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The science behind the checklist

Ask The Experts | Checklist Best Practices | By | 12 Mar 2021 | 4 minute read

Adam Turner

Adam Turner, SafetyCulture guest contributor, former deputy editor of the Sydney Morning Herald’s IT section,has been writing about the technological challenges facing Australian businesses for more than 20 years.

Breaking down daunting projects or processes into bite-sized tasks, then ticking them off your checklist, is the key to staying productive when faced with an overwhelming challenge.

The concept of a “pre-flight checklist” was introduced by Boeing in 1935 after the crash of a prototype B-17 bomber due to pilot error. Basically, the new aircraft was so advanced that the pilots couldn’t remember the full list of safety checks and forgot a critical step.

While your lists might not be a matter of life and death, it’s important to know how to create them and use them effectively. 

Don’t mix tasks and appointments

Don’t make the mistake of using your calendar as an ad-hoc to-do list, says productivity expert Dermot Crowley – director and founder of Adapt Productivity.

Calendars are for keeping track of “fixed work” such as meetings and other time-specific appointments. Don’t clutter your calendar with “flexible work” tasks which might have deadlines but don’t need to be completed during an allocated block of time.

You might occasionally block out time to work on something large, but don’t make the mistake of filling your calendar with all the little things you need to do.

“That’s why I firmly believe in a planning system which has your calendar and task list side-by-side,” Crowley says.

“This way you can see exactly when you need to be somewhere and when you have discretionary time, during which you can graze your to-do list.”

Break it down

When drawing up your list of things to do, it’s important to think about “macro” and “micro” productivity – in fact, you’ll want a list for each.

Macro-productivity looks at the big picture, such as a list of your current projects and goals. Meanwhile, micro-productivity looks at the next steps required to complete those big ticket items.

Don’t clutter each list with items from the other – “build a house” shouldn’t be on your micro-productivity to-do list, while “buy a hammer” shouldn’t be on your macro-productivity list of projects.

Stay flexible

Once you’ve drawn up a to-do list of tasks for the day or week, the order isn’t locked in stone. It can change depending on what else is happening, especially when your productivity depends on others.

Deciding when to perform each task is the key to micro-productivity – which is all about making the most of your time.

“The next thing you should do is not always the most important thing on your task list, or even the most urgent thing,” Crowley says.

If you’ve only got half an hour until lunch and don’t want to leap into a large task which is due at the end of the day, you might decide to knock over a few small tasks rather than fritter away that time.

“Getting those small things out of the way means you can hit the ground running after lunch and focus solely on that large task.”

The aim is to be consistently productive, so you get more done in your day. This in turn relieves some of the pressure and reduces your stress levels. Which helps you remain more productive.

Of course there’s nothing wrong with taking a break. But when your enthusiasm wanes and your productivity drops, or you’re looking to procrastinate, the sometimes the better option is to switch to something else on your to-do list and keep chugging along.

Even when you’re having a rough day, choosing the right tasks and chipping away at your to-do list ensures you’re not falling too far behind and setting yourself up for a worse day tomorrow.

Get organised

Considering that effective to-do lists are always in flux, you can’t just rely on old-school pen and paper. It’s time to upgrade to a digital tool which lets you easily edit your list and access it whenever you need it. 

“One of the biggest mistakes I see people make is that they have their to-do items spread across too many places, like a myriad of post-it notes,” Crowley says. “You need a single source of truth which is always at your fingertips.”

Checklists don’t just help you pay attention to detail. They’re also psychological, giving you the satisfaction of ticking off completely items and the confidence boost from seeing that you’re making progress. Which of course helps you stay positive and productive.

Making a list and then focusing on the next task, rather than stressing out about everything on the list, can also help keep anxiety in check.

“Most knowledge workers are working on multiple projects at once, each with their own set of tasks,” Crowley says. “A lot of people make the mistake of trying to manage that level of detail in their head, but they’re not very good at keeping it all straight.”

“Putting all the information down in a list means you can clear your mind and just focus on the task at hand, knowing that you can deal with the others later.”

Work as a team

Organisations looking to boost productivity need to think about how to marry personal productivity with team productivity. 

“I work with lots of teams who have fantastic project plans, using high-end software to visualise all of those project tasks across the team,” Crowley says. “Unfortunately there’s a complete disconnect between the project plan and what people are actually doing on a day-to-day basis.”

“The problem is that people often don’t manage their time effectively around their allocated tasks, so you need to ensure that everyone has the right micro-productivity skills to work as a team and put your grand plan into action.”

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