Review: Zen to Done

Each Sunday, The Simple Dollar reviews a personal productivity, personal development, or business/entrepreneurship book of interest.

zen to doneOver the past few months, several readers have written to me asking for me to seek out quality e-books to review – e-books being documents you can download to your local computer for your own use without the need to print them off or have a paper copy. Frankly, I’ve been hesitant to do it because … well … in my opinion, most e-books are awful. Many are poorly written and very hastily put together – they’re done so poorly that you can’t help but wonder if minimal care was given to the content as well. The problem is that there’s little threshold for entry – anyone with a computer can create an e-book, but not many can create a useful and valuable one.

Perhaps the brightest exception to this rule came from an old blogging friend of mine, Leo Babauta, who writes the blog Zen Habits, which has occupied a place on my list of recommended sites for years. The site is mostly a giant collection of personal productivity tips. Anyway, about a year ago, he assembled an e-book called Zen to Done, which basically outlined the system he personally used to manage his time. Leo and I are in much the same boat personally – he recently took to writing his blog full time after making it grow in his spare time after a full time job, he has six kids, and he has a book coming out near the end of the year, so I figured his ideas would make a lot of sense to me.

He sent me a nearly-finished copy for free for me to look through. I promptly forgot about it.

It was only recently, when chatting with him again about our mutual upcoming book releases, that I thought about Zen to Done again. He again sent me a copy of it – and this time I actually bothered to read it. What I found was a very clever system for managing one’s time that borrows from the best pieces of a ton of other personal productivity systems – in particular, David Allen’s Getting Things Done and Stephen Covey’s First Things First.

Here’s the scoop on it.

Overview – What Is It?
Zen to Done is basically a rewrite of Getting Things Done with a focus on resolving five key problems that Leo identified with the original. Getting Things Done falls short in that it focuses on building habits (which means it’s not instantly applicable), doesn’t focus enough on actually doing things, is too unstructured for many people, tries to do too much, and doesn’t focus strongly on your goals. Leo’s solution to this is to remove big chunks of Getting Things Done, leaving a bare skeleton, then adding a few parts.

Minimal ZTD – The Simpler Alternative
The most basic form of Zen to Done really focuses on four things. First, collect your thoughts by keeping a notebook with you to write down thoughts and ideas as they come to you. Second, process those ideas by making quick decisions on each of the things you wrote down – what do you need to do with them? Third, plan your day by focusing only on the most important things you’ve jotted down and letting everything else flow around it. Fourth, do some stuff – focus exclusively on one task at a time, then move to the next when that first one is done. That’s it.

Forming the 10 Habits
Leo’s primary pet peeve about Getting Things Done is that it requires you to commit to a whole bunch of new habits all at once. Leo argues that it’s much easier to learn one habit at a time, so he reduced Getting Things Done (and a few other concepts) into ten distinct habits which can be learned one at a time instead of all at once. Learning any one of the habits can be helpful – learning them all over time can be a major boost.

Habit 1: Collect
Keep a notebook with you at all times and whenever a thought occurs to you that you’ll need to recall later, write it down immediately. That includes ideas, tasks to be done, things you want to investigate later, little facts you need to remember, and so on. Get it down on paper. I’ve grown into the habit of keeping a notebook in my pocket at all times and it’s become invaluable to me.

Habit 2: Process
When you get home, whip out that notebook and process all of the stuff in it. Decide if it can be handled quickly (like with a quick action to finish up a task or a quick web search to find a fact), needs to be filed, needs to be given to someone else, can be tossed (because it was useless), or needs to be handled with some focused attention. Get through everything in your notebook at once – and in all of your other message spots, too, like your email, your text messages, and your voicemail. You should be assembling a list of things to do out of this.

Habit 3: Plan
Each day, you should have one to three Important Tasks that you really need to get done that day. Those tasks should be the first ones on your to-do list for that day. Those are your rocks – the centerpieces of your day. After that, you should fill your day with the sand – smaller tasks on your to-do list that fill in the space around the rocks. For example, my “rocks” are usually Simple Dollar posts or articles (or other such content creation), while my “sand” is stuff like correspondence with readers. Have a list of “rocks” for each day – one to three key tasks – and then a list of “sand” to fill in the gaps.

Habit 4: Do
This isn’t as obvious as it might seem. Basically, the idea is to pick a “rock” (one of your key tasks for the day) then get in the zone by eliminating all of the distractions around you – turn off your phone, your email program, your IM program, and so forth. Then just focus on nothing but the project. If you get interrupted, just write the interruption down in your notebook for the next processing (after you’re done with the project) and don’t get off task. If your rock is of a reasonable size, you can knock it off in a few hours, then you can deal with the sand – the missed messages, tasks, and other things you need to deal with during a processing session. This really works – I do it all the time when I’m writing a post. I’ll write a complete post in one shot, then stop and do other smaller tasks as a “break” before I take on the next post.

Habit 5: Simple, Trusted System
Don’t make your system for keeping track of things too complex. Leo suggests using five “to-do” lists – work, personal, errands, calls you need to make, and a “waiting for” list comprised of stuff you’re waiting on before you can make progress. I actually use just four, as I combine the errands and the calls list into one. Each one is a mix of big things and little things – on each one, I mark “big” jobs with a star so if I have some free time, I fly through the list and just eliminate unstarred stuff.

Habit 6: Organize
Clutter is your enemy. Everything should have a place, and getting in the routine of making sure your stuff finds its correct place is invaluable. This is easily the habit I have the hardest time with, as it’s easy for me to have my office area descend into chaos over the course of a week or so as I pull out reference materials and don’t put them back, leave stuff out for me to see later, and accumulate stuff that really needs to be filed or tossed.

Habit 7: Review
Each week, set aside some time to review where you’re at and where you want to go. Leo advises a five step process. First, review your most important long term goal and your most important short term goal. Second, review your notes – go through your notebook and make sure you haven’t missed anything. Third, review your calendar – make sure you didn’t forget about a follow-up for something that happened during the week and also make sure you’re prepared for the coming week. Review your lists to make sure you haven’t missed something vital or if there’s something that can easily be done right now. Finally, figure out what your short term goal for the coming week is and identify the big tasks you want to accomplish each day.

Habit 8: Simplify
Spend some time simplifying the things you need to do. Go through your “to-do” lists and make sure they’re stuff you really need to be spending your time on. Eliminate unnecessary responsibilities. Cut down on the stuff you read and absorb routinely, reducing it to the bare minimum. Focus entirely on your rocks and let the sand flow away – it’s not really as important, anyway.

Habit 9: Set Routines
Settle into a daily routine that incorporates as many of these habits as possible. My daily routine usually consists of a correspondence and processing session in the morning, then a series of “rocks” (usually posts), followed by a bit of “sand” (emails, eating, message follow-ups, etc.), and alternating back and forth until the day is finished. This works very well for me.

Habit 10: Find Your Passion
Leo makes the astute point here that if you’re not passionate about what you’re doing, it’s going to be very hard to adopt habits that enable you to succeed at it. If you love what you’re doing, the diligence required to make things work will come much more naturally. I love writing, so the “rocks” part of my day is a part that I thoroughly enjoy and it makes the whole day go by like a gentle breeze.

Some Thoughts on Zen to Done
Some of this stuff seems to come very naturally to some people and is very difficult for others. I think there is a certain set of traits that predisposes people to better time management than others. I think I’m pretty good at it – my problem is almost always clutter, not managing my time.

The most useful idea from this book – at least for me – was keeping a pad of paper and a pen on me at all times. I keep a little notebook and a pen in my front hip pocket and long ago got used to just pulling it out and jotting down things when they came to me.

There are some documents better published as e-books than in print. I think this is one of them. It includes a lot of references to online tools and other resources that aid in learning the various habits.

Is Zen to Done Worth Reading?
Basically, Zen to Done is a simplified version of David Allen’s excellent Getting Things Done with a few other useful elements from other productivity schemes tossed in. It actually turned out to be very similar to the way I handle the tasks I need to do each day, which made it seem all the more approachable for me. I found several little tweaks that fit perfectly into what I already did.

If you have difficulty managing your time and you’ve tried Getting Things Done and found it too big to swallow all at once, Zen to Done is probably perfect for you. It’s very simple with applicable pieces for any life.

The only real catch with Zen to Done is that you can’t check it out at your local library – it’s only available as a downloadable e-book. For some, that will be prohibitive, and I don’t blame you – I like the feel of a book and I also prefer to browse a book at the library to check it out. But it is pretty cheap, and you’re allowed to make as many copies as you want, so if you download it once, you can email it to all of your friends to share it. I’m strongly considering doing a similar project in a similar format.

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