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Making a List, Checking it Twice

“There are good checklists and bad…. Bad checklists are vague and imprecise. They are too long; they are hard to use; they are impractical. They are made by desk jockeys with no awareness of the situations in which they are to be deployed. They treat the people using the tools as dumb and try to spell out every single step. They turn people’s brains off rather than turn them on. Good checklists, on the other hand, are precise. They are efficient, to the point, and easy to use even in the most difficult situations. They do not try to spell out everything—a checklist cannot fly a plane. Instead, they provide reminders of only the most critical and important steps—the ones that even the highly skilled professionals using them could miss. Good checklists are, above all, practical.” — Atul Gawande, The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right

The pandemic messed up a lot of us in different ways, and for me it was inconsistency in following through on commitments I’d made to myself. Row 5000 meters one day, then miss several days in a row. Hike in earnest for several months, then take several months off from it entirely. Write on that first draft for a few weeks and then miss a few. Work suffered similarly from such lapses. This level of inconsistency simply wouldn’t do.

At some point my scattered brain returned to Bullet Journals as the way to organize my days. The simple checklist of things that must be done, and the joy of putting an X through that bullet, became a system I could stick with. Checklists work for me by adding focus and structure. If you put an X through every bullet you’re far more likely to get the result you’re seeking. The secret is in having the right bullets.

Checklists solve the problem of inconsistency. We’re all familiar with the process of goal-setting. We begin with identifying a big goal, then break it down into measurable steps and then take these steps and break them down into tasks. Tasks live their best lives on a checklist. When you leave them roaming about on their own they cause trouble.

If your big goal is to visit Paris in 2023, you might have steps that include saving money for the trip, improving your conversational French, and locking in the trip with reservations. The tasks might be setting up automatic deductions from your paycheck to a dedicated savings account, completing an hour of Duolingo lessons each day and scheduling your lunch hour to research and book flights, hotels and activities in Paris. These tasks all become bullets in the Bullet Journal.

It should be more complicated than that, but really, most of life is showing up and doing the work. The trick is to work on what matters most. The trap that many of us fall into is feeling so self-confident that we begin to wing it. This is where critical steps are missed. We can all think of incidents big and small where some forgotten step led to problems later. Making a list, checking it twice eliminates the forgotten step. Remember that old idiom: the devil is in the details.

As I write this it’s Christmas Eve in chilly New Hampshire. I’ve reviewed my checklists, and feel comfortable that everyone who was nice will be taken care of tomorrow. The process of using checklists ensures that all the details in my control are covered. That in itself is quite nice.

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