Zen to Done review

Zen to Done by Leo Babauta is a productivity book that you can get through in a couple of hours as it is not stuffed with rambling stories to get to a chunky 300 page tome. It gets to the point quickly and in doing so has just saved the readers’ hours – a great start for a book on productivity! Let’s review.



It cannot be said that Zen to Done is a reincarnation of Getting Things Done(GTD). Rather it is a bit of a rojak(1), with recognizable ingredients from David Allen’s GTD, Stephen Covey and even shares elements of Brian Tracy’s teachings. It aims to address some of the problems seen in the Getting Things Done approach, namely

  • GTD attempts to change many habits at once
  • GTD does not focus on doing.
  • GTD is less structured in the way it determines the next task.
  • GTD tries to do too much and does not discriminate elements of the “Stuff”, that is collected.
  • GTD does not focus on goals.


In Zen to Done there is a strong emphasis on habit changing and execution and this is taught through 10 habits which is the main thrust of the book. Let’s cover those key points in more detail.


Zen to Done Content

The key habits that are suggested are outlined below. Leo suggested that they be done one at a time, but can also be handled with two or three together. They also need not be done in sequence. So, a lot of options available there for one to pick and choose how to get through them.

  1. Collect: This is pretty much the same as many other task management systems. You need some way to collect your stuff. Stuff being any tasks or things occupying your mind that need to be entered into your system. Leo advocates as few collection points as possible. So, at home you may need a physical inbox to collecting bills(hopefully not too many!), letters, physical notes etc. On the road, a small notebook is suggested. Moleskine to be precise – I have no affiliation but Leo has assured us in the book that they are a lovely product to use. So, when new ideas come, wherever you are you will have a handy medium to use to jot them down. If you want to achieve that alternative look while jotting, hipster PDA’s are another option.
  2. Process: After a successful jotting/accumulation of some material in your inboxes some processing of this stuff will be needed. Once per day is advocated, and perhaps more often for those busting with new ideas or coming down with bills! A useful workflow is given on how to approach this processing,
    1. Start from the top
    2. First preference is to delete to minimise the things you have on your plate
    3. Delegate where possible
    4. Do immediately. So for things that take less than 2 minutes, just do it.
    5. Defer the task to a later date
    6. For non-actionable items that may contain useful information – file them.
    7. Lastly, don’t leave things in the Inbox.
  3. Plan: Two key elements to this, daily Most Important Tasks(MITs) and weekly Big Rocks. In both cases, the most important things you have to d re selected and scheduled. For MITs it is proposed to do those as early as possible and for weekly Big Rocks, to schedule those for the forthcoming week.
  4. Do: Doing is an element Leo wanted to improve compared to GTD and since GTD, others have also covered this element of productivity. He suggests to select your MIT, focus onit for a defined time and where possible do it free from distraction. For the serial procrastinators, it suggests to aim for tiny chunks of work and simply to start. Once the ball is rolling it is easier to keep it in motion.
  5. Simple, trusted system: This is a system composed of inboxes, lists and a calendar. There are ways and means to achieve this and in these modern times when many utilise apps, a few suggestions are given.
  6. Organize: Keep your place tidy. If you really want to be Zen about it, check out the 5S methodology.
  7. Review: Another importantelement of GTD is review and in this case we talk about sitting down once per week and reviewing all the things in your trusted system. Going through each of the elements in turn,
    1. Long and short term goals
    2. Review collected items
    3. Review calendar
    4. Review lists
  8. Simplify: This is where the Zen comes into play. Everything should be as simple as possible. This permeates through the entire Zen to Done approach and includes,
    1. Eliminating tasks where possible
    2. Keep only essential items that relate to a minimal set of goals
    3. Reduce information streams. This means to minimise the daily bombardment of information that we get every day from media, social media, email etc.
    4. Focus on the big value items. Those that will contribute most to what you want to do.
    5. Batch small tasks together so they can be done quickly and efficiently.
  9. Routine: Another interesting element to the approach is routine. Having scheduled times every week when certain tasks are to be done. This is also advocated by the productivityist and I think it would be helpful in reinforcing habits.
  10. Find your passion: The idea here is to find the thing you love to do. When you have that, work does not feel like work as you love doing it. You devote yourself wholeheartedly to it and in doing so get a lot more done than something that you have to reluctantly do.


So, there are the ten commandments habits. Leo suggests to tackle one at a time and over the course of one year to cover all of them. Changing habits require motivation and focus and changing everything at once is less likely to succeed than changing one thing. He mentioned his personal changes in the book – becoming vegan, quit smoking, doubled income, completed a triathlon overnight etc. Trying to do this all at once would have been impossible, but was possible simply by focussing on one at a time.


Last Words

I like the brevity of this book and the focus on execution. I also like the practical implementation and the simplicity and the linking of the weekly review to the yearly goals. As a general approach to achieving long term and even life goals I think Zen to Done is a great starting point. So, if your aim is life changes as opposed to workplace productivity, then I think this book has got it covered. Recommended.


  • Rojak (Malaysian and Singaporean spelling) or Rujak (Indonesian spelling) is a traditional fruit and vegetable salad dish commonly found in Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore. The term “Rojak” is Malay for mixture.
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