The Power of Checklists

My wife finds it amusing that I subscribe to a e-newsletter called The Art of Manliness (AOM). While I haven’t asked, I’m sure her amusement comes from a belief that I am such a manly man what could I possible need from a newsletter titled The Art of Manliness. (Of course if you know my wife, I’m sure you are ROLF right about now).

Anyway, I love of AOM because of gems like this:

The crux of this problem is while the world around us is becoming more and more complex, we’re still stuck with a brain that hasn’t changed much in 100,000 years. Sure, we’ve figured out ways to off-load memory storage to books and computers so we can know more; we just haven’t figured out a good way to overcome our evolved biases, cognitive flaws, and intrinsic forgetfulness. And so, despite owning a brain brimming with ever more knowledge, we continue to make stupid mistakes.

But what if there was a tool that could help us avoid misapplying knowledge and overcome cognitive flaws the same way data storage has helped us be more informed?

Well, there is one, and you’ve probably used it today.

The humble checklist.

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Everyone knows why to-do checklists are so useful: they help you get things done. But there are also particular benefits to routine checklists that have made them an effective tool for navigating complex systems. Here are 4 of them:

1. Checklists verify that the necessary minimum gets done. With increasing complexity comes the temptation to skip over the stupid simple stuff and instead focus on the “sexy” parts of one’s work and life. Because the stupid simple stuff is so stupid and simple, we often fool ourselves that it’s not important in the grand scheme of things. But as we’ve seen, it’s often our most basic tasks that can spell the difference between success and disaster.

Checklists act as a check against our ego, and remind us to make sure the stupid, simple, but absolutely necessary stuff gets done.

2. Checklists free up mental RAM. People often bristle at using a checklist because it feels constraining. They want to be flexible and creative, and the checklist seems to take away their autonomy. For this reason, implementing checklists among surgeons has proven difficult, even though studies show checklists dramatically reduce the number of preventable, life-threatening errors. Surgeons feel that their work requires an intuitive judgment that’s born from years of training and experience and can’t be reduced to a simple checklist.

What these stubborn surgeons fail to see is that checklists provide them more freedom to exercise their professional judgment. They don’t have to think about remembering to do the stupid simple stuff because there’s a checklist for that. Offloading the need to remember basic tasks frees up the brain to concentrate on the important stuff. For surgeons, this means they’re left with more mental RAM to focus on handling unforeseen problems that often come up when you’re slicing someone open.

Checklists don’t replace judgment, they enhance it.

3. Checklists instill discipline. Checklists continue to play a vital role in aviation. Every time pilots and co-pilots take off and land, they verbally go through a checklist. A lot of what they review is of course the stupid simple stuff, but it’s important stupid simple stuff. When you’re responsible for the lives of 120 passengers, you have to have the discipline to make sure you do even the small things right. If there’s ever an incident in air, investigators will go back to see if the pilot and co-pilot went through the checklist. There’s no fudging with it. You either did it or you didn’t.

Because checklists provide a binary yes/no answer, they instill discipline in the person that uses it. Research shows that giving someone a checklist for a task increases his or her chances of completing it. There’s something about having a checklist that spurs people to get stuff done. Perhaps it’s the dopamine rush that comes with checking something off, or the concreteness checklists provide, or a combination of the two.

4. Checklists save time. A common complaint about checklists is they take too much time to go through. But running through a checklist need not take very long, and research shows that doing so will actually save you time in the long run. Because checklists can prevent errors caused by skipping basic steps, you spend less time fixing mistakes and more time doing constructive work.

I am a loyal user of checklists. I have a checklist for my morning routines. I have one for the process I follow to write blog posts. I have a list that is an inventory of “next actions”(GTD-style). I create a “next action” list every morning of things I should do during spare moments throughout the day (again GTD-style).

Checklists allow me to be hyper-efficient while minimizing ego depletion. 

Recent Reads

I’m always on the look out for useful productivity advice and/or reminders of good practice. Here are a few recent reads I found helpful:

  1. Running quick mental calculations is the currency of the consultant trade. Here are a few useful math hacks they didn’t teach you in grade school (or maybe they did…they’re useful regardless).
  2. Goal setting in your personal life may sound cheesy, but there is no better attention filter than clear short, medium, and long-term goals (GTD-style if you like). This is especially true for those of us suffering from severe attention disorder.
  3. Information overload is something I think about a lot. Way I see it, information is like a dangerous drug. I’ve struggled to get my addiction under control over the past many years. I find these tips helpful.

Optimal Cognitive Performance

I used to think working 15-16 hours a day was the way to achieve optimal performance at work. I used to think that I was a night person — that I did my best work between 11pm and 2am. I used to think that *unless* my calendar was packed from 8am until 7pm, I was being unproductive. I used to think…well you get the picture. What happened?

First, I discovered sleep:

“…when you sleep your brain removes toxic proteins from its neurons that are by-products of neural activity when you’re awake. Unfortunately, your brain can remove them adequately only while you’re asleep. So when you don’t get enough sleep, the toxic proteins remain in your brain cells, wreaking havoc by impairing your ability to think—something no amount of caffeine can fix.”

Then, I discovered exercise and the importance of doing it regularly.

Part of the reason exercise enhances cognition has to do with blood flow. Research shows that when we exercise, blood pressure and blood flow increase everywhere in the body, including the brain. More blood means more energy and oxygen, which makes our brain perform better.

After that, I discovered fueling up properly.

[The] brain is a hungry little organ. Weighing in at only 3 pounds, it uses 20% of your daily calorie intake.

And then, finally, I had an epiphany: my brain is like a machine. It requires careful and proper management for optimal cognitive performance. And it has become my obsession. (Yes, for you excel geeks the Circular Reference Warning is probably flashing right about now.)