How I built Roam in a day using Notion and then Super-sized it for my personal CMS

October 5, 2020

A few weeks ago I finally took the plunge to see what all the fuss was about with Roam Research. Truth be told I've never been a huge notetaker, period, and certainly not a huge digital notetaker — when I did take notes, I'd reluctantly fall back to a physical notebook.

But I had heard great things about Roam, so I gave it a shot. It didn't stick.

I really liked the backlinks feature and the auto-building of the graph... and I absolutely loved the Daily Notes section... that felt so good compared to how I've used other digital notebooks like Google Keep, Apple Notes, Evernote, etc.

But I absolutely loathed the editor. Horrible. It feels intentionally bad. Like they incorrectly said, "bells and whistles with editing are actually driving people away from notetaking... make it simple, just like a notebook — you don't get to choose your font in a notebook."

I also loathed the lack of collaboration. What a waste! It's 2020 and I want to share certain things with certain people. My notes are a combination of personal notes (not frequently shared) and professional notes (frequently shared)... why can't I represent that somehow?

But I did find one use case I absolutely adored: using Roam as a Personal CRM. Wow, does that work well. Backlink a person, creating their page, then mention whatever you want. Fill in details on their own page at any point.

All the goodness of Roam really does stem from the use of backlinks. Turns out graphs are really cool (anyone who thinks about the web this way could have told you that...).

Here come Notion backlinks... and Notion as a graph

Then, about a week after I started using Roam (and it was falling out of favor with me), Notion released backlinks of their own.

So I decided to try that out... using Notion's editor (don't get me wrong, though, Notion's editor still leaves a lot to be desired — has anyone on the Notion team ever tried selecting anything in Notion?) with Roam's concept of backlinks. In all, it took under a day to make Notion like Roam, but better.

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I started by creating a page I called "THE GRAPH." THE GRAPH is where basically everything goes. Since Notion otherwise allows lots of top-level things that may or may not be relevant (e.g. sharing, or personal CMS below, etc), I wanted to constrain my notes. If I need to, I can always reference things outside THE GRAPH.

Within THE GRAPH, there are tons of pages — every time I backlink an entity of some sort, it generally gets created right there. Over time, I can (and do) organize this stuff hierarchically.

But there are only 3 that really, truly matter for discussion purposes.

Saved Links

Instead of using Pocket like I had traditionally been doing, I installed the Notion Web Clipper extension. I created a new Links database within THE GRAPH called Saved Links. This is where I save all the interesting things I either want to read or have already read. And I can take notes on them, inline, and backlink them to other places. Pretty cool, and not nearly as simple in Roam.

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Personal CRM

I then used Notion's built-in template for Personal CRM database to create my own Personal CRM. Anytime I talk about someone, I simply backlink them and either add them to the Personal CRM database or use their existing record.

Then, later, I can go and fill everything else out about them, like their Role, contact info, etc. I backlink as much of this stuff as I can as well — for instance, I have backlinked cities/regions that people live, so I can quickly see everything and everyone in a city at any point.

But now I have the backlinks to every single time I discuss something with them.

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I also created a database and template for Companies. Again, this allows me to associate people, places, and things to the company.

Daily Notes

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Ah, I've saved the best for last. This is where I spend 95% of my time (in fact, it's even where I'm drafting this post). I copied the Roam Daily Notes feature directly into Notion by creating a Daily Notes page within THE GRAPH.

In there, I create pages (been doing this once/week) for every day of the following week. Then, everyday as I'm about to start taking notes, I simply open up the Notes section for that day.

This is now my front page to Notion. Generally speaking, I love it.

Super-sizing Notion

Now that Roam was built in a day, and I'm spending more and more time within Notion, I'm beginning to find more and more use cases for it.

We've been sending investor updates via Notion monthly. We've been sending product updates weekly.

I started to think it'd be cool if I could host a simple, personal CMS on it. So I went to work. Turns out super.so is solving this problem. It's pretty slick, too.

So I decided to move my longtime Tumblr-hosted blog (since 2008) to Notion+Super, and make a more polished personal homepage on the internet.

So I created a new top-level page, and added a few sub-pages:

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I now have an easy way to share an about me, my blog, but also I created a simple way to share the books I've been reading and content I really like (which I integrated directly into my Notion Web Clipper workflow from above). With Super, I was able to make those top-level pages have pretty URLs, too.

All in all, it's pretty neat to have my public space be integrated with my private space in a way that I can fully control and manage easily.

What can be improved?

Of course, it's not perfect. There are three main things I want to see changed:

Backlink preview by block

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Right now, there's no way to easily see the block that is associated with the backlink from a page. So my pages are currently littered with "Backlinks: October 1, 2020" without any additional context. Grabbing some more context would be really useful, and something Roam did well.

Backlink speed

This may be my #1 complaint with Notion backlinks today. In Roam, a backlink is simple. Just start typing and it'll work. You tend not to need search at all. In Notion, however, you have to sit and wait to decide where a backlink should point to. You may even need a few clicks to make a new page in the right spot. It's a huge pain in the ass, and slows down taking notes significantly. If the index were immediate, the extra clicks probably wouldn't be a huge issue. But it can take seconds every single time I want to link to something.

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Editing

And, lastly, even though I said the editor is significantly better than Roam's, that doesn't mean I absolutely love Notion's. In fact, I think it's still quite poor. Especially selection. I swear, selecting something has never once done what I have wanted it to do. And just now I tried to copy/paste some of this blog post to another Notion page, and the formatting anywhere there was a picture on the side just completely broke... random text or pictures missing... cool, cool.

Notion has some work to do here, but I'm quite happy with my new setup, all in all, and encourage you to give it a shot.