The Power of Checklists: How to Organize Your Life and Reclaim Your Sanity

With a bazillion tasks running around in her head, she thought she was going to lose it. She couldn’t possibly remember everything she had to do… plus she was supposed to train the new guy on the office computer system tomorrow and she hadn’t prepared yet. (And she might as well forget about that new exercise class she planned to start… it just wasn’t going to happen.) She just couldn’t keep everything straight.

Sound familiar? This scenario plays out day after day for so many people. You can’t get anything done when you’re distracted and disorganized—and when you can’t find time for the things that you really want to do, you feel frustrated and resentful.

It sounds terribly cliché, but a checklist can help you get your life back.

The benefits of using checklists:

1. Checklists free up headspace.

The human brain is a fantastic computer, but like any computer, it can get overtaxed and the cache needs to be cleared.
Homework: Do a brain dump to get everything out of your head and down on paper. Then you have a concrete list of things that need your attention, and you can work from there. You no longer have to waste energy trying to remember it all.

“Your mind is for having ideas, not holding them.” – David Allen.

2. Checklists decrease your stress levels.

Stress is caused by worrying about the future. When you’re not sure about what you have to do, or how you’re going to do it, that, in itself, is going to be stressful! After you’ve done your brain dump and clearly identify everything you have on your plate, you’re going to be less stressed.

Homework:  Take your brain dump a step further and make a plan for each item on the list. Your stress level will go down tremendously.

3. Checklists help you focus without too much effort.

When you’re not sure what you have to do, it’s easy to get distracted. The mere act of thinking about what to do next brings up a whole conversation in your head: “I need to call ________… oh, but that thing needs to be done… and I can’t forget to do ____________. Maybe I’ll start with ____________, but I think I’ll check email first.”

See what’s happening there? Totally unfocused. Having a list in front of you helps you focus.

4. Checklists give you less to think about.

In addition to helping you focus, the checklist takes away the need to think. It lightens your mental load. When you have a checklist, you don’t have to wonder about what needs to be done next–you just look at the list! Pick one item, do it, and check it off. Then pick another item, do it, and check it off. Simple!

5. Checklists make it easier to prioritize.

Prioritizing your tasks is so much easier when you have a list in front of you. Look at the list and identify what needs to be done first. I like to choose the top three tasks/projects that need to be done, put those in order of priority, and ignore everything else until those are done. It reduces the mind clutter and keeps me on track. If something comes up that isn’t on that list, it’s much easier to say no or put it on the list to do later.

6. Checking off boxes is incredibly satisfying.

I love checking off boxes and crossing out things that I’ve completed! Sometimes I’ll even add something to my list that I’ve done just so I can cross it off. It might seem silly, but the science behind this is real. Every time you check something off your list, you’re triggering the release of a small amount of dopamine in the brain, which is connected to feelings of pleasure, joy, learning, and motivation. That makes you want to get more done and that helps you stay motivated. Getting things done feels good!

7. Using a checklist helps to create a habit.

You may have heard that it takes 21 days to make a habit, but that’s not actually true. The truth is that creating a habit is a process. It starts with a great idea, then once the newness wears off there’s the “crap, this is hard” phase. That’s when it’s tempting to give up, but if you can get through that, the thing you’re trying to do becomes second nature, and you’ve established a habit.

Having a checklist can help create a new habit by serving as a tracker. For example, if you want to exercise every day, make a list that has “exercise” listed seven times. Check off each day you complete your exercise, and you’ve got concrete evidence of what you’ve accomplished. Think of it as giving yourself a gold star–the more boxes you check off, the more gold stars you get, and the more of that lovely dopamine you’ve got running around in your brain.

8. Using a checklist boosts your confidence.

There’s nothing that will kill motivation faster than getting stuck. So if you want to stay motivated, you’ve got to make consistent progress on what you’re working on. Getting things out of your head and into a checklist, prioritizing, staying focused, checking things off, and getting your dopamine fix are all the pieces to consistent forward momentum. Consistent momentum makes you feel like you’re on top of the world, and of course, that makes you feel more confident. And who doesn’t want that?

A few types of checklists you might use:

Work checklists:

  • Procedures documentation
  • Client on-boarding
  • Social media routines
  • Blog post creation
  • Marketing plans/tasks
  • Daily to-do lists
  • Project planning
  • Product creation

Home checklists:

  • Vacation/Trip planning
  • Event planning (birthdays, holidays, etc.)
  • On-boarding Babysitters (what to do, where is everything, bedtime routine, etc.)
  • Home maintenance tasks (lists for annual, quarterly, monthly, weekly tasks)
  • Housecleaning tasks (list of things to clean, organized by room)
  • Monthly bills (what needs to be paid, due date, and amount)

Possible ways to make a checklist

Paper checklists

  • GTD method
  • Bullet journal
  • Simple paper task pads
  • Plain paper (Yes, really! Sometimes a completely unstructured page is exactly what you need. Doodle and decorate your checklists, if that makes it work for you.)

Digital checklists (programs)

A word about checklists and projects:

It’s my philosophy that projects do not belong on checklists. Projects belong on project lists. If you mix your projects in with your simpler tasks and put them all on one list, things get jumbled very quickly. You’ll lose sight of what’s what, and it’s easy to spin into overwhelm in no time flat.

Similar to setting SMART goals, we want to have SMART checklists. SMART stands for:

Simple
Measurable
Actionable
Realistic
Time-bound (or timely, or time-sensitive…)

This means that you don’t want something big and complicated on your checklist—you want tasks.

How to define a task vs. a project:

As a general rule, I define a task as something that will take 15 minutes or less, or has less than 2-3 small tasks attached to it. Anything longer than that usually has multiple tasks and would therefore be a project. An exception to this would be something like “answer emails”. You don’t want a task for each individual email in your inbox, so it’s technically not a project with a bunch of steps, but it can take a long time.

For example: If you’re going on a trip, “pack” is not a task, it’s a project. Sure, it can go on a checklist, but it also needs to have its own separate checklist of tasks (ex: pack shirts, pack pants, find bathing suit, do laundry, buy toiletries, call the hotel to see if they have hair dryers, look up the phone number of the hotel so you can call them, etc.).

How to get started with checklists:

  1. Just start!
  2. Do a brain dump and get everything out of your head.
  3. Pick three things from that list, and list them in order of priority.
  4. If they are projects, then create a separate checklist for each one.
  5. Start doing things and check them off your list.
  6. Rinse and repeat

Once you get started, you’ll probably find that you have a number of different checklists, so it’s good to have a way to keep them together in one place so you don’t lose track. For example, if you’re using paper, you can keep one notebook with different sections, or a notebook for work and one for personal and keep them near each other. You might want a grocery checklist that you have on your refrigerator. The key is to keep these organized in a way that you don’t have to think about where you put them.

It might take a little while to figure out the best system for you. Allow yourself to be flexible–to experiment and see what works!

How do you keep track of everything you have to do?