Don’t rely on your memory. Use a checklist.
In 1935, pilot error on Boeing Fight 299 resulted in a deadly crash, killing two people and injuring others. In response, Boeing devised a simple solution: a checklist to make sure “critical tasks” were completed. Atul Gawande uses this example in his book, The Checklist Manifesto, to underscore the importance of checklists.
Professionals across fields use checklists today. Doctors use them, as do programmers, engineers, and writers. A checklist includes the main points of a process. To write this article, I used a writing checklist that documents important steps of my writing process, such as researching, writing, editing, verifying facts, and checking paragraph transitions. The items on my checklist are in chronological order: I draft an article first, before I fact-check it.
People use checklists for different reasons. A colleague of mine uses one to help him from repeatedly committing the same errors. But sometimes you don’t get a second chance, and this is when a checklist is particularly helpful. Anyone who’s submitted a report, letter, or article with a typo can relate. Several years ago I created a writing checklist, and found that it helps point out the obvious, prevents silly mistakes, and ensures my work is complete.
Why Use a Checklist?
Checklists point out the obvious, which we sometimes overlook. This point is made clear by Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris in their Selective Attention Test. The video starts by asking viewers to “count how many times the players wearing white pass the basketball.” You then see people passing a basketball, and you begin counting.
After about 30 seconds, the video prompts viewers with a question: “How many passes did you count?” It reveals the correct answer (15 passes), and prompts viewers with a second question: “Did you see the gorilla?!” If you’re like me, you missed it. I was so focused on one thing, counting the number of passes, that I neglected to see the obvious: a big, hairy gorilla pounding on its chest.
This scenario happens in everyday life. We’re concentrating hard on writing a report, and miss the misspelled name in the first paragraph. That’s why a checklist is handy. It reminds me to count the number of passes when I’m reviewing my work the first time through, but also alerts me to look out for the gorilla in the second. After watching the video again, I couldn’t miss the gorilla since I knew what to look for.
Checklists also help prevent silly mistakes, like forgetting to hit “save.” Human memory and attention are fallible, Gawande explains, “especially when it comes to mundane, routine matters that are easily overlooked under the strain of more pressing events.”
Checklists are undoubtedly helpful during stressful times. When I’m working fast and furiously under a deadline, I use my checklist to ensure I don’t make simple mistakes like grammatical errors. A neglected detail can wreck a business deal. Or an administrative error can negatively affect the outcome of an application. A checklist can prevent these negative outcomes from happening.
Above all, a checklist helps make sure your work is complete. There’s no need to waste mental energy remembering steps for everything you do in your professional or personal life. After repeatedly forgetting my lunch, I created a daily checklist that I review before I head out the door for work. Keys, check; lunch, check; glasses, check. And before I leave for a trip, I reference my travel checklist to make sure I’ve packed the important stuff, like my passport.
Jobs today are often complex and involve many steps. And it doesn’t seem like it’ll get simpler any time soon. Repetitive work is being outsourced to robots, leaving the creative and multi-step work for humans. Despite your occupation, consider using a checklist. I’ve found that it’s a simple solution to the complexities of life.
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