Ever since I started blogging about productivity/GTD myself, I have been a big fan of Leo Babauta and his blog ZenHabits.net. With his daily, very useful blog posts about setting and achieving goals, his blog has gained an impressive amount of faithful readers (almost 10,000 as of today) in only 6 months!
Successfully implementing good habits is a main theme of his blog. Productivity and David Allen’s Getting Things Done are topics that are frequently discussed on ZenHabits.net. Leo is an experienced GTDer and has reached the point that he even modified GTD into his own methodology, which he calls Zen To Done (ZTD). He has also made some impressive changes in his life in only a couple of years, which is very inspiring to read about.
Leo was recently interviewed by Nneka of Balanced Life Center, which provided some useful insights in who he is and why he does what he does. However, it didn’t completely satisfy my curiosity about him; I was particularly interested in his habits and principles concerning productivity in general and GTD/ZTD more specifically.
Leo was kind enough to indulge my curiosity and answer my 10 main questions for the interview you will find below. It was hard to stick with only 10 questions because there are so many things I would like to know about him. Being the highly productive and kind person that he is, Leo responded quickly and enthusiastically!
I want to thank Leo for his time and for his patience while answering my avalanche of questions. To learn even more about Leo and his inspirational articles, I highly recommend adding his RSS feed to your favorite feed reader and of course visit his site frequently.
Read on for the full interview with Leo Babauta of ZenHabits.net!
10 Questions for Leo Babauta of ZenHabits.net
1. Who is Leo Babauta and what is ZenHabits.net?
Well, I’m a free-lance writer, father of six, married to a beautiful woman named Eva. That, of course, only begins to define me. I recently ran a marathon, wrote my first novel, became a vegan, started a blog, became organized and productive through GTD principles, began eliminating my debt. I’m into simplicity, in all parts of my life. I also love a good novel!
In the past I’ve worked as a newspaper reporter and editor (for eight years), a speechwriter for the Governor of Guam, a legislative analyst, researcher and bill writer, and I now write for magazines, newspapers and blogs and have a full-time job doing research and assisting veterans on Guam.
Zen Habits was originally a way for me to be accountable with my goals and habit changes, and a way for me to share what I’ve learned with others. It’s still that, but I think it’s grown into something more for me — something where I can write about things I’m passionate about, and interact with others who are positive and who care about the same things. It’s too much fun!
I’m working on writing a book, and I have an idea for an online business that I hope to start in the next few months. I originally planned to do another blog, but it takes up so much of my time I can’t imagine running two at the same time.
2. Your blog is mainly about setting and achieving goals. What is your life’s mission and what are the corresponding main goals?
Here’s my life’s mission:
- Be an amazing dad.
- Make my wife happy.
- Be a good, compassionate person.
- Make the lives of others better (especially those in need).
- Be a great writer.
- Be happy.
As for individual goals, I have a lot, but here are some of the top ones:
- Eliminate debt and save.
- Work for myself and automate my income.
- Simplify my life.
- Build a simple, comfortable house.
3. How does productivity (in general) fit into this big picture for you?
Productivity is a means to an end, not a goal in itself. I find ways to be productive so that I can do all that I want and still have time for my family. I’ve also used productivity to double my income so I can eliminate my debt and save an emergency cushion.
I’ve also used productivity to try to produce very useful content for my blog, every day. I have a schedule of topics that I do on the different days of the week, and I try to plan that schedule in advance with topics, so I know every day what I’m going to write about. Then I get that post done, early in the morning usually, and really focus on writing it as best I can. That’s the simple secret of my blog’s success (and it’s not much of a secret).
The key to productivity, for me, has been simplifying. I simplify my to-do list to three things a day, and when I do those things, I really focus on them, eliminating all distractions. I keep my desk clear, my email inbox empty, and my life uncluttered. I eliminate every commitment that doesn’t bring me happiness.
The result has been a much simpler, stress-free and happier life, for myself and my family. It’s not perfect — no life ever is — but I think I’m very happy as a result.
4. When did you first hear about GTD? How did you make it a zen habit?
I’ve been doing GTD for about a year and a half. I’ve made various skills from GTD a habit over time, including clearing my inbox, ubiquitous capture, keeping a good filing system, context lists and more. Sometimes I fall off certain skills, but I always get back on, as they’re very useful. When I find my system falling apart, I re-organize.
I’ve actually modified it using other concepts that work for me, including setting routines, simplifying, setting goals, working on my Most Important Tasks. I’ve combined them into a modified GTD system that I call Zen To Done (ZTD). I don’t currently coach people, although I’m happy to answer any questions people have about GTD or productivity. I’m going to put out an e-book about ZTD soon.
5. Could you share an interesting item from your Projects list and your Someday/Maybe list with us?
Hmmm. To tell the truth, I’ve simplified my lists recently and don’t actually keep a projects list anymore. I’ve been trying to simplify what I do so that I don’t have any major projects — just tasks that I can complete in about an hour or less. I’ve found that’s my best work schedule. Although I do have longer-term goals, they don’t require any planning. It took me awhile to get to this point — simplifying is a constant process for me.
As for my Someday/Maybe list, I’ve been trying to focus on one goal at a time, and currently that’s to be able to work for myself and quit my day job. After that, I hope to travel!
6. What is your current GTD setup?
As I’ve mentioned in the previous answer, my setup is constantly evolving. Right now, I use a Moleskine notebook, and I basically just write down three tasks to do today. Those are my Most Important Tasks, and I try to accomplish them each day. Other smaller tasks will come up, and I will either do them right away or put them on a list of smaller tasks to batch process later in the day. I use GCal for hard landscape, although I try to keep my schedule pretty wide open. I keep context lists at the back of the Moleskine, but truthfully, my focus is pretty much on the 3 MITs, and not too much on the context lists. Again, I’ve tried to simplify as much as possible, and today it’s much simpler than it was just a month or two ago.
7. What is the biggest drawback and the biggest advantage of GTD for you, and why?
I think the biggest drawback of GTD is that it attempts to do everything. All tasks and ideas are added to your lists, which just grow really long. Then you have to decide what to do on your lists, and try and knock off as many tasks as possible. This means that you’re trying to do everything, without real focus on what’s important. I therefore try to focus on only those tasks that will really benefit me in the long-term — specifically those that advance my current goal.
The thing I love most about GTD is keeping your desk and inboxes clear. This was a revelation for me. It’s been one of the best changes I’ve ever made in terms of organization.
The hardest thing about implementing GTD, for me, has always been the weekly review. All GTDers know this. It’s very important, obviously, but things always seem to come up that push it back, and then you fall out of the habit of doing it. I’ve gone through months where I was doing it every week, and it really helps. Currently, with my simplified setup that I mentioned above, I don’t really need to do much of a review, so I just try to keep my system current and every now and then check my goals to make sure I’m still headed in the right direction.
8. Tell us something about ZTD, your modification of GTD. Why is it better than GTD?
Zen To Done (ZTD) is simply a way that I’ve developed for addressing the shortcomings of GTD, which is great, but is not perfect. I analyzed the reasons that many people have a hard time with GTD, and added concepts from other systems, such as Stephen Covey, to address those reasons. The main reasons people fall off the GTD system:
- GTD is a series of habit changes, and they attempt to do them all at once. ZTD addresses that by encouraging them to adopt one habit at a time.
- GTD doesn’t focus enough on doing — most GTDers focus on the tools and the system. ZTD shows you how to actually focus on doing your tasks, and completing them, in a simple, stress-free manner.
- GTD is too unstructured for many people, which can either be a strength or a weakness. ZTD adds structure, if you want it, by adding in routines and the concept of MITs.
- GTD tries to do too much, as I mentioned above — everything gets put on your list, and you try to tackle it all. ZTD asks you to simplify your list, and focus on what’s important.
- GTD doesn’t focus enough on goals. Sure, it’s mentioned in the concept of altitudes, but it’s certainly not stressed. GTD is a runway-level system, which is fine, except that you don’t know if you’re headed in the right direction if you’re only looking at the runway level. ZTD asks you to identify your goal, and focus your actions in that direction.
9. What is your best advice for starting and/or struggling GTDers?
Find what works for you. GTD isn’t meant to be adopted wholesale. Again, it’s a series of habit changes, and it’s hard to do that all at once. Find one habit that you think will help you, such as ubiquitous capture or emptying your inboxes, and try to adopt that for a month. Next month, once that’s become a habit, focus on the next habit that will help you the most — perhaps the weekly review — and make that your new habit.
If you’ve fallen off the GTD bandwagon, there’s no need to stress about it. It happens to all of us. Again, focus on one habit at a time, and you’ll get yourself to where you want to be. Experiment, find what works for you, and go with it. Most importantly, focus on the truly important tasks, to the exclusion of all else!
10. What question would you ask if you were interviewing Leo Babauta? And what would your answer to that particular question be?
Well, if I were a long-time reader of Zen Habits, I would probably ask two questions: What is your daily working routine (because I throw out a lot of suggestions, but it’s impossible to incorporate all of them), and do you ever falter.
My answer to the first question is that my daily work routine is constantly evolving — hence the new advice I tend to give over time. I’m trying things out, seeing how they work for me, combining them with other concepts, and often I fall out of a good habit and adopt a bad one that I have to change later. My current work routine, if things go ideally (and often they don’t), is this: I wake at 4:30 a.m. and try to write one article (either for Zen Habits or another blog), and (except for recently due to a back injury) I also try to get in my daily exercise. I then get the kids ready for school and prepare their lunches and mine, and go to work. At work, I define my 3 MITs (if I didn’t do that before) and try to knock off one of them before checking email and cranking through my RSS feeds. Then I try and work on my other MITs and also batch process smaller tasks. If I’ve been good, I haven’t been checking email all day, and I process email and clear my inbox before I go home.
That, again, is the ideal day. Other things come up that can interrupt that process, but I try to stay flexible and accommodate these things. However, I have been trying to minimize interruptions, so I have fewer and fewer of these all the time.
To the second question, yes, I do falter. I am not perfect, as many people may think. I have lazy days, I procrastinate, I fall off my system. My desk is usually not messy, but I can spend half a day reading about something that fascinates me rather than doing something I really should be doing. And longer-term projects always present problems for me — I tend to put them off and focus on a more immediate task. That means that things get pushed back.
The thing is, I don’t beat myself up about them. I stay positive, and focus on my successes and accomplishments. There have been many, and when I look back on them, it makes me very happy. And in the end, that’s what’s important.