When I hear the word checklist, I think of bored looking men with clipboards standing by conveyor belts, doing quality control in a soulless brave new world factory worshipping Henry Ford. However, things changed when I first had to actually use one – during a flying lesson. It didn’t seem that bad at all, providing reassurance and a sense of completion. The negative reinforcement of doing 2g must have kept this thought dormant for a long time, but I decided to revisit these beacons of productivity that I imagine all the perfect people from Instagram tick off every day.
There are things that are inherently hard to do.
Realistically, getting out of bed is something that comes easily to a very select few – and these select few change every day, depending on what they expect from their day.
For those of us, who are less than euphoric on most mornings (i.e. slightly less than 100% of people, the slightly less bit accounted for mostly by people in acute mania or still high from the night before), a checklist could be a good way to ease the drift towards existential questions or reflection on the pressure of a brand new day, another attempt to achieve, another day to seize and make the most of, squeezing out the last drop where anything that wouldn’t make NutriBullet engineers blush simply isn’t enough.
That’s the real Nutribullet challenge. I cannot emphasise the usefulness of waking up at the same time every day. I use the iPhone Bedtime feature for this. It’s generally good for the circadian rhythm and creates a sense of control.
How do I keep up with being a doctor, an editor, a blogger, travel, house-hunt, read Nietzsche and get 8 hours of sleep? Well, my success rate is a little volatile.
In order to stay moving ahead, there are certain things that I simply must do every day. I have a startup checklist – things I do every morning – and things I do throughout the day. I use an app called Checklist+, or sometimes I just print it on a page.
My morning checklist achieves one main purpose: it takes out the need to make decisions.
Decisions are extremely consuming for our metaphorical RAM, especially when it is the morning and the possibilities seem so vast. It’s not like I will forget to brush my teeth if I don’t look at the checklist. It is that I don’t have to figure out: “what do I do first?” which can be extremely taxing when I just wake up.
The alternative, on many mornings, is feeling out of control as I rush to work and resent having other people’s checklists imposed on me, or going straight to the laptop, surrounding myself with green tea paraphernalia and snacks, only to realise by midday that I haven’t actually done much other than worked in a virtual mailroom. The loss of productive time however, doesn’t stop there. It dictates how the rest of the day will unfold. It is the mood setting that matters:
You see the 10 push ups in the checklist? Do they build any real muscle? Hardly. What they do is they set me up to feel healthy and capable of overcoming challenges.
I am much less likely to go creeping on a former classmate’s Facebook page or drinking hot chocolate after doing even a few pushups than I would be if I had just spent the morning lazying around in my pyjamas. It’s that phenomenon of consistency that Cialdini talks about.
My next item on the agenda is the domino piece.
… As distinct from the Domino’s slice from yesterday’s dinner. The domino piece is the most important item on my work to-do list or the one that makes all other pieces irrelevant. I deal with the thing I resist the most first. Perhaps this is why I find mornings so cognitively taxing. [I will insert a proper reference for this soon]. However, having spent years chiselling out this productive approach, I wouldn’t trade it for anything else.
My 2nd checklist is the one for the day. It allows me to move forward. This isn’t work related, and it doesn’t change day to day.Mindfulness helps me to stay in touch with reality. Walking is simply good for us human beings, as N.N. Taleb says. He can nearly match a word count of his essay writing to his miles walked. It’s near impossible to stay cognitively refreshed unless one reads. Exercise goes without saying.
I have lots of other, more specific checklists. It’s an ENTP thing. We like lists. I don’t get them done perfectly everyday, but it is a good guide.
I mentioned the sense of control a few times here. The point isn’t to be a control freak.
One of the most important lessons I learnt from dealing with my own students is that a sense of control is the ultimate source of motivation and agency. It is the natural predator of learnt helplessness – which is far more pervasive in our lives than we think.
Checklists allow us to remain in control without investing expensive cognitive RAM – because they are our checklists, not Henry Ford’s.
Dearest reader, if you’ve read this far, you know what to do.
- Pick a wake-up time (or let your child pick it for you).
- Make your own checklist. Just one.
- Drop your expectations and keep it very simple.
- Do it for 10 days and reward yourself for doing it. Does Pavlov ring a bell?
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