I made a learnboard on Learnist about checklists. It was based on a fabulous article by Dr. Todd Finley, who researched everything related to checklists. He read all the research on checklists, poured through every website about checklists known to mankind, and read books covering all manner of checklists. I’m told he even improved Santa’s checklists to help him more efficiently discern which children were naughty from those who were nice.
I learned a lot about checklists. First, I learned that there is, in fact, an entire branch of academics who research checklists. And they’re super smart and accomplished. Who knew? I bet they don’t forget organic almond butter at the store. Second, I learned that there is a right way to use checklists and a wrong way. One should prioritize, include things that can realistically be accomplished, and act as one’s own boss–treat yourself as if you were your own assistant.
I don’t do any of that stuff. My method is simple, and so, so wrong that Dr. Finley didn’t even think to chronicle it. Should he ever discover my method, he would probably drive out to Rhode Island, risking all manner of political corruption and potholes, just to smack me upside the head with a rolled up copy of Atul Gawande’s The Checklist Manifesto, one of the definitive guides in this genre. If I were really treating myself as my own boss, I’d be the dumbest boss on the planet writing the types of checklists I write. I’d be forced to write “fire myself” on the top of that list.
Don’t get me wrong, I love checklists. But I never use them to try to organize my life, to remember groceries, or to avoid forgetting critical appointments or tasks–I use them to feel better about myself. It’s not the remembering that makes me feel good, it’s the crossing off. Sure, I could have remembered to cure cancer or save neglected kittens at the ASPCA, but I’d much rather cross ten insignificant things off a list that than complete one critical item that’s hard–that takes too much time. The longer the checklist, the more I have accomplished. It makes me feel like a rock star–like I can conquer the world.
My use of checklists goes something like this: Get up. check. Write. check. Drink coffee. check. Pack lunch. check. Find keys. check. Make coffee in a travel mug. check. Decide if my shirt is too wrinkled and fail to do something about it. check. Go to work. check. See, before I even arrive at school, I’ve accomplished eight things. That’s the mark of a high achiever. Then it gets better. Correct the papers I hid under my keyboard. check. Enter grades. check. Sort through ten piles of data and make it serve the purposes I want. check. Teach two classes. check. Eat lunch. check. Teach four more classes. check…Threaten to assign homework. check.
And so on and so forth. If I’m really feeling bad about my life, I can break down these tasks even further. Put on left sock. check. Put on right sock. check… If it’s a grocery shopping day, I not only get to check off things by task–let’s say, shopping, but I can subdivide things by store, item, or brand. That means I accomplish a hundred fifty things. Two hundred fifty if I buy something in individually wrapped packages. LIke I said, rock star status.
Maybe this isn’t what Dr. Finley and Atul Gawande meant by using the checklist for “making a hundred small things go right” but it sure makes me feel good. After all, isn’t someone who accomplishes fifty things worth more than someone who accomplishes only five? I think it’s all in the spin. But I didn’t learn that from Dr. Finley, I learned that from FOX News.