The Power of Checklists

Before I started using checklists I thought I had things well in hand. I knew my processes. I knew what steps needed to happen and when they needed to occur. I knew which people I needed to contact in any given scenario and could rattle off their names at the drop of a hat. I had everything under control and life was good.

So I thought…

I never failed that some detail or some important notification slipped through the cracks. So what did I do? I worked harder. I concentrated more. I elevated my blood pressure. I was expending so much effort trying to keep every step of every process active in my memory that I was burning myself out. I needed something simpler. Something that would completely cover all of the details but that wouldn’t require my constant attention to maintain.

That’s when I discovered the simple joy of checklists. I could expend the effort required to cover all of the details of any given situation once, record that as a checklist and then simply refer to the checklist again when the situation arose. There was no longer any need to keep all of those steps in my head. I freed up energy to devote to more productive activities. My stress decreased and my blood pressure receded to a normal level.

I started making checklists for activities that came up infrequently; the situations where I really had to work to remember all the steps necessary for success. I would spend a session writing down all the steps, details and contacts required for the activity and turn that into a template. When the activity came up again I would pull out the template, duplicate it and use it for the current situation. When I was done I would archive it for posterity.

That worked great. When those rare situations arose I had complete confidence that I had everything I needed to be successful. The problem was my day to day responsibilities. They were constantly increasing and I was once again finding myself straining to keep all of the details straight. I decided to try my checklist process on more routine activities.

The first result was a massive checklist that covered all of my activities dawn to dusk. As long as my days were cookie cutter clones I was fine. If every day was like the previous day I could run down the list and knock everything out of the park. No problem right? Everyday is pretty much the same right? Rats! What about weekends? And Holidays? And days that just don’t jive with regular routine?

I struggled with these exceptions for a while until I found the perfect answer. Context. I came to the realization that the massive checklist approach wasn’t scalable. I needed a more effective solution that fit more situations with more flexibility. When I thought about it I needed a checklist for weekdays, weekends, holidays, mornings full of meetings, mornings full of solitary work, etc. In other words I needed checklists that pertained to my context on any given day.

So I broke my checklists up into smaller chunks. I created checklists for weekdays, weekends, days with meetings, month end checklists, quarterly checklists, on and on. I filed these away as templates and harvested and assembled them as I needed them into my checklists for the day, week, month, quarter, etc.

The results were fantastic. I had the detail of the activities I needed to cover spelled out right in front of me whenever I needed them. I could add and subtract from my checklists as needed and archive the results to refer back to in the future. The effort involved in creating and maintaining my daily checklist was minuscule compared to the effort I had been expending. My productivity expanded and my job satisfaction increased.

When you have the time to step back and appreciate the forest as a whole because you are no longer worried about the individual trees life is a much happier journey. Checklists have helped me gain that perspective. I recommend them to anyone feeling overwhelmed by the level of detail they find themselves managing. They will bring you clarity and when you combine them with context they will bring you flexibility as well.

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