The power of checklists

In his book The Checklist Manifesto, Dr. Atul Gawande made a strong case for the power of checklists to help us “get things right” — including a checklist’s power to save lives when used by surgeons and airline pilots. But checklists can be useful tools for all of us, in many situations.

On Unclutterer, we’ve written about checklists for moving, packing for travel, preparing for a trip, and requesting tech support. We’ve also provided a how-to guide for having a yard sale, which is basically a large checklist. The following four examples may give you ideas of other types of checklists you’d like to create and use.

Choosing a house or an apartment — or buying almost anything

Many years ago, I almost bought a house with a key flaw: the house had very few walls without windows or doors, and there would have been no good place to put any bookshelves. After that experience, I created a checklist with everything I could think of that mattered to me in a house. I could still choose to buy a home that didn’t have everything I wanted, but at least it would be a conscious choice.

If you want to create your own home checklist, you could use the wishlist and the checklist (PDFs) from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) as a starting point.

The same basic type of checklist could be created for any major purchase: selecting a school or a camp, buying a car, etc. When I was buying a car four years ago, my checklist included price, reliability, miles/gallon, length, turning radius, acceleration, and the opinion of trusted reviewers.

Fixing things

Back in 1993, I read a column by Bill Husted that provided his rules for fixing anything, from a computer file to a motorcycle. I can’t find the article online, but here are his first six rules:

  • Make a carbon copy. As Husted explains, that “copy” could take many forms: a backup of a file, a drawing of some wiring, etc.
  • Take things one at a time.
  • Be lazy. Take a lot of breaks.
  • Try the easiest and most obvious first.
  • Clean up as you go.
  • Keep a diary.
  • All these years later, this still seems like a good checklist to me.

    Packing for frequent activities

    This is the packing list concept applied beyond trips and suitcases: for going to the beach, for attending a class, etc. Even if you keep a packed bag at the ready for such activities, having a checklist is usually a good idea, too. With that checklist, you can quickly confirm the bag has everything on that list so you can replace anything that got used up or misplaced.

    The same type of what-to-pack checklist could be created for diaper bags, school backpacks, first aid kits, etc.

    Visiting a doctor

    It’s easy to forget everything you need to tell a doctor, or everything you’ll want to ask. Organizer Ramona Creel has a checklist to help patients prepare for a visit, so they do remember everything they want to discuss. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs also has a checklist (PDF) of questions to ask a healthcare provider, which could certainly be used by patients who aren’t veterans, too. While not all items listed will apply to all visits, the checklist helps to ensure you don’t forget anything important.

    4 Comments for “The power of checklists”

    1. posted by kathny on

      I am a list-maker. I have lists, spreadsheets and files for everything. For about the last 15 years, I have kept a master packing checklist on my computer for my entire family. Every time we would travel, I would print a copy for each family member, crossing out whatever we didn’t need for that particular trip and then letting them pack their own bags. The list was broken down into carry-on & checked luggage, so everyone knew what to pack and where to pack it. Now that my kids are grown, my husband and I still use the lists for ourselves and two of our kids have asked me to email the master list to them to use for their own travels. It has made such a difference! No more forgotten retainers or phone chargers, and everyone sails right through security at the airports because everything is packed in its proper place.

    2. posted by Carla on

      I love lists – to the point where I think it drives my husband crazy. 🙂 After recently having a house guest for two weeks, I’ve decided to make a “cleaning” checklist. Knowing the items that need to be done to make sure my house is properly clean will help keep us on track. Also, some items can be done further in advance (washing the sheets for the spare bed) while others need to happen right before the company arrives (taking out the trash). In the recent example, I made a list but only the day before so it was all rush, rush, rush!

      The other benefit I’m hoping to see from the checklist is an easy way to make sure general cleaning chores get done regularly. I want to print off my list and make a habit to do at least one item per day, scratching them off as I go. I’m sure I will start by doing all the “easy” chores first, but hopefully this will give me motivation to take care of the harder ones more regularly!

      I love kathny’s idea to separate the packing list into carry-on and checked luggage sections. That will be a great addition to my own master packing list!

    3. posted by Pat on

      I have also had a travel checklist for years. I have it divided into sections: toiletries bag, suitcase, carry-on, and handbag. But there is also a section: “not this time.” Before each trip I run through the list. Most of the things stay the same for each trip, but not everything. I won’t need sandals for a trip in December, so I move that item down to “not this time.” That way it is not on the list, but it won’t be forgotten next time. I always check the “not this time” section and move things up if I will need them. I make sure that “Not this time” is on page 2 and only print out page 1 for the trip.

      The beauty of this list is that it gets me thinking about what I need ahead of time, it is custom for the particular trip, and I can just cross off things as I add them to the appropriate bag. I don’t do it, but if you are afraid of forgetting to pack everything for the return trip, you could just print out a second list.

    4. posted by Creativeme on

      Supplies lists, packing lists, shopping lists, to do lists, wish lists, goal lists, dream bucket lists, “what-if” lists, project steps lists…. Oh ya! I don’t know what I would do without them! Especially approaching the big holiday season.
      I haven’t embraced digital yet, I love the physical act of jotting them down, scribbling details in the margins, illustrating the concepts, taping photos to them, underlining, crossing out….. You get the idea. How I write the list is almost as important as what the list says to me.

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