Zen to Done

"How soon 'not now' becomes 'never.'"

- Martin Luther, quoted in Zen to Done, page 77

At one point or another we have all struggled with productivity and organization. For many (myself included), it’s an evolving and on-going issue in both our work and personal lives. Leo Babauta has long written about productivity, organization and simplicity in his popular blog, Zen Habits. His approach remains simple with a focus on taking action. This philosophy is also reflected in his book, Zen to Done.

Frustrated by his own experiences with finding the best methods for organization and productivity, Babauta combined the ideas from Getting Things Done, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People and other books to create the Zen to Done approach. This book seeks to solve some of the common short falls of these other books and systems such as the fact that they don’t focus on your goals, ask you to implement too many changes at once and are too unstructured for some people. Babauta proposes a series of ten habit changes, which form the Zen to Done approach. Additionally, Babauta encourages readers to go beyond just their work life and let their newly formed habits influence other aspects of their life.

The Golden Egg

Golden Egg: The biggest takeaway from the book

Doing is key

"The 'Habit of Do' is key to the ZTD system. It's the habit that's missing from many other productivity systems, and yet it's the most important. All the rest is just busy work if you don't actually do the things on your to-do list."
- Zen to Done, page 35

There is a real beauty in having systems and methods for our work. But so often the problem becomes that we are managing the system more than we are leveraging it to accomplish our work. I have certainly been guilty of this when it comes to using systems like Basecamp or Trello to organize and maintain workflow. Babauta advocates that instead of focusing on these types of systems, we revert to something simpler that requires less time and technology so that we can focus on doing. It seems like an obvious notion, yet one that is often overlooked.

If you’re curious to see how much time you actually spend taking action (as opposed to checking email, answering calls, etc), consider tracking your time for a week to take a baseline measurement. I did this as an exercise and was very surprised to find that the amount of time I spent taking action was well below what I expected.

Gem #1

An actionable way to implement the BIG takeaway (Golden Egg) into your life

The 10 Habits

"I don’t think becoming completely organized and productive in one year is such a bad accomplishment."
- Zen to Done, page 12

While there are 10 habits, they can be grouped into four categories – collect, process, plan and do. These form the foundation of Zen to Done and they include:

  • Collect – Have a way to capture everything that is floating around in your mind. The idea is to “unclutter” your mind to make it easier to focus on a single task.
  • Process – Improves your decision making process in your inbox to avoid creating an email mountain.  If it takes less than 2 minutes, do the action. Otherwise trash it, delegate it, file it or add it as a to-do in your calendar.
  • Plan – Set your most important tasks (MITs) for each week and day. These should support your larger yearly goals.
  • Do – Focus on doing one task at a time without distraction.
  • Simple trusted system – Rather than creating a complicated system, create lists based on context and check them daily.
  • Organize – Find a place for everything that is incoming. Ideally this system should be based on your context lists.
  • Review – Create a time to review your system and goals each week to ensure that you are on track and making progress.
  • Simplify – Reduce your goals and tasks to the essentials. Again, instead of creating unnecessary chaos in your life, go back to basics.
  • Routine – Set and develop routines to create structure for yourself. This could include delegating certain tasks to certain days or assigning daily activities to a consistent time.
  • Find your passion – Seek work that you are passionate about. This is essential to your intrinsic motivation and getting things done.

It could be easy to get overwhelmed by the potential changes that are suggested to improve productivity and organization, but Babauta encourages readers to only do 2 to 3 at a time. Additionally, once you have tried them all only stick with the ones the best serve you and your work.

Gem #2

An actionable way to implement the BIG takeaway (Golden Egg) into your life

Do the MITs first

"Clear away all distractions, and be sure to focus only on that task until it’s done. When you’re done, reward yourself . . . but be sure to move on to your next MIT shortly!"
- Zen to Done, page 34

Because we have access to email and social media on our phones, which often double as our alarm clocks, it is all too easy to being the day in a chaotic, reactionary manner. To counteract this, Babauta suggests what may be the most difficult habit of them all for readers to implement – do the most important tasks first. Don’t check your email, RSS feeds or social media. Refer to the daily list of MITs that you’ve created for yourself and focus on completing those first.

This is a habit that I am in the process of implement in my own life. It has been difficult since most of my work is done and saved on Google Drive. It is nearly inevitable that I scan through my email on the way to getting to my MITs. I’ve started using Word again so that I can work without the Internet in the background. Forming this new work routine has been a bit challenging, but I can that I am much more effective in getting my work done so that I have ample time in my day for living beyond work.

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Vanessa Chase

ABOUT Vanessa Chase

I am a fundraising strategist and copywriter, and run the non-profit resource website, Philanthropy For All. Through my work, my goal is to help passionate non-profit folks better articulate their non-profit’s impact and work is a way that translates to engaged philanthropic communities...
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