The life changing magic of the humble checklist

How a simple daily checklist can help alleviate your stress levels and reduce overwhelm and decision fatigue

“Whether running to the store to buy ingredients for a cake, preparing an airplane for takeoff, or evaluating a sick person in the hospital, if you miss just one key thing, you might as well not have made the effort at all.”

ATUL GAWANDE, THE CHECKLIST MANIFESTO

How often have you looked into the pantry, made a note of the groceries you need to pick up from the supermarket, been sure you’d remember everything you need, and ended up lost and confused in the aisles?

How often have you done this with other things? More important things, perhaps? Missing the due date of your credit card bill, forgetting to pay the phone bill on time, or even messing up an important work project? All because you relied on memory alone?

According to Daniel Levitin, a neuroscience professor at McGill University, “most people can only hold about four things in their mind at a time.” Not 100 things. Just four.

This is where the humble little checklist, or to-do list, or task list, call it what you will, comes in. It’s like an extra hard drive for your {probably already overwhelmed} brain. Instead of trying to remember everything that you need to do today — or even in the coming week — list it all down on paper or digitally. It will free up your mind and allow you to focus on more important things.

Perhaps that’s why the daily task list or to-do list is a staple in most productivity systems. Productivity gurus have come up with many different ways to slice and dice the humble to-do list: David Allen’s Getting Things Done, the 1-3-5 Rule, the Burner List, and the Do One Thing method, are just a few of the thousands of systems out there.

But most of them just complicate something that should, I think, be much simpler. Some, like the Do One Thing method, could also contribute to decision fatigue. The system, after all, asks you to list out all your tasks, 50, 100, how many ever you have. And then choose just one task from the list and focus on that until it is done.

I don’t know about you, but just looking at 50-100 tasks and trying to choose one can, quite simply, paralyze me. And the last thing I need in my already busy, sometimes stressful life, is a system like this, that overwhelms me. Because honestly, I am very capable of coming up with 100 things I need to or want to do, ranging from the important to the not so important to the ones that would be interesting to do some day. And that’s not very helpful, is it? Moreover, looking over that list and picking just one would be a nightmare — how do you choose??

A good to-do list, especially one that is meant for daily or weekly tasks, should help you to remain focused and reduce decision fatigue, not compound it.

To elevate the humble checklist to excellent status, it should also help you live according to your values — to help you ensure that you are making the time to do what is truly meaningful and nourishing for you.

The makings of a good checklist

checklist or to-do list text reads balance burnout

“The average human lifespan is 37,580,400 minutes long. How do you want to spend your remaining life-minutes? This is a big question. Once you’ve answered this big question, then most of life’s smaller questions—like which items to put on your Daily Checklist—begin to feel clearer and simpler.”

ALEXANDRA FRANZEN, THE CHECKLIST BOOK

Instead of looking at your task list as a never ending list of projects or work and related goals, your checklist should also include things that align with your approach to life: what you value, what brings you pleasure and meaning; what makes you feel focused and vital and filled with lifeforce.

In The Checklist Book, Alexandra Franzen offers a few different ways in which you could approach your life, based on which you would determine how you would spend your time. Some of these approaches include:

Find your top values and then plan your day based on these values.

Adopt a kaizen attitude towards life and view every day as a chance to improve, filling your day with activities that allow you to grow and refine different areas of your life.

Adopt a sohwakhaeng attitude towards life and fill your day with moments of “small but certain happiness.”

Focus on dying empty, making sure you’re emptying the tank a little bit more each day.

Plan your life based on sheer necessity. What absolutely needs to be done first?

ALEXANDRA FRANZEN, THE CHECKLIST BOOK

You could, of course, combine approaches, and make your daily checklists accordingly, ensuring that you not only focus on the tasks you need to finish, but also add in moments you want to experience, creative/fun projects you want to work on, and a small action that will bookend your days {for example, take 3 deep breaths as soon as you get out of bed; list 3 things that went well today before you go to to bed}.

Listing out the small moments you want to experience each day, and adding in your hobbies and learning goals on your task list helps to ensure that you’re spending your time in a more balanced, rounded manner.

Your daily checklist shouldn’t be more than a page long. While having it written down on paper is ideal, I maintain my checklist on Notion. I don’t add anything related to my 9-5 job to my checklist, but use it to keep track of all my other projects.

I look at tasks related to blogging, podcasting, YouTube etc. as my “work list”, and everything else related to art, hobbies, reading, the things I want to learn and experience, are related to how I want my days and my life to feel. I have a few tasks that are on that list every day — morning pages, a daily oracle pull, filling out my Year in Pixels — and I add in not more than 2-3 “work” tasks and around 2-3 fun tasks.

This relatively simple reframe of what a task list should look like, which I adopted some time during the middle of last year, helped immensely with my mental health. I could quickly see when I was trying to cram in too much into my day, not allowing myself to rest, and being generally harsh on myself {recovering high performer here}, and take steps to course correct.

If you feel stressed out and overwhelmed with the sheer number of things you have to do, feel like you never have time to do the things that interest you, or find yourself unable to decide how best to spend your time {a classic symptom of decision fatigue}, give this checklist method a try.

Alexandra Franzen’s The Checklist Book and her daily checklist worksheet can give you additional pointers, should you need them, to get started.

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This post is part of Blogchatter’s CauseAChatter.


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Published by Shinjini



2 responses to “The life changing magic of the humble checklist”

  1. Absolutely agree about the decision fatigue, Shinjini! I’m someone who cannot function without the daily checklist and I’ve been doing this for years now, so I can totally relate to the dilemmas of handling 50-100 things at a time and drowning in overwhelm. I find breaking my priorities into daily, weekly and monthly ones does help a lot. And, even when I cannot tick off every single item, I’m happy if I’ve accomplished 80% on that list of mine for the day/week/month. Little wins matter a lot, right?

    Like

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About

Shinjini Mehrotra is an India-based writer. Her work explores the intersection between creativity, productivity and philosophy. She also has a deep interest in Jungian psychology and its associated branches of myth, mysticism, and storytelling. More

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