Why Checklists Should Form The Core Of Your Productivity

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Podcast 78

This week’s episode is a special episode and is all about making sure you achieve the things you want to achieve each day.

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Hello and welcome to episode 78 of the Working With Podcast. A podcast created to answer all your questions about productivity, GTD, time management, self-development and goal planning. My name is Carl Pullein and I am your host for this show.

This week, in a slight change to the usual format I want to give you some tips on maintaining your focus on what is important to you.

I’ve recently finished reading The Checklist Manifesto by Dr Atul Gawande, a physician from the US. It’s a brilliant book and I highly recommend it. (I’ve put a link to the book in the show notes) 

In the book, Dr Gawande talks about how in almost every complex business from complex construction projects, to flying aircraft you will find a checklist. Now as those of you listening to this podcast are likely to be interested in becoming better organised and more productive as well learning how to achieve the goals you set for yourself I realised as I was reading that we can apply the ideas in this book to keep us focused on what is important to us.

As I was reading the book, I was thinking about how I could apply these ideas to my own system and I began to formulate an idea around a morning and evening checklist. Not a routine, but a checklist to make sure I was doing all the important things I needed to do to ensure I have the best day possible. After all, to achieve your goals, to be happy and to perform at your very best every day all you need to do is apply some daily actions consistently. After all, to improve your golf game requires consistent practice - you are not going to get your handicap down if you only practice or play once or twice a year. If you are serious about becoming better at golf you have to practice much more frequently. 

Now the key to a good checklist, according to the book, is it needs to be short and very clear. You’d be surprised how short a pre-flight checklist for a commercial airliner is. Just google it and you’ll see. The idea is you only need to check the vital things. The things that matter most and if you did not do them there could be a catastrophic failure. 

So as I began thinking about this I realised there are a number of things I need to do each day that would give me the best day possible. The first is my morning routine of 30 minutes of Korean study, 15 minutes planning and review and 15 minutes meditation. These three parts of my morning routine, when done, always puts me in the right frame of mind to tackle the day with positivity and energy. It sets me up for a great day. 

So for a morning checklist, I need to add “Have I done my morning rituals?”

Next up is the make sure I have all the right materials with me for the classes I am teaching in the morning. Now I operate a paperless system for my teaching materials and keep all documents in Notability. So I need to check that the right materials are in my Notability app on my iPad. So, next up on my morning checklist goes “are all teaching materials downloaded onto my iPad?” 

Another check I put on my morning checklist is “Have I planned today’s exercise?” I’ve found if I plan my exercise for the day in the morning I am much more likely to make sure it is done. If I don’t plan it in the morning I either waste valuable time thinking about what to do or I find an excuse not to do it. 

The final check on my morning checklist is “have I given Barney his medicine?” Although I rarely forget this, I know it is possible if something urgent was on my mind, so it is something I need to make sure I have done. 

And that’s really all I would need to put on my morning checklist. Just four things:

Have I done my morning rituals?

Are all teaching materials downloaded onto my iPad?

Have I planned my exercise for today?

Have I given Barney his medicine?

However, the evening checklist is quite different. This one sets up the day for a great day much more so than my morning checklist. This is about avoiding those little annoyances we all get from time to time. Things like leaving the house and your phone only has 10% charge left. Or getting halfway to your place of work and discovering you left an important document at home. Things that with a little thought, and a checklist, can be avoided.

For my evening checklist I have the following:

Is my phone fully charged?

Does my iPad need charging?

Do I need to take my laptop with me tomorrow? 

Is there anything else I will need with me tomorrow? 

Now those four are the next day set up checks. After that, I have another list to make sure I have done all the things I know I need to do to complete my day. Things like:

Have I completed all my admin for the day?

Is all feedback written up and sent?

Did I do my exercise for the day? (If not why not?) 

Have I given Barney his evening medicine?

Is there anything I need to add to the shopping list? 

Have I written my journal?

Have I done something to move closer towards achieving my goals?

And that’s it. I discovered that all I need is 15 checks for the day to be a great day. 

Now for this to work I need to make sure I am completing these checks every day. It does not take long to go through each checklist either. The morning checklist takes 35 seconds and the evening one takes just over a minute. So for less than a 2-minute daily commitment, I can set up each day to be a fantastic day. 

Of course, I know I have to do the tasks themselves. Each one takes a different amount of time. My morning rituals, for example, take an hour, exercise also takes an hour and so does my daily admin tasks. But the checklists are there to make sure I am doing the things that are important to me and to ensure that I am moving forward each day on the things I have identified I want to achieve. 

Now the next step is to date the checklist. Boeing, the aircraft manufacturer, has a whole department dedicated to creating checklists for their planes and each checklist is dated before publication. The reason for the date is to ensure that old and out of date checklists are not being used. Obviously, a good reason as planes are being updated all the time. By dating your checklists you can make sure that they are always up to date. Your life will change, new priorities will come along and old priorities will fall away. Regularly reviewing your checklists to make sure they are current will stop you from going numb to them. 

You can then start adding other checklists to a checklist folder too. For example, create a checklist for your weekly review, a checklist for presentation preparation and a travel checklist. I have had a presentation checklist for years because I’ve always used a MacBook and in Korea, we live in a PC world. I need to make sure I have all the right cables and adapters with me. That checklist has saved me so many times because I have moved a cable or adapter from my bag and discovered it wasn’t where it should be when I did my check.

The final piece of this system is to create a folder or tag in your notes app to keep your checklists. I did think about keeping them in my to-do list manager, but then all these checks would just fill up my to-do list manager and it would become very messy indeed. 

Instead, I created a notebook in Evernote for all my checklists. I will be creating more over the coming weeks. 

For airlines, there are the standard pre-flight checklists they use for every flight made, there are also checklists for pre-taxi and for landing the plane. These are now digital and come up on the flight screens in the cockpit. 

However, they also have a whole book of checklists for different situations that may occur during the flight. Those are fortunately rarely used, but if they are needed they are kept in a book next to the pilot. and as with the checklists on a plane where there is a book (or iPad) full of them in an easily accessible place for the pilots to pull out when they need them, I want to have a place in Evernote where I can easily pull up the relevant checklist whenever I need them. Evernote seems to me the best place for these. 

Evernote allows me to link the checklist to a note in my To-do list, so all I need is a linked task set to repeat every day which says “Do start of day checklist” and a repeating task for the evening which says “Do end of day checklist”. As the checklists take around a minute at most to complete doing these tasks will not prove to be burdensome. 

It also means all I need to do is create a linked task for any travel projects I have for my travel checklist as well as any other checklists I create over the next few weeks. 

In our effort to stay productive, have more time to do the things we want to do and achieve the goals we set for ourselves, the humble checklist is something that could push you towards achieving all those things. They are simple, they work and have been used for years to great success. All you need to do is keep them as short as you possibly can, make sure what you write is simple and clear and most of all you use them when you need to use them.