Catherine R.
6 min readSep 3, 2022

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Migrating from Roam to Obsidian

Note: This is a repost from a blog post I wrote in January 2022 on my blog, which unfortunately disappeared recently after a server issue. Minor edits have been performed.

The Switch

I laughed when I read this tweet regarding Obsidian vs. Roam Research.

Having used Roam Research for over one year and a half (I started in March 2020), I switched to Obsidian in mid-November 2021.

Why did I quit Roam

The Roam Research experience was great for me. So why did I switch?

The performance issues initially put me off; my system started to slow down significantly as it grew. As a result, I stopped using queries altogether and didn’t like the idea of not using the system entirely.

However, at some point, I became concerned when I noticed that many good contributors were leaving and that there had been no updates for a long time. When I delved deeper into the conversations on Twitter or in forums, I was unhappy with what I found.

In summary, the owner’s personality and ramblings did turn me off. Ordinarily, I don’t give a damn because a product does not reflect the views of its owner, but in this instance, it does. It was no longer possible for me to put my data, trust, and work in him and, ultimately, in Roam. So, I pivoted.

I gave Obsidian a shot after 2802 pages and 21 months in Roam, and after trying a few contenders that did not impress me at the time, I made it my new home — for now.

Migrating between tools is not new to me. In the past, I’ve used One Note, Evernote, Notion, Workflowy, Dynalist, and probably a few more that escape my memory.

My preferred migration path for the content is to leave it in its original location, start fresh with the new application, and import what is needed in the new system.

It is what I did here as well, by choice but not only: due to the specific structure of Roam pages, the move process to another application can be tricky.

Here are a few thoughts about that transition.

Roam: Things I miss

Blocks

For the first few weeks, I had trouble with blocks in Obsidian.

When I was using Roam, I made extensive use of blocks and block references. Now that I’ve been using Obsidian for a little while, I realize that these are rarely needed (replaced mostly by data view tables, lists, or search queries), and my workflow is simpler. The tool frames how you think, as Nick Milo stated. Using Obsidian, you can reference blocks just as you would in Roam; however, they are not as tightly integrated as they are with Roam.

Roam’s drag-and-drop blocks and block references were so easy that I abused them (which makes importing difficult). One of my favorites was the feature that allowed me to expand the references with a click to see the full content without embedding it or editing it.

Furthermore, when adding a reference, I miss the possibility of references in blocks with a “((“+keywords. Although it exists in Obsidian (with a “[[^”), it is cumbersome (and especially with non-US keyboards). Instead, I use the Obsidian 42 Text Transporter plugin to copy and paste embeds and references.

A Real, good outliner

I’m an outliner person; there is no denying it. Roam Research is an outliner and particularly effective since it allows frictionless moves for bullet points in a list or higher/lower in the document. Thinking in outlines can help take short, quick notes, like meeting notes. I find it helpful to write down bullet points, even unrelated when my thoughts aren’t well structured.

Obsidian has an outliner plugin, but unfortunately, it is not quite as good as Roam. I have to “force” my brain into taking notes differently, which isn’t a simple process.

(Chrome) Multiple windows and the sidebar

With Roam, I often used multiple browser windows to focus on specific topics (I didn’t use the desktop version). You can’t do that with Obsidian (unless you nest vaults inside one another).

Additionally, I used to open all the notes I would need during the day in the sidebar, pin them, and collapse them. They were always at hand when I needed them.

In Obsidian, I use a process that achieves the same result but is clunky. I use Workspaces extensively (the Workspaces++ plugin), and I have a workspace for each day of the week with my notes (usually related to upcoming and recurring project meetings). My morning starts with opening the day’s workspace and retrieving my panels with the day’s activities, which I adjust to meet my daily needs.

This method automatically opens the same day’s page from last week, and I can quickly review any pending items to be discussed during the upcoming day meetings.

When I look at my old Roam notes (since I haven’t imported all of them yet), they seem a bit confusing and unstructured. They’re also very slow to load — and I’m not even speaking of the queries, as I stopped using them due to performance issues.

Why I like Obsidian ❤

I love many things about Obsidian, and it would be impossible to list them all. Some of my favorites include:

  • The multiple panels.
  • The workspaces.
  • The headings force the blocks to be more structured (and serve as block parents).
  • The inline queries and embeds do not affect the app’s speed.
  • The mobile app (I didn’t think I would use it, but now I do).
  • It offers a much better search engine (although it requires some learning).
  • The graph view makes it easy to identify related notes and is usable (check Roam’s graph, and you’ll see what I mean).
  • The plugins (I have too many of them).
  • My task management is a lot easier.
  • In my opinion, the new Live Preview is even better than Roam’s editing experience.
  • Lastly, I am impressed by the pace of new updates and improvements!

As a result, I don’t miss Roam. I am even starting to see new uses for Obsidian that I hadn’t imagined before.

Not a painless transition

Transitioning wasn’t painless. It took time and effort to make the change (and I’m still going to Roam for historical data), and as others have mentioned, it represents a paradigm shift.

Initially, I didn’t desire to change. As I was convinced I had the perfect setup, it was challenging to change my mindset. However, I’ve learned a few things since then; I didn’t reproduce all of my workflows, and I realized that sometimes I created workflows just because *I could* but not because *I needed them*.

Investing in Obsidian was a good decision because it ensured my notes would be permanent and safer (and did I mention that the notes will be local plain text?).

I probably wouldn't have persevered if it weren’t for the help and guidance from people on various discord servers (mainly Obsidian: Tools for Thoughts and the official Obsidian one). It helped me see that other people who invested much in Roam (much more than I did) could be happy with another tool.

A tremendous additional asset of Obsidian is its fantastic community, fully supported by the developers, who are very talented, accessible, and, most importantly, truly listen to their users.

Update a few months later

Because I am republishing the initial article a few months after the original post, I thought it would be appropriate to provide an update.

Firstly, I still use Obsidian heavily. I haven’t touched Roam in over a year, except for a few quick references.

As a result of buying an iPad M1, I changed my workflow slightly and also realized the importance of a good native mobile app, which Obsidian provides

The latest update (16.0+) that just came out to the Obisians-insiders is a fantastic addition with tabs and a new UX.

My workflow continues to be heavily dependent on plugins, and I discover new ones every day. It can quickly become an addiction and a time-sink; I try to avoid making too many changes to prevent procrastination.

Occasionally, I miss Roam, mainly for inline references and page filters.

I am using Obsidian as an outliner, which still doesn’t feel natural. It can be used that way, but it’s not natively designed for it, and it shows. However, Obsidian fulfills all my needs and more at the moment. I can leave with these little shortfalls.

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Catherine R.

Programme Manager, Mom of two, Photographer. Passionate about PKM, TfT, Project Management, Van life, Gaming, horses, dogs. https://arborcogitandi.com/