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The Power of Checklists

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How to Make an Effective Checklist

Simply making a list of the steps involved in a certain task does not an effective checklist make. Here are some tips from The Checklist Manifesto to help you create a truly useful checklist:

1. Investigate your failures and look for “killer items.” Take a look at your work or even your personal life. Are you less productive at work than you’d like to be? Does the house always seem a disaster? Examine why you aren’t getting the results you want. Look for failure or friction points in the tasks you do routinely. These failure or friction points will serve as the basis for your checklist.

 2. Focus only on the “stupid” essential stuff that’s frequently overlooked or skipped.You don’t need a checklist that lists every single step on how to complete a task. That renders a checklist useless. Instead, just focus on putting down the “stupid” but essential stuff that you frequently miss. Your checklist should have no more than 9 items on it. The shorter the better.

3. Decide if you need a “communication” checklist. Most checklists are likely procedural (they lay out things you need to do), but some tasks or projects are so complex that communicating with others becomes vital to managing all the moving pieces. In such a case, create a dedicated communication checklist and make sure it includes who needs to talk to whom, by when, and about what.

 4. Decide if your checklist will be a “DO-CONFIRM” or “READ-DO” checklist. With DO-CONFIRM checklists, you do your job from memory and experience, but then at a certain point you stop to go through your list to verify you did everything.

READ-DO checklists require you to read and perform a task on the checklist before you can move to the next task.

If you need more flexibility, go with DO-CONFIRM; if you need more exactness go with READ-DO.

5. Test your checklist in the real world and refine as needed. If you’re still experiencing the same failures or if the checklist makes work cumbersome to the point that it becomes a stumbling block, then you need to refine your checklist.

Travel checklist. 

I also have a checklist that I use before I leave on an extended trip. It’s kind of a combo of a to-do list and a routine list. It’s stuff I need to get done, but I use the same list every time. And it’s a DO-CONFIRM checklist: I do my prep from memory but then check the list before I leave to verify that I took care of everything essential. These are the things that I’ve had the most trouble remembering in the past, so they’re on my list:

  • Ask a neighbor to get mail and newspaper
  • If neighbor can’t get mail, put hold on mail and newspaper
  • Put up away messages on email
  • Get cash
  • Pack
  • Lock doors
  • Turn off furnace/air conditioning
  • Set alarm
  • Check if everyone has their ID for the airport
  • Bring phone charger

Mental checklists to improve thinking. 

Berkshire Hathaway vice-chairman Charlie Munger uses a mental checklist of biases and cognitive flaws that he reviews before making any big decision to ensure he’s thinking clearly about it. He’ll go down the list and ask himself if any of these biases are clouding his thinking and what he can do to mitigate it. Ever since I’ve learned about that, I’ve tried using something similar in my life. Crafting this list is still a work in progress for me, but here’s what I have so far:

  • Am I making this decision due to the sunk cost fallacy?
  • Does the person who’s recommending a course of action for me have an unitentional self-serving bias in making that recommendation? (i.e. “Never ask a barber if you need a haircut.”)
  • Am I making this decision because of confirmation bias?
  • Is my judgement of someone’s behavior due to the fundamental attribution error?
  • Is my anchoring on one particularly attractive trait in something causing me to ignore the bad traits?
  • Am I fooling myself into thinking I can’t fool myself?
  • Have I distorted my memory of what happened to fit my actions more neatly into a narrative?
  • Is the gambler’s fallacy coloring my decision?
  • Is cognitive dissonance leading me to rationalize and excuse my mistakes?

(If you’re interested in what some of these terms mean, David McRaney’s You Are Not So Smart is a good place to start.)

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