In praise of the humble checklist

I love checklists. No, wait… I actually hate them. They’re irritating and smug and stare at me, daring me to miss something out. What I love is the security they give me. That and the rather smug feeling I get from ticking off everything on the list.

I’m less keen on the sick feeling that I sometimes get when I look at what I thought was a completed list and realise there’s a glaring hole in the middle of it.

Hey, I’m only human, sue me! 😉

How do I use checklists in my productivity? Three main ways

I don’t think I’m shockingly unusual in anything I’m going to say here. Little in the arena of productivity is rocket science  😉   Still, you might find them pretty helpful. (I know I do.)

If you do, great!  If you don’t, let me know what you do instead!

For things I dare not muck up

I’m pretty sure this is the default way of using checklists. For something where it’s absolutely mission-critical that there’s no gap in a procedure (or whatever) there’s nothing like a checklist. We’ve all seen the films where space ship pilots just sit down and blast off – but it’s not like that in real life! Missing out even one thing can screw things up spectacularly. So here’s the most basic of uses for checklists: the critical list.

Productivity tool 101 - the basic checklist! ;)
Productivity tool 101 – the basic checklist! 😉

This image is part of mine for when I’m packing for a couple of days away running workshops. It’s pretty generic because (for example) it doesn’t tell me how many shirts I’m going to need, but it gets me to think about it and if I can’t figure out how many clean shirts I need for a trip away then I’ve got bigger problems than a checklist is going to cure! Think of this kind of list as more of an ‘aide memoire’ than something comprehensive. Your mileage may vary, of course, and you might want something more detailed/itemised but I find the convenience of only having one list for lots of different types of trip outweighs the trouble of asking myself “How many days am I away for this time?“.

By the way, the answer to how many shirts do I need is “the number of days I’m away for plus one spare. 🙂

You’ll notice that some of the items on the list are list items themselves. For example, the phrase “Portable office” has it’s own checklist of contents to make sure I pack my computer, cables, chargers, notebooks, pens and so on.

My portable office spread out. Training productivity on the mooooooove 😉

For things I do frequently/regularly

There’s a huge overlap here with the ‘dare not muck up’ list but it’s not 100%. The idea here is that the checklist takes the place of my brain. Each time I use a list it might be for only a trivial set of tasks, but the sheer frequency that I do that set of tasks means that it can start to chew up my brain’s capacity to make decisions during the day. By using a checklist, even if I could think it through, I can save myself a bit of mental effort – it’s not important in itself but it can start to be handy later in the day, when I’m still relatively fresh, because I’ve not burned up brain energy on trivial thinking that the lists can do for me.

To be honest, this kind of list isn’t always something I capture on paper (electronic or dead tree paper). Sometimes it’s a routine such as when I pack my sports bag to go to the gym – and what’s more this type of list is half way to a habit, so the ultimate aim of such a list might simply be to make itself obsolete  😉

Before you ask, yes I have ended up at the gym without some of my gym-clothing and had to borrow. Now my checklist (mental) starts at the bottom and works up: training shoes, socks, trunks, shorts, top, iPhone, headset, shower gel… by having a (mental) list, I’m less likely to mess up again.

Honestly this isn’t a big thing for me, except when I use it as part of training myself for habits.  YMMV, of course!

For things I do only occasionally

By comparison, this is a huge one for me, personally.

At the other end of the frequency spectrum are tasks I do only irregularly or rarely. (In the example I’m going to use here I should do it more often than I do, but, well… life!) There are things in our lives that we do every now and then. Some of them are pretty straight forward but others are a bit more complicated. You know the ones… you spend ages learning how to do it and then do it… and then don’t have to do it again until a few months later, by which time you’ve forgotten how. Somehow the length of time between time one and time two is a little more than how long you can remember things for. Sod’s Law, isn’t it!

Some of you might have met smallSimon – he’s an animated character I use in my work as a presentation skills trainer. If you’ve not met him, here’s one of his videos, looking at how important it is (or isn’t) to use positive language in your presentations. There’s a whole playlist of his wisdom here.
The thing is, making a smallSimon video isn’t a simple, one-step procedure.  There are well over a dozen or so steps to the process, some of which have multiple components, or which are much longer than the others. By the time I get around to making another smallSimon video, I’ve forgotten those steps – or at least the nuanced details of them. Sure, I could research them again and I’ve no doubt that I’d learn things much more quickly this time around than I did the first time around (I’m not an idiot!) but this is where the checklist comes in.

The productivity secret of smallSimon
The productivity secret of smallSimon

The first time I got smallSimon video creation working relatively smoothly I created the checklist you can see here. As you’ll see from the top of the screenshot I’m sharing, I keep mine in Evernote, but you can keep yours anywhere. I recommend you keep it electronically so that you can print off or create multiple copies, and so that you can search for it easily… as well as be reasonably confident that it’s not going to get lost!  (Obviously by electronic, I’m talking about something cloud based so that you get auto-magic backup and you can access it anywhere, not just your office.)

I’ve not made a smallSimon video for nearly six months now, but this checklist will get me up and running very quickly.

When I’ve talked about using checklists in this way on training workshops, we’ve sometimes found that people prefer to have the list in video format rather than as a literal list. This is particularly the case if it’s something that’s done on a computer. The idea is that a simple (free!) piece of screen capture software records them doing things while they record a narration and that video is stored somewhere as a type of internal FAQ in their company. It’s great if you have that particular kind of need and if you can put the effort in. You don’t need to appear on the video – it just records your screen.

It also needs a really good filing/searching system for your videos, which seems to be harder to get sorted out than searching for text files, but it’s do-able (easily!) if it’s worth the effort for your circumstances.

So what about you?

What do you do that might benefit from a simple checklist?

Or a complicated one, for that matter! 🙂

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