In September, 2017, I finished reading a best seller <The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right> by Dr. Atul Gawande. Inspired by the book, I started to build my own checklists to keep projects and life on track. I experienced a painful graduation in my master program because of my procrastination. Therefore, I wanted to get ahead in my current PhD program. Checklists have helped me achieve the goal. After months of using checklists, I am very satisfied with my progress. In this post, I will share with you my experience of using checklists and how they help me.
A race against time
To graduate from my master program, we were required to publish a journal article. I did a decent amount of research in my three years in the program. However, I was too sloppy about the rules and deadlines, and had a naïve thought that as long as my research was good enough, I would easily meet those 'stupid rules and deadlines'. Ironically, the seemingly 'stupid rules and deadlines' nearly made me fail to graduate.
In short, to publish a paper took much more effort and time than I thought and I got my acceptance letter for my article the last day before my defense. When my fellow graduates were preparing their defenses, I was anxious because of waiting for the acceptance letter. Believe me, it was extremely painful.
The hard lesson was to follow rules and to plan ahead. Now, I have found a simple, old-school tool that works great to help me plan ahead - a checklist.
A story from the book <The Checklist Manifesto>
Checklist is a great tool to avoid stupid mistakes that lead to destructive consequences when handling complicated tasks. It helps to initiate a project easily when we face a complex task. Sometimes, it can save lives.
There are so many stories in <The Checklist Manifesto> that impressed the magic of checklists on me. I want to share the story of Captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger, who was played by Tom Hanks in the movie <Sully>. The media credited the successful landing of the aircraft on Hudson River to the heroism of Captain Sully. It was true, but it was only partly true. The book showed a different angle. Based on interviews with Captain Sully, he kept emphasizing that the success was due to the great teamwork of the whole crew, and their following to a few checklists, which had been developed at costs of many heartbreaking accidents in the airline industry. In detail, following checklists help them concentrate on important things, find the problem faster, and leave the Captain enough time - a few seconds - to make the decision that saved hundreds.
Driving an aircraft is a complicated task. Extreme situations occur from time to time. Checklists are adopted and developed to handle the complexities. In my opinion, living well our life is complex as well and a checklist can help.
My application of checklists
The mental checklist
I have been using checklists in several tasks. The most important task in my PhD program is to graduate in time and easily. I find it is extremely hard for me to plan months ahead, no need to mention years ahead. So, instead of making a detailed plan of what to do at what time point, I try to track projects that I need to finish and get them done as soon as possible.
When I attended the new student orientation, our graduate advisor recommended our PhD students to publish at least three papers before graduation. The criteria was not mandatory as the one in my master program. But, I have been working hard to meet the criteria. Before I encountered the checklists, my situation was exactly the same as my status in my master program: I had results of several projects with no publication. I knew that writing, revising, and publishing a paper took a lot of time but I could not help procrastinating.
The magic change of my mind occurred right after I built my mental checklist to only track the three projects on my hand. I felt relieved. I kicked all the other activities off the checklist, such as making slides for the meeting next month, replying an important email received in the morning, etc. These tasks were important and urgent. But they were too detailed to stay on my foremost checklist. At that time, I learned that tasks differ in ranks of importance and timescales. In addition, it makes a big difference to keep only a few foremost tasks in mind. What to do next was still hard to implement physically, but become much easier to handle mentally. I told myself to finish the projects step by step, and I introduced some physical checklists to assist myself.
I'll share with you two of my physical checklists, a weekly routine checklist and a blank checklist.
The weekly routine checklist
The weekly routine checklist (Week 41 in 2017) is shown in the following figure. I have 4 categories: Low-hanging fruits, Important Tasks, Mandatory Services, and Less Important Tasks. The checklist was the first one I developed. I have been improving the checklist every week. They are far from being perfect. Honestly, I cannot finish all of the tasks and do not follow the schedule strictly. However, these checklists are like bones of my life that keep me in a good structure. As a result, I can do much more than what I did previously.
A blank checklist
To finish a specific task such as publishing a paper, using a blank checklist to track progresses works great for me. The following was a checklist I used to write, revise, and publish my first paper. I simply took notes of what I did and what I planned row by row. The checklist does not need to look great. The only purpose to use it is to help me get things done. Gladly, the paper was accepted last week.
Why do checklists work for me? First, I think they let me focus on the foremost tasks when I am the most efficient. Second, I find myself being easily distracted and checklists will pull me back to the main course. Third and most important, designing checklists allow me to think what task is important and how much time I will invest in it. Finally, I realize that I can only do a few things well because I at most have 55 hours to work every week.
Projects and life need management and to manage them well take practices. Amazingly, with the old-school checklists, I can finish works ahead of deadlines more frequently. If you may want to try the checklists, I am very happy to share them with you!
Dunyu is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Geophysics