Experiments in Productivity: Zen to Done


Photo credit: Josefe aka Hipnosapo (flickr: josefeliciano)

During the months of February, March, and April 2012, I will try out a new productivity system each month. After each month is over, I'll record my experiences on this blog. In March 2012, I used Leo Babauta's "Zen to Done" as described here.  This is my review. Last month's review on Scott Belsky's "Action Method" is here.

My original intent for this month was to review the most famous productivity system in the world– David Allen’s “Getting Things Done”.  I bought the e-book, set aside a few hours to plan out how I would use Getting Things Done (GTD) in the next month, and started reading.

Four hours later, I closed the book frustrated, disappointed, and very aware of the irony that I’d just wasted my entire evening.  I simply could not wrap my head around the system as a whole, and there was no one place where it was explained clearly at a high level.

So I decided to check out a little productivity method I had heard a friend rave about a few years ago– not Getting Things Done, but Zen to Done (ZTD).

 Zen to Done Explained

If you’re like me, when someone says you should try a funny-sounding program called zen-something-something, you’d be all too happy to let it slide.  And if you feel that way now, I mean to convince you otherwise.  ZTD is a wonderfully useful productivity system.  Despite the name, it has nothing to do with satori and everything to do with worldly effectiveness.

It was initially conceived by blogger Leo Babauta as a reaction to some of the main problems people had with Getting Things Done– which means I stumbled upon to it at a very fortunate time.  ZTD is composed not of a flowchart of actions for handling any incoming tasks, but a series of 10 straightforward “habits”, which are to be adopted one at a time (which is easier than adopting all 10 habits at once, the thinking goes).

Here are the 10 Habits of ZTD as far as I understand them.

  1. Collect.  Ubiquitous capture.  Carry a notebook, index cards, smartphone, or something on which you can write any idea, task, or tidbit for future action.  Don’t rely on your memory for this.
  2. Process.  Do not let things fester in your inboxes.  Make quick decisions on things in your inbox and figure out the next action they require (if any) upon looking at for the first time.
  3. Plan.  Set “Most Important Tasks” for the week and each day.  These tasks are your “big rocks”– the most important things to do with your day or week– and you should do them early and to completion
  4. Do.  One task at a time, sans distractions.  Shut off your cell phone, e-mail, and everything else while working on your Most Important Tasks (MITs).
  5. Simple, trusted system.  Keep lists, check daily.  This boils down to keeping lists for yourself– everything from “Phone Calls” to “Gifts to Buy”
  6. Organize.  A place for everything.  I got nothing out of Habit 6 that wasn’t part of Habit 2.  Don’t let things pile up– instead, organize them immediately into piles for future action
  7. Review.  Review your system and goals weekly.  Reflection on days, weeks, months, years– all of it is worthwhile in doing something great
  8. Simplify.  Reduce goals and tasks to the essential.  When looking at what you plan on doing, remove the things that aren’t essential
  9. Routine.  Set and keep routines.  This habit is about making the other ones into habits
  10. Find your passion.  Seek work for which you’re passionate.  Being incredibly productive at useless tasks is dehumanizing and silly

Zen to Done Reviewed

The single best thing about Zen to Done is how much it leaves up to you.  Compared to the iron-fisted GTD, ZTD really is a breath of fresh air.  And the reason it works is because the habits it recommends are some of the best possible productivity strategies around– but by bundling them into one “system” and encouraging his readers to adopt them, Leo Babauta has really hit on something useful.

Nothing in ZTD was said first by Leo, nor is Leo the only one saying it.  But as a package of habits to pick up, it doesn’t matter who else is saying these things– they’re worth doing!

Here are the most useful habits of ZTD, rephrased:

  • Don’t trust your memory
  • Keep lots of lists
  • Deal with things when they arise
  • Schedule the big rocks first

I want to dive into each of those separately and talk about how they’ve helped me.

Don’t Trust Your Memory

Probably one of the most useful traits one can possess is a proud aversion to memorizing any low-importance information.  If you want to keep on top of an absolutely inhuman amount of stuff, you should be saying the following all the time:

“I have a really bad memory!  Let me just jot that down.”

And people will bear with you as you whip out your phone or your moleskin or your– who knows– hipster PDA and write a quick note.

The other half of this habit is checking the “inboxes” where these notes pile up.  Personally, I just text everything to my e-mail, so when I’m checking that, I can also do the stuff past-Erik remembered that now-Erik is just seeing.  Sometimes those things require action now, but sometimes they’d best be put in a list.

Which reminds me…

Keep Lots of Lists

If you don’t trust your memory, what should you trust?  Lists.

Keep lists for everything.

I’m going to have to write a post in praise of lists, but for right now, let me just assemble a few of the lists I keep and why they’re useful.  I hope this makes its own case.

  • Life goals list.  See everything else in this blog
  • Daily to-do lists for @home and @work
  • I am bad at getting gifts for people when the time comes because I can never think of anything.  But people suggest their own gifts whenever they say “I want…” or “I love…” or “I wish…”– and I try to track those on my Gifts to Get list
  • A book is only as good as what you remember for it, and I keep a Best Quotes/Ideas List from everything I read
  • Between “I want to watch this movie someday!” and “What should we watch?  I’m so booooored” falls the shadow.  Between “I totally want to eat at this restaurant” and “Where should we eat?  I’m so huuuuungry” falls the shadow.  And by shadow, I mean opportunity to keep a Movies to Watch or Restaurants to Eat At list
  • When I’m distracted by the internet and youtube (never!), but I find a site I really want to visit in the future, I put it on a for_later” list on delicious.com
  • And more… way more

If I could sell you lists, dear reader, I would.  That’s how useful they are.  That it is nigh on free to jot down some items on a piece of paper is a promethean and wondrous fact of the universe.

Deal with Things When They Arise

When you’re going through your inbox, don’t just check something and say “Meh, I’ll deal with it later”.  If you do that once, you’ll do it a thousand times.  Then you’ll have a thousand things in your inbox and you’ll likely be a little stressed about it.

Instead, you have two options for what to do with an inbox task:

  • Do it now
  • Put it on a list

That’s all.  It’s pretty easy.

If you’re talking about the inbox of e-mail, there’s a third option too, and it’s one that is perhaps the most useful e-mail aid I have ever seen.  It’s also free– at least for now.

It’s called NudgeMail, and it’s a service that allows you to send yourself an e-mail in the future.  Here’s how it works.  Let’s say you get an e-mail from the library reminding you to return your books by Sunday.  That’s nice, but you won’t go to the library until Saturday.  So unless you are already keeping a list of what you’re doing Saturday, you could just forward it the mail to saturday@nudgemail.com, and guess what?– you will see the very same e-mail in your inbox Saturday at 6 AM.

Nudgemail has a bunch of handy commands for when you want to receive e-mail.  Here’s how I use some of them:

Oh, and there’s no sign-up necessary.  Just start e-mailing a nudgemail address to use it.

Schedule the Big Rocks First

There will be a post coming up in the future about this one, but here’s the gist:

Make 3 to 5 weekly goals every week.  Make 1 to 3 daily goals every day.  Do those first and make sure they get done.

If you spend your life reacting to the things others demand of you, don’t be surprised when you end up doing nothing of consequence.  For the dreamers and doers, it’s better to act first, then worry about your inbox.

* * *

So that’s a small look into the habits of Zen to Done.  Overall, I walked away from this month finding the system incredibly useful and down-to-earth.  Is this better than the Action Method?  I’ll leave the comparisons for next month after I finish my third experiment.

Have you tried adopting the Zen to Done habits?  Any luck?  Let us know in the comments.

  1. April 11, 2012

    Looks like a cool system. I too had trouble with GTD. Tried it twice. Never made it past page 100.

  2. November 23, 2012

    This sounds cool. Random question: Do you keep a list of lists?


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