Roam as a slip-box

Originally published 2020-02-01; last updated 2021-05-31.

Note: I’m no longer following the system described in this page.

The slip-box method

I’ve been experimenting with a new note-taking system. It’s called the “slip-box” method, so named because it originally comprised a literal box into which the notetaker would slip index cards.

The method excites me for two reasons. One: it’s a system for reflecting privately on the things I read—for checking my understanding, for improving retention of information, and for identifying questions to follow up on. Two: it’s a system for making connections between ideas. Creativity is mostly a matter of combining things in unusual ways, and the slip-box is a playground designed specifically for that.

So, what is it? Essentially, it is an incubation chamber for two types of written documents.

  • Literature notes are paraphrases of ideas and arguments encountered during research, complete with references.
  • Permanent notes are the notetaker’s ‘original’ thoughts.

Both types of notes are written in publishable-quality prose, and each note is meant to include enough detail that it could be read and understood on its own. The magic starts once you have enough notes that you can start connecting them to each other, prompting the creation of even more notes.

The inventor of the slip-box method, the German sociologist Niklas Luhmann, connected his notes manually with an intricate system of IDs. But now we have software that can manage connections for us. Enter Roam Research, a new note-taking power-tool that early users are going absolutely bonkers over. I too have joined the cult. Roam is special for many reasons, one of which is that it’s a perfect platform for building a modern slip-box. (Roam’s founder, Conor White-Sullivan, was heavily influenced by Luhmann.)

Still, I haven’t yet seen any accounts of how to use Roam as a slip-box. Despite being new to both Roam and the slip-box method, I thought I’d share my current system.

If you aren’t familiar with Roam, you should go read Nat Eliason’s Roam: Why I Love it and How I Use It. If you want to learn more about the slip-box method, read Sönke Ahrens’ book How to Take Smart Notes or Yuxi Liu’s summary of it.

Roam as a slip-box

When I first started experimenting with the slip-box method in Roam, I had three questions:

  1. Where should I write my notes? Should each note be its own page, or its own block? How should I manage note metadata, if at all?
  2. How should I distinguish between types of notes? How should literature notes be categorized separately from permanent notes, and how should both of them be categorized separately from other uses of Roam?
  3. How should I connect my notes to each other? By inline page links, by sub-blocks, or something else?

My answers to these questions are in three Roam features:

  • Daily Notes pages. I write all my literature notes and permanent notes as individual blocks in my daily notes. This makes it easy to track when I wrote each note, and means that other notes or thoughts can be conveniently added in parallel without needing to bounce around between pages.

  • Tags: I have a tag for literature notes (#litnote) and a tag for permanent notes (#permnote). I include these tags, as well as any relevant reference material, at the end of the relevant blocks. When I want to see all my literature notes or permanent notes together, I can go to the litnote or permnote pages and see them in the linked references.

  • Block references: Roam allows inline links to other pages, but sometimes you don’t want to link a block to a whole page, but simply to another block. For this I use block references: by typing double parentheses and searching for the original block of interest, I can insert that block into my current block at any point and add whatever additional information I want to include in my new note.

You can see me using all three of these features in my daily notes page from January 18th:

I like this system because it makes many things easy. I can compose, categorize, connect, and track my notes all at the speed of thought, without being prevented from using Roam for other purposes.

Still, my system will surely keep evolving. I don’t consider myself a Roam poweruser, so if you are one and you have suggestions, please do send them my way.

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