Looking back at Theodore Roosevelt’s 60 years of activity, it’s easy to see him as larger than life. In that time he went to Columbia Law and Harvard, fought in the Spanish American War as a Colonel, was governor of New York, and became the youngest president ever at 42 after McKinley was assassinated. Somehow in that time, he was also able to write 40 published books! One of the reasons for his productivity is now famous Roosevelt Dashes.
Flow, Pomodoro and Deep Work
Roosevelt wasn’t the hardest worker out there. Rather than trying to put in the most hours, he tried to put in the deepest hours – favoring hard, focused work over shallow, distracted work. At its core, it’s a concept that has a lot in common with other techniques – like getting into the flow or Pomodoro. These all share the idea of letting the work envelop you and focus your entire attention on a specific task.
This concept of Deep Work has always been fascinating to me. As a programmer, it’s nearly impossible for me to work without enough time to get deep into a problem. I’ve struggled to apply that same sense to focus to other things in life.
Recently while reading Deep Work, Cal Newport (who is an amazing author, and also wrote So Good They Can’t Ignore You, which is fantastic) unearthed some background on how Roosevelt focused his attention that connected
How to Do a Roosevelt Dash
Roosevelt Dashes start with this idea but add on to it goal. Here is a roadmap on how to try a Roosevelt Dash:
Pick a Task
This could be anything you want to accomplish. It should be a discrete task though – one that has an end state. If this is something that’s going to take multiple days to accomplish, try choosing a subtask you could do in a short time period.
Estimate the Time Involved
With this task in mind, estimate how long it’ll take you to complete it.
Set a Deadline
With your estimate in hand, set yourself a deadline. Normally, when setting deadlines you’ll want them to be after the estimate. This allows you to make sure you have enough time to complete it. For Roosevelt Dashes, set this below your estimate.
If you’re a thinking “If I think this is going to take 2 hours, and I set a deadline for 90 minutes it’s not going to be enough time.” that’s understandable. Consider it an experiment, and do your best to set a deadline that’s still realistic, but challenging.
Allow for Flexibility in Quality
Allow the work you perform to be done rather than perfect. Do everything you can to continue moving forward on something during this time. If you hit a roadblock, try working on something else and returning to the roadblock. Momentum is helpful during these sessions – especially when you’re still growing your deep work muscle.
Shut off Everything
From when you start until when you’re finished (or the deadline is reached), shut everything else out. If you’re working on a computer, shut off email, Twitter and anything else that might distract you.
Avoiding input is only half the problem. Finding how to avoid letting your mind wander, or get up for food is something else. Find out how to focus on what you want to accomplish and with everything you do, ask if it’s contributing to it, or if it’s a distraction.
Grow Your Deep Work Muscle
When you start, you may only be able to do this exercise for short stretches.
If you’d like to read more about Roosevelt dashes, or focused work in general, I’d strongly recommend reading Deep Work. This article provides some other great thoughts on Roosevelt Dashes.
What techniques do you use for focused work?
4 CommentsWhy not add to the conversation below? Your voice is welcome!
Mystery Money Man
October 24, 2017
Great article Adam! I’ve given a lot of thought to the ‘Deep Work’ concept during the past year. As someone with a broad range of interests, I’ve often found it difficult to settle into that focused, deep work. I’m getting better at it though, just this year I’ve decided to cut back the number of activities I’m involved in, in order to be more productive with the ones I value most.
October 24, 2017
That dilemma sounds very familiar to me too! Deciding what to focus deep work on can be tough when you’re doing a bunch of things. Saying “no” and cutting back on activities is something I need to do more of as well.
Dylan | Trail to FI
November 1, 2017
This was very helpful. Of all the things related to blogging that I can improve on, I am finding that focus is my most lacking. Not media sharing, or SEO, or site design. Just churning out content. Looks like there’s no simple answer – just bite the bullet and keep the momentum. Thanks for the book recommendation!
November 1, 2017
Content takes a long time for sure. The hard part for me has been balancing creating content with getting better at creating content that connects. I’ve seen some people have success with a checklist that they follow for each post (read over and edit twice, link to at least X posts, update old posts to link to it at least x times, etc). Focused time seems to work faster for me when there’s a super-clear plan.