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How I use Roam Research to get my most important tasks done

4 min read

Anthony Trollope is a ridiculously productive writer.

After he released his first novel, he published 47 novels, 18 works of non-fiction, 12 short stories, two plays, and various articles and letters.

His secret? Writing in 15-minute intervals for three hours per day

“It had at this time become my custom,—and is still my custom, though of late I have become a little lenient of myself—to write with my watch before me, and to require of myself 250 words every quarter of an hour…

This division of time allowed me to produce over ten pages of an ordinary novel volume a day, and if kept up through ten months, would have given as its results three novels of three volumes each in the year…”

—Anthony Trollope

Why does something as simple as this led to his productivity?

Working on the Right Tasks

While most people define productivity as how efficient you work, I define productivity as consistently doing the right things. Simply said, if we were able to prioritise and work only on the essential things, we’d be productive.

However, our most important tasks are often extensive and can take days to complete.

This would lead to feelings of frustration when you can't see the fruits of your labour immediately.

For example, I'm currently preparing for my Internal Medicine exams. It would usually take days to prepare for my exam correctly. When I was working on it this morning, I knew I couldn't finish it that day. Despite knowing that I can't finish it today, I still felt frustrated. It was disheartening not to get anything done despite working on the right things.

The solution? Let's hack that "I got something done" feeling.

Break Things Down

We need a way to track our progress when working on our most important tasks to prevent getting demotivated.

Most of us track our progress by how many big tasks we get done, but we need to see our progress if we want to sustain the momentum. We need to break it down into small tasks that we can easily accomplish to stay motivated.

This is what Trollope practised, where he measured his progress in 15-minute intervals. It allowed him to feel satisfied and accomplished quickly when working on a big task like writing a novel.

  • A big task would be writing a 1000 word essay.
  • A small task would be writing an outline, writing the first draft, editing the draft.

As you can see, these are all tasks you could complete in 15-20 minutes

Tracking our progress is essential, as:

  1. It allows you to sustain your momentum over the long run.
  2. It gives you a sense of "I got something done", and this feeling will reinforce your identity as someone who can complete your tasks.

Working in small intervals allows you to see your progress while working on a big task.

By doing this, you'll hit the sweet spot of productivity: in the long term, you are working on the right things. In the short term, you feel accomplished when you finish each task quickly.

Have you noticed how productive you feel when working on less critical and less demanding tasks? You feel productive when you do the menial tasks on your to-do lists that only take 5-10 minutes. You feel productive because of how fast you complete each task.

However, this is often false productivity because you are not working on the right things.

What's important is to have a way to track your short term progress on your long term goals. Trent Dyrsmid became a successful stockbroker by tracking sales calls with paper clips.

Using Roam to Track My Short Term Progress

I use the Pomodoro timer feature and tables in Roam to duplicate Trollope's method for my most important task: studying.

My short term goal is to study 1 disease in 10-15 minutes, while my long-term goal is to finish studying for my exam.

Using the Daily Notes feature, I type in the timestamp and set a 10-15 minutes timer.

I write down the goal I want to accomplish for that session and nest it under the timer and timestamp block. I also write down what I'm feeling after each sessions, as per interstitial journaling.

Next, I add a table where I track each completed sessions. I aim to do a total of 3 hours every day. Seeing my progress in a table sustains my motivation for studying.

Quick Tip: You can easily invoke the timer and table by using Roam templates.

Here's the template for the table to get you started. Just copy and paste it inside any note in your Roam Database and you're good to go.

- 15 Minutes Studying #[[roam/templates]] 
    - [[15 Minutes Studying]]
        - {{[[table]]}}
            - Habits
                - 15 minutes
                    - 30 minutes
                        - 45 minutes
                            - 60 minutes
                                - 75 minutes
                                    - 90 minutes
                                        - 105 mins
                                            - 120 mins
                                                - 135 mins
                                                    - 150 mins
                                                        - 165 mins
                                                            - 180 mins
            - Studying
                - {{[[TODO]]}} 
                    - {{[[TODO]]}} 
                        - {{[[TODO]]}} 
                            - {{[[TODO]]}} 
                                - {{[[TODO]]}} 
                                    - {{[[TODO]]}} 
                                        - {{[[TODO]]}}

Get Instant Feedback

The basic idea is to get instant feedback when working on bigger projects. This might mean breaking projects into small achievable tasks and ticking them off as you progress. Seeing your progress is vital as it gives you feedback that you are moving in the right direction. This feedback is what encourages us to keep moving.

Work on your long term goals, but measure your short term progress.

Roam Research


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