Zen To Done (ZTD): The Simple Productivity System

By Leo Babauta

“It’s about the habits and the doing, not the system or the tools.”

In order to capture the essentials of being productive & organized, while keeping things as simple as possible, I’ve developed my own productivity system: Zen To Done (ZTD).

ZTD captures the essential spirit of the new system: that of simplicity, of a focus on doing, in the here and now, instead of on planning and on the system.

If you’ve been having trouble with GTD, as great as it is, ZTD might be just for you. It focuses on the habit changes necessary for GTD, in a more practical way, and it focuses on doing, on simplifying, and on adding a simple structure. Read on for more.


ZTD attempts to address five problems that many people have with GTD. I should note that GTD isn’t really flawed, and doesn’t really need modification, but everyone is different, and ZTD is a way to customize it to better fit different personality types.

ZTD addresses five problems people have with GTD:

1) GTD is a series of habit changes. This is the main reason why people fall off the GTD system — it’s a bunch of habit changes that are attempted all at once. If you’ve read Zen Habits long enough, you know that focusing on one habit at a time is best, and guarantees the most success. In addition, GTDers don’t apply proven habit-change methods (the ones I talk about on this site) to change their habits.

Solution: ZTD focuses on one habit at a time. You don’t have to try to adopt the entire system at once — it’s overwhelming and it’s too hard to focus on your habit changes if you do too many at a time. Instead, focus on one at a time, and adopt the system in phases. Use proven habit-changing methods (commitment, rewards, motivation hacks, etc.) to successfully adopt each new habit.

2) GTD doesn’t focus enough on doing. While it’s called Getting Things Done, often what we end up doing most of the time is Getting Things in Our Trusted System. The book, while presenting an excellent system, focuses more on the capturing and processing stages than it does on the actual doing stage.

Solution: ZTD focuses more on doing — and how to actually complete your tasks, in a simple, stress-free manner.

3) GTD is too unstructured for many people. This can be one of the brilliant things about GTD — its lack of structure, its in-the-moment decision making about what to do next — but it can also be a huge source of confusion for many people. Some people need more structure in their day, and GTD can be disorienting. Different people have different styles.

Solution: ZTD offers a couple of habits to address this: the plan habit, where you simply plan your three MITs for the day and your Big Rocks for the week, and the routine habit, where you set daily and weekly routines for yourself. These habits, like all the habits of ZTD, are optional. If they don’t work for you, don’t adopt them. But for many people, they will compliment the other great parts of GTD perfectly.

4) GTD tries to do too much, which ends up stressing you out. GTD doesn’t discriminate among all the incoming stuff in your life, which again is part of its beauty. But the problem is that we put everything on our lists, and end up being overloaded. We try to do everything on our lists. This isn’t really a problem with GTD, but a problem with how we implement it. But it should be addressed.

Solution: ZTD focuses on simplifying. Take as much stuff off your plate as possible, so you can focus on doing what’s important, and doing it well.

5) GTD doesn’t focus enough on your goals. GTD is purposely a bottom-up, runway-level system. While it does talk about higher levels, it doesn’t really go into it much. As a result, GTD is more focused on doing whatever comes at you rather than doing what you should be doing — the important stuff.

Solution: ZTD, as mentioned above, asks you to identify the big things you want to do for the week and for the day. Another habit in ZTD is for you to review your goals each week, as a way of staying focused on them throughout the year. GTD contains an element of this, but ZTD extends it.

Again, GTD is a brilliant system, and works very well. But ZTD takes some of the problems that people have in implementing it, and adapts it for real life.

The 10 Habits of ZTD

Each of these habits should be learned and practiced one at a time if possible, or 2-3 at a time at the most. Focus on your habit change for 30 days, then move on to the next. The order listed below is just a suggestion — you can adopt them in whatever order works best for you, and you don’t need to adopt all 10 habits. Experiment and find the ones that work best with your working style. Habits 1-8 are the most essential, but I suggest you give Habits 9-10 serious consideration too. I will expand on each of these 10 habits in future posts.

1 collect. . 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 (a simple to-do list will work for now — context lists can come in a later habit). 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.

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.

5 simple trusted system. Habit: keep simple lists, check daily. Basically the same as GTD — have context lists, such as @work, @phone, @home, @errands, @waiting, etc. ZTD suggests that you keep your lists as simple as possible. Don’t create a complicated system, and don’t keep trying out new tools. It’s a waste of time, as fun as it is. Either use a simple notebook or index cards for your lists, or use the simplest list program possible. You don’t need a planner or a PDA or Outlook or a complicated system of tags. Just one list for each context, and a projects list that you review either daily or weekly. Linking actions to both projects and contexts is nice, but can get too complicated. Keep it simple, and focus on what you have to do right now, not on playing with your system or your tools.

6 organize. Habit: a place for everything. All incoming stuff goes in your inbox. From there, it goes on your context lists and an action folder, or in a file in your filing system, in your outbox if you’re going to delegate it, or in the trash. Put things where they belong, right away, instead of piling them up to sort later. This keeps your desk clear so you can focus on your work. Don’t procrastinate — put things away.

7 review. Habit: review your system & goals weekly. GTD’s weekly review is great, and ZTD incorporates it almost exactly, but with more of a focus on reviewing your goals each week. This is already in GTD, but isn’t emphasized. During your weekly review, you should go over each of your yearly goals, see what progress you made on them in the last week, and what action steps you’re going to take to move them forward in the coming week. Once a month, set aside a little more time to do a monthly review of your goals, and every year, you should do a yearly review of your year’s goals and your life’s goals.

8 simplify. Habit: reduce your goals & tasks to essentials. One of the problems with GTD is that it attempts to tackle all incoming tasks. But this can overload us, and leave us without the necessary focus on the important tasks (MITs). So instead, ZTD asks you to review your task and project lists, and see if you can simplify them. Remove everything but the essential projects and tasks, so you can focus on them. Simplify your commitments, and your incoming information stream. Be sure that your projects and tasks line up with your yearly and life goals. Do this on a daily basis (briefly, on a small scale), during your weekly review, and your monthly review.

9 routine. Habit: set and keep routines. GTD is very unstructured, which can be both a strength and a weakness. It’s a weakness for some people because they need more structure. Try the habit of creating routines to see if it works better for you. A morning routine (for example) could include looking at your calendar, going over your context lists, setting your MITs for the day, exercising, processing email and inboxes, and doing your first MIT for the day. An evening routine could include processing your email and inboxes (again), reviewing your day, writing in your journal, preparing for the next day. Weekly routines could include an errands day, a laundry day, financial day, your weekly review, family day, etc. It’s up to you — set your own routines, make them work for you.

10 find your passion. Habit: seek work for which you’re passionate. This could be your last habit, but at the same time your most important. GTD is great for managing the tasks in your life, and trying not to procrastinate on them. But if you’re passionate about your work, you won’t procrastinate — you’ll love doing it, and want to do more. The habit to form here is to constantly seek things about which you’re passionate, and to see if you can make a career out of them when you find them. Make your life’s work something you’re passionate about, not something you dread doing, and your task list will almost seem like a list of rewards.

See the ZEN TO DONE E-BOOK, now for sale.