiration lags, a few clicks through random notes can get creative juices flowing again. Encountering a random note and considering how it might relate to the question at hand can generate valuable insights.
In Roam, this could be as simple as creating a persistent page (like the existing TODO page, for example) called “Random.” Whenever visited, the Random page would display a single random block or collection of random blocks. For all I know, a clever embedded code block might add this functionality.
Obsidian’ Random Note plug-in offers this functionality. If a similar function is available in Roam, I haven’t found it.
Update: The Roam42 add-on to Roam makes integration of randomly-selected blocks and pages quick and easy.
Finally, I’d like to be able to share individual pages (or a collection of pages) from a knowledge graph with the public (and perhaps even invite participation in creating and updating those pages) without having to share the entire graph. As I understand it, Roam currently takes an “all or nothing” approach to sharing and collaboration.
Update:As noted earlier, both Roam and Obsidian allow for full or partial sharing of pages with specific users or the public at large — though, in Roam’s case, not without some potential privacy issues.
I’m looking forward to learning more about Roam. As part of my effort to go from dabbler to do-er, I’m making a conscious decision to adopt fewer tools and commit more deeply to each. Roam seems ripe for that kind of exploration.
I’m a writer, author, and media producer, so as I discover applications and process of special interest along these lines, I’ll share what I learn. In a very short time, I’m already seeing ways Roam can assist with writing everything from blog posts to video scripts.
In fact, Roam’s ability to gather and organize research made writing this very post much easier. I visited my “Roam Research” page, browsed linked and unlinked references, pulled relevant material into Ulysses, and then polished it there. Everything I needed to write this post came together without the usual last-minute sifting and searching.
In addition, I’ve been using Roam to write corporate video scripts and create the outlines I use in the online classes I teach. I’ve also come up with my own structure for documenting notes — inspired by, but not bound by, Tiago Forte’s PARA concepts — and organizing those notes in ways that spur creativity and action.
So: lots to learn … and lots to share. I hope this post gives you some useful insights as you identify your own best thought processor, and that you’ll be inspired to share with me what you learn along the way. Feel free to drop me a line via twitter (@markmcelroy) or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
With that in mind, I returned to what I knew: DEVONthink. I’ve used DEVONthink before to organize research for a book and card deck. As I collected Celtic folklore, DEVONthink indexed the stories for easy searching.
But DEVONthink, as the name implies, goes beyond indexing material. Through its “See Also” feature, DEVONthink recommends thematically related entries. Matches appear in a sidebar, ranked by relevance.
I needed a quick way to test DEVONthink’s ability to find surprising links among notes. So I fed DEVONthink hundreds of entries from my dream journal.
I’m very familiar with these journal entries. I mean, I dreamed, recalled, and wrote these dreams down. I’ve scoured the entries for dream cues. (When lucid dreamers see dream cues, they realize they’re dreaming and can take control of the dream.) Could DEVONthink detect patterns I hadn’t?
DEVONThink Found Three Surprising Insights
As I imported entries, I kept an eye on the See Also panel. In just a few minutes, DEVONthink found surprising relationships I had overlooked:
Most of my dreams occur in a consistent world. By detecting frequently repeated words in dream descriptions, DEVONthink noticed many dreams take place in one city. I return to this place, with its cool climate, mountains, and pedestrian-friendly walking lanes, moving sidewalks, and speedy elevators again and again.
My dreams have a consistent history. DEVONthink found entries with parallel phrasing (like “in this dream, I know X, even though I’ve never met X”). My dream self recalls a persistent set of people, trips, and events I haven’t encountered in the waking world.
I’m being stalked by a recurring dream character. By noticing several entries where the words curly and brown appear close together, DEVONthink helped me spot a lanky young man with curly brown hair and brown eyes who follows me from dream to dream.
I had tossed these dreams into an everything box for three years. But I didn’t become conscious of these patterns until I fed my dreams to DEVONthink. If DEVONthink can do this with a few hundred dreams, imagine the relationships it might discover in a few thousand notes!
But DEVONthink isn’t the Thought Processor of My Dreams.
For me, this was a pivotal moment. DEVONthink did help me see familiar material in new ways. But despite these dramatic insights, I didn’t pick DEVONthink as my collaborative partner.
Inspiration can strike anytime, anywhere. I need my thought processor to be on my iPhone, my iPad, and my iMac. Sadly, DEVONthink runs only on the Mac. (An iOS companion app called DEVONthink To Go exists, but has limited functionality, crashes often, and syncs unreliably.) I also find DEVONthink’s environment, with all the tiny grey text and hidden panels, more utilitarian than reflective.
So: I kept googling, reading Twitter threads and blog entries, and listening to podcasts. read Twitter threads. I listened to podcasts. In time, I came up a list of new options to explore: Notion, Obsidian.md, and Roam Research.
Over the next few posts, detail what led me to my final decision. For now, though, I’ll just share a fragment of a dream I had after spending a week after these experiments began.
I am standing on a stretch of highway. The B-52s drive by in a flashy Cadillac. Lead vocalist Fred Schneider grips the steering wheel, which, I notice, is not a steering wheel at all, but a stylized astrolabe.
“Roam, if you want to,” the B-52s sing, their pitch shifting as they hurtle past. “Roam around the world.”
Since my first experience with Yojimbo back in 2006, I’ve fallen for the seductive promise of “everything boxes.” The idea is simple: as you come across files, ideas, links, or quotes of interest, you toss them into an app. Anything placed in the box can be manually or automatically filed in notebooks or folders.
Sending information to these apps rarely requires more than a click or tap. As you amass a library of thousands of notes, the application of categories, keywords, and tags, combined with the power of full-text indexing, makes it easy to summon up just the right resource at just the right moment.
Eventually, though, I became aware of a problem: even as my tools got smarter, I didn’t.
My everything box apps all made the same promise: “Important information will never slip through the cracks.” In practice, though, my everything boxes became dumping grounds for information. As I gathered more and more, I produced less and less. I allowed the pleasure of collection to supplant the pleasure of creation.
In practice, while collection was easy, it really wasn’t pleasurable any more. Each time I encountered an idea, I ran into friction. Should this link to an interesting new book be appended to my “To Read” list Bear? Should I drop a review of that book into Keep It? Should I put my reading notes on that book into DEVONThink … or Ulysses?
Even after I committed myself to an Everything Box App Armageddon and constrained myself to just two apps — Bear (for quick capture, lists, and transient notes) and Keep It (for everything else) — I’d catch myself looking in one place for information that I’d stored in the other. I responded by devising elaborate systems for categorizing and tagging new notes … but these efforts always began strong, slipped when the pace of work got frantic, and eventually withered from neglect.
A Solution: Thought Processors
In the end, as a researcher and writer, I needed more than an everything box. I needed an intellectual partner: an app capable of aiding rediscovery, surfacing patterns in my work, and pointing me to projects inspired by the information that interests me most.
So I launched a quest to find that partner … and very quickly, my search took me to a class of software and services I’ve decided to call “thought processors.” These apps go beyond collection and categorization of information, using a combination of techniques and technologies to link ideas together in surprising, interesting, and useful ways.
It’s been a long journey — and it’s not over. But I’ve reached an important milestone, cobbling together processes and apps into a solution that’s already helped me achieve an important goal: shifting from collecting to creating, from stuffing everything boxes to sharing ideas, and from worrying about where to put ideas to writing about them.
Over the next few days, I’ll share exactly what I’m using (and what I’m not using), why I’m using it (or not using it), and how the system works. For now, if you want to jumpstart your own journey, check out the links in this post .., and then, please come back to find out more.
I’ve always been a magpie of ideas. I’m drawn to the new, the bright, the shiny. I scoop these ideas up and carry them back to my nest. The result? I have an enormous nest, feathered with layer upon layer of ideas and insights.
Problem is, for the most part my fabulous nest is empty. No eggs. I’m skimming a lot, collecting a lot, but producing very little. I’ve mistaken inspiration (“Ooh! That’s neat! I’ll save it!”) for insight (“Here’s why this really matters!”). Worse, rather than let the act of research inform my work, I’ve allowed my work to become the act of research.
When our information addiction becomes divorced from projects and products, we demote ourselves from doers to dabblers. Once I realized this, I asked myself, “What do I need to do to turn things around? How can I go from pondering to producing?”
Or, in other words, how can I do less dabbling … and more doing?
For me, making the shift from dabbler to doer involved:
1) Going deep (even over going broad.) Rather than pursue dozens of topics in a shallow way, I’m choosing to pursue a few compelling subjects more deeply.
2) Prioritizing practices (even over principles). I want to spend more time with subjects that give me something to do or actions to take … and less time with subjects that tend to be more theoretical than practical.
3) Focusing on publication (even over collection). Rather than value a line of inquiry based on the size of a pile of accumulated links, I’m prioritizing topics based on the amount of output (blog posts, tweets, essays, videos, podcasts) they inspire.
Once I made these decisions, I found it much easier to identify, select, and prioritize a few key areas of interest to focus on. For me, those turned out to be:
Writing. I’ve commercially published more than a dozen books and self-published a handful more, but, lately, my identity as an author is more a matter of memory than activity. I want to immerse myself in this neglected craft, return to a daily writing habit, and generate more work I can share with others.
Living a More Balanced Life. A recent diagnosis with heart disease has prompted me to be more aware of the need for mental, physical, and emotional balance in my life. For me, that means going from dabbling in diet, exercise, and meditation to diving more deeply into these topics … identifying and committing to practices (like morning meditation and daily walks and Weight Watchers) that reinforce balance … and putting my notes out there where they can inspire people seeking a similar balance in their lives.
Faith. Having gone from fundamentalist to atheist to mystic to something that I don’t really have a name for yet can sometimes leave me feeling anchoress and adrift. I’m committing to thinking more deeply about spirituality, focusing on practical ways to express those beliefs, and “learning out loud” by sharing this journey with like-minded people.
To be clear, I won’t quit following topics like Apple hardware and software, branding, COVID-19, photography, or politics. But I will invest less time and attention in them, because I’m choosing to focus on writing, living a balanced life, and matters of faith.
And, of course, in sharing this practice with you, I’m not saying you need to prioritize your own interests on the basis of depth over breadth, practice over principle, and publication over collection. It’s okay to be an information magpie. If soaking in the information bath until you’re all wrinkled up is your thing, I’m not knocking it. It’s okay to pursue a broad range of topics, just for the joy of pursuing them.
But if you feel a need to be making something, producing something, or leveraging what you learn in ways that could change lives (and, by extension, change the world), then you might find some value in defining your own criteria and using that criteria to prioritize the topics you pursue. You might enjoy the freedom that comes from having clarity around which topics merit a deeper investment of time and attention. And this, in turn, might position you to get more done and make a bigger mark on the world.
Photo: an image I snapped while visiting the tiny but earnest natural science museum at Harutori Park in Hokkaido, Japan in 2019.
Population-wide face mask use could push covid-19 transmission down to controllable levels … Even homemade masks can dramatically reduce transmission rates if enough people wear them in public. “Our analyses support the immediate and universal adoption of face masks by the public,” said Richard Stutt, who co-led the study at Cambridge.
“Widespread mask wearing could prevent covid-19 second waves, study says.” Washington Post, June 15th. (Link)
On a bright Friday morning, Clyde and I set out for Alabama to aid in my elderly mother’s care.
I-22 East toward Tupelo routes us straight into a blinding yellow blaze. We squint and bat at our car’s sun visors. On either side of us, speed blurs the landscape into streaks of pasture green and asphalt gray punctuated by the sudden, stingy shade of a highway overpass.
Eager to reduce exposure to COVID as much as possible, we drive as far as we can without stopping. Today, that puts us in Jasper, Alabama, at Love’s Travel Stop #466. When the COVID shutdown began, this roadside oasis became a ghost town: gas pumps deserted, doors propped open, the Subway closed.
Today, we wait in line at crowded pumps. Ahead of us, an unmasked elderly woman wrestles with a filthy pump handle. She tilts her head back, narrows her eyelids, and peers through her bifocals at the touchscreen controls before licking her finger and jabbing at her selection.
A lanky family group — mom, dad, and two kids, all elbows and knees and pool-tanned limbs — jogs toward the convenience store. They brush shoulders with a retired couple meandering in the same direction. A man dressed in a a stained t-shirt that does not quite cover his belly, ragged shorts, and flip flops lumbers toward the McDonald’s. None of these people wears a mask.
Inside, the floor near the cash register is marked with social distancing X’s made of black duct tape. Everyone ignores them. Behind a plexiglass divider, two weary employees ring up purchase after purchase. They stand shoulder to shoulder; neither wears a mask.
I make my way to the restrooms. As I breathe in and out, my glass fog and clear, fog and clear. The only other customer wearing a mask is a plump Black woman. She glances at me, at my mask. I nod. She nods back, raises her eyebrows, and rolls her eyes at the unmasked shoppers as if to say, “These people!”
In Colera, Alabama, we roll into a busy little Burger King on Highway 31. We’re not generally subjects of the Burger King, but the availability of an easy vegan option — the Impossible Whopper, minus the mayo — put the chain back on our list of quick and easy stops.
Once inside, I note all staff members are masked. The problem, though, is how the staff wears them. The frantic women running the drive through have their masks tucked under their chins. The young man assembling hamburgers has his nose exposed. And in back, sweeping up a disastrous spillage of frozen chicken nuggets, a moon-faced male employee wears his mask looped over only one ear. As he clears the floor of chunks of breaded, frozen meat, his mask dangles to and fro, like an elastic and paper earring.
Only the slender young man at the cash register wears his mask correctly. His voice is soft, muffled by the black fabric across his nose and mouth. When I order the Impossible Whopper, he hesitates. “You know, that’s vegan.” He looks around, as though afraid of being overheard. “I have to tell people that, because they get these Impossible Whoppers, and they get mad and bring them back.”
“It’s okay,” I say. “I’m vegan.”
He laughs. “I guess folks around here aren’t that healthy.”
In Tallassee, Alabama, Clyde makes a grocery run to the WalMart. Many employees wear masks, but, as in Colera, compliance is haphazard. Clyde sees many exposed noses, many well-protected chins, and one staff member with a mask secured atop his head like a Jewish man’s kippah.
The store is packed with shoppers, their pockets heavy with Friday paychecks. The majority come from populations known to suffer most from COVID’s most devastating symptoms: Blacks, the elderly, the infirm, the morbidly obese. Meanwhile, the others — mostly giggling teenagers — roam the store in large, tight-knit packs, social distancing be damned.
On Saturday night, I pick up dinner from a local Mexican restaurant. After finding a narrow parking space in the crowded gravel lot, I pull on my mask and go inside.
The restaurant is a sensory riot: mariachi music, boisterous tables, the hiss of fajitas, the zing of cilantro, the pungent aroma of turmeric. Dinner is in full swing, and the harried staff bustle from one booth to the next, ferrying huge trays of chips and salsa. No one in the entire restaurant wears a mask but me, and slapdash social distancing measures — faint tape marks on the floors, efforts to space out booths or tables — appear to be more for looks than anything else.
The man who takes my order peers at my mask disapprovingly, but says nothing. While I wait, I notice the stares of other diners. Most will look away when I meet their eyes; one — a grotesquely overweight man with swollen, spotted, diabetic legs — smirks at me and shakes his head. New arrivals streaming in the door see me, see my mask, and pull their children closer.
The longer I’m there, the more hostile the vibe becomes. By covering my face during a plague, I’m misbehaving, disregarding local norms, making some kind of political statement.
On the way home, we stop in Birmingham to pick up groceries at the Cahaba Village Whole Foods Market and get Clyde’s cracked iPhone screen replaced at the Apple Store at The Summit.
At Whole Foods, a masked employee drops off our bags at the car. Even so, needing a restroom break, we park and go inside. Between the parking lot and the doors, employees have erected a tent, weighted down at the four concerns by large bottles of 365-brand water. Here, the very few shoppers that didn’t bring their own masks have the opportunity to pick one up (and to slather on hand sanitizer from the industrial-sized pump on the table). Many avail themselves of the option (“Please take just one,” the sign above the box of masks implores), but a handful of others bypasses the entry station, unchallenged.
Inside, well-intentioned corporate masters have plastered the floors with red and green “Wrong Way” and “One Way” signage. This kind of traffic routing probably made sense when eager executives discussed it over a Zoom video call; in practice, it’s bewildering, and our fellow shoppers, after a few attempts to obey, give in and just go with the flow.
Sample stations — plates of cheese, chopped fruits, paper ramekins of barbecue or microwave quinoa — have become a thing of the past. (A part of me wonders why anyone ever thought eating from a pawed-through discard pile of food scraps was a good idea.) Water fountains and beer taps have been shuttered, and the tall acrylic self-serve bins of beans, grains, and nuts remain empty. The former cafe section? Closed down, converted to an employees-only temperature-checking station, and, apparently, closed down and converted again … this time to a corral for stacked cafe furniture.
As we walk out the door, we meet two incoming young employees. They flirt with each other, grinning and laughing, their masks dangling from their chins.
A few minutes away, at the Summit, eager shoppers stand in line outside the boutique shops, awaiting their turn to spend some money. As I approach the Apple Store, I’m stopped by a masked security guard. He steps out into the sunlight from the meager shade of his red pop-up tent, raises a hand, and asks, “Have you been here earlier today?”
He nods. “Have you been coughing lately?”
He holds up a thermal scanner. “May I take your temperature?”
Whatever numbers pop up on the device satisfy him; he waves me on to the lines forming outside the Apple Store’s doors. I’m directed to a queue for pick-ups and drop-offs; the other line is for customers who want to go inside.
Every single Apple Store employee wears a mask.
The stout young man helping me makes short work of my needs. We chat about how happy I am that the Apple Store is taking precautions; he chats about how happy he is to be working in the store instead of working from home. He expedites my case, and I begin to feel an affinity for this staff member. We are urban. We are cool. We are compliant. We are on the same team.
We are masked men.
As we talk, a car drives past, piloted by a tall Black man. All the windows are down. The blaring music, with its blobby bass and distorted treble, completely obscures my new friend’s ability to communicate with me. After the cacophony fades into the distance, the Apple guy shakes his masked head. “I’m at work,” he says, “so I can’t say to you what I want to say about that.”
As we leave town, we snag take-out from Nori Thai and Sushi, a joint we choose more for its proximity than its Yelp reviews.
The cash-register attendant wears a mask; the sushi chef does not. Near the back of the cafe, a loud, large gentleman — a waiter? a manager? a cook? — lectures two captive customers about COVID-19. “I don’t know what all the fuss is about,” the man says, gesturing broadly. “It’s just the flu. It’s no different from the flu. And it’s over! Look around! People are everywhere. And no one is dropping dead in the streets! We need to open everything up. Enough of this! We need business!”
We do not eat in. We get in the car. We rub our hands with sanitizer until they feel raw. We pull off our masks. We eat our larb gai and tofu pad prik. We drive west, into the setting sun, headed home.
On this very Sunday, Alabama reported 1,014 new cases of COVID — the highest number of new cases ever reported in that state in one day. Since 74-year old Republican Governor Kay Ivey re-opened the state for business on April 30, the daily increase in confirmed cases has risen 264 percent.
News of New Albany’s “Peaceful March for Solidarity” first came to us as an attachment to a blank text message from an unknown number with a Los Angeles area code. The attached photo — a digital flyer from “The Board of Solidarity March in Union County” — invited us to a Sunday afternoon event featuring music, speakers, marching, and prayer.
At first, I suspected a scam. Why would this message come from an area code in California? Who were the people behind this “Board of Solidarity?” While the start and end points of the march were uniquely local (the park by the river, the courthouse), these are also two locations popularized on TripAdvisor. What if outsiders were promoting fake events as a way to stir up tension in small southern towns? (This kind of thing has happened before.)
And, to be more honest than I should be, I also thought to myself: “Is this the kind of event I’d expect to see in New Albany?”
In many ways, New Albany defies the stereotypes associated with small southern cities. Outsiders imagine a town populated exclusively by racist good old boys driving pick-up trucks with gun racks, confederate flag decals, and “Trump 2020” bumper stickers. (And, to tell the truth, I’ve seen that very truck driving through town.)
Sentiments are rarely as cut and dried as we like to think, and stereotypes should never be confused with truth.
But New Albany’s truth is far more complex. Some our citizens are racist; others are working hard to improve the lives of the Black and Immigrant communities here. Some are in pick-up trucks; some refuel their sleek electric cars at the charging station downtown. Some collect guns; some advocate for gun control. Some revere the confederate flag; others want it banned. And while some of my fellow New Albanians support Mr. Trump no matter what, we also know both Republicans and Democrats here who plan to vote for Biden in 2020.
In this, there is an lesson: sentiments are rarely as cut-and-dried as we’d like to believe, and stereotypes should never be confused with truth.
But … back to our anonymous invitation. After googling around provided no useful results, we reluctantly turned to Facebook for more information. On the one hand, we did find the flyer in circulation there; on the other, we considered that Facebook might be yet another venue for spreading the scam.
With time, though, it became clear the the invitation was authentic. (Our mysterious text message, it turned out, came from a local who returned here after living in California.) This left us with only one decision to make: to march … or not?
I’m relieved that my first inclination was to attend the march. I do believe America has deeply rooted, systemic prejudices against people of color. I’ve watched the brutality of the past few weeks with horror, disgust, and alarm. I do believe that black lives matter.
But I would be lying if I didn’t admit wondering how a protest march would be managed by local police … or whether the presence of peaceful protestors might move some our county’s most racist citizens to violence.
It occurred to me, though, that Black Americans face these tensions — the threat of police brutality and the possibility of racist violence — every day. Despite our uncertainties, we knew we really had no choice at all. We had to march.
By the time we arrived at the park along the river, a a large crowd (Clyde estimates around 250 people or more) had already assembled under the shade trees. Local police — in standard uniforms, not riot gear — were present, and, instead of striking intimidating poses or making shows of force, they were being helpful: directing traffic and arranging bright orange cones to block off the streets for marchers. (In other words: the New Albany police were doing exactly what the police should be doing in every town where peaceful protests are taking place.)
The crowd kept growing. A woman squealed with delight when she recognized friends; she danced over to them with her arms in the air, then gave each one of them a bear hug. Lanky teens in t-shirts and distressed jeans stood in tight clusters, their arms folded casually over their chests, laughing at private jokes and tapping their feet to the amplified music. Some volunteers handed out chilled water bottles to combat the oppressive heat; others signed people up to vote.
We saw familiar faces, too: folks from church, one of our pastors, and an always-inspiring local icon (in her eighties, braving exposure to the crowd and heat near ninety degrees) who said she wouldn’t have missed the march for the world.
There were also stark reminders of the harsh realities the world is facing. Roughly half the crowd wore t-shirts emblazoned with slogans: Black Lives Matter, I Can’t Breathe, We Shall Overcome. A twenty-something woman staggered past us, offering people handmade protest signage from a huge stack of posters in her overloaded arms. (Until that moment, it had never occurred to me that protest marchers don’t always make their own signs.)
And then, of course, there were the masks. By my count, about twenty percent of the crowd wore bandanas or surgical masks; of these, far too many people wore their protection below their noses or under their chins, rending it useless. Not far from where we stood, I watched a young man pull down his mask to chug water; he never replaced it.
On level after level, our government fails to protect its single most precious asset: its people.”
It struck me that the slogans and masks were harbingers of the same dark truth: we live in a world where, time and again, on level after level, our government fails to protect its single most precious asset: its people.
By the time the event began, Clyde estimated that about a thousand people — about one in seven of New Albany’s residents — had filled the park. The first speakers acknowledged the crowd and our reason for being there. Pastor Michael McField delivered an impassioned speech. Mary Beth Muncie, the choir director from our church, addressed the crowd, her voice breaking with emotion. Willie Brewster, a young man raised in New Albany and now living elsewhere, shared brutally honest remarks about his life as a black man. Music from local artists and the occasional prayers punctuated these presentations, and the atmosphere shifted, feeling less like a carnival and more like a religious service.
Eventually, the time came to march. Young men with bullhorns announced the text of the first chant. The crowd surged toward the street; people held signs aloft. Residents of downtown apartments came out on their balconies to watch us pass. I was proud that one of those residents — the eighty-year-old icon I mentioned earlier — had left behind the comfort of her balcony to immerse herself in the moment.
Our walk from the park along the river to the courthouse took about nine minutes — roughly the time it took for George Floyd to die at the hands of the Minneapolis police.
At the courthouse, we stood in the full glare of the afternoon sun. But despite the oppressive heat, the crowd lingered for a speech, a poem, a prayer, eight minutes and forty-six seconds of silence, a song. We sang “We Shall Overcome,” and it struck me as deeply, terribly sad that Black Americans have been singing that song for more than half a century. What tremendous faith it must take to believe, deep in one’s heart, after decades of injustice, that deliverance is still coming “some day.”
What tremendous faith it must take to believe, deep in one’s heart, after decades of injustice, that deliverance is still coming “some day.”
Clyde and I were humbled to participate in the march … and so proud to see so many in our new hometown participating alongside us. Here’s hoping we can carry the energy and intention of this moment into meaningful actions in the difficult days to come.
This morning, I was inspired by this blog post, written by a writer/photographer who realized quarantine is making him numb and unproductive. The way out of his funk?
Do. The. Work.
Or, as his own Inner Voice told him during a recent sleepless night: Get your mind working again.
Since quarantine began, I’ve been more productive than ever — for my employer. I’m writing scripts. I’m using Zoom to shoot short interviews with colleagues. I’m hosting virtual town halls. I’m spending hours in this little chair, in front of this little iMac, moderating calls and reporting progress.
I start early, sometimes by five-thirty in the morning. My schedule is frequently packed with conference calls and online meetings. I’m taking ten-minute lunches.
On good days, by four-thirty, I squeeze in a twenty-minute walk in the woods with Clyde and the dogs. On bad days, I find myself struggling to make time for bathroom breaks. Sometimes I catch myself still going at it, still sitting here, twelve hours after logging in. I have to force myself to get up, to shut down, to disconnect.
I work like this for others. Why haven’t I ever worked this hard for myself?
By most standards, I’m a prolific writer. I bang out successful proposals, engaging corporate video scripts, speeches for officers. It’s not unusual for me to crank out tens of thousands of words a day. The truth is, though, that the vast majority of these words are ephemeral — useful in the moment, but quickly forgotten as days become weeks become months become years.
I’m grateful to have spun my way with words into a way to make a living. I’m disappointed, though, that so few of the words I’ve written found their way into books.
During the first decade of this century, I published a string of non-fiction books on things like Tarot cards and computers and lucid dreams. But those credits are dusty now, and the days are sailing by, and the books I dreamed of writing languish on my computer, abandoned, unfinished.
This morning, I feel like I’m waking up from a decades-long dream. Writing used to define me. I wrote a dozen books. I posted almost daily to MadeByMark.com for fourteen years in a row. At some point, though, almost without realizing it, I gave up that part of myself.
I miss being that person: that writer, that blogger, that author.
If there’s an upside to quarantine (beyond simply “not dying”), it’s this: a lot of distractions have been stripped away. I’ve never been better positioned to show up, sit down, and make a book appear. I’ll certainly never have more time.
It’s time for my words to break quarantine. It’s time to prioritize creating something that will outlast me. It’s time to reclaim my identity as an author.
It’s time to Do. The. Work.
Image: A photo I shot when visiting Pompeii, Italy — a city built thousands of years ago that has long survived those who created it.