2013 Reading business productivity

Reading 2013: Zen to Done

March 29, 2013


Leo Babuata of Zen Habits fame has written a brief book on productivity, in which he claims his system to be the ultimate of simple productivity system. Zen to Done: The Ultimate Simple Productivity System builds on several productivity systems, particularly those described in Getting Things Done and 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (my review here).

Personally, although I am at least 10 times more productive now than I was six or seven years ago, I still have a long way to go before I feel like I have a streamlined system. (Ironically, I’ve grown more productive as I’ve been more reproductive–an marked increase with the addition of each child! ;)) I have learned a lot simply from being married to a man who already had healthy, well-established habits of  productivity, efficiency, and organization; but I have also learned a lot from reading various books.

While I appreciated Getting Things Done, I did find the system to be a little overwhelming, especially at the point  in life when I read it (when I was already overwhelmed with a hectic schedule and marginless living). As time has progressed since we first tried to integrate Getting Things Done into our lives, we’ve also come to realize that at it’s core, organization (for us) is about simplification. And that’s what I really appreciated about Zen to Done: simplicity and productivity are wed together, rather than one obscuring the other.

Babuata refers to Getting Things Done so frequently that he simply uses the acronym GTD when referring to it (this is common among many who’ve read the book, though, and not unique to Babuata) and he uses ZTD to refer to his own system. He brings up the fact that sometimes the GTD method focuses on the minutia while losing sight of the big picture. With a more simplistic view, ZTD focuses on making sure we are being most productive where and when it really counts.

Going Back to a Simple Notebook

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One recommendation that Babuata makes for his system over GTD is to eliminate all the extra systems, organizers, and binders and simply use one pocket notebook (he prefers a moleskine). Likewise, he recommends paper over technology, but does concede that if such a system works best for some, then go ahead.

I think this was the impetus I needed, and feeling like I should just keep notes online/on my phone was actually a barrier to my productivity. I’ve been going through this year trying to keep my lists and to-do-lists on my iPhone or computer, but knew that I wasn’t seeing the lists frequently enough to truly feel organized.

So, I’m going back to paper and giving it a try. I do take notes on my iPhone, and now have a weekly time to enter those into my notebook. So far it is working (a week and a half since reading the book), and I feel so much more productive and organized as a result. Obviously, I’m not too far into this change, so the real results will show months from now.

Eliminate! Eliminate! Eliminate!

One of the main foci of the GTD is getting everything out on paper (or day planner or PDA) is that you get everything out of your mind and don’t have to so concerned about it becoming jumbled in the mind. Zen to Done promotes doing this, but also eliminating most of what is on paper. However, I feel that this is where ZTD fails to elaborate: does this really help or does it just put some of that clutter back into the mind? I think the point here is to do less and take on less, but how that is done is not made as clear as perhaps it could be.

Babuata recommend only taking on 3 big tasks per day, and if you have too many, then move it to another day. This is also helpful. (And great advice for parents–don’t schedule too much for one day–oh my, there is so much to say about this!) Here are some tips that Babuata has written about choosing your most important/three things:

  1. “Choose only three things to do today. If you set a limit, you will be forced to choose just the important things. If you don’t set a limit, you’ll try to do everything … which means you’ll be busy, but you’ll be doing a lot of unimportant things as well. Just choose three, but choose carefully.
  2. Choose for impact, not urgency. There are always things that seem urgent today, and those things tend to push the important stuff back. But here’s the thing: the urgent stuff is only urgent in our minds. In a week, they won’t matter. But if you choose something that has long-term impact on your work and your life, it will matter in a week. It’s those high-impact tasks that really make a difference. If you choose high-impact tasks — things that will really make a difference over time, that will get you recognition and success and create new opportunities — you can let the urgent stuff melt away.
  3. Choose them the night before. Plan your three tasks the night before, so you’re prepped for the day when you wake up. Then there’s no “urgent” stuff on the list, because you chose them when you were calm. It helps give you a jump-start on your day.
  4. Start on them immediately. First thing you do when you start working: start on the first of your three important tasks. Don’t do little things. Just start.”

This book was refreshing for me to read, mostly because it was so articulate in conveying the simplicity of such productivity. (Not to mention, I read it right after books by Dave Ramsey and Michael Hyatt, authors who tend to write with more strident tones! :))

In some ways, it was too simple, but in other ways, it was refreshingly so. It is a very brief book, which makes it easy to read and to implement. The one huge caveat is that it probably would not make as much sense if the reader has not previously read Getting Things Done or 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. 

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