Checklists change lives

February 26, 2022

Are you organised?

I don't feel like a particularly organised person. People say that I am. Perhaps, I am like the swan gracefully floating across the pond but paddling furiously below the waterline. My biggest struggle is being a just-in-time-guy. There is a certain amount of external pressure I need to get things done. I can't, for example, work on a presentation a month ahead. I need to do it 2 days before.

What motivates you to action?

As I have finally understood what drives and motivates me, I can use this to my advantage and plan my time better. In the example above, I would have fretted every day that I wasn't doing it, now, I plan in time before the event knowing that my internal drive and pressure will get me across the finish line, and I let the days in the interim take care of themselves with other pressing tasks. Of course, this means playing Russian roulette with the "urgent unimportant" and "urgent important" quadrants. However, as I have matured, I have honed my prioritisation skills, and my need for adventure and excitement is sated.

At least 50% of people reading this will identify. The other 50% will be horrified. This is a personality quirk, and you are born as a "perceiver" or "judger" according to the Myers Briggs typology. The former are often more curious and disorganised and latter are organised and like certainty. One group is more attracted to the unknown and tends to ‘wing-it’ and the other likes to get everything lined up and advances more cautiously. My wife, for example, is punctilious. We drive each other mad, but as a team we work well together. I'm champing at the bit to get going and she is carefully making sure that we covered all bases before we start. I like to work it out on the fly.

Green Zone and Red Zone

In this blog, I talk a lot about order and chaos. You want order within, and you accept the chaos without. You have a green zone and red zone. My blind spot is that while comfortable with some uncertainty and the unknown, this is supposed to reign outside the walls of my immediate responsibility and order should be imposed in the areas of personal responsibility. If I'm not careful, I will let a little too much disorder leach into the protected "Green Zone" from the external “Red Zone.”  

We can all make a bad situation worse

From experience, real difficulty in life strikes when external chaos meets your internal chaos. This is also known as Murphy's law. If it can go wrong, it will go wrong and a series of catastrophes cascade outward. What seems unpredictable and unprecedented usually has root causes. We accept things will go wrong, but what we are trying to prevent is the ripples that will collapse weak structures in close proximity, or at least working to shore up those elements so they can withstand the incoming tremors when the inevitable happens. This is why we have savings, insurance, fitness, and so on. So how can the "perceivers" and explorers get the most out of life and give the most without being hobbled in the process? We really DON'T like process... but we must embrace some.

"Real difficulty in life strikes when external chaos meets your internal chaos."

Always have a reserve

My simple answer is building capacity or reserves. Knowing that you are squared away with most eventualities covered off gives a great deal of confidence. The hard bit is ensuring that you don't become overburdened with preparation - be prepared, but be nimble. This is where light touch risk management becomes an art. My point on having capacity or reserves should not be lost on us when thinking about the global supply chain crisis in 2022. We have been filled with so much hubris and greed we thought we could run everything lean forever. You can't. Entropy! Everything runs down. Something, somewhere will break or put stress on the system and when failure happens in one location, the shock-wave pulses right down the chain.

Checklists lead to liberty

Today, I want to give you a handrail for personal and professional life that should help smooth out the bumps, allowing you to enjoy the ride but knowing that the roller coaster will stay on the tracks. My solution is checklists. If you are a free-spirited individualist, you will balk at the idea. Being tied down by a list??? it sounds like the worst kind of torture but when you build it in to your daily structure, it counter intuitively gives you more of the liberty you seek.

My philosophy is if it doesn't get written down, it probably won't get done. I have a refined to-do list approach to life and work. One that works for me and over the years I have naturally built checklists. Some mental others written down. Whenever I stumble upon a complex process that I know I will have to repeat in the future. It gets logged for future reference. I also have mental checklists for when I jump on my motorcycle - I say "H - H" to remind me to do a physical check of my Helmet strap and my Helite vest before setting off. When I get off the bike, I say to myself "Welsh Guards Eat KP Crisps (WGEKPC) Wallet, Gloves, Earplugs, Keys, Phones and Camera” to make sure nothing gets left behind. You get how it works.

These are all little hacks to deal with a complex world. Increasingly, there is too much world for one person to manage, so we need to find methods for dealing the incoming demands heading our direction.

The Checklist Manifesto

A book that confirmed to me I was on the right path was “The Checklist manifesto”. Written by a surgeon called Atul Gawande who researched the power of checklists in aviation, construction and investment wanting to see if he could introduce it into medicine, creating a 19-point surgical checklist with his team. When put to the test, the results were startling. Surgery was risky, with complications causing at least 7 million deaths globally. They tested the checklist theory in eight hospitals in different countries. Within 3 months of using the lists, post-surgical complications had reduced by 36%. Deaths reduced by 47% and there was less need for follow up surgeries. 78% of staff who worked in the operating theatres confirmed that during the study it had prevented at least one mistake. The power of making lists is compelling.

Cool your jets with a checklist

Checklists, while useful for the mundane, really come into their own when the pressure is on. When things go wrong in planes - The first thing a pilot reaches for is his checklist, and soldiers will have an aide-mémoire or "flap book" with key headings to help guide the thinking process. When the adrenaline is pumping, thinking laterally and logically is hard as your brain applies a laserlike focus on the unfolding drama. A mental hand rail is a godsend. You might build a few of these, to help navigate an anticipated crisis. Time spent in preparation is seldom wasted.

Some guidance

Here is some straightforward guidance on lists. It is not complicated, and you have full creative license to design what works for you.

Keep your lists simple - if it is too complex, you end up skipping and missing bits, especially if under pressure. Ideally, you want a word or two to jog memory, especially for daily lists. For less frequently accessed lists, some text may be useful to get the detail across. Add screen grabs or photos.

Revise and refine the lists often. - You can't just make a list once and forget about it. It is organic, and it changes as you grow. Also, at the start, for ‘routine, staying on top of life’ lists, it is tempting to add things you know you won't do. Better to leave things out and have a shorter list. Add as you find, there is a requirement and things get missed. By starting smaller, you will be more inclined to do what needs done. If the list is too long, you will say, “I can't be bothered and go do something else”.

Either analogue or digital

I started with an A5 Nirex folder but I have now moved to digital for frequent usages lists - e.g. packing lists for business trips - I keep it on apple reminders - you can create a reminder list and select "show completed" and you can check off as you go but the item is not deleted. For infrequent lists I use Evernote - The best product on the market - I created a notebook and then have my lists there. I use this for things like - things like steps in servicing the car, software processes and disassembly/ reassembly of household devices that I access infrequently.

Remember to use it

For my routine lists,  I have a name for it that suggests when it should be done. e.g. "before bed". “Workday close-down”. Items should be grouped around the right time to complete them.

After a week or so, you will find that you are on top of everything. In fact, you will feel so organised that you will stop using your list and do it by memory. I assure you, after a couple of weeks, you will be back to square one. It requires consistency for regular short, committed periods, but the results are profound.

Parting shot

If you are stuck, a checklist might just be what you need to get momentum again when you really don't feel like it. This could even be for a morning routine - and it can be as basic as get up, make bed, brush teeth, have shower, turn on kettle etc. you probably won't need this list forever but if it gives you forward momentum and sets some order in your life when you most need it - do it. Play with it. Let me know what you think.