Minimal ZTD: The Simplest System Possible

Post written by Leo Babauta. Follow me on Twitter.

Recently I posted my new twist on the excellent GTD system, Zen To Done (ZTD): The Ultimate Simple Productivity System. However, reader Mark Siegal said that the system seems to complex. So I now present the minimalist version of ZTD — a way to be productive without all the fuss.

The Four Habits
1 collect. Habit: ubiquitous capture. Carry a small notebook (or whatever capture tool works for you) and write down any tasks, ideas, projects, or other information that pop into your head. Get it out of your head and onto paper, so you don’t forget it. This is the same as GTD. But ZTD asks you to pick a very simple, portable, easy-to-use tool for capture – a small notebook or small stack of index cards are preferred (but not mandated), simply because they are much easier to use and carry around than a PDA or notebook computer. The simpler the tools, the better. When you get back to your home or office, empty your notes into your to-do list. Read more.

2 process. Habit: make quick decisions on things in your inbox, do not put them off. Letting stuff pile up is procrastinating on making decisions. Process your inboxes (email, physical, voicemail, notebook) at least once a day, and more frequently if needed. When you process, do it from the top down, making a decision on each item, as in GTD: do it (if it takes 2 minutes or less), trash it, delegate it, file it, or put it on your to-do list or calendar to do later. See Getting Your Email to Empty and Keeping Your Desk Clear for more.

3 plan. Habit: set MITs for week, day. Each week, list the Big Rocks that you want to accomplish, and schedule them first. Each day, create a list of 1-3 MITs (basically your Big Rocks for the day) and be sure to accomplish them. Do your MITs early in the day to get them out of the way and to ensure that they get done.

4 do (focus). Habit: do one task at a time, without distractions. This is one of the most important habits in ZTD. You must select a task (preferably one of your MITs) and focus on it to the exclusion of all else. First, eliminate all distractions. Shut off email, cell phone, Internet if possible (otherwise just close all unnecessary tabs), clutter on your desk (if you follow habit 2, this should be pretty easy). Then, set a timer if you like, or otherwise just focus on your task for as long as possible. Don’t let yourself get distracted from it. If you get interrupted, write down any request or incoming tasks/info on your notepad, and get back to your task. Don’t try to multi-task. See How NOT to Multi-Task for more.

What the Minimal ZTD system leaves out
This version leaves out six habits: keeping a system of simple lists, organizing everything, weekly reviews, simplifying your tasks and projects, setting routines for yourself, and finding your passion.

While I think these six habits are valuable, they are not absolutely necessary for a minimalist system.

The minimalist implementation
So how do you implement this system, and what do you need? First the tools: A small notebook and a pen. That’s all.

So here’s how you implement the system:

  1. Use your notebook to write everything down as you think of it. This allows you to get things off your mind and not forget them.
  2. When you get to your desk or home, add those new tasks to your Master To-do List, which you can also keep in your notebook.
  3. At the beginning of each day, review your list, and write down 1-3 MITs that you’d like to accomplish for the day. That’s your whole planning system. You don’t need any more than that.
  4. Get your MITs done as early as possible. When you do each task, clear away all distractions and focus on doing that one task only. Do not multi-task. When you’re done, move on to the next MIT.
  5. If you complete your MITs, go to your Master List and see what’s the next most important task on the list. Do it as in Step 4 above. Repeat as needed.

You don’t really need 10 different lists, and if you don’t keep those different lists, you don’t need a weekly review. I would still suggest you set yearly goals, and add mini tasks from each goal to your Master List, but that’s optional.

Also optional: add any of the habits that are left out of this minimalist system later, if you think they would help.