review, zen to done

Unless you are new to the world of blogging, you’ve probably heard of Zen To Done. The author, Leo Babuta, started the blog Zen Habits as a personal journal for friends and family to chronicle some of the positive changes he was making in his life. The blog caught on with readers – due partially to Leo’s writing style, but also his habit of writing only “insanely useful” (his words) posts. He recently became a problogger, and has continued to write prolifically at a number of high-profile blogs in addition to Zen Habits. Since Trent from The Simple Dollar rolled out a belated review of Zen To Done, I decided I’d do the same.

One of the biggest factors in Leo’s transition to full-time blogger was the publication of his e-book, Zen To Done. Over the course of the first year of Zen Habits Leo wrote about how he organized and simplified his life, and his core philosophies in this area were gathered together in a methodology he called Zen To Done. He took all of the posts he had written on those subjects and put them together in the form of an e-book.

The book is not merely a quickie upload of his blog posts into a PDF file. While there is nothing in the e-book that could not be found on Zen Habits, the book takes all of the information and organizes it into a very pleasing package. The graphical design is very pleasant and obviously as an Adobe Acrobat file can be taken offline, printed or loaded on various e-book readers.

I’ll make two quick caveats before reviewing the book. One, ebooks are not for everyone. I don’t like them, myself – as much as I’m a techy-type, I still enjoy holding a bound set of pages in my hand. I haven’t printed Zen To Done out – because I try never to print things out – but if you don’t like e-books, this is not for you. Two, Leo recently released his entire body of work related to Zen Habits – including Zen To Done – from copyright. He gave carte blanche to copy, quote, redistribute, etc. anything off his site. It’s a brave move, and seems to align well with his core beliefs. But I do believe that even though people can easily make thousands of copies of his book and claim “hey, no copyright” there is still an obligation NOT to do that. People should pay for a copy of the book if they plan on reading it.

Now that’s out of the way.

The book contains an introduction, 17 chapters and a postscript in 83 pages. The layout is airy and – for lack of a better word – calming. Leo has a simple and direct writing style that make reading the book extremely easy. If it was compressed into a typical printed page it would be a far shorter book. But the layout and style and flow of the book come together perfectly. It’s a wonderfully laid-out e-book (understanding of course, that I don’t like e-books too much).

Getting Started
The first 10 pages, including the first chapter, “Why ZTD” explain how Leo arrived at the idea of creating a system and why it’s a good system for you to use. The “meat” of the book really begins on page 11 with Chapter 2, where he summarizes the ten habits you will need to form in order to successfully implement ZTD. Each habit is given a brief description (“Capture”) and a paragraph-long description. There are no long technical descriptions or methods here – a quick suggestion is given, for example, on organizing – “all incoming stuff goes in your inbox.” No attempt is made to complicate the system, and you could read these 10 habits and stop reading the book right there, if you felt like it. In fact, in Chapter 3 Leo highlights four of the habits and points out that if you did nothing more than implement those four, you’d be a much more organized person even if you never went further with his system: “Collect,” “Process,” “Plan,” and “Do.” It’s an interesting claim. You may think this overly simplistic, but the idea of “collection” – which I first came across in the much less accessible (albeit far more detailed) “Getting Things Done” – is a powerful idea. It was new to me when I came across it. Basically, just take everything you own that “needs something done” and put it in a pile and go through it. All the post-it notes, all the stuff to be filed, everything – pile it up and do it. It’s an interesting activity if you’ve never tried it before, and Leo has a point – he makes a convincing case for these four actions.

Starting in Chapter 4, Zen To Done moves into the nitty gritty. Great ideas, but how does the mere mortal set about DOING them? This is where Leo shines. Zen Habits (as the name might imply) has always seemed to me to be primarily about habits. Leo clearly figured out how to change his habits, and in a sense that’s all he writes about. The fact that he talks about habits surrounding waking up early, or exercising, or freelancing, or writing, etc. does not mean that he is writing about these subjects – he is always writing about how to change your habits in relation to these subjects. He has a huge number of posts – I would guess the majority of the posts he writes – that deal with the methodology behind changing habits, and based on the enthusiastic response from readers I think he’s hit on something here. Again, the value in his advice is simplicity. He doesn’t offer vague generalities or ridiculously difficult exercises. He is, for example, a proponent of changing one habit at a time. Don’t try to give up TV and sweets and start exercising all on the same day. This is just one of his tips; he has 8 “habit-implementing” tips and they are simple and flexible.

The 10 Habits
In chapters 5 through 14 Leo spends time going into more detail on each habit. I won’t list all of them – you should think about buying the book or visiting his website – but for each of the habits he spends several pages going into depth and answering the questions why you need this habit, how you can form it and what tools you need to do it. I will admit this is when the e-book format is particularly handy – he references specific blog posts on Zen Habits for further reading and you can easily *click* on the name of the post and read it right there.

If you are expecting long, detailed explanations of the 10 habits and how to form them you’ll be disappointed. This is quick reading; no lengthy anecdotes are recited. If you are the type of person who loses focus quickly, you won’t with Zen To Done – it’s short and sweet. However, if you like long, thorough explanations of actions and a list of 55 resources to do it, you won’t find it here – you’ll be zipping over to Zen Habits for the detailed lists. However, you won’t find all of the habits collected in one place like you do in the book. I had read most of these tips on Zen Habits, but reading them in sequence and – in effect- summarized was a completely different experience.

Steve Enters the Picture
I had a chuckle when I hit Chapter 15, in which Leo walks us through the day of a guy who has implemented Zen To Done – “Steve.” Maybe it was just customized for each customer? That could be another selling point for e-books.

The Unfortunate Similarity in Acronyms
In Chapter 16 Leo spends some time drawing distinctions between his organization tips and some of the “granddaddies” of the organization/self-improvement world – Getting Things Done and 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. He spends some time pooh-poohing the idea that ZTD and GTD have more than a passing similarity, although acknowledging that ZTD did adopt some GTD (and 7 Habits) core ideas. I saw nothing wrong with this; if we weren’t free to take basic ideas and modify them and put our own spin on them, blogging certainly would be restricted to the two “purely original” bloggers who exist (whoever they are – Seth Godin, maybe).  I wrote my own spin off, after all.

In Chapter 17 there are a few suggested websites and a few forms – nothing terribly exciting here. I doubt any of the forms would prove all that useful to the average Zen Habits reader, who probably loves using Google Docs and iDoodads – or Moleskines. But they are there if you find them helpful. I found one website that Leo suggested which was quite useful for me – Vitalist.

If you’ve read Zen Habits since day 1, nothing will surprise you here. If you’ve never read Zen Habits, this will be a very good introduction to the philosophy of the site and its author. This organization guide, like so many others, does offer the tools to get organized. It lacks heavy detail, but that shouldn’t be confused with being less than serious. It is serious, and if you did implement the whole thing your life couldn’t help but be simpler and better organized. I’m still about 20% of the way there – I am certainly still struggling with basic steps like Collection. If you think this guide is a “one-day fixer upper”… it’s not. It will require just as much focus and discipline as Getting Things Done or any organization system. However, as you put the effort into it you’ll see an improvement in your life – even if, as Leo admits, you only implement SOME of his system.

Worth your hard-earned cash?
If you like e-books, it’s a visually pleasant e-book. I haven’t seen that many, but of the ones I’ve seen this one among the best designed and most readable. As for the content – I had seen most of it, but I’ve been reading Zen Habits almost since inception. I’m not sure I was helped that much by seeing it all in one place – but after reading the book, I would go here first and not to Zen Habits when I need to refresh my memory on the key points of ZTD.

If you are serious about getting organized and simplifying your life, I would consider buying it. If you are just curious about whether this philosophy is right for you, stop by Zen Habits first – browse around a bit.