About two years ago, I began using a tool to capture my ideas: Roam Research.
In the beginning, I used Roam as a dumping ground of information. Whenever I came across an article or piece of writing I found insightful, I would copy the entire text and paste it inside Roam, with an appropriate title and timestamp as shown below.
Figure: A note captured on February 21st, 2020, at 4:57 PM.
Except… the inefficiency of this approach was soon apparent.
What was the point of capturing and dumping information if it was never to be looked at?
That’s when I began thinking about an effective way to capture ideas — as opposed to just information — and building a framework to produce new ideas from those captured.
In this article, I describe the simple framework I use to capture ideas effectively and cross-pollinate them, so they lead to new insights.
Curious to learn more about Roam Research? Check out this free guide I wrote on Building A Second Brain where I give you a tour of the tool!
The Mind Garden Framework
There is something about gardens and nature… that draws me in. Perhaps it spurs from spending almost every evening of my 2019 and 2020 in a park, surrounded by trees with a book in hand. Whatever the reason, I am grateful for it.
The Mind Garden framework draws a parallel between the evolution of an idea and the evolution of a tree with the following analogies,
- A seed equals a source of information, in the form of an article, video, book, podcast, or even just a conversation with a friend.
- A leaf equals extracting insights from a source of information, in the form of extracting highlights of an article, video, book, podcast, or conversation, and writing it in your own words.
- A seedling equals building a new insight from existing insights, by spotting a connection between two leaves.
- A plant equals aggregating insights to form a well-researched idea, by connecting seedlings with leaves and seeds. The output of a plant is generally an article or long-form essay.
- A tree equals an entirely new body of work filled with ideas, which could be in the form of a book, course, thesis, and more. Trees take years to be nurtured in the mind garden.
Implementing The Mind Garden Framework on Roam Research
I implement the Mind Garden framework in a simple way in Roam: Adding Metadata. Every note I create in Roam has metadata on top that describes what the page is about when it was created, and what topics it falls under. Below are examples of seed, leaf, seedling, and plant from my Roam workspace. This seed is an article I read on the introduction to DAOs. The content you see there is a copy and paste of the entire article. Please observe the metadata of how I have formatted a seed.
The picture shown below is a leaf that contains the highlights I took from watching a video on storytelling by Andrew Stanton. The content mentioned in the leaf is my own interpretation from watching the video, rather than the exact transcription of the video.
The following seedling contains my thoughts after reading an article on MasterClass. The content is written is not from the article, but rather my take on the issues with MasterClass.
Finally, this plant is an article I published based on months of ideation and research. So far, I’ve been treating every article I publish to be a plant.
To make my job simpler, I have a page called Metadata with pre-created tags so I only need to copy and paste them when I create a new note.
Connecting Ideas on Roam Research
A reason why Roam generated a cult following was because of its lack of structure. Unlike Evernote or OneNote or Google Docs, a new page in Roam does not fall under a folder or category. It is free to roam (pun intended) the Roam workspace, akin to a neuron in our brain. But unlike a neuron in our brain, you have to do the work of connecting pages in Roam. I have demonstrated how to connect pages in the following text.
There are two ways you can connect pages in your Roam workspace,
- Mentioning one page inside the other: This is the straightforward way. You can mention one page inside another via the “[[ ]]” command or the “#” command. Below is an example where I’ve mentioned the page “Adora Cheung” inside the note and other pages next to the “Source” tag. All this was done manually.
- Adding tags: I know you’re already thinking… but I thought the point of Roam was no tags? Sadly, I tried that early on but all it lead to was a dump of information were finding an idea was akin to a needle in a haystack. To me, adding tags helps connect ideas from disparate topics. As one example, if I wanted to take a look at all of my leaves that fall under the “happiness” tag, the following show up. If I were to ever write about happiness, I already have 7 ideas thoughtfully captured from various topics.
Some of the basic yet seemingly irreplaceable inventions such as suitcases with wheels, toaster ovens, and alarm clocks were a result of people seeing connections and patterns that no one else saw. Even the printing press came into existence when Johannes Gutenberg combined the flexibility of a coin punch with the power of a wine press.
Sam Hinkie, the General Manager of NBA’s 76ers, and one of the greater thinkers of our time wrote the following in his resignation letter,
“Whenever possible, I think cross-pollinating ideas from other contexts is far, far better than attempting to solve our problems in basketball as if no one has ever faced anything similar. Accordingly, this approach comes from a frequent search into behavioural economics, cognitive science, and a lot of observation and trial and error over my 11 years in the NBA. And mistakes. Lots and lots of mistakes.”
Roam, and the framework I built on top, gives me a chance to make this cross-pollination simple. Almost too simple.
Power of Idea Capture & Niklas Luhmann
There was a german sociologist by the name of Niklas Luhmann in the 1900s who, in his lifetime, published 50 books and 600 scholarly articles on a variety of subjects including the economy, politics, art, religion, ecology, and mass media. Many of his works became classics in their respective fields and over half a dozen books were published after his death based on almost finished manuscripts lying around in his office.
How was he able to create so much in just a matter of 50 years?
The answer might seem too simple to be true (although it is!).
It was through taking down ideas on small index cards. That’s all.
For a while, Luhmann took notes the way most people did back then, and probably even now: commenting in the margins of a textbook or creating handwritten notes by topic. However, soon, he realized that this did not lead to any new insight.
So he built his own system and termed it the Zettelkasten, which is german for “slip-box.” Any time he had an idea while reading something, he would create two index cards:
- One index card containing the bibliographical information such as the title of the book and page number to reference, and
- A second index card containing his thoughts on what he read and how they relate to his work and perhaps to another card in his slip box.
In his lifetime, he created more than 90,000 index cards. That might seem like a lot, but if you break it down over the 50 years when he was prolific, it comes down to 5 cards a day. A number that most of us are more than capable of achieving.
However, the goal of the Zettelkasten is not a collection. Instead, it is connection.
One hundred cards that are richly connected to each other are better than 1,000 cards that do not communicate.
Writing this article took me less than two hours.
Because I had already accumulated the ideas that went into it over the past two years, and all I had to do was peer into my second brain to connect the insights together.
This is the power of effective idea capture and connection.
You have brilliant ideas every day. You owe it to yourself to capture some of them.
Perhaps you can begin with the ideas you had from reading this article?