Sunday, January 2, 2011

A New (Grownup) Checklist for the New Year

An Apollo 12 astronaut refers to his task list on the surface of the moonBack when we wrote our first page on using checklists for household chores, I threw in a line that said something like "From Jiffy Lube to NASA, checklists are used to clarify expectations and break big jobs into smaller tasks." At right, you'll see proof -- a photo from the Apollo 12 mission of an astronaut's wrist-mounted checklist.

I know a couple professional pilots; my dad used to fly for the US Navy, and I remember seeing his training manuals around the house. Civilian or military, pilot training is checklists, checklists, checklists. It makes sense - with lives on the line, you don't want to miss a step.

And then there are the Boy Scouts. A disproportionate number of US presidents have been Eagle Scouts; a quick survey of the men I know who were Eagle Scouts shows that they all have a propensity for follow-through and dependability. I think it's because the process of becoming an Eagle Scout involves steadily checking off hundreds of badge requirements.

I could go on - packing for a camping trip, baking a cake, assembling IKEA furniture....

All of these things point out some important things about checklists:
  • they augment our human memories with an external list of tasks
  • they help us track where we were in the list so that distractions don't cause missed steps
  • and, if used reliably, they teach us that even when we don't have a checklist to work from, big things can be accomplished by breaking them down into small steps.
Indeed, this simple secret is big business. David Allen has made a mint and helped millions of readers with his "Getting Things Done" books, which boil down to a three step process: 1) break the goal down into discrete tasks; 2) identify the next task that needs to happen (he calls it the "next action"); and 3) do the next task - duh! If you doggedly repeat this process for any given thing, whether it's marathon training, building a house, or earning a Ph.D., you'll eventually achieve the goal.

We've used the system with our kids for a few months now, and we've seen big improvements. Our oldest has memorized his checklist; our middle son gets his and starts working through it without being prompted each morning. And our youngest... well, he still needs to be reminded, but the checklist gives us one reminder that functions for the whole list of tasks.

As I've watched the checklist transform our home life, I've come to realize that people who have internalized this process go on to more productive, enjoyable lives. That's something I want for my kids, so I'm really glad we've discovered it and begun to help them learn it.
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But what about me? When I look around the house, there are plenty of unfinished projects. I cringe at the number. I know that I unconsciously break tasks down into mental checklists at work, but I am definitely not in the habit of doing it in all aspects of my life. Maybe I should be, So I'm going to be working on a daily checklist for myself that incorporates some of my New Year's resolutions and other things I'm not always great about doing.

I'll post the checklist here in a couple days when it's ready. In the meantime, let's brainstorm. If you were making a daily checklist for yourself, what would you put on it?

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