I’ve never been the most organized person. I can be passionate, dedicated and sometimes obsessive about the things I love doing, but organization doesn’t come naturally to me. One thing I’ve tried before is little “To Do” lists, but it’s not something I’ve done often or methodically. Recently that has changed.
I first started thinking about this because of Checklist Manifesto, a book by Atul Gawande. I have not read the book yet, but I’ve heard several interviews of him. The book is about how checklists for complicated procedures help minimize mistakes and save lives. He is a surgeon and he has seen how a simple checklist for a surgical procedure can dramatically reduce the number of complications. I don’t do anything as grave as surgery, but there are a lot of things I want to accomplish each day. I thought checklists might help and started using them.
My first checklist was a weekly one. Initially, I drew up a list of daily tasks. I realized quickly that I didn’t have enough time each day to do all these things. So I cut the list of daily activities to a minimum. However, there were plenty of other things I wanted to do, some only once a week, others several times a week. So I added those to my weekly checklist too. For example, I want to practice guitar every day, so there are seven boxes next to it on the list. Other items may have only one box next to it, like doing payroll for my mother’s home health care workers which I do every Monday. I have four boxes next to exercise. I don’t care which days I work out, as long as I work out three or four times during the week. My final task for each week is to review, edit and print my checklist for the next week.
After using that checklist for a month or so, I decided that I needed a separate checklist for my podcast. This is what I’d call a procedural checklist. It contains a series of steps for a single task or project. Usually the tasks should be completed in a particular order. The checklist for my podcast has been evolving over the past few episodes and it now has 28 steps, from the first email to ask someone if they will do the podcast, to backing up all the audio files when I’m done.
It may seem like I’m creating a lot of work for myself, but I think it’s really the opposite. I’ve found that if I do some preparation before the interview, the interview will go much more smoothly than if I wing it. I’ve also found that if I conduct the interview well, the editing goes much better and takes less time. Finally, by codifying the steps for promoting it, I get that part done quickly and painlessly.
Of the two types of checklists, the weekly “To Do” list and the procedural list, I think the latter is more effective and worthwhile. I don’t think there has been a single week where I have accomplished every task on my weekly checklist. Perhaps I have accomplished more than I would have otherwise. But I think checklists really begin to shine when you use them to walk you through a process you do over and over again. I am really happy with the result. A checklist helps me eliminate mistakes, keeps me focused on only the task I’m currently doing, and raises the quality of my work overall. It also provides me with a method to review my work and improve every time I do a podcast, by translating what I learn into new steps.
I think this might have a profound impact on my teaching in the future. I’ve always had a plan for my classes. Sometimes there is a curriculum to follow. Sometimes I come in with a number of options. Sometimes I figure out what I’m going to do on the way to class or drastically change course in the middle. I’m sure there are things I have learned when teaching something that are now long gone from my memory. In the future, I’m going to write out my plans more carefully, probably with branches and options, but definitely with steps. Each time I come back to a particular lesson plan, it will contain within the procedure many of the nuggets I’ve learned from the previous attempts to teach that lesson plan.
Over the last few days, I’ve taken what I’ve learned from the podcast checklist and tried to apply it to other things. I have a short procedure to go through when I sit down to practice my guitar. I’m working on some lesson plans for practicing improv by myself. I even came up with a procedure to write blog entries. This is the first attempt to follow that procedure and it seems to have been beneficial, keeping me focused and on track and producing a post which I hope is more useful than if I used my previous method: stare at a blank page, type stuff and edit until I have something I’m not embarrassed to publish. I’m convinced that using checklists would be beneficial for other creative uses like rehearsal procedures, show checklists, video projects, etc.
A checklist app for the iPhone and iPod Touch
I downloaded a checklist app for my iPod Touch. It is quite useful. It’s called Quick Checklists. This is a great app for those shorter lists that you might use often, like writing a blog post or working out at the gym. You can create a template for a list and easily make changes to it on the fly, or change the template for future use. It’s perfect for my purposes. I’ll keep my paper checklists for more involved projects, but for day to day stuff, this app is great.
My checklist for blogging
For those of you interested in my blog checklist, here it is (some of these only apply to WordPress blogs):
- Choose a topic
- Research via the web, books, talking to others on the subject, etc.
- Brainstorm thesis or basic point of the post
- Write outline
- Write post
- Take a break
- Edit for clarity
- Read aloud
- Edit for readability
- Title it
- Add links
- Find image or media to accompany it
- Insert the “more” code
- Choose excerpt
- Add tags and category designations
- Plug it on Twitter, Facebook, etc