Getting Things Done With R.J. Nestor and Roam Research

Ramses Oudt
Ramses Oudt
Getting Things Done With R.J. Nestor and Roam Research

Roam becomes more powerful when you combine your notes and TODOs. In this session with R.J. Nestor, we discuss how to implement the Getting Things Done (GTD) methodology in Roam and make it your own.

Successfully doing GTD in Roam boils down to shaping it around your needs and workflows. Figuring out a tool while figuring out the systems you're going to use with that tool is setting yourself up for failure. That's why you either need to first a system, understand your tool, or have someone to coach you along the way.

R.J. is a music and productivity teacher (often combining the two as he works with artists) and has been helping himself and others achieve their wanted outcomes for over 20 years.

In this session that took place on October 11, 2021, we talked about how to implement GTD successfully in Roam and the value of having your tasks and notes combined in one system. As always, the session was interactive with insightful questions from the live audience.

(Re)watch the entire session below, or read through the notes to get the main takeaways.

Session recording


  • 1:40 — R.J. introduces himself.
    • Came to use GTD over 7 years ago, starting out with Todoist.
    • Has been using Roam for over 20 months.
  • 6:00 — R.J.'s philosophy for workflow design and how it reflects in his course AP Productivity.
    • He always gives his students a slimmed-down version of the GTD framework so they have a simple place to start and can grow their system iteratively.
    • He knew the system he wanted to build before he came to Roam, so he wasn't stuck learning both the system and the tool.
    • R.J. believes in coaching people instead of telling them exactly what to do; you need to figure out what system you need, but having a place to start from makes it easier to start.
  • 10:40 — The first four weeks R.J. takes his coaching clients through.
    • In the first four weeks of AP Productivity, R.J. only focuses on the daily cycle and capturing tasks, and layers things on top over the weeks.
    • R.J. wants you to ask yourself every day, several times a day:
      • What do I want to do?
        • This question answers what your agenda will look like for the day.
      • What am I doing?
        • Answering this question fuels your written work log throughout the day.
  • 13:50 — R.J. shows how he runs his daily agenda and log in his personal Roam graph.
    • When writing in his work log, R.J. first block references the task he's going to work on. Then, he enters the block ref ID into a SmartBlock (script below) that adds timestamp information and gives him a dedicated writing pad.
    • R.J. didn't get his work log going when he separated the actual work from his log. Only when he started to do the work in the log did the practice stick with him.
  • 20:25 — How to apply GTD and a work log to an academic workflow for reading papers.
    • Most academics that R.J. coaches tend to work on project pages and then link from the log to those project pages (instead of doing all the work in the log/Daily Notes Page).
  • 26:23 — Question from Michael: Apart from the daily cycle, how can you implement a weekly and monthly cycle—as that feeds into what you to on a daily basis?
    • With Roam it's easy to set up recurring tasks (using SmartBlocks) and it's easy to tag blocks for review.
      • What's important (and trickier) is that you find the right moment to do these reviews.
  • 34:06 — The need for having a system before adopting a tool, or vice versa.
    • Setting up recurring reviews isn't hard in Roam, but you need to already have a system before you can implement it into Roam—or you need to already know Roam to implement the system.
      • Trying to do/figure out the work while building a system is not going to work; you need to tackle one at the time.
  • 36:08 — When to do upkeep/"oil changes" of your system?
    • The easiest way to keep your system going is by doing a weekly review.
      • When you keep your system up to date on a weekly basis, there is not a lot of upkeep and you can just run through your checklist every week.
    • According to R.J., the most important goal for systems is to guide your attention and to build in backstops so things don't fall through the cracks of your attention.
      • When you notice things start to fall through the cracks, that's a signal to improve your system to make sure it doesn't happen again.
  • 40:30 — The importance of a weekly review and making it a habit.
    • R.J.'s rule of thumb: If your weekly review drives your week, do it on Monday morning; if your weekly review is to tidy up your work, do it on Friday afternoon.
      • Personally, R.J. does his weekly review on Saturday morning as that is the best time he has a complete overview of the week and it's silent in his house.
    • The weekly review is a moment to think a bit about your system and see where it's not functioning well enough.
      • The trick is to not start changing the system right away, but to make it a little project and set aside time for it. This prevents system upkeep becoming a form of procrastination, or changing things on a whim.
  • 52:04 — How to get a timestamp button from the SmartBlocks store.
    • Bring up the command palette (Ctrl/Cmd-p) and type store.
      • Install the TimeStamp Buttons and elapsed time calculator SmartBlock
    • Alternatively, use R.J.'s work log code below.

Work log code

Here's the code that R.J. shared to create a time tracker for his work log:

- Time Tracker #SmartBlock
    - <%TIME%> - {{🛑:SmartBlock:Time}} <%INPUT: What are you working on? %%<%CLIPBOARDPASTETEXT%>%><%FOCUSONBLOCK%>
    - {{⏱️:SmartBlock:Time Tracker}}

- Time #SmartBlock
    - <%TIME%>

Pay attention to the <%CLIPBOARDPASTETEXT%> in the code, as that automatically pulls in whatever is on your clipboard when running the SmartBlock. R.J. uses this command because he first copies the block reference ID of the task he's going to work on and then runs the SmartBlock. If you don't want this to be your process, simply remove the  snippet %%<%CLIPBOARDPASTETEXT%> so you can enter manually what you're going to work on.

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