Floating Leaf

David Allen’s book Getting Things Done has become a classic of personal productivity, but not everyone finds his simple “what’s the next action” philosophy fully compatible with their lives. Allen himself admits that the book is directed specifically at business executives and may not fit everyone’s needs perfectly, and sites like lifehack.org, 43 Folders, and others in the personal productivity blogosphere, have dedicated a lot of time and pixels to working out some of the tweaks and workarounds needed to make Allen’s GTD system apply to their readers’ lives.

ZTD cover

Leo Babauta has spent the last year publicly fine-tuning his take on GTD, as a contributor here at lifehack.org and at the excellent Zen Habits. Now, he’s taken all he’s learned and rolled it up into his own system, “Zen to Done”, available as an ebook for $9.50 through his site. Zen to Done combines the task management aspects GTD with the goal-setting and prioritization methods advocated by Stephen Covey, along with Leo’s own “special sauce”.

It sounds complicated, but it’s really not at all; in fact, if anything, Babauta has managed to simplify GTD even more, reducing it to 10 very doable habits — and even offering a 4-point “Simple ZTD” system that’s even easier! The idea is to develop not only the ideas we need to be more productive but to invest ourselves in transforming these ideas into habits, things that are just a natural part of our everyday routines. If you learn one habit a month, says Babauta, by the end of a year you’ll be amazingly more productive — not a bad deal for a year’s commitment.

ZTD consists, as I said, of 10 habits:

  • Collect: Set up a limited number of inboxes — a tray on your desk, your email — and collect everything in those few places. Use a Moleskine, stack of index cards, or other easy-to-use (for you) device to capture and record thoughts, todo-list items, phone numbers, and other things you want to remember throughout the day.
  • Process: Go through your inboxes and decide what to do with each item — throw it out, get someone else to do it, do it yourself, do it later, or keep it as reference. Do this until your inbox is empty. Tomorrow, do it again. GTD’ers will recognize this as the essential core of the GTD system.
  • Plan: Spend some time at the beginning of each week deciding what your “Big Rocks” are for the coming week, the major projects you want to work on. Each morning (or the night before) list the three most important tasks (MITs) you want to accomplish that day. Put them at the top of your todo list, and do them.
  • Do: This is the core of ZTD — filling in what Babauta sees as a weak spot in Allen’s GTD system. Choose an MIT, give yourself large blocks of time without distractions (email, phone, any program you don’t need for the task at hand), and plug away until a) time’s up, or b) you’re done.
  • Simple, trusted system: Babauta’s advice for setting up a system you can live with — without fiddling and adding layers of complexity. Babauta uses a few web apps, a Moleskine, a calendar, and a set of files, but says whatever works without getting in your way is fine.
  • Organize: Keep everything in a place that’s logical and reduces the energy you need to a) find and use it, and b) put it back.
  • Review: The downfall of many a GTD’er, ZTD’s review simplifies the weekly review while extending it to include goal-setting: one long-term and one short-term at a time. This is an interesting thread through the whole system — instead of 10 5-year goals, Babauta advocates sticking to one big goal for the year, and working it until it’s done before moving onto another goal. This helps keep your head straight and your motivation high, with a string of successes to look back on instead of a bunch of successes in the future to look forward to.
  • Simplify: The notion of limiting the number of big goals you have at any given time fits in well with Babauta’s constant refrain of “simplify” — eliminate unnecessary tasks from your lists, minimize your commitments, reduce the number of things (goals, RSS feeds, emails, whatever) that demand your attention at any given moment.
  • Routine: This habit and the next are “optional”, according to Babauta — they’re more like principles than habits. And yet, they seem like the real core of the system. Set up daily and weekly routines, so that collecting, processing, planning, and doing become second-nature and everything just flows. Minimize unnecessary surprises so you can focus on getting everything done with a clear mind and an easy heart. That’s Zen!
  • Find Your Passion: Find something you’re passionate about doing — your calling, if you will — and forget the rest. Who needs to push themselves to do the things they love most in the world to do? Although Babauta comes across as slightly naive in pushing his readers to pursue a career doing what they love (“if you really put in the work, you’ll achieve your dreams someday” sounds suspiciously light next to the hard-headed practical advice we find throughout the rest of the book), this passion is the gist of all this personal productivity stuff — get the stuff you have to do out of the way so you can focus on what you want to do.

There’s much more to ZTD than what I’ve listed above — it really is a phenomenal thing that Babauta has produced. The book is well-designed (though there are a few annoying typos and grammatical errors here and there) and very well-written; Babauta’s advice comes across more as a friend or trusted mentor telling you his secrets than as a “productivity expert” spelling out The Rules.

My only real complaint is that there’s no way to order the book in hard copy — it’s the kind of work you’re going to want to return to again and again, and a nice copy that could sit on your shelf next to David Allen and Steven Covey would be nice, even at slightly more cost. With easy print-on-demand services readily available, I hope Babauta will take the next step and offer this as a physical book soon. Oh, and Leo, did I mention a physical book is far more “giftable”?

Highly recommended.
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Disclaimer: Leo Babauta wrote for lifehack.org until June of 2007. However, I do not know Leo, nor have I had any contact with him. I started writing for lifehack.org in July of 2007.

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