Notes from a Floating Life Thoughts about productivity, digital living, and leading a simpler life

The Uses and Abuses of Checklists

Like to do lists, I view checklists as being a useful tool for helping stay organized and for staying focused on tasks. And I encourage my daughter, who suffers from autism, to use a checklist whenever, for example, she has a series of tasks to do or is just preparing for day excursion or a longer trip.

A checklist helps my daughter make sure she doesn’t miss anything —whether it’s a crucial step in doing something or just to remember to pack her hair brush.

That said, like to-do lists, I constantly see checklists being abused. If not abused, then misused.

The Effective Checklist

Creating a checklist seems simple, doesn’t it? On the surface it is. But unless you keep the elements of what makes a check list effective foremost in your mind, your checklists will grow too big and become unusable.

The first of those elements is an understanding of the nature of a checklist. A checklist isn’t a how-to or procedural document. It’s a supplement. It’s a reminder. As Atul Gawande writes in his book The Checklist Manifesto:

[Checklists] remind us of the minimum necessary steps and make them explicit. They not only offer the possibility of verification but also instill a kind of discipline of higher performance.

The other two key elements of a good checklist are that it is very short and very focused. An effective checklist shouldn’t contain a lot of detail. Just the information that you need and which you can absorb at a glance.

You should keep your checklists as short as possible. How short? A page. Or less. Pilots, for example, have been known to have checklists that fit on to a 3x5 index card.

And the items on the list shouldn’t be full sentences. Instead, they can (and should) be sentence fragments — for example, Find missing punctuation. A shorter checklist is easier to understand and easier to use.

Abusing Checklists

As with to do lists, people tend to pile far too much information into a checklist. They make it too long. Instead of short points, they include long ones. Quickly, the checklist becomes how-to.

A checklist, however, isn’t a how to. It isn’t intended to show you how to do something. It’s to remind you of what you need to do.

Another way in which checklists are abused, and which is ignored or overlooked, is that far too many people try to use checklists to run their lives. Everything that they need to do with their lives is shoehorned into a checklist. On the surface, that seems like a good idea.

But, as with dumping everything into a to-do list, a checklist grows out of hand. People become too dependent on the checklist, and the kind of rigid thinking that comes with the dependency. When a situation arises that the checklist can’t deal with, then they often can’t cope.

While a checklist is a powerful tool for staying organized and keeping you on track, it can become either too unwieldy or too much of a crutch. If, however, you keep the elements of an effective checklist in mind you can retain focus and ensure that you control your checklist and not the other way around.

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