Keep it simple stupid with Zen To Done and The Pomodoro Technique

Nothing stresses me out like making my to-do list a reality.

One Sunday, I spent an hour mapping out my week; work tasks, meal prep, workouts, even gym outfits.

Thinking... I've got my shit together. I'm going to be so productive. Every day looks achievable.

I'm on a high. I know I've probably forgotten a few things, but they'll come back to me.

More often than not, we make a mental note for ourselves. Call mum back. Buy milk. Finish that report. Tell the boss that bad news. But... sometimes we get distracted before we have the chance to write it down.

Before you know it, a critical task has come flooding back to you a week later, at the most inconvenient time, amidst a vital deadline.

You try to compose yourself, avoid irrational thinking like, "OMG, I'm doomed!" But it's too late. You are overwhelmed with stressful thoughts.

If there were a graph, it would resemble a little something like this...

Stress Levels vs To-do List

We have all fallen victim to a situation like this.

It happens, and you know what? It's okay. What's not okay is the stupid amount of stress we cause ourselves. But it is, somewhat, avoidable.

When we approach situations like this with stress at the forefront of our minds thinking, "How the hell am I going to get all this done in time?" We have lost our grasp on the positive outlook we set out with at the beginning of the week.

If we took just a moment to compose ourselves and be mindful, "Right, how can I fix this efficiently and avoid some pain?" We would spend more time strategising about how and where this critical task can fit in, and at the very worst, something will just have to wait until next week.

So, how do we avoid scenarios like this?

There are measures you can take to avoid a situation like this, so you can focus on the current task at hand and ride the wave of optimism you initially set out on.

You need to build sustainable habits mindfully. You can do precisely this with Leo Babauta's productivity system Zen to Done, combined with The Pomodoro Technique.

Who is Leo Babauta?

Leo Babauta, to me, is the Gandhi of the productivity world.

He shares tactical advice on simplifying your life, becoming more mindful, and productive.

Sometimes we assume all these productivity gurus have gleaming qualifications and plaques hanging on their walls. Really, they are everyday people like you and me seeking change.

Leo humbly admits he is a regular family man with no qualifications. Although accomplishing a lot in his years, he has also seen his share of failures.

In a previous post, we chatted about a popular task management system called Getting Things Done (GTD).

But, like all things, GTD does have its shortcomings. In answer to those, Leo designed a productivity system called Zen To Done (ZTD) addressing these five problems people face with GTD:

  1. GTD is a series of habit changes
  2. GTD doesn't focus enough on doing
  3. GTD is unstructured
  4. GTD tries to do too much
  5. GTD doesn't focus enough on your goals

With these in mind, let's check out the ten stress-free steps of Zen To Done so you can build life-long sustainable habits.

The 10 habits of Zen To Done

Leo states these habits should not be approached all at once. Try focusing on 2-3 of these at a time for 30 days, then move onto the next few.

The order in which these are laid out is only a suggestion, and the key is to experiment. You can choose to adopt these in any order that suits your working style.

  1. Collect - Capture your tasks, projects, ideas, anything on a note pad. Get these out of your head and onto paper to avoid forgetting them (as I explained I had done earlier). The simpler the tool you use to capture these, the better. That's why ZTD encourages a simple notepad.
  2. Process - Make quick decisions about tasks in your inbox. Letting things pile up is a form of procrastinating. Once a day, process emails, voicemails, physical tasks from the top of your list to the bottom. As GTD states, "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 for later."
  3. Plan - Set out your most important tasks (MITs) for the week. Break these down to 1-3 a day and aim to accomplish these. Consider setting these out first thing in the morning to ensure they get done.
  4. Do - Focus on one task at a time without distractions. Select one of your MITs, eliminate distractions like cell phones, emails, internet browsers and any desk clutter. If you follow habit #2 (process), this should be easy for you.
  5. Simple trusted system - The same as GTD, keep context lists like work, errands, phone, waiting etc. ZTD encourages you to keep these lists simple and avoid them becoming 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. Organise - Store all incoming tasks where they belong. Add any tasks from your inbox to one of your context lists. If you can delegate something, delegate it. By storing these into the desired location, this avoids a pile-up, keeping your desk clear so you can focus on now and avoid procrastinating.
  7. Review - GTD encourages you to implement a review system; however, ZTD takes it one step further by focusing on reviewing your goals each week. Each week you should review your yearly goals, compare your progress, and what steps should be taken next to ensure you are going in the right direction.
  8. Simplify - An issue with GTD is its attempt to tackle every task as it comes in, which can be overwhelming and leaves you avoiding your MITs. ZTD encourages you to review both your task and project lists to see where these can be simplified. Start with removing everything but the essential projects and tasks. Daily, try simplifying your current commitments and ensure your task and project lists are in line with your goals. You should do this only briefly each day or week.
  9. Routine - Some people need a definite structure, which is one of GTD's problems, its lack of structure. Consider creating a routine for yourself like a morning routine. Wake up, exercise, prepare a nutritious and mindful breakfast, review your context lists and set your MIT's. Or, maybe an evening routine including prep for tomorrows tasks, housework and reviewing your achievements for today. The beauty is, it's up to you to find a routine that works.
  10. Find your passion - If you are passionate about your job, you are less likely to procrastinate. You love the tasks you do and want to do more of them. The habit here is, always seek things that you are passionate about and whether these could be a part of your next career move. Consider taking a step back to evaluate, so you can step forward into something that excites you. "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."

today I am grateful for diary
Photo by Freshh Connection on Unsplash

The simplicity of the pomodoro technique

Now, adhering with the simplicity of some productivity techniques, the pomodoro technique, is another.

Francesco Cirillo created one of the most renowned techniques using nothing but a simple kitchen tomato timer to help him through his university studies.

“Every day I went to school, attended classes, studied, and went back home with the disheartened feeling that I didn’t really know what I’d been doing. The exam dates came up so fast, and it seemed like I had no way to defend myself against time. I was easily distracted and unable to focus. So I decided to give myself a challenge: study without interruption for 10 minutes.”

The technique is a simple and effective way to manage your time better and improve your work habits.

It helps you break down your workload into bite-sized chunks, encouraging you to stay focused on tasks that require longer periods of concentration.

The steps are simple to achieve a successful day with the pomodoro technique:

  1. Choose a task - Preferably one of your MITs for the day and estimate how many pomodoros it will take you to complete it. Let’s say 4 in total.
  2. Focus - Close your emails, shut down social media and switch your phone to do not disturb. Learning to manage distractions is one of the critical skills the pomodoro technique will teach you.
  3. Work - Start your 25-minute timer and get to work. When using the pomodoro technique, there is no concept of pause, stick to your task for the full session and note down any distractions you need to attend to in your break.
  4. Short break - One session down and it’s time to take a quick 5-minute break. Step away from your desk, clear your mind, stretch your legs and grab a refreshment.
  5. Repeat - Get back to your desk and hit the start button on your timer for another pomodoro session.
  6. Long break - Once you have completed four sessions it’s time to take a 20-minute break.

Simplify with ZTD and visualise with the pomodoro technique

So far, we have covered off the simplicity of both Zen to Done and the pomodoro technique.

Both of these systems are great when implemented alone. So why not take it one step further and combine the two.

Combining the two creates a clearer vision of your day and the ability to complete your tasks promptly.

Let's break it down and see how this should look from the perspective of Zen To Done:

  1. Collect
  2. Process
  3. Plan - When planning your MITs for the week, estimate how many pomodoro sessions it should take to complete these. You will have a clear vision of whether or not you will be able to achieve all or some of these in a day.
  4. Do - Select one of your MITs, eliminate the possibility for potential distractions, get comfy and start your timer for the first pomodoro session. Once the session is complete, mark an X alongside the task, take a break and repeat until completed.
  5. Simple trusted system
  6. Organise - When placing all incoming tasks where they belong, for example, into context lists, add in the pomodoro estimation step. By estimating from 1-4 pomodoro sessions for tasks that require a deeper level of focus, you are creating an expectation for yourself and can visualise effort at a glance.
  7. Review - As part of your reviewing process, review your pomodoro estimations for the week. Were there any tasks you underestimated? Is there a task similar to this coming up tomorrow or next week? Add a further pomodoro session for next time. The estimation step requires some trial and error; eventually, you will know exactly how many sessions you will need to set aside for similar tasks in future.
  8. Simplify
  9. Routine
  10. Find your passion

Mindfulness reminder on windowsil
Photo by Lesly Juarez on Unsplash

The key is to find what works best for you

As Leo says, "It is a journey, with no destination, that we are on, my friends."

No one needs a complicated system, nor do you need an abundance of tools to help you get your work done in a day. It's a waste of time, and it becomes distracting to keep up.

While there are a lot of popular productivity techniques, systems and hacks out there, we are often left feeling overwhelmed or even underwhelmed by most of them.

Not all of us work the same way; we work in different industries and work on various tasks, some requiring a deeper level of focus than others, like writing, for example.

The key in all situations of life is to find what works best for you, and sometimes this means taking your successes from one technique and combining it with another, creating an entirely new system.

If you are struggling to get your work done on time this week or, maybe you are already using a system, but you're not entirely sold on it yet, I encourage you to take a step back from what you are doing and evaluate.

What can you do better? What tasks are you struggling with? Would adopting a new system or tool help?

Share this post on Twitter and let us know, what change are you going to make this week?