The ABCs of Leo Babauta's ZTD (Zen to Done)

The ABCs of Leo Babauta's ZTD (Zen to Done)

(Wilson Ng) #1

Long-time productivity blogger, Leo Babauta, released a book in 2007 titled [Zen To Done: The Ultimate Simple Productivity System] (ZTD). It is his variation of the popular productivity system, Getting Things Done (GTD). When GTD is too difficult to absorb, I recommend to many of the Guild members to try out ZTD. It’s a simpler productivity system that boils GTD down to 10 habits.

Leo discerned that it is very difficult to adopt the GTD system because there was just too much to take in at one time. He proposed a process of slowly adopting ten habits, one at a time, until it becomes second nature. This philosophy can be applied to other habits. Take one habit at a time and work into your daily life until it becomes natural. When I was 3 years, brushing my teeth was the last thing on my mind. But daily repetition has slowly ingrained this simple habit and I no longer have to remind myself about brushing my teeth. I just do it.

I’ll explore the ten habits and look for ways to adopt them into a daily routine. I would suggest doing any one of these habits for two to four weeks before moving on to the next one. You need time to focus on each of the following habits.

ZTD Habit 1. Collect

Collect anything and everything you want to remember. An idea easily escapes our ever-distracted minds in a heartbeat if it isn’t captured into something.

Keep a pen and a bunch of index cards with you.


I like to carry a pen with a small stack of index cards held together by a binder clip and keep it in my pocket or my carrying bag. Make it easy to reach when you want to capture something.

Designate your digital capture device and app

Choose an app or two where you will always capture ideas. Apple Notes, Evernote, and DevonThink are great apps to capture receipts, notes, or photos. My personal favorite is Drafts. It loads up very quickly and I can dictate to it. I use my smartphone and iPad to capture everything. Using cloud services makes it easier to share your captured notes on all your computers or devices.

Use your chosen app when you want to capture something. Don’t try to capture thoughts into different apps. It makes it difficult to remember where that note was recorded if you have too many apps to record your item.

Choose one physical location or a physical inbox.

I have one physical inbox at the house and another one at my work office. Invoices, advertisements, index card notes, and other items go to that physical inbox. I won’t need to remember if I left a Post-It note in the car or in my pant pockets. I know that everything is in one place.

ZTD Habit 2. Process

Make quick decisions about the items you’ve collected in Habit 1. Don’t procrastinate. Move items in the inbox to its proper place in your life. Dates, events, and appointments needs to go to a single calendar. Tasks and promises needs to go to the appropriate list in the task manager. New phone numbers and e-mail addresses go into the Contacts app. Reference material needs to go to your Reference Filing System.

ZTD Habit 3. Plan

Plan for the week by choosing the Most Important Tasks (MITs) to complete. These items will be your weekly goals. The final goal doesn’t have to be completed (but it would be nice!). Making significant progress towards a big goal can be counted as a victory.

When you have chosen your MITs for the week, schedule time for the tasks that will move you closer to your goals. Planning your week and making time for your goals is important. If you don’t set aside time for a goal, you’ll never do it!

ZTD Habit 4. Do - Focus on one task.

Focus on one task at a time. We are not meant to multi-task.I can chew gum and read a book. But it’s hard to talk on the phone with a client and balance my checkbook at the same time.

Put your phone on Do Not Disturb mode for an hour. Let all phone calls go to voice mail. Close the door to office or put on earphones to tell others that you’re trying to work on something and don’t want to be disturbed for a little while.

I’ve found that I can get away with 15 minutes of interruption free time. Sometimes I get lucky and I can get up to one hour before something comes up. Put away all the distractions that pulls at our psyche and get to work on the task in front of you.

ZTD Habit 5. Keep a Simple Trusted System

Choose one task manager or paper notebook to hold all your tasks. Don’t complicate your task manager with a hundred tags, multi-layered folders and sub-groups. Keep it as simple as possible.

Choose a calendar to store all your appointments. Anything with a date should go in here.

Choose a simple contacts app. Keep in touch with your friends by looking at one place. It’s difficult when I have six business cards tucked away at the bottom of my bag or in a desk drawer somewhere.

ZTD Habit 6. Organize

Everything has a place. It’s easier to find your stuff when they’re in its correct place. My keys go on the wall hook. My wallet stays inside my bag. Today’s reports are located on the top of my desk. My calendar accurately shows all my appointments for the week. Weekly reports have been sorted into folders and placed in the file cabinets.

Anything that looks out of place should be taken care of immediately (or as soon as possible). I’m a creature of habit and I like knowing where my stuff usually goes. I clear my desk at the end of the day and put tomorrow’s folder in the center. I’m prepared for tomorrow.

ZTD Habit 7. Review

This is the ultimate habit that keeps my task management workflow humming smoothly. I review to update my calendar, my contacts, my projects and tasks, and my reference files to reflect the current state of reality. My task manager doesn’t update itself. I have to do that part. My apps just remember what I need to do and when.

I do a daily review where I review a selected group of lists or projects and update them when needed. My work lists and work projects get reviewed on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. My personal lists and personal projects gets reviewed every three days. I review my calendar at the end of the day to see what my schedule looks like tomorrow.

Reviewing my projects and lists keeps me informed about the status of every project or Area of Responsibility I am concerned about. It’s better to stay on top of things instead of just letting things run itself into the ground. Life moves at a quick pace and reviewing helps to keep us aware of any status changes and updates that can affect a project or Area of Responsibility.

If you don’t review, you’ll ignore it and you no longer trust your task manager or your calendar. You’re not sure about the status of anything. Reviewing cures this common malady. You feel more confident when you know what is happening around you.

ZTD Habit 8. Simplify

Look to simplify your workflow or your life whenever you can. Offload your personal responsibilities or lighten your current workload for today.


Delegate projects or tasks that require the time or skills of someone else. I hate doing payroll and taxes. So I signed up with a bookkeeping company that does all that work for me.


You don’t have to do everything now. You can defer some projects and tasks to a future date or put it into Someday/Maybe. This will give us breathing room to focus on what needs to be worked on today.


Simplifying your life sometimes needs a purge. Anything that no longer has value to you can go. I cut the cable TV cord a long time ago. I subscribed to a few streaming services at a much lower price. I dropped my old DVD video rental membership as well.

ZTD Habit 9. Routines

Most of our routines tasks are maintenance in nature. We have to remember what needs to be done on a daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly, or annual basis. Set routines to take care of these repeating tasks.

I have a Due App alarm set at 4:30 pm every afternoon to nag me to do a review. I check my calendar, my inbox, and choose the next 3-5 most important tasks to do tomorrow.

I have a repeating checklist for the monthly taxes, weekly sales reports, and bill paying. I also have a checklist for any steps and procedures that needs to be repeatedly done. I have documented workflows for clearing the cash registers and credit card terminals, a workflow for timesheet, etc.

Routines will bring a sense of normalcy to our chaotic lives. There are no surprises because I might have skipped a step that created an error in one of the forms. My checklists are designed to prevent any missed oversight.

ZTD Habit 10. Find Your Passion

This is the last habit to tackle. This is where you find your goals or life vision. If you’re passionate about what you want to work on, you won’t procrastinate on them. You’ll enjoy your work when you are working on your passion projects.

In Summary

If you want a simplified version of ZTD, work on ZTD Habits 1 to 4 (Collect, Process, Plan, Do). You can always work on the remaining 6 habits later.

It takes a lot of energy to adopt these habits. The investment in these habits will form a solid foundation for your evolving productivity system. I’ve used these 10 ZTD habits and added to them over time.

Track your habits by writing in a productivity journal. Record your wins in the journal. Motivate yourself by joining and ending in an online group (such as the Productivity Guild!). Focus on your habits one at a time.

ZTD isn’t meant to be the final productivity system. It is the start of a productivity system you can build for yourself.

If you have any questions, ask away!

Creating My Productivity Workflow One Building Block At A Time
(Ja'acov Goldberg ) #2

Hi Wilson: I bought the e-book yesterday and started reading it last night. This is based on your recommendation. You strongly suggested to master the 10 habits, one at a time, then you can add more pieces to your workflow, and will greatly help you in the GTD process. Thank you, Jacob :slight_smile:

(Ja'acov Goldberg ) #3

Hi Wilson: The BEST post I have ever read in regards to GTD!!! Awesome job and thank you :slight_smile:

(Joe Buhlig) #4

Thanks for this, Wilson. I’ve not read through the ZTD book, but have always had a fascination with it for some reason. That may be due to my own interest in simplifying the GTD steps as much as possible to make it easier to choose what I should do next and be able to drop the system temporarily if I want.

It sounds like Leo had the same ideas and formalized them. :wink:

(Ja'acov Goldberg ) #5

Thats been my challenge with GTD, setting it up priorities/tasks in order of importance, needs to be completed .

(Wilson Ng) #6

Once you’ve gotten your basic building blocks, you’ll find more flexibility in customizing your workflow to fit you. A weak foundation wouldn’t be able to support the supports blocks that you’re trying to implement.