Refining and Perfecting Your To Do Lists

What could be easier than a checklist? Before answering, consider that aircraft manufacturers spend years getting the checklists for their aircraft ready, and have entire divisions dedicated to checklists.

The answer, it turns out, is not so simple. Atul Gawande wrote a complete book about it: The Checklist Manifesto. This book is a very good read, and will change how you look at checklists.

Recently, Sarah Welch and Alicia Rockmore had a post over at the Clutter Control Freak Blog about Effective To Do Lists.

What makes a To Do List – or checklist – effective?

Everything in one place. This way, you know where to find what to do next. Don’t have multiple todo lists.

Update frequently. If things are missing from your todo list, then you won’t refer to it – or if you do, these things to do will be forgotten.

Access daily. Refer to the list every day – preferably first thing in the morning. If you do this, then you’ll be able to keep up to date with what is going on and what needs doing.

Write down actions. Don’t put big projects into your to do list – write down only actions that can be done. For example: “Get tires” is too big (unless all you have to do is go get them). Where will you go? Will you call many stores to compare? What size will you get? How many?

Revise often. Perhaps the things that are on the list are no longer to be done; remove them from the list. Your list should be current at all times.

If you keep your to do lists “alive” and active, then your ability to act on them increases and you can get a lot more done.

Building a Checklist

When you are undertaking an invasive and complicated process, you should have a checklist to go by. This will help you make sure you cover all the bases and don’t forget anything. I’ve written about this before.

However, how do you build a checklist that will be of the most assistance?

First, “build” is the right term: in the days or weeks leading up to your process (system maintenance, for example), come back to the checklist over and over. Review it several days in a row, or better yet, several times a day. You’ll think of new things to add to it, and you’ll be fleshing it out until it is comprehensive and complete. You might want to leave it loaded in your workstation so you can come back to it whenever the mood strikes.

Secondly, break the checklist down into major sections. For example, in patching a system you might have sections for: 1) preparing the system; 2) patching the system; 3) rebooting the system. Other processes will have different major sections. These major sections should be set apart on your checklist, preferably with titles and bars that segregate the checklist into its component parts. I recommend a different color background and a large bold font to set it apart.

Thirdly, there should be a “point of no return” – which should be at a major section break. This is the point where you cannot turn back and return to the way things were. At this point during the process, you have to choose: have things gone smoothly enough that completion is likely – even inevitable – or is the process in such disorder and disarray that a return to the status quo would be better? At that point, one must choose.

With such a checklist, your process will be much smoother, and you won’t have to explain to the boss why you missed something critical. It’ll also document what you did (along with the notes you take).

One-Time Checklists: Planning Ahead

Have you ever done something as simple as reinstall an operating system – only to find you missed something important? What if you have to apply patches? Upgrade databases? If you forget something simple and critical…. this is definitely not something you want to do. What can we do to avoid such scenarios?

Several days ahead of time, make a checklist. Keep adding as you think of things that need to be done during the process. If it is a reinstall, do you need to copy SSH keys? Install third-party software like sudo and rsync? Reconfigure the kernel for your environment? Put all of these down on your checklist.

Break your checklist down with titles – so that you know what step you are at and so you can find it easily. For a reinstallation, you could use headings like:

  • Preparation
  • Reboot and Install
  • Postconfiguration

…and so forth.

Break the checklist down into specific tasks: an item like Configure Server is insufficient: what items need to be configured? How? Make the items specific and detailed.

Use the checklist during your maintenance, and keep notes on the sheets as you do them – and as you find things that you might have missed. Write them right on the checklist – and keep the checklist. Next time you do something similar, you can start with the original checklist.

In this way, you will miss nothing – and people who come after you will thank you profusely. Just keep the old checklists in places people can find them. A three-ring binder would be just right. Date the checklists too, put a title on them (“Reinstall of HP-UX 11i v3) and put them in some kind of order.

Productivity: Going with the Flow

When you write down your things to do (you are writing down your things to do aren’t you?) then you need to keep them front and center at all times. If you put them into your PDA, then checking your PDA daily has to seem like second nature. If you write them onto a sheet of paper, then checking with that sheet of paper should be a daily reflex. If you use an Internet site such as ToodleDo or Nozbe (my two favorites!) then you have to check daily.

The important thing here is to go with what is natural; don’t attempt to change your habits but work with them instead. When someone gives you something to do what do you reach for? If writing down a to-do item takes too much effort, it will be skipped or avoided. If checking your list takes too much effort, you will avoid it.

Once you have your list of things to do, put it into your “trusted system” as David Allen calls it. Don’t leave them hanging out there. This “trusted system” has to be the one you check daily. Putting things into this trusted system also requires habit and requires paying attention to the effort required: make it as effortless as possible – which will reduce or eliminate the tendency to avoid it.

Where possible, use your natural tendencies to make your system work for you; this will make you more productive since you are checking your tasks daily and doing them rapidly.

Five Steps to Excellent Checklists

Checklists are useful for checking that you don’t miss anything in a repeated extended process. This can be anything from maintenance windows to database installations. It is not necessary that it must be an enterprise-wide checklist; checklists are useful for us as administrators as well.

To create an excellent checklist, follow these steps:

  • Create a suitable title for each major step or category. When all the checklist items are done, then this category (or step) will be completed.
  • Separate each section from the next with whitespace. This keeps items clear and separated so they won’t mix in your mind when you read them.
  • Create a bar of some sort to highlight the title. This will further separate the various sections, and will make the title stand out.
  • Create a list of all actions to perform. These are actual steps – actions to do – and not nebulous unspecified things to get done.
  • Test the checklist. If this checklist will be used repeatedly, then try it out. Take notes as you use it. Since the checklist is best used on paper, use a paper version to take notes on and transfer the results to the actual list later.