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The Power of the Checklist Habit

"It is OK to make mistakes but unacceptable not to identify, analyze and learn from them."
Ray Dalio - Principles

Do you have your own checklists? Do you use them to aid you in complex activities? Or is your strategy based on hope, that you will remember every step you ought to take to achieve the desired outcome? How do you learn from your mistakes? More importantly, how do you ensure that next time when the task comes up, you will remember and apply what you've learned?

Photo by Startup Stock Photos from Pexels

Checklists are technically simple to implement, but in my experience, developing a sustained habit of using them is extremely difficult. Yet a robust checklist habit can have the power to transform your life. Just think of the fact, that checklists save thousands of lives every year by supporting pilots, surgeons, engineers to remember critical steps in procedures and by providing a practical means to efficiently cascade new learnings and best practices to the field. Checklists can not only ensure important steps are not missed, but they can also provide a very practical tool to foster continuous learning.

My objective with today's post is to encourage you to implement the habit of developing and using your own checklists.

Why is the checklist habit so difficult to implement?

I believe that the main reason that makes it extremely difficult to consistently apply and refine checklists every day is a false perception of personal efficiency. When I am engaged in a complex but routine activity I like to skip looking at the checklist, to "save time" so to say. I tell myself that "I am tailoring the solution to the problem" by neglecting some of the steps. I also tend to overestimate my ability to remember all the important steps and often simply forget some of them. Finally, when I am finished with the activity, I do not update the checklist for a number of reasons. First, I did not use it in the first place, why would I update a document I do not use. Second, since I didn't use it, I lack records to guide me in identifying which steps should be updated or refined. Finally, I am typically pressed for time, and rush onto the next activity.

I am convinced however, that by not following my checklists I miss a significant opportunity to learn and improve.

Having read Atul Gawande's book The Checklist Manifesto I understand there might be a second reason as well for the difficulty with practicing a consistent checklist habit. My checklists may be too detailed and time consuming to apply. According to Atul, good checklists should have between five and nine questions, and should take no more then one minute to complete. Checklists - at least in aviation - are not detailed how to guides. They are mere reminders of the most important steps and validations in a process.

So you might very well ask, why am I writing an article about the power of a checklist habit if I haven't yet figured it out myself, how to apply checklists efficiently in my own life? The answer is two fold. For one, I have a number of checklists, and from experience I know that when I use them - like in case of this blog-post -, they can be of great help. Only the discipline of the habit is missing. Second, by way of discussing my challenge with you, I hope you will share your experience in the comments, and together we can each develop a stronger checklist habit, that will enable us both to grow and develop in our own professional and personal lives.

To help trigger this conversation about the checklist habit with you, I am going to share 3 of my personal checklists. The first two are built on many years of personal experience. The third is one I have just started to develop for myself. It is mostly based on Internet research and my assumptions. Over time I hope to refine it as I learn more about blogging.

My Holiday Preparation Checklist

Photo by Mike Andrei from Pexels

  • 6 month in advance

    • Set date
    • Decide destination
    • Research destination
      • Mandatory vaccinations?
      • Weather at time of year when we travel?
      • Going in peak season? (may need to book flight and accommodation now)
    • Book holiday at work and school (for kids)
    • Buy Lonely Planet + Google. Start reading and planning
      (A quick side note: In the past typically I would create a OneNote workbook for the trip, including everything: the packing list, the itinerary, pictures of places I want to visit, useful links, maps, contact numbers, booking confirmations, directions, notes, etc. Going forward Roam might take over this role from OneNote. With COVID-19 still largely out of control, I haven't yet had the inspiration to start planning any holidays - thus I do not have hands on experience with using Roam for this purpose.)
  • 100 days in advance

    • Book flight
    • Book accommodation
    • Book rental car
    • Book (popular) attractions
    • Book airport parking
  • 1 month in advance

    • Create draft packing list
    • Check condition of required gear
    • Buy or arrange any gear I don't have, fix if something is broken.
  • 1 week in advance

    • Finalize packing list, and start packing
    • Get travel insurance
    • Purchase food as required
      • snacks, energy bars, main meals, etc.
    • Confirm travel details: flights, accommodation, rentals, other bookings, etc.
    • Print tickets, booking confirmations, addresses
  • The night before

    • Set the alarm
    • Have luggage, documents, wallet ready
    • Book taxi or airport transfer if relevant
  • Leaving home

    • Close windows and doors; check heating and hot water; unplug water boiler, coffee maker, iron; empty waste bins; clean dishes; verify stove is off
    • Pack phone & charger
    • Count luggage
    • Check documents (license, passport, printouts)
    • Check bankcard and cash
    • Activate alarm

My Annual Performance Review with my Direct Reports Checklist

Photo by The Coach Space from Pexels

  • Two weeks in advance

    • Solicit feedback about employee's performance from key stakeholders
    • Ask employee to prepare self-evaluation and provide to me in advance
    • Book time on calendar
      • 1 hour a day in advance for preparations
      • 1 hour for the review meeting
      • 1 hour immediately after the meeting for administration
  • 3 days before the meeting

    • Check if employee has provided self-evaluation
  • Day in advance

    • Review employee's last performance review. Identify differences between my evaluation and the employee's self-evaluation.
    • Be prepared to discuss any changes to the job during the year
    • Review employee's goals (established at the beginning of the year or modified during the year)
    • Review notes with #forPRM tag + employee's name
      (during the year, when I want to save a comment or observation for use during the Performance Review Meeting, I make a comment in my notes with the #forPRM tag)
    • Review mailbox for weekly 2x2x2 updates (See my blogpost on the 2x2x2 pattern)
    • Review company core values and behaviors, review assessment scales
    • Plan career development opportunities
    • Create outline of talking points
      • Focus on strengths
      • Place development opportunities into context
      • Develop questions
      • Plan for positive close to the review meeting
  • During the review

    • Ask questions and engage in two-way conversation
    • Ask for feedback about my leadership and support
    • Plan for next steps
  • After the interview

    • Document outcome in HR system

My Publishing a Blog Post Checklist

  • Choose topic

    • What am I passionate about?
    • Do my research
    • Pick a clear angle
  • Understand my audience

    • What problem are they facing?
    • How much do they know about the topic?
    • What's the goal of my post (to educate, inspire, motivate, remind of the basics)?
  • Do keyword research

    • What words do my prospective readers use to describe what they are looking for?
    • SEO Tools (
    • Chose main keyword and related keywords
  • Create an outline

    • Write down objective
    • List the main topic and subtopics
    • Articulate conclusion
    • Organize, revise, eliminate
  • Come up with alternative titles

    • Include the main keyword
  • Write the draft

    • Draft the article body
      • Be a storyteller
      • What questions or objections might my readers have?
      • What else might they be looking for?
      • Is the tone appropriate for the audience?
    • Write intro and conclusion
      • Hook your reader in the first two lines
      • Questions to encourage discussion
    • Is the main keyword included?
      • In description, intro and conclusion
  • Add images

    • ~1 image / 100 words
    • Add alt text to images including keywords
    • Main keyword as filename and as image alt tag
  • Set post URI

    • Set keywords in tags
    • Add internal links within site
      • link to older high authority posts
  • Add call to action

    • subscribe, share on social, give comments, promote product
    • Articulate benefit the user will receive
    • Be short and to the point
  • Revisit the headline

  • Click preview & proofread

  • Social Media Distribution

    • Twitter
      • include attention grabbing quote from blog post
      • mention those referenced in the blog post

Final Thoughts

I hope that the above 3 practical checklist examples will spark your interest to develop and share your own checklist. I would be very keen to understand how you approach the use of checklists. What is going well with your approach? What would you want to change? Please share in the comments.

Thank you.

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