zen to done book summary

Book Summary: Zen to Done by Leo Babauta

The Book in Three Sentences

In this book summary of Zen to Done, you’ll learn a simple productivity system that combines concepts from Getting Things Done and The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. ZTD focuses on ten habits, as well as a series of tips to develop those habits. There are many time-management systems, but few are as simple as Leo Babauta’s ZTD.

Zen to Done Summary

This book is for people who want to organize their lives and complete tasks on their to-do lists. For those unfamiliar, Zen to Done (or ZTD, for short) is a simple and powerful system to keep everything organized: tasks, projects, your workday, desk, and email inbox.

Chapter 1: Why Zen to Done?

ZTD combines some concepts from David Allen’s Getting Things Done and Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Successful People. More than anything, Zen to Done is based on simplicity and focus.

ZTD addresses five problems of GTD:

  1. While GTD features a series of habit changes, ZTD focuses on one habit at a time.
  2. While GTD doesn’t focus enough on doing, ZTD is more about doing.
  3. While GTD is too unstructured for many people, ZTD is all about the following habits: planning your Most Important Thing (MIT) for the day, your Big Rocks for the day, and setting your daily and weekly routines.
  4. While GTD tries to do too much which stresses you, ZTD is all about simplifying.
  5. While GTD doesn’t focus enough on your goals, ZTD focuses on big tasks, projects, or events for the day, week, and year.

Chapter 2: Overview – What Is Zen to Done?

Zen to Done is a set of ten habits to organize, simplify, control, and get things done. The idea involves choosing the habit that will work the most for you, focusing on one habit at a time. Changing a habit should take thirty days.

  1. Collect Habit: Capture what matters. Write down tasks, ideas, or projects as they come to your mind in either a notebook or index card. The simpler the tool you use, the better. Once you get home, you transcribe your notes to your to-do list.
  2. Process Habit: Make quick decisions about what you have in your inbox. Process your inboxes (email, voicemail, notebook) once a day and from the top down. Processing means doing the task, delegating it, trashing it, filing it, or adding it to your to-do list.
  3. Plan Habit: Set MITs for the day or week. List the Big Rocks (the most important tasks) each week. Additionally, you have your MITs, which are your Big Rocks for the day and you should do them as early as possible.
  4. Do Habit: Do one task at a time with no distractions. To eliminate distractions, turn off your phone, turn off notifications, turn off the internet when possible, and remove all the clutter from your desk. Focus on a task as long as possible and don’t multitask.
  5. Simple Trusted System Habit: Keep simple lists for each context which include work, home, errands, and so on. Review your project list daily or weekly.
  6. Organize Habit: All incoming stuff goes to your inbox. From your inbox, it goes into context lists, action folders, in your outbox, or in the trash.
  7. Review Habit: Review the system and the goals on a daily basis.
  8. Simplify Habit: Your goals and tasks should include what you consider essential. Your tasks should align with your goals. Do this daily on a small scale.
  9. Routine Habit: Set up and keep routines around your system. Determine which actions you’re going to do in the mornings and evenings.
  10. Find Your Passion Habit: Your work should be something you’re passionate about.

Chapter 3: Minimal ZTD – The Simpler Alternative

Implementing ten habits might seem overwhelming and complicated, so as an alternative, there’s a minimal system that focuses on just four habits.

  1. Collect Habit
  2. Process Habit
  3. Plan Habit
  4. Do Habit

To implement this minimalist system:

  1. Use a notebook to write the ideas in your head.
  2. Add those tasks to your to-do list.
  3. At the beginning of each day, review your list and set one to three MITs.
  4. Do your MITs as soon as possible. Remove distractions and don’t multitask.
  5. Once you’ve done your MITs, move on to your Master List and see which task is next. Follow step 4.

Chapter 4: Forming the Ten Habits

Don’t undertake several habits at once. Do it one habit at a time and then move on to the next one. You can try two to three habits at a time, but you’ll be more successful the fewer habits you implement. Also, you can follow the list of habits in order or give higher priority to the ones that will benefit you the most.

This is the habit change methodology:

  1. Commitment: Tell everyone what you’re doing and why
  2. Practice: Do a thirty-day challenge, focusing on a habit every day for a month
  3. Motivation: Find ways to motivate yourself
  4. Tracking: Log your progress
  5. Support: Do it with someone else or join an online group
  6. Rewards: Reward yourself
  7. Focus: Focus on a new habit for a month
  8. Positive thinking: Tell yourself you can do it

Chapter 5: Habit 1: Collect

A lot of information comes our way and we soon forget most of it. Therefore, we need a system to collect that information and keep it organized. Instead of relying on our brains, we have to write things down immediately. We should have a place to collect everything, an inbox.

As a general rule, have a single account for email. Keep track of all your inboxes, which might include messaging apps, social networks, forums, and so on.

Your notebook is your main collection tool. For this purpose, carry a notebook and make writing things down a habit.

Chapter 6: Habit 2: Process

Process all the information you’ve collected to empty. This means checking and putting things where they belong at least once a day. The fewer inboxes you have, the better, so combine them, eliminate the unessential, and evaluate which ones give you value. Aim to have four to seven inboxes and don’t let them overflow.

Here’s how it works:

  1. Process from the top down, making quick decisions
  2. Delete unnecessary items
  3. Delegate
  4. Do the tasks that take two minutes or less immediately
  5. Defer those tasks that take more than two minutes for later
  6. File those items you need for reference
  7. Don’t leave an item in your inbox
  8. Repeat the process and keep your inboxes empty

Chapter 7: Habit 3: Plan

List the Big Rocks you want to accomplish this week and schedule them. Additionally, create a list of the one to three MITs daily and accomplish them early. This gives purpose to your days and weeks.

  1. Big Rocks: These take place on Sunday or Monday. Look at your to-do list and what you want to accomplish that week becomes your Big Rocks. Schedule them first. There should be four to six accomplishments per week.
  2. Schedule: Schedule one or two Big Rocks per day. Do them as early as possible and they should take one to two hours.
  3. MITs: Decide what your MITs are each morning for that day. Do them as early as possible.
  4. Complete them: Do your MITs first thing in the morning. Don’t forget to remove distractions and focus on a single task at a time.
  5. Reward yourself

Chapter 8: Habit 4: Do

This is the most important habit. To do things:

  1. Choose a Big Rock
  2. Eliminate distractions
  3. Set a timer and focus as long as possible
  4. Don’t multitask and write down the thoughts that interrupt your work
  5. Stop yourself from doing something else, refocus and continue working
  6. When something urgent happens, write down what you were doing
  7. Stretch, take breaks, go outside, and relax
  8. Reward yourself once you’re over and move on to the next task

Chapter 9: Habit 5: Simple, Trusted System

In GTD, tasks become to-do lists called “Context Lists”. This is to organize tasks from a particular context. Instead, Zen to Done proposes a simple system that has three components:

  1. Setup: Inboxes, calendars, lists, and a reference system
  2. Tools: The simpler the tools, the better
  3. Usage: Use the system on a daily basis and integrate it into your routine

Chapter 10: Habit 6: Organize

To organize, everything should have a home.

  • Have a system: Have an inbox and process it to empty.
  • Find a home: Every item should have a home
  • Simple filing system: Use a filing system for the papers you need for reference
  • Put it away immediately: Put paper and files away immediately
  • Make it a habit: Putting things where they belong should become a habit
  • Pay attention to transitions: When you transition from doing one thing to the next, clean up the mess
  • Keep flat surfaces clear
  • Label: Label your items or keep them in boxes
  • Evaluate: Review your system regularly

Chapter 11: Habit 7: Review

A weekly review lets you remember your goals. This simplified weekly review has five steps and should take around 30 minutes.

  1. Review your single, long-term goal, and short-term goals (5 minutes): Write down your goals. Choose one long-term goal you want to accomplish this year. Choose one short-term goal you want to accomplish this week. Review your progress weekly.
  2. Review your notes (5-10 minutes): Do this to remember unfinished tasks, phone numbers, and so on.
  3. Review your calendar (5 minutes): Look at the upcoming weeks, look back to see unfinished tasks, and look at current tasks.
  4. Review your lists (10 minutes): Keep lists up to date.
  5. Set your short-term goals this week and plan your Big Rocks (5-10 minutes): Each week choose a short-term goal. Do mini tasks to achieve it. Do them early in the morning.

Chapter 12: Habit 8: Simplify

You can never do all the things you want to do, you must simplify to the bare essentials.

  • Eliminate: Review your tasks and projects. Simplify them
  • Know what’s essential: Focus on one goal. Your goals should reflect your essential projects.
  • Simplify your commitments: Learn to say no and value your time.
  • Simplify your information stream: Simplify your inputs so that you can simplify your outputs
  • Review weekly: Eliminate items from your to-do list. Only do what matters.
  • Big Rocks: Identify your most important tasks and do them before anything else.
  • Biggest value: Focus on the big tasks that make a difference. Eliminate the rest.
  • Three MITs: Identify your three MITs, devote your day to them
  • Batch small tasks: Do small tasks in a batch

Chapter 13: Habit 9: Set Routines

Create a weekly and daily routine. Routines simplify your life, bring order, and put you in control.

Here are some tips:

  • Work tasks: Write a list of tasks you must do
  • Personal tasks: Do the same for personal tasks
  • Batch process: Put smaller tasks together to save time
  • Daily list: Group together things you have to do every day
  • Weekly list: Group together the activities you do weekly or more than once a week
  • Trying it out: Try your daily and weekly routines and make adjustments as necessary
  • Sticking with it: Maintain your routines for thirty days

Chapter 14: Habit 1.0: Find Your Passion

This is one of the most important habits. Search for the kind of job you love.

How to find your passion:

  • Is there something you already love doing?
  • What do you spend hours reading about?
  • Brainstorm
  • Ask around
  • Give it a try first
  • Never quit trying

To live your passion:

  • Do your passion as a side job
  • Do some research
  • What are your obstacles
  • Make a plan and work out solutions to your obstacles
  • Execute your plan by doing something every day.
  • Practice
  • Be persistent

Chapter 15: A Day with Zen to Done

This chapter is a hypothetical example of someone’s life using ZTD. It involves a morning routine, planning (setting three MITs the night before), and an evening routine.

Chapter 16: Frequently Asked Questions

This chapter addresses several frequently asked questions, I only included the ones that seemed interesting enough.

How’s ZTD different from GTD?

Zen to Done asks people to do habits one at a time instead of all of them at the same time. The productivity system focuses on the essentials. ZTD is about doing, it focuses on the goals, and is about structured days. Also, ZTD adds a habit: finding your passion.

What’s the author’s Zen to Done setup?

The author uses a Moleskine pocket notebook, Google Calendar, Gmail, Google Docs, and AbiWord.

Further Reading

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