Putting the Checklist Manifesto to Work for Better Financial and Personal Habits

checklist manifestoSeveral years ago, I read a wonderful book called The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande. I thought highly enough of the book after reading it that I wrote an article about it for The Simple Dollar, but what I didn’t realize at the time was that this book would subtly stick in my head like few others that I’ve ever read in my life. Several years later, I still see this book resonating for me in the personal, financial, and professional choices I make.

So, let’s start at the beginning?

What Is The Checklist Manifesto?

The Checklist Manifesto is a book by renowned surgeon and writer Atul Gawande about why he uses checklists for many of the procedures he follows in his work and in his life. When he has a task before him, he often breaks out a checklist that he follows step by step to ensure that the task is done well.

Many of the examples that Gawande uses in the book come from his career in surgery, where he uses checklists to make sure that surgical prep is done correctly and that medical procedures are done well, but he also uses them in many other aspects of his life as well.

If you’re having some difficulty with the idea, think of using a recipe to cook a meal. When you’re using a well-written recipe, you don’t have to think about what’s next. Instead, you just follow what’s written and focus on executing those steps as well as possible.

Gawande is a pretty renowned author at this point, having written many articles for a wide variety of publications (his articles about the surgical trade for The New Yorker are very well known and respected). He’s published several books besides The Checklist Manifesto, too – I’ve personally enjoyed Complications and have both Being Mortal and Better on my (lengthy) to-be-read list.

What’s So Great About a Checklist?

The advantage of a checklist is that it separates the thinking process that goes into defining how to do something in the best way from the actual actions of executing that something. This enables the person that’s actually doing the task to focus on the task itself, rather than thinking about and trying to remember each step in the task.

A checklist is thus broken down into two parts.

The first part is the actual creation of the checklist itself. It’s time spent thinking through the exact details of a procedure to make sure that it’s being done as efficiently and correctly as possible in order to get the best results possible.

The second part is the execution of the items on the checklist. This is when you’re actually doing the procedure as defined by the checklist that you thought about earlier.

Sometimes, you’ll bounce back and forth between the two, especially at first as you hone that checklist and ensure that it’s as good as can be.

Thus, when you reach a point where you have a trusted checklist in front of you, you don’t have to think about the steps in the procedure any more. You don’t have to waste brainpower or focus thinking about what the next step is or whether you’re missing anything or whether you’re doing it right. You just trust that checklist. You focus on doing each item on the checklist to the best of your ability, then you move on to the next one. You don’t have to waste brain space on thinking about the next task, remembering it, wondering if you’re forgetting anything – all of that is gone. You just follow the checklist.

Using Checklists in Real Life

The ideas in The Checklist Manifesto percolated in my head for a few years. I thought about the book fairly regularly and re-read it a time or two.

Eventually, I started applying it.

Over the course of several months, I sat down with my journal and developed checklists for several things that I do regularly in my life. I made a “weekday wake-up” checklist. I made a “grocery trip” checklist. I made a “after school routine” checklist. I made a big handful of checklists for my professional work.

At first, I thought this was kind of a lark, just to play around with the idea. I didn’t think I’d actually use them that much.

What I discovered was that this whole process was more valuable than I thought.

First of all, by thinking about ordinary things that I did in my life as a “checklist,” I really began to look at the steps involved with a certain seriousness. As I developed those checklists, I would start by thinking about the ordinary way I did things, but as I actually wrote down those steps, I would ask myself if those steps really made sense. Did it make the most sense to do things this way? Or did it make more sense to do things in a different order or with different steps involved?

Second, when I actually made a “good” checklist – one that I was happy with – I wanted to actually use it. I recognized that the revised process that I’d developed for the checklist was usually at least a little different than how I normally did things, and I also recognized that I felt that there were real improvements, so I actually wanted to do the task according to my new checklist.

Third, I often discovered flaws in my checklists, which sent them back to the drawing board. As I tried using them, I’d find that I missed some important step or I did some things in the wrong order, and that would push me back to an editing process. I quickly learned that the “good” checklist I’d developed on the first attempt was usually quite good in some respects and a failure in others, so it needed to be revised.

Fourth, those revisions often unveiled even more improvements that I hadn’t previously considered. I found that when I revised the list and tried it again and revised it again, I was gradually moving toward a much better way of doing something in my life. Whether it was something as simple as defining how I buy groceries to something as complex as my professional workflow, the revision cycle almost always made the process better.

Fifth, by the time I actually had a lean, mean final checklist, I wanted to use it. I discovered along the way that by doing a procedure by following a checklist, I could focus on just doing all of the steps well, so that’s what I started doing. As a result, I use checklists for a lot of things these days, checklists that I’ve honed over the years for common things.

A Checklist Example – Buying Groceries

To see how all of this really works, I’ll start with a very practical example that we all use in our financial lives: buying groceries. I have a pretty slick checklist that I use whenever I’m planning a run to the grocery store, so I’ll walk you through that checklist.

Here’s the whole checklist, for starters.
– Download grocery flyers for Fareway and Hy-Vee
– Make a list of all on-sale produce and staples
– Look in pantry and refrigerator for items that need to be used and add to list
– Write out calendar for upcoming week and list events
– Mark days for slow cooker and fast recipes and days where we have to rely on a meal from the freezer (and note taking that item out of the freezer two days before)
– Search for recipes using ingredients and time constraints
– Add recipes to calendar in appropriate places
– Fill in breakfast and lunch and snack options for each day, one at a time
– Make grocery list of missing ingredients from recipes
– Eat something
– Pick up reusable bags and freezer bags
– Go to store with list and shop

At the end of this checklist, I’ve produced a weeklong meal plan and calendar on our whiteboard and have the ingredients on hand to make all of it.

This checklist took some revision. I learned through revision that eating something late in the process, but before I actually went to the store, was invaluable at keeping impulse buys at bay. I learned through revision that including details, like remembering the reusable bags, is important because it’s something that I should do but often forget, as reusable bags never rip or fail when grocery shopping and they tend to keep groceries in better shape on the way home. I learned through revision that our family dinner is really the centerpiece meal of our day (since we can usually all sit around the table together for that meal) and that the other meals can be filled in with simple items or leftovers, so I plan accordingly for that by starting with the main meal and then filling in the others afterwards.

I actually use this checklist every time I decide that a grocery shopping trip is in order. I have it on my to-do list as a recurring event each Friday and I usually allot about 90 minutes for the whole process. When it comes up, I simply grab the checklist and start working through it.

Practical Use of the Checklists

So, how do I actually do this? How do I put checklists to practical use in my day-to-day life?

First of all, when I’m developing a checklist, I usually do it in Evernote. My absolute first draft is usually in my personal handwritten journal, but then I move it to Evernote when I’m actually making the checklist and revising it and seeing if it works.

Having it in a digital format that’s easy to access anywhere is really valuable for me, because I can just try it anywhere that makes sense just using my phone and I can edit and update it on my phone or at any computer. That’s convenient.

Second, when I’ve revised the checklist to the point that I really trust it, I print it off and make a laminated copy of it. I keep the note in Evernote for future reference and for times that I don’t happen to have the laminated version, but I usually rely on laminated versions of checklists that I actually check off with a dry erase marker. I keep these in a pile in my office.

Third, I have many of the checklists stored in my to-do list manager as templates. This enables me to just copy that template wherever I need it so that I can just start that process using my normal to-do list manager (I use Todoist as of this writing, but I change sometimes).

There’s one final big question that people always ask that really needs addressing.

Why Invest the Time to Use a Checklist for Ordinary Things That Are Routine?

For a lot of people, the idea of using such a checklist for ordinary life tasks seems completely different than what they’re used to and perhaps a little alien. Does someone really need a checklist for the grocery store trip?

That’s exactly how I felt until a few years ago when I began to realize how often my grocery store trips were imperfect in some fashion.

I’d forget to eat a snack before I left, so I’d get to the store and be hungry and buy a bunch of impulse stuff.

I’d forget to include snacks on my grocery list and not realize it until I got home, which meant that my kids would probably end up eating something subpar after school or not have granola bars for their backpacks.

I’d forget the reusable bags and find myself using flimsy plastic bags and then one of them would inevitably rip and I’d have apples rolling all over the back of my car, leaving some of them bruised up and then thrown away.

I’d forget to plan for lunch on that holiday from school and thus have to scramble at the last minute to come up with something to feed a horde of hungry children.

I’d forget to complete my grocery list in some way and then find myself ad-libbing in the store, tossing unplanned stuff in the cart that was probably unnecessary.

All of those things cost time and money and frustration, too. All of those things are completely avoided with a trusted checklist. If I can remember just one thing – “if I’m going to the grocery store, use the checklist” – each time that a grocery store trip pops up as a task to take care of, I don’t forget those things.

So, there’s two big reasons why I actually use the checklist idea.

First, as I’m actually making and honing the list, I usually figure out ways to improve a normal routine that saves time and money. I make that routine much better through a series of revisions to the checklist as I’m defining it. Those revisions always save time and money.

Second, when I have a finished list, if I just let myself trust that list instead of my own instincts, I move through it quickly and don’t forget anything important along the way. I find that if I just thoroughly trust that list, I’m not thinking at all about what comes next on that list. I think just about the task at hand, I’m focused wholly on finding recipes, not on remembering to grab reusable bags on my way out the door on on remembering snacks for the band trip on Tuesday. This not only makes the process move more smoothly from beginning to end, it actually makes the process faster than ever.

For a long time, I figured that I would just abandon actually using the checklists once I had a smooth procedure that I had down cold, but I actually found that I still like using it, even though I can list off the items on most of my lists off the top of my head. It’s because I can trust the list and then focus entirely on the task at hand and not have to try to remember or think of the next step at any point. Even with the most frequently repeated tasks, a checklist still saves money and time.

Do I use checklists for everything? No. I use them where they make sense. For a while, I overdid it and had checklists for all kinds of things, but I found that once I thought through the process a few times, I didn’t really need a checklist. Right now, I have a “wake-up checklist” that I do in the first hour each morning, an “after school checklist” that I do after each school day, a “grocery store shopping checklist,” about five more personal ones, and about ten different professional ones. They’re the ones where I’m glad to have a checklist to offload some of my thinking.

Final Thoughts

The Checklist Manifesto is one of the most influential books I’ve ever read in terms of my thinking and life planning. I’ve come to use checklists in my personal and professional life to make things more efficient in terms of both money and time. Checklists have made many of the things I do ordinarily every day much faster and much more likely to result in the success that I desire, which usually means more money in my pocket.

If you take nothing else from this post, take this: it is well worth your time to rethink the way you do ordinary routines in your life. Break them down into little steps and think about whether those steps make sense, whether new steps make sense, or whether a new order makes sense. Assemble a better procedure and then consciously try it out for a while. If you move on to using a checklist, that will probably be helpful too, but simply improving your routines a little bit will pay huge dividends of money and time going forward.

Good luck!

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Trent Hamm
Trent Hamm
Founder of The Simple Dollar

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 after developing innovative financial strategies to get out of debt. Since then, he’s written three books (published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press), contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.

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