Part III: Building A Second Brain — Using Notion and Roam Research

by | Mar 20, 2020 | General Information, Neuroscience | 15 comments


Using Notion and Roam for GTD, Zettelkasten, and Progressive Summarization.


When I think about my childhood, only a few memories come to mind. Practicing for a dance show that my friends and I hosted every year for our 20 or so neighbors in a suburb. Spilling milk all over myself as I resist my mom trying to make me drink it. Asking my brother to buy me a raspberry popsicle while walking back from school everyday. But overall, it all seems like a mushy potpourri mostly filled with seemingly random names and faces.

This has always unsettled me, not being able to recollect all of my past memories and thoughts. I wish I could close my eyes and replay some of those innocent childhood experiences, to understand the kind of person I was, and how I’ve evolved over the years. I’m positive that the technology needed to enable this science-fiction-like ability will be created in this lifetime, but until then, it’s on us to externalize our thoughts and experiences as they occur, so our limited working memory is put to good use.

As you can see from the title, this is the third and final part of a series that I wrote on metaphorically building the second brain. The part I focuses on building a history of information dissipation over the years, and the part II focuses on a history of human memory, attention, and recall. In this article, there’s no history (..okay there’s some). It’s purely focused on tools and implementation. Specifically, I picked two productivity tools that have reduced my cognitive load greatly by letting me off-load much of what goes on in my brain to an external entity. If you’re in need of a better system to manage your tasks and ideas, I recommend reading ahead.


What is Notion

I was introduced to Notion by a friend back in February, 2019. Notion calls itself the all-in-one workspace for your notes, tasks, wikis, and databases. I fell in love soon after I began using it because of its minimalistic design and flexibility. In fact, a feedback that I gave to the team through Intercom turned into an email conversation that lead to me visiting their HQ in San Francisco to write an article on them back in July, 2019.



In Notion, every single piece of content is considered a block. You can convert a word into a new page and condense pages into tables. When you open it for the first time, all you see is a white screen before you waiting to be populated with Kanban boards, toggle lists, all sorts of media and databases. While the flexibility can sometimes be overwhelming, it has led to a flurry of use cases ranging from a cafe guide in San Francisco to being used by startups for their roadmaps. ‘I know it wasn’t made for this purpose, but Notion is the perfect tool to track and organize a Dungeons and Dragons campaign,’ says Dave Snider, a web designer, on Twitter.

We want to break away from today’s tools — and bring back some of the ideas of the early pioneers [such as Alan Kay and Doug Engelbart]. As a first step, we are blending much of your workflow into an all-in-one workspace. Want a task list? A product roadmap? A design repository? They are now all in one place. You can even customize your own workspace from dozens of LEGO-style building blocks. Solve your problems your way, bounded only by your imagination. — About Notion


A gallery of beautiful and incredibly useful templates anyone can use


The founders have a strong affinity for history and design. Ivan Zhao, one of the co-founders, doesn’t want his designers to look at Dribbble for inspiration. Rather, he wants them to take a step back and look at the long history of design itself. ‘Use first principles thinking, what some people call systems thinking. Don’t base your approach just on copying and tweaking a little bit of what other people have done. Take a step back, and see how you can fundamentally solve it.’ he says in an interview.

I was lucky in that when I began using Notion, I did not have another tool which made me reluctant to switch. However, I know people generally invest a lot in creating their personal workspace and encounter a good amount of friction to shift to a new tool. Notion does make this easy by allowing you to import all your data from tools such as Evernote and Asana within a few clicks. But I recommend using the free version of the product first before making a decision to pay the $4/month for the premium (and much-needed) features. Or, you can sign up here using my referral link to earn a $10 credit and gift me $5 to check out the paid version. 🎁No pressure though 🙂 


How I Use Notion for Getting Things Done (GTD)


My dark-themed Notion workspace


Clearly, Notion has a plethora of use cases. But in this post, I’ll talk about one of the more germane ones which will come in handy for anyone who wants a better way to manage their tasks. GTD is a term made popular by David Allen, through his book… well, Getting Things Done. The premise of the concept is to free up your limited mental energy by externalizing all the work you need to do in actionable chunks and ensuring that you do them. Simple enough, right?

One of the basic assumptions of GTD is that you are dumb — or, rather, that your subconsciousness is quite dumb when it comes to thinking about things you should do. For example knowing you need to get your watch repaired, but instead of reminding you when you actually bike past the watch store, it implants an incessant feeling of “I need to remember … something” in your brain. — A pretty good post on GTD

When I want to take a certain book to the office to return it or remember to take the umbrella because it might rain, I don’t trust my brain to remind me in the morning. Rather, I place these items on top of the dining table where I generally keep my work phone, so I know the visual cue will help me remember in the morning. With all these tools, the goal is to externalize whatever you can, so your mind has a lot of real estate to come up with awesome ideas.

GTD urges you to do this by writing down a list of everything that comes to your mind at any point in time, and assign appropriate tags to them so you know when to do what. Every time you have a new task at hand, you either do it right away, defer it to be done later, delegate it to someone else, or just disregard it because it’s not useful or needed anymore. I highly recommend reading this guide which explains it better than I can. Check out this rad illustration from the same guide.


Photo Courtesy of Erlend at Hamberg


I read about the concept of GTD only recently, but realized I had been practicing it in some capacity for over a year. But reading about it helped me change the way I managed my tasks further. While the GTD concept asks you to organize your tasks as in, next actions, someday/maybe, and waiting with the appropriate tag for context and projects, I do it quite differently. Below is the Default dashboard in my GTD workspace. Here is my template which you can duplicate to play around with it yourself.


My GTD default view


Take a close look above. As you can see, each task above has a few columns associated with it:

  • Status: This has four tags — This Week (I’m working on it in the current week), To Do, Done, Unplanned (for tasks that arise during the on-going week), and Delayed (for tasks that I’m unable to complete this week).
  • Project: I’m still setting this up, but I want to attach each task to an overarching project that I’m working on. For e.g., Read 25 books this year, Launch your first book, etc.
  • Vertical: Think of this as the top-most level in terms of the various verticals in life.
  • (Optional) # Hours: A rough estimate of the number of hours it will take me to complete the task, so I assign it to a day in the week accordingly.
  • (Optional) Due date: For those tasks that have a hard deadline, like sending the bi-weekly newsletter.
  • Day: This will make more sense in a minute I swear.
  • Week: This is where my template differs from the GTD method. While the GTD asks you to focus on the tasks for today, I prefer seeing all the tasks that I need to perform in a week, since I have a pretty standard routine throughout the week.

Now, each of the tasks that have a This Week tag gets automatically assigned to the view of the week. What do I mean? Before finding out about GTD, I used to sit on Sunday nights and figure out my goals for the next week. Since it was hard to plan beyond a few days, I generally resorted to planning just for the upcoming day, i.e., Monday. On Monday night, I would do the same for Tuesday. In the end, it looked something like this:


A typical week, before using GTD


However, this system wasn’t efficient for a few reasons:

  • If I wanted to work on something the next week, I couldn’t add it yet
  • I didn’t track the tasks I did to an overarching project (even though many of them had one)
  • If something wasn’t completed, I had to manually copy and paste it for the next week.

But now, after using GTD, all I need to do is sit on Sunday nights, look through all my upcoming tasks, and add the ones I want to work on for the upcoming week by changing the status to This Week. This is also when I assign a Day to the task, although this can be modified slightly during the week as well. By doing this, I can see a list of all the tasks for the week in a different view, as below:


A single pane view of tasks for the upcoming week


Note: To create a view, click on Default View, add a view, assign it a structure (Table, Board, Calendar..) and play around with the Group by and Filter options on top left.

As you can see, by simply assigning the Status and Day to the tasks, I can generate this view for every week. Once a certain task is complete, I just need to mark it Done for it to disappear from this view. The reason to use such a template is purely a personal choice, and I highly encourage you to experiment with finding something that works best for you.

All in all, Notion is almost an all-in-one workspace for me — it is where I keep track of the books I read, people I meet, and daily tasks. One area where it doesn’t meet the bar, probably because it wasn’t built for this, is when I need to connect ideas. Enter Roam Research.


What is Roam Research

I came across Roam Research about two months ago through a newsletter. After navigating through a slightly clunky on-boarding process, I was instantly captivated because of the pithy one-liner: A note-taking tool for networked thought. 

Roam is an online workspace for organizing and evaluating knowledge. The system is built on a directed graph, which frees it from the constraints of the classic file tree. Users can remix and connect ideas in multiple overlapping hierarchies, with each unit of information becoming a node in a dynamic network. — The Roam White Paper

As explained in this useful video, the fundamental feature that separates Roam from all the other note-taking apps is its ability to create nodes that can be surfaced at any point in time with all its related context. This mirrors the way humans think. When you think of the word apple, you don’t simply add that under the category of fruits. You might also think about an apple for the categories things that are red, things I like eating for breakfast, things I do not want in a pie, and so on. When our brain stores a piece of information, it can retrieve that in more than one way (and through more than one of our senses).

Here are two of the most compelling properties of the human brain and its design: Richness and Associative Access. Richness refers to the theory that a large number of things you’ve never thought or experienced are still there, somewhere. Associative Access means that your thoughts can be accessed in a number of different ways by semantic or perceptual associations — memories can be triggered by related words, by category names, by a smell, an old song or photograph, or even seemingly random neural firings that bring them up to consciousness. — The Organized Mind


A representation of various ways our mind can be reminded of the word ‘fire truck’


This is exactly what Roam tries to achieve. While all the other tools try to shelve information in a taxonomy of files, folders, and categories, Roam wants us to be able to access a piece of information through all its connected notes. It wants to shed the age-old concept of storing information in a single hierarchy and move to a graphical connection of networked thoughts. Below, a few features in Roam are shown.



Assume I create a page on Indian History and paste some content into it that I found online.



Now, when I’m writing an article on Indian history and want to reference something from this page, all I need to do is choose the option Block Reference (‘/’ brings up a list of commands) and start typing a few words for it to auto-populate. Once I reference it, I can also check the content from that page by shift-clicking on it so it pops up on the right. I know this is super non-intuitive when I explain, so check out the GIF below.



This unparalleled ability to access information associatively is what makes our human mind one of the most efficient and complex artifact in the world (consuming the same amount of power as a dim light bulb), and the reason Roam has developed a cult-like fan following in a short amount of time.


#roamcult has officially become a trend on twitter



How I Use Roam for Zettelkasten and Progressive Summarization 

If there is one name that comes to mind when the topic of sociology is discussed, it is of Niklas Luhmann — a sociologist, thinker, and prolific writer. Luhmann published 70 books and over 400 scholarly articles in his 40 year career, effectively publishing seven books every four years. By any estimate, that represents an insane amount of productivity. He attributes his success to something called the Zettelkasten, which is a german word that translates into slip-box.


Photo Courtesy of David Clear


Instead of writing down ideas in notebooks, Luhmann wrote them down in small index cards which he linked with each other in a way that reading one of them will lead you to all the connected cards, which will lead you to even more connected cards, thus helping you borrow and amalgamate ideas from different books and topics. Sounds similar to Roam, doesn’t it?

The unadulterated method of using this system is explained in comprehensive detail in this blog post, hence I won’t venture into that. While using index cards to record my thoughts is currently on my radar (I’ve put in the order for 300 3×5 cards and a set of multi-colored PILOT pens), what I wanted to show below is how you can implement this digitally using Roam. Although, note that this should not be considered in any way as a substitution — or enhancement — of the original method.

On the other hand, Progressive Summarization is a concept created by Tiago Forte, a knowledge management and productivity leader. He envisions it as a way to capture notes so that you find the right balance between context and compression. This is important since when you’re reading a note that you took three months ago today, you want to be able to understand the essence of it without having to read a two page document.

It is a method for opportunistic compression — summarizing and condensing a piece of information in small spurts, spread across time, in the course of other work, and only doing as much or as little as the information deserves. — Tiago Forte

He suggests doing this through many layers. Let’s say you’re reading an article: first, you need to copy the important passages from the article you read. Next, you bold the passages you really liked, and the highlight some among them. Then, you pick the highlighted passages to add your own thoughts. Finally, and this doesn’t always apply, you realize that by adding enough thoughts and combining concepts from other articles you’ve read you are on the brink to release a new piece of content into the world.


Photo Courtesy of Forte Labs


As you can see, Zettelkasten and Progressive Summarization can be combined in Roam. Below are a few ways I do that today (still an amateur here):

a) Capturing random thoughts: Every time a thought pops into my head as I’m reading an article, I create a new node (or page) in Roam to record that, as shown below. I transfer the highlights from the article using a tool called Weava.


You can see I added my thoughts under the tag #ps2 (progressive summarization level 2)


b) Capturing book highlights: When I read a book now, I transfer the highlights of whatever I read in a particular day from Kindle to Roam, and add my own thoughts under certain highlighted paragraphs.



A nifty tool that I found to transfer highlights was Readwise’s Bookcision. If you’re new to Readwise, consider using my invite link so we both get a free mont. No pressure though. 🙂

c) Capturing notes from a course: I recently began taking an online course, and found that a great way to capture the notes to revisit later on is by using Roam.



As you can see, in each of the note above, there is always a signature at the beginning of each note to give context around it. Each note has many #tags associated with it, so I can search for these at any time. Each note also has highlights and my own thoughts recorded (if any) under them, so I can play around with this as I accumulate more content. A nifty feature in roam is that it also gives you a reference for every page — i.e., a reference list containing all the other pages that mention this page, both directly and indirectly. For e.g., the page Memory has 39 references from the books, articles, and courses I’ve consumed.



If I was writing an article on this topic, it gives me a single pane view of everything I know about this so far, making it easy to connect and work on new ideas.

Beyond what is mentioned, Roam has a plethora of other use cases that I’m still exploring myself. It can be used to craft an article, set up a task management workflow, and even practice spaced repetition. For starters, I recommend beginning to use Roam as a note-taking app, until you find the need to do more. Like Notion, the value of Roam gets unlocked in unprecedented ways based on your need, so there will be always be a better way to do something.



That was a lot of information, I know. You know what I do when I read such an article? I highlight the paragraphs that pique my interest, transfer the highlights into Roam, add my own thoughts to it, and if I come up with a good idea, add a task to my Notion GTD to write something about it. This article is all about implementation, and the best time to begin that would be right now. 🙂


If I’ve managed to hold your attention so far, consider signing up for my newsletter below where I explore a new concept about the way our mind works and suggest nifty tools and techniques like the above for you to be more productive. Until then, happy learning!