A few months ago, I was feeling overwhelmed, tense, and frustrated.
I felt like no matter how hard I worked, no matter how many hours I put in, no matter how many things I crossed off my to-do list ... I just couldn't get ahead.
As if my never ending to-do list wasn't enough, I'd be getting NEW distractions over email, chat messages, text messages, and in person. Next thing I know, it's Friday at 5pm and I'm still not done with my biggest project of the week.
What a nightmare. So at this point, I said screw it. I need a new system.
That's when I came up with the Zen List Technique.
And quite honestly, this technique has revolutionized my day-to-day work habits, helping me:
Get important projects done 3x faster, saving about 10 hours per week.
Finally stop working until 9pm.
Dropping my stress by what feels like 10x.
Essentially, the day-to-day technique looks like this:
Confused? Don't be. It's simple.
Basically, the Zen List Technique is a daily system with three simple steps:
1.I create my pen-and-paper “Zen List” every morning (I’ll show an example in a moment).
2. I shut off my WiFi for 40-minute intervals to focus on important tasks.
3. I turn on WiFi for 20-minute intervals to handle distractions.
I rinse and repeat this 40-minute/20-minute cycle throughout the day until my most important tasks are finished.
Why is it called The Zen List Technique?
Well, in 1870, the man who popularized Zen Buddhism in the west, D.T. Suzuki, was born.
From 1910 to 1965, D.T. Suzuki traveled around the world, lecturing in Western cities (such as London) about Zen.
Eventually, his lectures filtered to America, which led to the popularization of meditation, yoga, and Zen in the West.
The core of Zen Buddhism is to elicit the feeling of, well, zen. The feeling of:
When we’re frantically getting pings, dings, tings, and zings from email, chat message, and Twitter ... Googling random crap ... or adding 13 new things to our to-do lists .... how can we experience calm and clarity?
We can’t. It’s impossible.
This new method cuts distractions (from ourselves and from others), forcing our minds into a state of calm, clarity, and concentration.
And that, my friend, is why I call this the Zen List Technique. Because it helps us experience, well, zen.
Here’s precisely how it works …
Step 1: Create your Zen List first thing in the morning.
My “Zen List” is a pseudo pen-and-paper-to-do list, optimized for handling pesky distractions. I write it at the beginning of each day, which looks like this:
1. I write my most important tasks in this section, including any sub-tasks. For example, sub-tasks for “Finish Zen List article” are "outline the article," "write first draft," "write second draft," etc.
2. I write my start and end time here. If I start working at 9am and plan to work until 5pm, then I write all hours inbetween. Then I create sub-deadlines for myself (for example: by 10am, finish outline for Zen List post). This helps me be realistic about what I can accomplish.
3. Here I write what I actually accomplished during each hour. For example, if I hadn’t finished the outline I planned to finish at 10am, and it’s 9:55am, I think, “Crap, I only have 5 minutes, I need to hustle.” It makes me more conscious of how I’m spending my time.
4. I write distractions in this section, separated by "me" and "other." "Me" distractions are when WiFi is shut off and I open a new tab to Google something. "Other" distractions are when WiFi is turned on and someone shoots me an email, asks me a question, etc. Here I can visualize all distractions, prioritize, and tackle by what is most urgent outside of my most important tasks.
By using a Zen List, distractions are systemized. I’m not feeling like a frazzled 19-year-old waiter at P.F. Changs, running from table to table taking orders from everyone. I’m calm, systematic, and in control of my day.
The concept of even creating hourly deadlines is based off Cal Newport’s fixed schedule productivity system. Basically, it means if I refuse to work past 5pm, I ruthlessly say no to other distractions, forcing myself to concentrate on only activities that get results.
After I set up my Zen List for the day, I start my flow.
Step 2: Turn off WiFi for 40-minute intervals.
By taking this magical action …
… You enter into the most serene, peaceful, 40-minutes you’ll ever experience. Concentration is at an all-time high. It’s impossible for someone to reach you (except in-person obviously), but more importantly, you can’t distract yourself.
This is a realization I’ve had recently: I am my biggest distraction.
Not my co-workers. Not my cell phone. Not my email. Me.
When I’m working on a project, I can’t even count how many times I’ve thought of something random, then Googled it “real quick.”
Well … those “real quick” Googlings (let’s pretend that’s a word) turn into a rabbit hole of distractions even faster.
By shutting off my WiFi for 40 minutes, and keeping my phone on Do Not Disturb, when I go to Google random crap ... I get turned away by no internet connection. Or when I try going on Twitter or Linkedin. Or reading saved articles in Pocket.
Whatever I was going to do, I write it down under the “Me distractions” column … then figure out if it's worth doing later:
With WiFi disabled, it makes it so much harder to procrastinate. But I realize you may be wondering a few things ...
"What about tasks that require WiFi?"
Obviously this won’t work for WiFi-dependent tasks. But there are plenty of things that DON’T require WiFi, such as …
Making phone calls to cold, warm, or hot leads.
Analyzing or organizing data in Excel
Writing anything (ex. internal status updates or reports, email newsletters, blog posts, etc.)
Software development or writing code
"How do you listen to music without WiFi?”
I save certain Spotify playlists (here’s a great one) to “offline mode” which allows listening without WiFi:
And once my 40 minutes of no WiFi expires … I flip it on to see all the distractions that came in …
Step 3: Turn on WiFi for 20-minute intervals to handle distractions.
There are two options when this happens:
1.You add something new to the “other" distractions list.
2. You don’t.
Once WiFi is enabled, I hop on HipChat (internal chat service we use at HubSpot) to respond to any missed messages. Then I'll check my email for anything urgent.
If I have nothing urgent that came in, I’ll take a quick break from my computer. Then I’ll work through my “distractions” list for about 15 minutes. Then I give my brain a quick break to reset before starting the next 40-minutes-of-no-wifi session.
Step 4: Repeat the 40:20 cycle until all important tasks are done.
I replicate this cycle until my most important tasks are done.
Can’t swing 40 minutes of no WiFi? No problem, try 30 minutes. Or 20 minutes. The ratio is inevitably up to you. The main principle is setting aside time every hour to have uninterrupted focus.
Since I started using this method, I have honestly saved roughly two hours a day. No exaggeration.
No longer am I looking at the clock on Friday at 5pm, cursing myself on why I’m still not done with work that day.
If you’re feeling stressed, overwhelmed, or frustrated with distractions … or hating yourself because you’re working so damn late all the time … try the Zen List Technique.
I promise it will save you loads of time.
And not to mention, you’ll feel less stressed, more calm, and regain control of your day. Feel the zen.
Originally published Aug 31, 2015 10:13:09 PM, updated February 01 2017