Tools for Thought

Thinking beyond productivity

A Pattern Language for Productivity, Pattern #3: Checklists

by Andre · 4 Comments

Checklists are mental inventories made physical. Instead of trying to hold your thoughts on a topic entirely in your head, write them down as a list. Experiment with making checklists for anything and everything that has your attention.

Having a list to review reduces the need to rethink what you need to consider about a topic. Since short-term memory limits the number of items that someone can think about simultaneously, checklists provide a simple structure for spreading things out for reviewing in parallel (see Distributed Cognition).

For instance, a travel checklist would include all of the items you need to take with you on a trip:

  • Ticket
  • Boarding pass
  • Dress suit
  • 2 casual shirts
  • 2 casual pants
  • Toiletries
  • Etc…

For blogging, I brainstormed a checklist of future articles to write. I also have checklists of technical issues to resolve, design modifications, and themes I want to explore. When the time comes to write, it’s much easier to review the article checklist than to think about a new topic from scratch. Since I have over two dozen article ideas to choose from (twice that if I include the “Pattern Language” series), I don’t have to worry about drawing a blank; I just point and shoot.

Checklists are a great way of seeding the mind for further thinking on a topic. Each item on a checklist can germinate a checklist of its own. We can extend our thinking on “Toiletries” from the previous checklist as an example:

  • Toiletries to take
  • Airport restrictions
  • What’s already available for free in the hotel room
  • Drugstores and markets near hotel
  • Commercial toiletry kits

The first checklist was meant to be an inventory of what to bring. Prior to leaving, you step through the list to make sure every item is accounted for. The second checklist is a list of considerations: we spell out all options, then review them to see which ones are practical or actionable. One option is to buy a toiletry kit that bundles everything in a compact case, making it unnecessary to think about purchasing more items near the hotel (it’s easy to forget that we’re often too tired after a flight to run errands).

You can spend five minutes creating a checklist of checklists that would be useful to make during windows of free time:

  • Article ideas
  • Career goals
  • Family goals
  • Investment opportunities to research
  • DVDs to buy
  • Library books to check out
  • Gifts to buy
  • Home improvements
  • Activities to best use leisure time
  • Not To Do (i.e. time wasters)

Checklists are a great way to avoid reacting to problems in a knee-jerk fashion. Take a minute to stop, list out all issues and concerns related to the problem, and the ways to recover from the worst-case scenarios — you can even write out “problems” and “solutions” as separate checklists. But the most important step is to get things out of your head, where they loom out of scope. Writing anything down immediately makes it finite, observable, and potentially actionable.

Tags: A Pattern Language for Productivity