Roam vs. Notion: Which Tool For Productivity?

***My thoughts on the topic of Roam vs. Notion have changed as of June 2020 and I explain how I'm now using Roam for my productivity stack in this article. ***

I've used Notion over the last year to organize my life. One of my mentors, a cofounder of Proof, recommended it to me in early 2019 to help with organization. After reading Nat Eliason's article last week on switching to Roam this year, I had to give it a try. Here's my comparison after a week of using Roam.

Table Of Contents:  

  1. What’s The Hype About Roam?
  2. How Does Notion Differ From Roam? 
  3. How I Currently Use Notion For Productivity
  4. My Notion Daily Routine Template
  5. Daily Goal Review In Notion
  6. Tracking Goal Progress With Notion
  7. Saving Articles, Books, & Tools, With Notion Web Clipper
  8. My Experience With Roam

What’s The Hype About Roam?

Everyone seems to be talking about Roam right now. After reading Nat’s article, I spent hours transferring everything I had already built in Notion into Roam’s format. One of the main benefits to Roam is the blazing fast page building function. This allows you to build pages within your writing by using the “[[]]” command. For example, if I wanted to build a page called “Roam” I would type [[Roam]] and a page would be automatically built. This differs from its competitors. In Roam, you get to focus on the writing while the page building takes care of itself. The page building function feels seamless and fluid within your writing. No page lives within another page. Each page lives separately from one another, but at the same time, can be referenced by or linked to any other page.

For example, I built a page this morning called [[coffee at dcm]] in the daily notes page. I wanted a place to house all of the questions I plan to ask potential coworking customers. When I type [[coffee at dcm]] inline of my notes, a new page is automatically created.I can Shift+click [[coffee at dcm]] to open the page in a sidebar and add the questions I’d like to quickly take note of while they’re top of mind. Now, anytime I have another note in the future where I reference [[coffee at dcm]] inline, I’ll be able to quickly pull up a refresher of the questions I need to ask. This is hands down my favorite part of Roam. 

How Does Notion Differ From Roam? 

As I mentioned above, I’ve enjoyed using Notion to organize my life throughout the last year. It differs from Roam in the sense that it’s built with a hierarchy structure, similar to Evernote. This structure has an effect on page building. If I want to build a page called “Roam” in Notion, I would need to put some thought process to where this page would live in my current hierarchies. I’d go through the following questioning:

1. Is it a topic relevant enough to the categories I currently have in my sidebar? If yes, where does it fit in? 

2. If no, is it important enough to live on my sidebar? 

3. If the answer is no to adding it to the sidebar, do I even need to build the page? 

Page building requires more thought and planning when using Notion. As mentioned above with Roam, page building is inline and almost effortless. With all this being said I’ve found Notion to be helpful for keeping track of my progress towards achieving my long term goals.

How I Currently Use Notion For Productivity

My current Notion goal tracking system consists of 3 equally important pieces: 

  1. Daily Routine Template
  2. Goal Board in “Board View”
  3. Archive

My Daily Routine Template In Notion

I begin each day by opening up a Daily Routine template and titling it with the day of the week and date such as “Thursday 1/23.”I built this template to tell me exactly what I need to do each day when I wake. As soon as I make my coffee, I open my computer and begin going through my finish list. (I’ve decided to replace calling it a “to-do” list with “finish list” to reframe how I approach these lists in my mind.) This finish list tells me exactly what I need to do so I don’t spend any precious morning willpower thinking about what needs to get done. 

As you can see, I have sections built out that allow me to quickly go through my morning and evening routines in an organized fashion. I begin each day with my morning routine which consists of daily habits such as meditation, drinking green juice, gratitudes, journaling, goal review, and exercise. Some stages require me to check a box on the finish list. Others prompt me to take another action in Notion, such as reviewing my goals in my “Goals” tab or answering Gary Keller’s One Thing question. The first 4 items of my morning routine above are self explanatory. Once I get to the “review goals” checklist, I’ll transition over to my Goal board. 

How I Quickly Review Long And Short Term Goals With The Notion Goal Board

Another feature I enjoy about Notion is the built-in Goal template. Quick note:  I don’t use this kanban board for the typical kanban “drag and drop between column” function. I use it more so as a way to review the goals within each column and quickly scroll through my list to the next due date. See my example separated in two screen shots below: 

I’ve structured my goals this way by design so I can start with my “why” listed at the top of the 3 year goal column. My “why” goal is ultimately what’s driving every other goal listed in the following columns. I can scroll to the right to break down my “why” into the actionable steps that need to happen in the shorter terms. Why 3 years? 

To me, 3 years seems to be the threshold in my brain where “realistic goal” and “dream” crossover in my mind. A dream is something you wish you COULD have, whereas a goal is something you believe you WILL achieve. Once I begin to think beyond 3 years I begin to brainstorm thoughts that seem more like dreams in my current reality. Part of achieving goals is by first believing in yourself. As long as I’m being 100% transparent, the belief level begins to decrease the further I think past 3 years. What’s the point of going after something if you don’t believe in yourself to achieve it? I’m working to set myself up for success here. I’ve identified the goals in which I already believe I can achieve. Once I’ve made the decision in my mind to believe in myself, anything over 3 years feels like active procrastination. I believe that I can put an actionable plan together to achieve my realistic big goals in 3 years.

One of the main goals that drives me is to buy a secluded property in the mountains for my family to enjoy together in retirement. My parents are getting close to the age, and I’d love nothing more than to spend my free time at a cabin in the mountains with them in the foreseeable future. Physically reading this goal each morning motivates me to keep pushing forward. I believe it’s important to revisit the “why” on a daily basis. I also believe it’s equally important to break your “why” down into actionable steps. Seeing my long term goals broken down by year, quarter, month, and week allows me to stay on track with the most important things to get done. Without something like this, I’ve noticed it becomes easy to get distracted and off track. Upon completing my goal review process on the Goal board, I will jump back into my Daily Routine page to continue my finish list. 

Tracking Goal Progress With Notion

I will go into detail more on how I go about my daily routine here but I’d like to stay on overall organization structure in this article. At the end of the day I review my Daily Routine page to shut down my work day. Once I complete a Daily Routine, I log it into my archive under the respective week so I can save it for future reference should I ever need it. I’ve structured my archive to contain similar templates to the Daily Routine template. I have a template built out for weekly, monthly, quarterly, yearly, 2 year, and 3 year routines. These routines are similar in the sense that I have a function to prompt me to plan and review as I go. As you can see in the screenshot below, I have a template built titled “Weekly Goals.” At the beginning of each week I create a new weekly page and title it for its respective week such as “Week 3 - Jan 20.” This allows me to plan the week on the front end, keep track of important items throughout the week, and review the week on the backend. 

This page is also where I log my Daily Routines for the week. For example, when I completed “Wednesday 1/22” last night, I immediately dropped the page under “Week 3 - Jan 20” and “Wednesday 1/22” automatically populated at the top of the “Week 3 - Jan 20” page. I use this similar process as I go up the chain to log weekly goals under monthly, monthly goals under quarterly, quarterly goals under yearly, yearly under 2 year, and 2 year under 3 year. You get the picture. 

If you’d like to use this this exact format, I'm more than happy to share my Notion productivity stack with you. If you do end up using it, tweet me @austinrileygray and let me know how you like using it!

Now, one last reason on why I LOVE using Notion. 

Saving Articles, Books, & Tools, With Notion Web Clipper

I’ve become obsessed with writing. It’s always been a way for me to get in “flow,” but I’ve rarely made time for it. The long list of operational tasks that came along with recent business acquisitions in the last two years has made it hard to carve out any time to sit and write. This year, I’m jumping into it full steam ahead.

The value I’ve experienced from acquiring a business with a solid local SEO strategy has opened my eyes into the power of content marketing. And I’ve realized that I must invest time, effort, and energy into content right now for it to continue paying dividends in the long term. Running two businesses and finding time to write is challenging, I’m not going to lie. I was up at 4:30 am this morning to crank this one out before my work day began. Ok, back to Notion. My point is that I don’t always have time to read articles, books, or look up tools people recommend throughout the day. 

I’m obsessed with time blocking and I discipline myself to only visit articles, books, or research tools when I have it scheduled on my calendar. So, what happens when I come across a relevant article in the middle of the day or someone recommends a book I should read? Enter Notion Web Clipper. Instead of completely breaking my focus and distracting myself with an article, book, software tool, or something related, I can quickly add it to a tab in my Notion sidebar with the Notion Web Clipper Extension. I’ve pre-built these tabs to contain the topics I’m interested in such as entrepreneurship, productivity, software, and health so I can easily tag related web pages as I come across. For example, any potentially useful software I come across or hear about is housed in my Software tab: 

I create similar tabs for topics such as my running book list, entrepreneurship, productivity, health, home along with any other current projects requiring research and documentation. Any time I hear about a piece of useful software I do the following:

  1. Google the name of the software
  2. Visit the home page
  3. Click my Notion Web Clipper chrome extension 
  4. Choose the respective category in which I would like the page to live
  5. Click Enter 

See example below: 

Easy as that. I apply this same process for book recommendations along with articles related to categories in which I have tabs built for in Notion. This saves me tons of time and effort in keeping track of things useful for my future self. Now that I’ve gone through what I use Notion for, let’s jump back into my experience with Roam.

My Experience With Roam

I’ll admit, I’m only one week deep in testing Roam at this point, but I’ve developed some opinions on it. I realize Roam is early in the development cycle and my objections will more than likely be addressed eventually. While I currently enjoy using Roam for writing and brain dumping, I have a hard time making the full transition from Notion due to several reasons listed below:

  1. Organizational Structure
  2. Cluttered References 
  3. Clunky UI

Organizational Structure

Some people are talking about the hierarchy within Notion and Evernote to be a bad thing. I agree that the bi-directional linking structure with Roam has legs to be a phenomenal feature, but I actually enjoy the way I’m able to log my daily routines in my structured Archive. Logging everything in this fashion gives me the confidence of always knowing where to look if I ever need to reflect on something. While I enjoy the seamless inline page building function of Roam, I’ve realized that I easily lose track of pages without a quick reference in the sidebar.

I noticed within a day of using Roam, I consistently had the urge to click the “favorite star” and add pages to my sidebar. My sidebar quickly became cluttered with pages. In order to keep the sidebar clean, I realized I’d need to add [[links]] within the pages of the topics I’d like to keep track of. This required me to keep a mental note of where I was logging topics on my sidebar. I’m sure this can be overcome with some thought and effort, but I still enjoy the way I’m currently set up in Notion for logging habits and goals. It feels more organized and structured to me right now. 

Cluttered References

A new [[page]] is built by doing what I just did with the brackets around the word [[page.]] Like I mentioned in the beginning of the article, this makes it fluid and seamless to build pages inline of your writing. I built a page named [[Habit Tracker]] and pinned it to my sidebar for quick reference. As I was taking notes on other pages such as my Daily Routine, I practiced referencing [[Habit Tracker]] whenever it would come up in my writing. What I realized is that I was quickly cluttering the “Habit Tracker” page with sometimes irrelevant references. See screenshot below for an example:

Upon seeing the references build up, I realized that I need a system for cleaning up references. This was the breaking point for me. I came to the conclusion these references would continue to pile up until I have a system in place to organize them efficiently. I’m curious to stay up to date on where future development at Roam leads because I do like how I can quickly reference a page with the [[]] command. At the same time, I would like to learn a system for cleaning these references up. 

Clunky UI

I’m getting downright picky here. And I realize this is a personal preference.With that being said, I always appreciate beautiful and functional software design. I realize Roam is early in development and I believe design will come with time. The one functional piece bothering me lies within the bullet format of the notes. I’ve noticed any text copied from another platform such as google docs, notion, or the web, will automatically be transformed into bullet format when pasted into Roam.

I realize this is another personal preference, but I prefer the clean format of Notion where I get to choose from options such as: nothing, to-do, bullet, numbered list, etc. Once again, I believe this is due in part to being in early stages of dev. 

Notion vs. Roam Conclusion

So which one should you use? Depends on what you’re looking to get out of the platform. If you’re looking to track routines, habits, and goals in an efficient hierarchy, I’d recommend using my template for Notion. As mentioned above, I’m happy to share a link with you to my Notion Productivity Stack template. If you’re a writer and you simply want a platform to journal and brain dump, I see lots of upside to starting with Roam right now. The seamless [[page building function]] turns into a quick habit and I plan to continue exploring Roam as a journaling / brain dumping tool. 

Overall, I’d personally like to make the complete switch over to Roam because I think it has legs to be uberly useful for writing. If I can find a good way to organize a consistent linking and page building, I’m open to the switch. I read on Twitter this morning a course is being created by Nat Eliason to explain in further detail how he uses Roam. I’ll be interested to dive into this once it’s released to learn more how he’s overcoming some of the objections I state above. I’ll currently stick to Notion for my Daily Routine, Goal Progress, and Web Clipping, but I plan to use Roam for brain dumping my thoughts in a journaling format.

If you have any thoughts or opinions, let me know what you think on Twitter. 

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