Zen to Done: a Fast Critique

I have been looking over the set of techniques described in Zen to Done, and I think there is a LOT of value being offered at the site, and the e-book looks like a steal for $9.50, for a document that’s some 80 odd pages long.

Of interest to me at the moment, after a brief glance, are the 10 habits that comprise his system.


  1. collect. Habit: ubiquitous capture.
  2. process. Habit: make quick decisions on things in your in-box, do not put them off.
  3. plan. Habit: set MITs for week, day.
  4. do (focus). Habit: do one task at a time, without distractions.
  5. simple trusted system. Habit: keep simple lists, check daily.
  6. organize. Habit: a place for everything.
  7. review. Habit: review your system & goals weekly.
  8. simplify. Habit: reduce your goals & tasks to essentials.
  9. routine. Habit: set and keep routines.
  10. find your passion. Habit: seek work for which you’re passionate.

While I like all the ideas listed here, I think there are some items that are possibly confusing, or impossible to implement.First off, what is a habit? From the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, a habit is described as:

  • a settled tendency or usual manner of behavior <her habit of taking a morning walk>
  • a behavior pattern acquired by frequent repetition or physiologic exposure that shows itself in regularity or increased facility of performance
  • an acquired mode of behavior that has become nearly or completely involuntary <got up early from force of habit>

The ZTD list suffers, IMHO, from being a list of habits, and non-habits, principles, tips, physical places and mental states. What do I mean by that? Well, typical habits according to the definition above include behaviors that are observable, and consume or occupy distance, time and form. For example, drinking alcohol nightly is a habit. Smoking 2 cigars per day is another habit. They are physical actions that each have a recurrent neuromuscular activity.

Here is my analysis of the ZTD habits:

  1. collect. Habit: ubiquitous capture.
    This is clearly a habit.
  2. process. Habit: make quick decisions on things in your in-box, do not put them off.
    This is also a habit.
  3. plan. Habit: set MITs for week, day.
    This is close to a habit, and would become one if it included writing down or capturing the MIT someplace outside the mind.
  4. do (focus). Habit: do one task at a time, without distractions.
    This one is not a habit. Instead, it’s more of a principle to be followed. I believe that from this principle, many habits can be derived, such as the habit of “refusing distractions” or the habit of “turning off your cell during tasks” or the habit of “closing the door during tasks”. However, by itself, as expressed it doesn’t pass the test of “observability”.
  5. simple trusted system. Habit: keep simple lists, check daily.
    This is clearly a habit, but the phrase “simple trusted system” is more of a goal.
  6. organize. Habit: a place for everything.
    This is not a habit, but a database of some kind. It could also lead to a few different habits, such as the habit of “touching objects once” or “replacing everything not in use in its assigned place”.
  7. review. Habit: review your system & goals weekly.
    This is a clear habit.
  8. simplify. Habit: reduce your goals & tasks to essentials.
    This isn’t a habit, but a goal that could also lead to other habits, such as “spend 10 minutes each day tossing away unnecessary tasks”.
  9. routine.Habit: set and keep routines.
    This might be 2 habits – setting routines, and following routines are very different activities.
  10. find your passion. Habit: seek work for which you’re passionate.
    This isn’t a habit, but a principle. This is a mental activity that cannot be observed.

These are more than just semantics, as the clearer a habit is described, the easier it is for a user to follow them. Another way of saying this is that the clearer a habit is defined, the harder it is for a user to fool themselves into thinking that they are doing the habit. For example, a user is either smoking or not. Whether that user is “thinking positive thoughts about quitting” while they are inhaling is an action that many smokers could trick themselves into thinking they are doing when they are not.Some of the ZTD habits listed above fail this test, as anyone can trick themselves into thinking that they are seeking work for which they’re passionate when their standard for activity is just about anything they decide it might be.It fails the simple tests of being observable, using up distance, time and space, and requiring neuromuscular activity.

Which is not to say that the e-book isn’t good (it looks to be that way) or that the idea has no value – it clearly does. Instead, there is a next step that could be taken to make ZTD easier to use, and that would be to translate the 10 ZTD habits into pure habits of action.

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