Notion, Roam Research, Scanners and Leonardo Da Vinci

Published on Medium, Storius Magazine on Oct 26, 2020

Today’s story is a bit different from all the other ones I’ve written so far: It’s not about findings from research, but rather about tools I find helpful for taking notes about research (among other things), both digitally and physically. “What are Roam Research and Notion, and what do scanners have to do with Leonardo da Vinci?” you might ask, and rightfully so. Let’s start off with that second question.

Scanners and their Daybooks

If you’ve read Refuse to Choose by Barbara Sher, then you’re probably already familiar with the concept of scanner daybooks. If not, you might be wondering what a scanner and a daybook are. And no, the former is not referring to the device one can use to digitalize documents. It’s quite far from that, actually!

The term scanner was coined by Barbara Sher and refers to a personality type. I want to stress that while the concept may be helpful for framing the way one’s mind works, it should not be confused with an actual scientific psychological trait theory like the Big Five.

That being said, according to Sher, scanners are “people with many interests who are unable to decide on a single direction for their lives”. Their counterpart would be the divers, the specialists who devote most or all of their energy and time into a single endeavor or interest. As with everything else, there certainly are pros and cons that come with both “types” — I’ve written about this in length in a previous story, Roger Federer Versus Tiger Woods.

As you can imagine (or maybe know from personal experience), scanners often indulge in many projects at once just to end up feeling guilty due to not knowing which one to choose to pursue in their freetime and/or career. Naturally, there are also other factors at play such as there only being 24 hours in a day. Sher proposes an interesting and seemingly simple solution to this dilemma by use of a notebook, similar to what Leonardo da Vinci had done with his ideas:

Pages from one of Leonardo Da Vinci’s notebooks. Picture Source:

The following quote from Sher’s book nicely illustrates the principal idea behind the scanner daybook and how da Vinci’s “style” is related to it:

Leonardo’s entries are delightfully out of order, impulsive and unrestrained. … He’s just someone who liked to think with a pen in his hand, just like you’re going to do. The blank pages in your Daybook are where you’ll capture ideas that could otherwise get lost or keep record of private little trips and “what ifs” that are always floating in and out of a creative mind. … No follow-up is required unless it takes your fancy to do so.
All that’s needed for this is a physical notebook and pens. I’ve been using a Leuchtturm1917 A4 blanko in combination with ordinary pens and crayons, which works just fine. That begs the question, what makes the scanner daybook different from just taking notes in any other notebook? It’s more its purpose than the notebook itself— the point is to have a place where you can “choose” many interests and capture them while neither having to give up on nor fully commit to any of them.

If you think that this might be something that could be of help to you too, give it a try! Furthermore, if you’d like to dive deeper into the whole discussion of range versus specialization, you should definitely give Sher’s book and David Epstein’s Range a read.

Okay, great, but what about the people that would like to keep their notes digitally? Is there a good solution out there for them, too? To answer these questions, let’s have a look at Notion and Roam Research.

App Based Notetaking: Notion

An example of a Notion setup. Credit: Shad Mirza

Notion is a free, downloadable program/app for all operating systems that aims to help with writing, planning and organizing. It comes with in-built functions and design elements such as basic Markup, the option to upload and embed files, pictures, links and videos, tables with filter and sorting options, calendars, (to-do) lists, toggles, reminders, sync across devices and the option to share pages with others (e.g. for work purposes). You can furthermore create your own page templates and import those of others.

Two of the most useful functions would be the option to write custom formulas in tables (e.g. setting weekly reminders for the review of notes based on when you last checked them) and linked databases that allow you to merge elements of two or more tables while still keeping their data saved separately.

This might all sound confusing and complicated at first, and it does take some time to get the hang of all the tools and options, but I find the app to be absolutely brilliant for digital notetaking. It kind of feels like Word, Excel and Powerpoint in one! Ali Abdaal has some helpful content on how to create your own setup on his website and YouTube Channel (e.g. a look at Valentin Perez’ crazy setup), which is what I started off with.

One con would be that Notion does not have an actual offline mode yet — you won’t be able to access any of your notes without internet unless you had the app open earlier while you were still online.

So, that’s my favorite app based solution out of the available ones. But what about a browser based solution?

Browser Based Notetaking: Roam Research

A snapshot of Roam Research. Credit: Francesco D'Alessio

Roam Research has not been around for long but has already established itself as a popular choice for browser based notetaking. The main difference to Notion would be that it is a) much more expensive and b) much more text-focused and thus comes with fewer functions: Markdown, to-do lists with checkboxes, daily notes, reminders, timers, file upload and LaTeX integration is about all you get.

What makes it unique however is the way references are set up: While all your notes are saved as their own page based on the date of creation or other criteria of your choice, you can create links (references) not only between pages but any block of text! These links can then be displayed as a graph, which — once you’ve added enough notes — is fascinating to look at (see the right part of the picture). This is also very helpful in identifying which topics or thoughts of yours come up the most, since the node size increases with the amount of references you’ve made to that particular piece of text or content. There’s obviously no offline mode for Roam Research either as it is browser based, and due its cost it’s probably not for everyone. I’ve so far found it helpful for daily notes and studying, but Notion technically is sufficient by itself. If you prefer your data to not be stored on your device or computer, then you might prefer Roam Research — in the end, it all comes back to both options having their pros and cons!


If you happen to try any of the mentioned notetaking tools or have been using them yourself, let me know what you think. That would be all for today — thanks for reading and until next week!