Updated on 01.22.15

Review: Zen to Done

Trent Hamm

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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  1. Sometimes I wish someone would write a book like this that is aimed at people who have kids who are not in child care. I don’t think I’d have any trouble managing to be productive if my four kiddos weren’t here…my problem is trying to get things done with constant distractions. I can’t really ever “get into the zone”, you know?

  2. Andy says:

    Leo has a great site. I run a similar GTD system but my biggest issues are two things: processing my inbox/keeping up on papers etc., and reviewing everything each week to stay up to date. I really just need to get over my laziness and do these things.

    One idea that I am going to try and implement (similar to Leo’s three rocks for the day) is create a to-do list every day for the following day, and then finish EVERYTHING on the list on the next day. I think it will help my productivity knowing that there is an end to what I need to do each day and when I reach it, then I can do whatever I want. I just need to do it so I trust the system enough to know I can stop worrying when everything on my list is done for the day.

  3. Robyn says:

    It is great to get these book reports.

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  4. This is a great review of a great book. I am looking forward to purchasing it and reading it within the next few weeks. There are some amazing tips there that look like they can definately help me on my entrepreneur blog.
    thanks for the review

  5. Will says:

    Thanks for the review. I’ve been following Zen Habits for a bit now and your review has made me make the decision to buy a copy. I used your affiliate link. :)

  6. Shevy says:

    This sounds really good. And Kristen, with 3 little girls on hand the 3 days per week (M-F) that I’m home, I can relate.

  7. Robert says:

    There’s difference between a review and a synopsis, however nicely done. I wonder what your friend thinks about you posting a condensed version of a book he’s trying to sell.
    I feel like I have no reason to buy and read the book now. : /

  8. Todd A says:

    While I agree that, generally, e-books are the grammatical equivalent of a 5th grader’s first draft, they do serve a purpose. The dissemination of ideas that may never have found a market large enough to secure a traditional publishing deal.

    That being said, the legitimacy of e-books is reduced with every spelling/grammatical error. Like I’ve heard many times, ideas themselves are a dime a dozen. It’s the execution of the ideas that delivers on the promise of a great idea.

  9. Tabs says:

    Okay, so I got habit 10 down, I have been working on habit 9 and I am on week two, habits 8 to 1, might just be the boost I need to be finally happy with my work routine and getting things done. I believe I am excited…

    I have to say I am one of the people who read GTD and I came up with one thing that I could do and I don’t remember what it is anymore.

    Thanks for the information, I will be looking into both books.


  10. Charlie says:

    I liked the review but I’d be dubious about the morality of sharing an e-book by e-mailing it to friends – it’s surely a breach of the author’s rights over the book?

    Sharing an e-book differs massively from lending a paperback, in that the recipient gets to keep a full and complete copy permanently and without paying – if anything, it’s more like buying a bestselling novel and then printing off your own copies to give away. Sorry to go a bit OT, but it’s not something I’d ever feel comfortable with doing, so I was surpirsed to see it suggested here.

  11. CBus says:

    Speaking of downloading it and sharing it with your friends…

  12. Meagan says:

    I did a quick search and I’m really surprised that as someone that has a hard time dealing with clutter you haven’t reviewed “It’s All Too Much” yet! If you haven’t gotten to read it yet, I recommend it! I also enjoyed “Does This Clutter Make My Butt Look Fat” because it gave me some great ideas to make my kitchen more productive even though my husband and I work 40 hours a week.

  13. Jenzer says:

    Trent, if office clutter and chaos is an issue, you might want to borrow a technique from Flylady called a Hot Spot Fire Drill:

    Essentially, at certain times during the day, you set a timer for 2 minutes and work at clearing out a clutter “hot spot” (i.e. a place where things tend to collect, like a side table or kitchen countertop). Some people do these “fire drills” twice a day, some at the top of every hour, some on other schedules that work best for them.

    You could make this part of your routine easily by incorporating it as a “grain of sand” you shift every time you finish with one of your “rocks” for the day.

  14. Mark says:

    I just found Zen to Done on Amazon.com. You can get it in printed book form. Check out the following link (not an affiliate link):




  15. LisaB says:

    Maybe you could keep track of the things that work for you with the objective of writing about it later. I encourage you to do so; I think you will have a captive audience!

  16. Gretchen says:

    Great review, thanks! I am sending it to my husband, who is a big fan of Getting things Done and carries his notebook everywhere.

    However, I did wonder about the advice to get rid of all distractions around you. This is coming from the father of six kids? What’s his secret?!

    (I was interrupted once by my 3 year old in just the 30 seconds it took to compose this post!)

  17. Donnovan says:

    @Charlie – Leo released the book (and all his articles for that matter) into the Public Domain, so you can do anything you want with it.

    @Mark – To be clear I don’t think Leo is the publisher of that book, so all proceeds will probably go to whoever is offering it up. I just checked on ZenHabits.net and in the comments for the book at the end of July Leo mentioned that he didn’t have plans to print it but the people suggesting it were welcome to do it. And the listing on Amazon occurred about 3 days later.

    I prefer printed books myself, but would feel a little weird knowing that the original author probably isn’t getting anything from the printed book, even though he gave them his blessing to do it.

  18. Mark says:


    I don’t mind that someone else is profiting from the book. The whole point of Leo offering the book to the public domain is so that his work can be spread to as many people as possible.

    I’m certainly willing to pay for the convenience of having it in book form—even if it’s not Leo who’s publishing it. Ebooks are ok but I hate reading a book that’s been printed from my printer. I figure as long as it’s the same information and good quality, I’m fine with it.

    If people want to Leo to get some money, then I would suggest that they go to his site and click the donate button and donate some money.

    I plan on buying the book. I’ll post a comment letting everyone know if it’s good quality.


  19. Donnovan says:

    @Mark – I agree with everything you said, but there will be people who would purchase it believing that Leo would make something from it. That was my only point.

    I am curious about this physical book, since I have the eBook which is only 83 pages long, but this physical book is 114 pages, and given the size of the book this one should be less than 83 pages printed and not more. So, if you do purchase it compare it with the chapters on Leo’s site to see if anything was added or left out (the other possible issue with someone else publishing it.)

  20. Lou says:

    I would have ordered the e-book, but his site doesn’t list the price – just a link to pay via PayPal. So i downloaded the summary from the Simple Dollar and I’ll work from that. I’m another person having problems with the scope of the original GTD.

  21. Leo says:

    Thanks for the excellent, thoughtful and thorough review, Trent!

    For those who have discussed sharing the ebook and buying it in print, a few notes:

    1. You are welcome to share the ebook through email or however you like. As has been mentioned, I’ve released it into the public domain. I appreciate it when people buy the ebook, but if you buy it and would like to share it, that’s OK with me.

    2. I encourage people to share ZTD in many different ways, including through print and Amazon Kindle. People have done that, and if they profit, I have no problems with it. I’ve made enough from the ebook that I don’t really need more profits — it’s paid back my efforts in writing it many times, and I used those profits to finish paying off my debts.

    3. That said, I don’t know the quality of any of the other formats, whether in Kindle or in print, so buyer beware. :)

  22. I bought it and it’s a very good book, even for GTD fans.

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