A Simple Productivity System to help you achieve Big Results

Introduction to Zen to Done – A Simple, Effective Productivity System

I’m not sure if you noticed this news. I felt heartened by the recent bill to ban work emails after work hours by New York City Council. A hefty fine for employers who violate this.

“While technology has increased access to people and ideas, it’s also made it possible for employees to be on-call 24/7, says the author of the bill, Rafael Espinal, representing the 37th District in New York City.

We need to establish clear boundaries for employees so they can maintain a healthy work-life balance and live without fear of retaliation for not answering work communications after work hours,” he added.

I think every city in the world needs this kind of legislation.

Pending such a global legislation, that might make our lives a little less stressed, we still need to deal with the reality of stress.

As David Allen puts it:

“Much of the stress that People feel doesn’t come from having too much to do. It comes from not finishing what they’ve started”

You need a Productivity System, to stay consistently productive, feel stress free, and accomplish Big Results. Most Productive people have a system or adapt one to suit their needs.

David Allen’s Getting Things Done (GTD) was a classical work in this area. Although I loved it, I found it a bit complicated to adopt.

Then came many offshoots of GTD.

A remarkably simple one was from Leo Babauta. He came up with a system called Zen To Done, which is inspired by GTD, yet, insanely simpler.

Before we review his system, let us review Leo’s background.

Leo Babauta

Leo runs the popular blog Zen habits with millions of followers. A normal guy with six kids, who managed to accomplish a humongous number of things that would be tough, without discipline and powerful habits.

To list a few — he quit smoking, became a runner, ran several marathons, got organized, turned vegetarian, tripled his income, wrote several best seller books (including the power of less).

Leo is an advocate of gradual life changes, ones that will last for a long time, not just for a few weeks. That’s exactly how he overcame many of his limitations (by his own admission), and achieved greatness.

Zen to Done

Leo was inspired by GTD and coined the term Zen to Done (ZTD) for his much simpler productivity system. Although a robust system that works for thousands of people, there are common shortfalls with GTD. (a) It requires more maintenance (b) Focusses on too many habit changes at once (c) Too unstructured to some and (d) finally doesn’t emphasize the focus aspect.

Habits are foundational for success and powerful agents of change. Changing habits involves strategy. As part of ZTD, Leo recommends 10 habits not in any order.

1. Collect Habit – ubiquitous capture.

Carry a small notebook, pen, and paper or something portable, digital if you like. Key is, it must be simple and portable and lets you capture any tasks, ideas, inspirations that you get at any time. Carry it wherever you go, but empty it into your to-do lists when you get home or work

2. Process: Habit – Make quick decisions without putting them off.

Process your inboxes, physical mail, voice message or whatever, at least once a day or more. Perform one of (1) Do (2) Delegate (3) Delete (4) File it (5) Calendar it for later.

3.  Plan: Habit – Set MIT (Most Important Tasks), for every week and every day.

Put down 3 MITs every day, and prioritize them as early in the day as possible, so they are out of your way

4. Do: Habit – Do one task at a time without distractions.

This is a key habit of ZTD. You must select a task (preferably your MIT) and focus on it without distractions. Call it Deep Work. You can use techniques like Pomodoro to accomplish this.

5. Simple Trusted System: Habit – keep simple lists, check daily.

You can use some contexts such as @home, @work etc. if they work for you. But keep it as simple as possible. Don’t complicate it by linking contexts to projects, trying out new tools etc., You don’t necessarily need a fancy app, or Outlook or complicated system of tags. Just one list (perhaps for each context), and a project list that you review daily or weekly. This is critical. Some of us tend to play with too many tools and finally forget the task at hand.

6. Organize Habit – A place for Everything.

You must get into the habit of putting everything into Inbox. From there, it goes to the context lists, action folder or a file in your filing system. Don’t procrastinate. Put things away. This keeps your desk clear and your mind clear as well. Clutter is a known enemy of organization.

7.Review: Habit – Review your system and goals weekly, daily:

ZTD’s review asks that you check your goals every week to see how you progressed. Note that your weekly goals are usually a subset of your yearly goals. Review weekly set aside necessary time to review progress and update progress against each goal that you set for yourself.

8. Simplify: Habit – Reduce your goals and tasks to essentials.

If you attempt to do too many things at a time, you can become overwhelmed and left without the necessary focus on MITs. So, the key is to simplify your tasks, remove everything but the essential so you can focus on them. Make sure your tasks are in alignment with your annual goals, say No to the unnecessary and keep it as simple as possible. Do this on a daily, weekly, monthly and yearly basis.

9. Routine: Habit – Set and Keep routines:

Try the habit of creating routines if it works for you. A morning routine could be something like this: Review your calendar, Go over your contexts, MITs, Exercise, Process emails. Evening routine example could be: Read your inboxes, Review your day, Write a journal, prepare for next day. Similarly, you can set up weekly, monthly and yearly routines

10. Find your passion: Habit – Seek work for which you are passionate:

This is a highly recommended and important although not mandatory habit. If you discover your passion and pursue tasks that are aligned with your passion, your tasks will look like rewards. They won’t be a burden. But this takes discipline and perseverance. It’s not going to be a crystal ball when you start out.

If you feel overwhelmed with 10 habits, Leo has a minimalist version of ZTD, that recommends the first 4 habits namely — Collect, Process, Plan and Do. And the tools that you need are only a small notebook and a pen.

Additional resources:

      •   Zen to Done that explains the system in greater detail

        • The Power of Less-  by Leo Babauta

        • Gettings things Done – by David Allen



  • I hope you found this introduction helpful. If you liked this article, can I ask a favor? Please leave a comment on what you think, and what you use as your productivity system.

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