This, as well as other blogs, have promoted the use of checklists to ensure that things get done in an organized and consistent way. They have been seen to be the key to overcoming "task saturation", where the flow of incoming data and tasks is so overwhelming that one becomes paralyzed and unable to take action. But what constitutes a good checklist? NASA research has led to standardized checklist characteristics in the field of general aviation. We, also, can benefit from this research.
A good checklist, for any purpose should be judged in four areas: design, content, phraseology, and usage. Christopher L. Parker, writing for AOPA Flight Training Magazine, suggests these considerations for checklists.
- Size - A good checklist will be small enough to carry when one needs it. It should also be small enough to hold in the lap or in the palm of one's hand. Start by trying sheets of paper that are 8.5 X 5.5 inches, which is one-half of a standard 8.5 X 11 inch sheet of paper.
- Font - The X-height should be at least one-tenth of an inch high for easy visibility. X-height is defined as the size of a letter that has no lines rising above or going below the line. Examples would be a, e, o, n, c, m, r, etc. Limit yourself to no more than two fonts. Anything more risks being too busy and distracting to the eye. The eyes should flow quickly to what they need to see. Use both upper and lower case letters. Studies have shown that all caps make words difficult to read quickly, as the eyes and brain use the shapes of words, which include ascenders and descenders (those lines that rise above and go below the x-height). If upper-case letters are used, allow the first letter of the word should be larger than the rest to enhance readability.
- Stock - Use black lettering on white paper for best visibility. Color can be used to define sections and highlight items. For example, when one purchases a professionally designed checklist for flying purposes, one finds information that is so critical that it is highlighted in yellow to indicate that those steps should be memorized. Use high-quality extra-white paper and laminate it with anti-glare plastic or laminate to protect it from wear and tear.
- Chunking - List the items that should be on your checklist. Group items that share a common factor, such as location of execution or use of the same tools. For example, one might chunk all items that must be done while sitting at the computer or that need to be done while at a certain location in the building, such as the copy room. NASA research shows that the human short-term memory can hold up to seven items, plus or minus two items. Therefore, each chunked section of your checklist should have no more than nine items.
- Flow - Look at the list of items to be accomplished and look for a logical progression. In aviation, this is called the "flow pattern", where emergency procedures work in a natural L-shape across the instrument panel to facilitate muscle memory.
- Completion Call - Add a completion call at the end of each section. This is simply a line that says something like, "Before Leaving Office Checklist Complete". This helps one to mentally move on to the next section knowing that the previous section was complete and minimizes the effect of interruptions.
- Recency - Place the most critical items near the beginning of the list to ensure accomplishment.
- Redundancy - Duplicate critical items in more than one section to ensure completion.
- Size - Make your checklist as short as possible but as long as needed. An extremely long checklist becomes a nuisance and will not be used consistently. A long checklist is more likely to be interrupted. A long checklist can cause its user to lose track of where they are.
- Terminology - Use proper terms, as this reduces the chance for error. Avoid vague and ambiguous phrases.
- Status - Use the actual status or condition that is desired after each item. An example in aviation might be: Master Switch...........ON. For the office, one item might be: Inbox......PROCESSED.
- Trial - Use your checklist and note any problems with a red (or any color) pen. It is also a wise move not to laminate the checklist until it has a "shakedown cruise" to work out any problems such as improper sequencing of tasks.
- Philosophies - Three checklist philosophies exist, two of which are more relevant to those of us who use checklists to improve our effectiveness and consistency. The first is to use the checklist as a to-do list: Look at the item and then do it. The second philosophy is to use it as a reminder: Do the tasks, then look at the checklist to ensure we haven't forgotten anything. The last philosophy is the challenge/response, in which one person calls out the item on the checklist and a second person completes the item and then calls out the correct response. This last one is more applicable when more than one person is working on a project and they are ensuring that nothing has been left out.
Some might feel that the use of checklists insults their intelligence. They feel that they know what to do and don't need a sheet of paper to tell them. However, checklists ensure that things are done in a systematic and consistent way when time is short, the pressure is on, and we are more apt to make mistakes. They take the thinking out of routine and emergency tasks and help us accomplish what we need to do much more quickly. Since I've been using checklists to standardize how I start and end my business day, as well as accomplish routine tasks, I've been more consistent, reliable, and complete. When faced with a crisis, I can react quickly and decisively, knowing that my actions have been well thought out, tested, and will provide me with the results I want. I go home at the end of each day KNOWING that I haven't forgotten anything. I no longer wake up in the middle of the night with the sudden realization that I forgot to do something and have to figure out how to do it before 6:30 AM. I sleep great at night. By the way, how are you sleeping?