• James Walton

Use Checklists for Everything

When was the last time you did something for the first time? Or when was the last thing you did that was unique, unlike anything else you've ever done?


For most of us, most of the time, our circle of novelty is fairly small. We repeatedly do a small set of related actions and behaviors.


At work, we file the same reports in the same way each month.

At the gym, we use the same machines in largely the same order.

At the grocery store, we walk up and down the same aisles, looking for the same foods.

At the airport, our bags are packed with same items as last time.


Except for when they're not. The 10,000 details that make up our lives cannot be sorted and recalled from our memory consistently. So mistakes happen. I've gone a trip without having packed pants more than once.


How do you reduce variance in a repeated process, increase effectiveness and stave off the misery of arriving in LA without pants?


The solution, as Atul Guwande and Kyle Mast have argued, is the humble checklist.


By externalizing the particular steps of a repeatable process, you create a template that will save you hours of work and enormous amounts of mental energy each month.

Here's how to get started building a template:

  1. Take a process you repeat regularly: aim small, like "what to have with you every time you leave for work" The same principles apply for auditing and revamping the employee onboarding process at work, but it helps to get your reps in on something small.

  2. Define the particulars: 1) wallet 2) keys 3) phone 4) pen 5) notebook 6) laptop 7) laptop charger 8) wireless headphones 9) pants 10) confidence

  3. Capture the particulars in a particular place: templates on scattered Post-It notes are far less effective than when they're kept in a notebook or an online task manager.

  4. Refine the particulars every time you use the process. Is there anything missing? Is there anything redundant?

The time invested into creating the checklist will be repaid 100x by reducing error and recapturing the mental energy required to do high-level work.


Kyle Mast says

In structuring things that are repeated the same way every time, you not only ensure that nothing is missed (our “creative” mind doesn’t have a perfect memory) but it ensures that we are not wasting our brainpower on reinventing or remembering processes. We then have much more time and energy to think creatively about where we can add the most value.

Start using the lowly checklist today and your tomorrow will be better. Or at least, you won't forget pants.


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