Thursday, June 2, 2011

The Power of a Checklist

Don’t worry, this is not another post about grocery lists.  This is about checklists – lists of actions you will take in order to do something new, hard, or complicated.  I am a strong believer that using checklists on certain occasions can make them go much more smoothly.

I made my first checklist in middle school, after my Mom caught me frantically
calling classmates to remind me of what our homework was. She told me then, “Never leave a class again without writing down what your assignments are and what you’ll need to do.” The list maker in me was born.

I trust nothing important or complicated to memory, and neither does anyone else in my family. (Maybe we are very conscientious, or maybe we all just have a lousy memory.  Take your pick.) For example, when I was in middle school my mom made a career shift from working for a family medicine practice to working for a single OB/GYN physician. It was obvious to all of us that she was stressed out – she spent most of her evenings going over notes and books. The in-office procedures at her new job were much more complicated, all were new to her, and there were many more of them.

We can all relate to the discomfort she felt at her new job  - it took a while before she knew where to find everything she needed and was accustomed to her new surroundings. To make a long story short, she tackled the problem by making notecards - she wrote down each step for each procedure, including where the required instruments and medications were stored, and where to stand for best assisting position. With her “recipe” box of checklists by her side, Mom relaxed and started to love her new job. All new  employees were subsequently trained from the box, and she was asked to leave it when she changed jobs again years later.

Most of us associate checklists with airline pilots and wedding planners, but I use checklists  around the house that I would never want to be without.  For instance, when my house became the place for the family Thanksgiving celebration, I took on the responsibilities of cooking most of the meal.  We are serious about our family traditions and all look forward to having our favorite things, cooked exactly the same way, each year.

In my recipe book, I have a checklist for all the holiday menus, from breakfast to dessert.  It includes what gets prepared the day before, when the turkey comes out of the freezer, when things go in or on top of the oven on Thanksgiving Day, at what temperature, and for how long.  I know that might sound ridiculously organized, but the truth is, it makes the whole thing easy and stress-free. (And it’s particularly helpful if you have family that likes to chat in the kitchen while you are trying to concentrate.)  I recommend checklists not only for new hosts and hostesses, but also for the established ones who’d like to give their nerves a break.

Checklists are really essential when you find you are intimidated by learning something new. A couple of years ago, one of my best friends gave her grandmother a computer while visiting her. She wanted to be able to send her daily messages and send pictures of her newborn baby’s progress. Grandma had never even touched a computer before and was reluctant to try, but with some lessons from her granddaughter and a checklist detailing each step from start to finish, she gets her daily updates without a hitch.

Think of the many ways a checklist could ease some things in your life:  packing for travel, new job routines, mastering new skills (Mom has one for putting air in her tires, which she recently learned to do), getting things ready during busy holiday times.  Anything complicated or unfamiliar can be made simple with this amazing tool.

Good luck with your goal!

1 comment:

  1. As a long-time lister, I would suggest a couple of tactical list-making tips that have also helped me stay more focused and get more done...particularly wrt the tough things.

    1. Keep the list small for each day. Only put a handful (5-6) items for a given day and commit to get them all done.

    2. Put other less urgent items on a "parking lot" list of other actions you don't want to forget. Each day, try to include at least one parking lot item on your list.

    3. Include a time estimate for each item. Particularly for actions that are less fun, it helps sometimes to see that the action is finite in time...i.e. you may be more likely to knock out a tough item if you see that it really shouldn't take more than 15min, such as making a difficult phone call to deliver bad news.

    4. Be sure your list includes investing time on the things that matter most. You may take pride in getting a lot done in the day, but if the actual activities are really all reactive to-do's rather than purposeful investments of your may have accomplished very little the grand scheme of things.

    Good luck!