There's a good chance you're either using checklists to record and strike through one-off tasks or you're not using them at all. Either way, you're missing out on an enormous boost in productivity and efficiency if you're neglecting the humble procedure checklist.
Last year we shared a checklist template with you from the design desk of Daryl Furuyama. Daryl had made a procedure checklist which he used not for writing down future tasks that he wanted to complete and cross off but for routine tasks that he frequently repeated.
That idea is the heart of a procedure list. When you write down ten things you want to get done today and cross them off at the end of the day when they are done, that's not a procedures list. It's just a simple—albeit rewarding!—checklist. When a mechanic goes through a list of 50 things to check and evaluate on your car (and every other car he is going to service), he's using a procedure list. A procedure list highlights the things you need to do in a routine process to ensure that everything is done and nothing gets neglected or outright forgotten.
Prior to coming across Daryl's template, I had limited my use of checklists to one-off tasks in need of completion but never as a guide for routine tasks. Since we published the post highlighting Daryl's procedures checklist, I've created and tweaked procedure checklists for both personal and professional procedures and been extremely pleased with the return on my investment. Today we're going to look at why you need to start using procedures checklists and how to go about creating them.
In defence of the humble procedures list
Making a checklist and following it is not a glamorous affair. It is, however, a very efficient affair and one that you would be well served to incorporate into your workflow. I'm a busy person, you're a busy person, and it's quite likely we're not going to be getting any less busy in the foreseeable future, right? Who has time to add in one more thing to their day? The question would be better rephrased as "Who has the time to make easily avoided mistakes?" Photo by lupoianfla.
We all make mistakes and forget steps even in tasks we've been doing for years. Procedural checklists serve as concrete reminders of what tasks we need to perform, what order we need to perform them in, and as springboards for tweaking our routines and making them more efficient.
For those of you who have adopted David Allen's Getting Things Done system—or any other system that stresses ubiquitous capture of information—you likely had an initial "I can't believe how well this works!" epiphany when you realised how much you really did forget on a day-to-day basis and how much capture everything helped in boosting your productivity and efficiency. If you start tracking your procedures and evaluating the steps that go into them you'll experience a similar epiphany regarding routine tasks as you did regarding capturing ideas. Just like you couldn't believe you were relying totally on your memory before adopting ubiquitous capture you won't be able to believe you were relying, especially during a busy and stressful day, on basic memory recall to make sure everything was done right.
You may have trouble believing that something as simple as writing down the steps of the routine tasks you do every day, evaluating them, and then codifying them into a procedure list could be that revolutionary. Use the following tips and insights to get started and see for yourself.
Record what you do, not what you think you should do
There are two methods of approach when it comes to creating procedure lists. The first method is to look at a given situation and create a best-practice procedural list, where you lay out a perfect sequence of events based on the ideal situation in which they would play out. While this method of procedure list creation can work, it's more efficient to go the second route: start making a procedure list based on what you are currently doing. Photo by walker M.
Why base your list on what you are presently doing? You don't want to deny yourself an opportunity to see what works in your current system. You may not being doing absolutely everything perfectly or at 100% efficiency, but you're certainly doing a lot right—or else you'd have died of food poisoning, been fired, or succumbed to some other fate by now. Creating your list based on what you're currently doing allows you to see exactly what goes into the procedure you're trying encapsulate and to sit back and evaluate it. When was the last time you wrote down everything you did in a given day, step by step, and then checked to see if you were missing important steps or doing things inefficiently? Probably never, and you're not alone in that.
I read a cookbook years ago where the author highlighted how unquestioned procedures can lead to inefficiency. The author's husband asked her why she always cut the roast in half and cooked it in two separate dishes. She told him that was how her mother did it, so she called her mother to ask why. The mother said that it was how the grandmother did it, so the author then called the grandmother and asked her why she cooked her roast in two pans. The grandmother laughed, explaining it had nothing to do with better cooking and everything to do with being too poor to buy a big roasting pan. Three generations of women, who could now presumably afford a bigger pan, had been adding in an extra step and an extra pan to clean, all because nobody had stepped back and asked, "Why are we doing this? Is this the most efficient way?" Photo by edsaxby.
Fix that with your own routine, and start right now. What are you doing at work? What routine task are you undertaking? What do you do at the end of the day when it's time to close up shop and go home? All of these things are procedures, even if you haven't looked at them as such before. Get a legal pad and a pen and write down, on alternating lines, the steps that go into whatever routine set of tasks you're working on. You can use a computer to compile the list, but I've found that for the first-generation list it's helpful to be able to write freely, scribble notes, and carry the list around with you as you brainstorm and track the procedures around your workplace or home.
Try to be as specific as possible, even if a step seems mundane or "obvious". It's the obvious things that often get overlooked. Examining even the mundane steps of a procedure gives you a chance to see if that step should be in a different spot, done differently, or dropped all together. Remember to list only items that are specific and actionable. Write your procedure list as though you were writing it for someone else.
Evaluating your procedure list
Once you've written down what you do in given procedure—cleaning your office once a week, preparing client proposals, assembling a monthly report for your boss—it's time to evaluate the procedure list. Evaluating procedure lists is a two-part process, the initial evaluation and a continual review. For your initial evaluation you'll want to ask the following questions:
- Is this step necessary? Why is this step included?
- Is this step in the right place? Should it come sooner or later in the procedure?
- Are the steps clear enough that I could give this procedure list to another person without explanation?
- Is each step a concrete action that can be completed and checked off?
Let's use something as simple as cleaning your bathroom as an example. What if, upon writing down the procedure you currently use, wiping down the light fixtures above the sink comes after cleaning and polishing the sink? Cleaning the light fixtures is a clear enough step, it's certainly actionable—nothing theoretical or abstract about wiping the dust off something—and if you don't do it you'll have dirty and dusty light fixtures. So far so good, we'll keep it in the list. It's completely in the wrong place, however, and it needs to be moved. If you clean the light fixtures which are above the sink, after you've already cleaned the sink, you'll just be knocking dust, dirt, and possibly dead bugs all over your freshly cleaned sink. Moving the cleaning of the light fixtures—and anything else up high—farther up the list than cleaning the sink and counter tops saves you from unnecessary work. Photo by Dominik Gwarek.
Perhaps you've long since gotten the concept of "clean from high to low" down pat but you'd be a rare specimen to go through all your daily procedures and not find a multitude of spots where things could be tweaked and tightened up. Every little thing you find, like cleaning steps in the wrong order, is a micro-investment in your future efficiency and free time.
Continue the process of evaluating your procedure lists even after the initial evaluation. Situations change and a necessary step today might be a redundant step next month. If you're already in the habit of weekly and monthly reviews taking the time to evaluate a few procedures with each review will spread out the work and help keep your procedure lists current.
The simple procedure list is a fantastic way to increase the efficiency of and properly evaluate the routine tasks that populate your professional and personal life. Just like writing everything down frees your mind to focus on higher order thinking and important tasks, codifying your routines into a simple list you can reference and check off let's you focus on more important things than remembering steps. Whether you're building an aeroplane, mailing proposals, or just trying to get to work on time with a good breakfast and properly packed briefcase, a procedure list can help you do it better and more efficiently.
Have experience with procedure lists? Have a question about crafting procedure lists of your own? Sound off in the comments.
Jason Fitzpatrick used to eschew lists in favour of juggling things in his memory. He has since committed to using lists for nearly everything, freeing up precious cycles and space in his brain for the important things like trivia storage and an amphitheater for rehearsing his epic space rock opera.