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

The Elements of an Effective Checklist

As you may or may not know, my daughter suffers from autism. As part of her therapy, my wife and I have been creating a few checklists that walk my daughter through some basic daily tasks. Thanks to those exercises, I’ve become reacquainted with what makes a good and a not-so-good checklist.

It’s not that I’m unfamiliar with checklists. I’ve been using them, on and off, for quite a few years. But, no matter who you are, you can always learn something new or refine what you already know. In this case, it’s been a process of refinement.

Let’s take a look the elements that make up an effective checklist.

The Elements

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.

To achieve that discipline of higher performance, an effective checklist must be very focused. An effective checklist doesn’t contain a lot of detail. It packs just the information that you need and which you can absorb at a glance.

An effective checklist must also be short. You must, as I wrote in the last paragraph, be able to absorb the information that you need at a glance. Which means those multi-page lists aren’t the way to do. It should fit on one page. Test pilots, for example, have been known to fit their checklists on an index card.

The items in an effective checklist should focus on tasks. Tasks that you know how to perform, not ones that you’re learning or are fuzzy about. The checklist simply helps you perform those tasks in a specific order. An order which you, like my daughter, may occasionally confuse.

The items in the list shouldn’t be full sentences. Don’t be afraid to use sentence fragments — for example, Check phone is on or Check formatting before publishing. A shorter checklist is easier to understand and easier to use.

A Few Points to Remember

An effective checklist isn’t a how to. It’s not intended to show you how to do something. It’s intended to remind you of what you need to do. And you should know how to carry out those tasks. If not, you should learn how to.

A checklist can’t cover every contingency or help predict the unexpected, though. That’s where your ability to adapt and to mitigate the problems that the unexpected causes comes in.

Creating an effective checklist isn’t easy. You’ll need to go through several iterations of your checklist to boil it down to the essentials. Then you’ll have to test it. That means putting the list into practice. Chances are you’ll have to tweak the list; which isn’t a bad thing really. With my daughter’s checklists, for example, we had to go through three or four iterations to come up with the right wording and the right tasks. Sometimes, you might need to go right back to the drawing board.

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