The Awesome Power of Checklists

The online book store, blogosphere and social media sites are packed with advice on productivity. Entire subcultures have grown around complicated “getting-things-done” systems. You can find apps and courses and training programs galore.

The truth is: You don’t need any of that.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m a huge believer in the value of investing in software, training and more. But when it comes to productivity, I find that programs and products add complexity, and complexity works against what you’re trying to achieve.

For getting things done and achieving your goals, the best approach is radical simplicity in how you think about the problem, how you think about the solution and how you implement the solution. That’s the purpose of this column.

Why You Can’t Get Anything Done

The simple reason you can’t get anything done is: distractions.

More to the point, the industries that are in the business of creating distractions are evolving faster than your brain is evolving to resist them.

I won’t waste time listing the many distractions that have emerged in recent years (nor will I list the distractions that have always existed), but I will say that social media is an especially pernicious threat to achievement because it combines the distractions of social interaction with entertainment, and it’s served up by algorithms constantly “improving” to become ever more distracting. (Whenever you read about Facebook’s rising “hours spend on Facebook” numbers, know that those represent dreams being crushed as the world’s productive time is converted into wasted time.)

The other fact to know about distractions is that we’re all sucked in by them, and shuffle them together with our work so that we can’t really get an intuitive grasp of just how much time is being wasted.

Procrastination, Multitasking and Other Myths

The world of productivity is also awash in unhelpful myths. One of these is procrastination.

To communicate this point, imagine there are 1,000 individual tasks you could be doing at any moment, any of which would move you forward to achieving one goal. Whether you’re playing a videogame or actively working on one of these tasks, you’re still delaying at least 999 tasks.

Also: Science has proved—science!—that goofing off sometimes helps productivity.

It’s important to manage when you do these tasks—and the goofing off—but the procrastination concept is an illusion. And, in fact, obsessing over procrastination can become another distraction.

Multitasking is another harmful myth. No, you can’t think about two things at once. You can only switch between them. And that’s a waste of energy.

One Solution to Beating Distractions

The solution is: checklists. I first learned of the awesome power of checklists while learning to fly an airplane. Flying is safer than driving in part because pilots use checklists. They have a known-good list, each item of which is a non-negotiable focus of attention, followed by a decision about whether that item is airworthy or not.

As we go through our daily lives and try to accomplish things, our actions begin to resemble a game of “Whack-A-Mole.” You knock down your fitness goal, but in doing so don’t have time to read a book. So next time you spend time reading, but that takes away from your goal to build a treehouse for your daughter. And with all this personal ambition, who has time to get that professional certification? It’s much easier to just click over to Facebook and see if anyone liked your post on the Supermoon.

Just as pilots use the same set of checklists every time they fly, you should use your checklist each day.

Start with a master checklist that contains a numerical list of between 10 and 30 items. These have to be achievable in a single day, every day.

I use Google Docs for my checklist system, which I can access also from my iPhone, but anything will do. Whatever works for you. I start with a master checklist, and I maintain a current backup of it in case I accidentally delete items.

Each day I spin out a copy, then use the copy for my daily checklist, deleting each item as it’s completed. My task items are both personal and professional, and cover routine house maintenance or chores, fitness, checking things like bank accounts—anything that should be done daily in order to make personal and professional progress and keep things from falling through the cracks. These are all action items that must be done in order to meet larger, immediate and long term personal and professional goals.

One of these checklist task, crucially, is “Zero Inbox.” I use Google Inbox to achieve an empty inbox every day, but you can use any email. I do recommend strongly, however, that you use an email solution that enables you to forward, pause or put on hold any email.

The inbox is my repository for random tasks that aren’t daily items. So the “Zero Inbox” daily checklist item includes dealing with all those tasks. This idea is a foundational one from David Allen’s “Getting Things Done.”

Allow yourself to execute on checklist items in any order. Delay any items that can or should be handled later. These two tricks give you the flexibility to plow forward and make progress.

I learned another trick from the book, “Mini Habits,” by Stephen Guise. The trick is to make each item on the daily checklist laughably easy, if possible. For example, if you want to read books, the checklist item is to read, say, one page. If you want to write a book, tell yourself in your checklist to write 30 words per day. Run for five minutes. Do one pushup. And so on.

The purpose of this approach is to develop daily habits that contribute to your bigger goals, but without the show-stopping barrier that goes up when goals are ambitious. For instance, if your checklist says run 10 miles a day, read five chapters, etc., then you’ll fail to complete your checklist. There just isn’t enough time in the day. And you’ll be back to playing Whack-A-Mole with your goals and habits, where you do one thing at the exclusion of others. And that book you’ve been wanting to read won’t get read, you won’t become an author and you won’t hit those fitness goals.

Of course, there’s no upper limit to any of these goals. If you read a page, and have the time and inclination to read a full chapter, go for it. You might end up writing 500 words instead of 30, 20 pushups instead of 1 and ran for 15 minutes instead of 5. Whether you do what’s on your list or do more, the point is that you’re accomplishing your daily goals because they’re ridiculously achievable. And in the process not only you’re making actual progress but also cultivating good habits and becoming better and more efficient at everything you do.

How Checklists End Distractions

If all this sounds too easy, too good to be true, I’ll tell you exactly why my checklist system works.

First, checklists keep you on task. Make sure you do what’s on the checklist, and don’t do what’s not on the checklist. If you only do items on your checklist, you won’t waste your time on distractions. For example, items like “check social media” and “Zero Inbox” mean you do each of those things once per day, and no more. (Note that people turn to distractions when they’re temporarily unsure of what to do next, or when they feel like the task at hand is overwhelming. Or when they’re bored. The checklist system always tells you what to do next, and it ain’t wasting an hour on social media.)

Second, the checklist system ends that time-wasting what-should-I-do-next paralysis. You always know what to do next. Go to your checklist, pick anything and finish it.

Third, the checklist system engrains the habit of success. By finishing what you set out to do, you acquire a new self-image as a person who accomplishes things.

And finally, the checklist system gamifies achievement. Finishing the checklist every day becomes a healthy addiction, a challenging goal that you strive for every day.

So stop over-complicating the achievement of your goals. Stop buying stuff. Stop feeling frustrated by productivity Whack-A-Mole.

Use my checklist system and get it done.

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