UPDATE: After writing this I realized what a jumbled mess it became. I’m posting it anyway because it really is intended as a way for me to think this through. I apologize for the rambling you’re about to be subjected to.
I work mostly with two kinds of notes: Thoughts and Records.
Thoughts are meant to be used as raw materials for new thoughts. Records are for logging events. Thoughts are most useful right now, but will also be used in the future. Records are only useful in the future. Thoughts work better as easy, visual notes. Records can be kept in a simple, permanent, plain-text format.
The difference here is that Thoughts should of course be as permanent as possible, but permanence is not their defining feature. Permanence is secondary to usefulness.
I struggle with note-taking tools because I always want it both ways. Bear with me while I think this through.
Here are the kinds things I write down. Of these, some are Thoughts and some are Records:
- What happened today? (Record)
- How am I feeling? (Record)
- Purchases (Record)
- Plans or ideas for the future (Thought)
- Project notes (Thought/Record)
- Notes about people (Thought/Record)
- Events related to people (Record)
- Notes on various topics (Thought)
Thoughts don’t work for me as a wall of plain text (Markdown, Org mode, etc). For example, while project notes usually contain Records, they are mostly Thoughts. I need to see them, sometimes one at a time and sometimes all at once. Ideally, I’m able to easily rearrange them. This is where plain text falls short. A bunch of short, specific notes (ala Zettelkasten) can be useful when kept as a folder full of Markdown files, but they don’t help me think. They don’t as often spark new ideas. I don’t learn as well. I become fatigued. They’re not as fun, you know?
Records, on the other hand, excel as plain text. I have text files that just keep growing with year after year of “Here’s what happened” notes. If I need to know when I last had a cold, a quick search and I’m done. And I know I’ll be able to look this up in 10 years if I need to. There’s no specific app needed. That’s comforting.
How does this relate to tools? Well now that’s the question, isn’t it? It’s the thing that causes me to waste inordinate amounts of time.
What about permanence?
Text files are permanent. They work with any OS and just about any app that deals in text. They’re easy to back up, version control, and manage using only the operating system’s file manager. They’re great! But, as I’ve described above, they aren’t as immediately useful for Thoughts.
I can open an area or document from any of those and quickly get a handle on everything about that topic that I’ve written. This is terrific and useful. But, how permanent are they? That depends on your definition of permanent. None of them are permanent in the their current form if the app goes away, but all of them can be exported to a format that I can use to find information using other tools if I had to.
All of this is great, but it means I should use different apps for Thoughts vs Records. I don’t want to do that. I want the One True Place™ for notes. If I prioritize permanance, that would mean Org mode or maybe Markdown text files. If I prioritize usefulness I’d want to use one of the others.
Do any of them work for everything?
Right now I’m going out on a limb and putting my money on Roam. Here’s why:
- Roam is designed as a place for everything. It works for both Thoughts and Records. It works very well for Thoughts.
- It’s browser-based so accessible from any device by default. Mobile app will come, but I’m not in a hurry for that. Roam’s author, Conor White-Sullivan, is not a fan of using mobile apps for writing or thinking, and neither am I, so we’re aligned there.
- Everything is easily exported to JSON or Markdown. Currently, neither of these formats are very useful, but I expect tools to be written that will do magical things with the JSON export.
- Some open source version of this will probably be released and I could potentially self-host, which would alleviate my privacy concerns.
- It’s said that they’ll be charging $12-$15 per month once it’s out of beta. That’s expensive, but could help with sustainability.
- Lots of very smart people are into Roam, and doing cool things with it.
Roam needs offline support, an API, and lots of refinements. I expect those to appear over time.
What about Org-roam? Org-roam is a fantastic pseudo Roam that leverages Emacs and Org mode. It’s very good and has been neck-and-neck with “real” Roam recently. The difference is that “real” Roam is simply easier to use and better at being Roam than Org-roam is.
So Roam wins this round of me searching for a “Second Brain”