Zen to Done (ZTD) Review


GTD, the well-known acronym for “Getting Things Done”, has gained cult status, in both good ways as well as bad, in productivity circles, and with good reason. It was sort of the counter-culture to the predominant productivity systems that would have followers swearing by this or that process or this or that tool (that they, often times, also sell). In that sense, it is also almost ironic that GTD grew up to that same status despite trying not to. Admittedly, GTD espouses simplicity and doesn’t even endorse a tool other than plain pen and paper. Its only creed is a five-step process that’s so simple it can be implemented in so many different ways and tuned to one’s tastes.

But GTD’s simplicity is both deceptive and overwhelming. On the one hand, its free-form structure doesn’t offer the necessary support that some people need or prefer. On the other hand, those five “simple” steps are actually composed of many more mini-steps. Each chapter’s length is a testament to their innate complexity.

Leo Babuta, of Zen Habits fame, tackles those flaws in his e-book “Zen to Done”, appropriately abbreviated to ZTD. His main premise is that GTD is actually composed of a bunch of habits rather than just five, and that the system doesn’t exactly help you learn how to start and, more importantly, keep those habits. His proposed is also almost ironic: instead of five steps, ZTD has 10 habits instead. Those 10 habits, technically speaking only 9 of them, actually incorporate those same 5 GTD steps but splits them when necessary to simplify the onboarding process.

Simplicity is really the core focus of ZTD, quite apt for its name, and its biggest advantage over GTD. The e-book itself is evidence of that, being only a fraction of the length of GTD. It only has about 16 chapters, plus an FAQ and a “appendix”. Each chapter is extremely short, presented in straight-to-the-point text and bullet points. The format, which might be strange for a traditional book, is due to ZTD essentially being a compilation of blog posts from Babuta’s Zen Habits website. It has the advantage of being easy to digest and browse through, but you’d be hard pressed to find specifics and examples without scouring through his blog.

The Cliff Notes version of ZTD is like this:

  1. Collect – have as many inboxes as you need but as few as you can get by
  2. Process – Decide whether to Delete (Trash), File, Delegate, Defer, or Do
  3. Plan – Set your most important goals/tasks for each week and day
  4. Do – How to properly handle distractions
  5. Simple Trusted System – a simple system you’ll actually use
  6. Organize – have a place for everything and a process to follow
  7. Review – “simplified”, and quick, weekly review
  8. Simplify – cut down on lists and sources of information
  9. Set Routines – batch tasks and have daily/weekly checklists
  10. Find Your Passion – Discover what drives you

ZTD definitely has a few things over GTD and, unsurprisingly, simplicity is one of them. ZTD actually discourages adopting everything in one go, something that GTD implicitly recommends. Instead, Babuta suggests adopting one habit at a time for 30 days until it becomes second nature. 2 habits at a time is OK, but 4 is already cutting it too close to comfort. He also even suggests a “simplified” ZTD system that only has the first four and nothing more. In contrast, while GTD does say you don’t have to adopt everything in one go, the way the system is set up , GTD is ineffective if not applied wholesale. That said, even ZTD has a bit of that flaw as well, and some habits are better applied together instead.

One other huge advantage ZTD has over GTD is its inclusion of goals into the system. GTD purposely leaves out any sort of formal goal setting, which practically leaves the task of moment-by-moment decision making on gut feeling. It might work fine for others, but some need a bit more direction than that, especially those whose to-do lists has dozens of items spanning different lists. To remedy this, ZTD endorses the use of weekly Big Rocks and daily MITs, or Most Important Tasks. They’re basically different names for the same thing.

No productivity system is perfect, of course. Or to be more precise, it won’t be perfect for everyone. While some might have already found salvation from GTD, others have taken refuge in ZTD. Some, however, might still find ZTD a bit lacking for their own purposes. ZTD, for one, doesn’t go into detail about project management or how to incorporate big tasks into the system, particularly in the Planning and Review habits. It is also a bit awkward, and feels almost forced, that “Find Your Passion” is labeled as a habit. A habit is something you adopt as an action you repeat everyday or at frequent intervals. Finding your passion feels like something you do once a year or at most reflect on monthly, not every day for 30 days.

The ZTD e-book also doesn’t have mucb examples on how to exactly implement these habits, something that GTD is almost in excess of. Babuta does have a short “A day with ZTD” example, but it involves someone already in the zone, so to speak. I’m sure there are tons of examples on the Zen Habits website, but one should have to scour the blog for information that should be included in the main course already.

So in a nutshell, Zen To Done builds on GTD rather than deconstruct it. In a sense, familiarity with the GTD process is almost a prerequisite. You don’t need to read the whole GTD book since there are tons of websites that summarize the core principles and workflow. ZTD, however, offers a bit more structure and direction than GTD, especially with goal setting. Both, however, are open-ended enough to tweak the system to one’s tastes. Which is something you’ll eventually end up doing, considering how basic and terse the ZTD book is.

Buy: Zen To Done

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