The unreasonable effectiveness of checklists

Checklists are a fantastic tool for thinking. This despite the existence of GTD, Kanban, PARA, and any number of ways to organize projects and figure out how to finish them. When I’m starting a project or when the going gets weird, checklists are usually how I end up thinking my way through.

I am certainly not the first person to espouse the greatness of checklists. There are TED talks and books that are far better at telling you about that. I can only tell you about how checklists make me feel.

First, crossing things off checklists feels great. It’s a rewarding feedback loop that keeps things moving!

Checklists are great because they are the smallest form of planning you can possibly do and get away with it. Checklists are not so dear that if things go weird, I feel bound to them. Change the list based on the new information and keep getting things done.

My experience is that Eisenhower nailed it on the head: “plans are useless, planning is essential.” The essence of planning is thinking through scenarios, outcomes, and how to connect the two. A lack of planning is a lack of thinking. If I can’t be bothered to think it through, why would I even do it?

Checklists are great because they are an easy way to get my brain thinking about the details. They force me to think about all the things that need to happen. They force me to think in time and sequence: this needs to happen before that and this other thing will take a while so that’s probably another checklist. Checklists force me to think about dependencies and who is going to do what part of a project. For example: Bob has access to all the welding tools, so he needs to do all the metalwork which means Alice and Chris are stuck with all the woodwork and painting.

Leading projects over the past couple years, I have found that people appreciate a checklist that tells them exactly what they need to do before they’re done. Production deploys go so much smoother and stress-free when there’s a checklist that thinks for us. I’ll take a well-written feature pitch or requirements doc any day, but a well-considered checklist will do in a pinch.

A checklist is like sending my future self, stressed and at less-than-full-thinking-capacity, a note saying “You got this. Do these things one at a time until they’re all done.”