How I Use Roam Research to Take Smart Notes

September 28, 2020

If your more visual, watch a video instead.Smart Notes was developed by a Professor at the University of Dusiburg-Essen, who doubles as a life coach on time-management and decision making. He was inspired by 20th century German sociologist Niklas Luhman. Luhman was a prolific note taker, writer, and academic. His method on taking notes was rather different.

Most people, when taking notes on a book or podcast, link those notes to the podcast or book title. In other words, they link them to the context they were written in. “How I Built This” is a podcast interviewing founders to hear the story of how their company started. One of my favorite episodes was on Power Rangers because hello, their awesome. Typically, the notes I would have taken on that podcast end up in a folder labeled “Podcasts” or a sub folder for “How I Built This”. This is what most people do. They take and store notes based on the context on which they were founded.

The problem Luham found with that method, is that the only way to recall those notes was if you remembered to look back on that exact topic. There was no easy way to link thoughts together from one source to the next. This made it difficult for people to use sources they found four to five months prior because they would often forget they took them.

In response to that problem, Luham developed a system to link the notes he took to others through a systematic nomenclature method. He would then store all the note cards in a system called the ‘Slip-Box’ or “Zettelkasten” in German, which is where the name ‘Zettelkasten Note Taking Method’ comes from. The notes that were similar to each other were linked through the numbering system. This made sure that no matter how long ago he took the notes, there was a system to go back and recall them.

This is where Sonk Ahrens, the Professor who wrote How to Take Smart Notes expanded upon the topic. In the book, he identifies three types of notes we should take for each source.

  1. Fleeting Notes (Original Notes)
  2. Literature Notes
  3. Permanent Notes

The fleeting notes, or original notes, are the initial al notes you take when reading about, or listening to a new topic. Original notes have no system, rules or structure. They’re just notes.

Literature notes are notes you take based off of the fleeting notes. They are ideas you have based on the highlights or quotes found in the source. Literature notes are in your own words, with the source referenced.

Finally, you take the permanent notes. Permanent notes are one long list of every idea you have ever encountered that you have wanted to memorize or refer back to later. They are based off your literature notes for each source.

Now that we understand what Smart Notes are, let’s take a look at how to do this in Roam Research.

How to do This In Roam

Before Roam, it was very difficult to take bi-directional linking notes. Notion, like other note taking apps, allows you to nest pages inside of others, but it doesn’t automatically link back out. This is where Roam is powerful.

Step 1: Create a New Page

Make a new page in Roam and name it whatever the title of the source is. I’m going to be using On Writing by Stephen King. This is your original notes page. Add a Ref. block and link the [[Author] and any other pages you would like your original notes to appear on in an indented block. To add an indented block, press ENTER and then TAB.

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Step 2: Add Notes or Import Highlights

If you’re stuck in the 90’s you can write out all your highlights or notes from the source under a ‘Highlights’ block. If you have a Kindle, import the highlights from the book. You can do this at Use the Bookcision Chrome Extension. Download as plain text file. Open the file, press CMND+A, then CMND+C. Go back to Roam, add the ‘Highlights’ block and paste the highlights in an indented block.

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Step 3: Add Literature Notes

In the Ref block, insert an indented [[]] tag and within that tag write, “Literature Notes - ‘Source Name’”. Shift+Click the new page, opening it up in the side bar.

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This is the fun part. Begin going down your original notes page one by one. If a highlight sticks out to you or you want to remember it, write that idea/highlight in the literature notes section in your own words. It’s very important to not copy and paste, as that does nothing to build out your own ideas.

ALT/OPTION drag the highlight from the original notes in an indented block underneath the related idea. This allows the new idea you came up with to be linked to the source. Continue this process until the end of the original notes.

Note: Not every highlight has to be related to an idea. Be selective on what you choose to transfer over and allow to take up space in your mind.

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Step 5: Link to Permanent Notes

This is where we link our thoughts to others, transferring them out of the abyss of ideas in the world to actionable, reviewable notes.

Similar to how we narrowed our Original Notes down, we’re going to do that with the Literature Notes. This time, however, you’re going to be more picky. Each idea you want to remember and continue studying ,you’re going to create a new page for.

Do this by highlighting the idea you wrote into your own words and press “[[", which creates a page for that idea. Click the page, opening it up in the left window.

Add a ‘Ref’ block, followed by a link to your permanent notes page. I like to use emojis on my master pages because it helps me separate them from random, unlinked pages.

Add an indented block and link the original notes page and the author.

Beneath those tags, type ‘Keywords’ and add an indented block. Within that block, add keywords in a context in which you would want to identify the idea again, not where the idea is from. Adding keywords, instead of linking to a new page, ensures the ability to filter through those keywords when writing about that subject. Adding keywords to a page is better than linking to a new page. Keywords are added by using the ‘#’ symbol.

You can add a ‘Note’ indented block in the the ‘Ref’ block, explaining in 1-3 sentences what the idea is and how it can be used. This is not necessary if the idea title is self-explanatory.

Refer back to your Literature Notes page, and continue doing this process for any idea you want to memorize or link to back to another idea. You do not have to use each highlight, as you can refer back to the literature notes whenever necessary.

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Step 6: Review Permanent Notes

Congratulations, you have successfully taken smart notes in Roam Research. Every note taken today is linked back to the Original Notes page, which is linked to the Literature Notes page, which is linked to the Permanent Notes page. This is the beauty of Roam, bi-directional linking.

The last step is to review your Permanent Note master document. These are all the notes you have decided to link back to, memorize, study, and understand to further your knowledge and perspective in the world.

Step 7: Become a Genius

‘Nough said.

Have questions? Send me an email!

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