“I make lists to keep my anxiety level down. IF I write down 15 things to be done, I lose that vague, nagging sense that there are an overwhelming number of things to be done, all of which are on the brink of being forgotten.”
- Mary Roach, author
What lives on a sheet of paper and makes you feel great when you tick it off? Checklists of course!
You may hate them. You may swear by them. As a child, your eyes probably rolled into the upper caverns of your skull when you saw your chores laid out on one. As an adult, you accepted them as a necessary evil for tackling the modern world. BUT…
However you feel about their existence, there’s no denying that singular satisfaction of crossing a to-do off your list.
The divine mastery that comes from attacking the day one item at a time and knowing with absolute assuredness that the infinite is no longer insurmountable — so simple, yet so effective.
Funny to think that the checklist in its current guise is less than a century old!
You’re probably thinking our math is off, that it must date back to just after the invention of the wheel, right? Nope! While a universally recognized and ubiquitous facet of how we operate as a society, the checklist is, in fact, a modern construct born out of the increasing complexity created by industrialization.
And there’s no doubt that as technology continues to evolve and complicate our lives, the way we track our tasks, projects, and — yes — shopping lists is still changing in new and exciting ways.
In honor of the 87th birthday of ye olde checklist, we gathered our experts on the matter — aka Project Managers, aka the pros keeping us on track and on time, aka those wizards behind the curtain that make the real magic happen — to get their thoughts on the matter.
With October 30 around the corner — or as it’s known in some circles… National Checklist Day — we’re going to go down the list of how they’re used by the pros, different methods for tracking those pesky to-dos, and where technology is helping the practice to evolve.
But first, let's take to the skies for a brief history of the checklist.
History of the checklist
The origin of the checklist, in its modern form, can be traced back to the United States Army Air Corps in 1935 — fueled by the deaths of two pilots during the test flight of a four-engine bomber prototype.
The issue was found to be a missed step in the pre-flight process that caused the plane to violently pitch up while in the air.
Seeing the attention to detail needed to safely get a plane in the air, and how easily steps could be missed, these military minds created an aid to ensure crews properly configured the aircraft for flight, and could repeat it each and every time.
Thus, the checklist was born.
Other industries soon began to adopt them as well — surgical teams, factory technicians, skydiving instructors, and so on. You name the field, they’ve probably got a checklist dedicated to one or many multi-step exercises.
And, as the world has become more complex, our need for them has grown and evolved.
Today, the practice can be as simple as a laundry list of items to achieve or involve intricate schools of thought on how to bucket tasks by their relevance, urgency, or type of need. Everyone has their process, the steps they take to visually cue their brain that things have been done and things still need to be.
Our project managers had a few things to say about it.
Everyone's got their own style
☑️“I'm so old skool, I will literally write that stuff down and cross it off.” - Julie, Project Manager.
☑️“Notes in email and check them off and they go away. Color coding is crucial for me.” - Hilary, Project Manager
☑️“Physical checklist even when things are slow. Writing it down makes sure you get things done. Physically break it down into pieces — bold it, circle it, star it — that is the thing I need to get done today.” - Holly, Creative Services Manager
A swift flick of the pen and pow: DONE. The O.G. checklist.
For many, regardless of how complex things may get, or aesthetic and style, it all seems to start with a writing instrument and a space to set it all down. Could be tree-based or binary, require a pen or a keyboard. Whatever the medium, getting it all down in a physical, visible space is critical.
☑️“I start with pen and paper mostly in the essence of time. I don't have time to open a G-doc when someone starts rattling things off. Then I'll bring it over to Monday.” - Julie
Nothing quite beats the simple top-to-bottom list approach. It helps the crazy make sense, lifts you up when it’s diminished in size, and puts an end in sight to every day.
☑️“Having an actual checklist, where you have steps you have to get done in a certain order, so that it’s all covered. Nowadays for project managers, it's helpful when we want to create a scope to create the lists of items and essential info — items we need to get a project started.” - Allison, Project Manager
But, there are times when more organized tactics are required for activities like training, troubleshooting, and job coordination — involving multiple teams or groupings of tasks. Times when you need to prioritize the noise and choose what gets done now vs. what can wait.
There’s a matrix for that…
The Eisenhower Matrix
“I use this system where you group into — call them what you want, I sort them as Essential, Urgent and Important. If it doesn't meet those criteria, delegate to someone else.” - Allison, Project Manager
This bad boy was named after the 34th U.S. President, Dwight D. Eisenhower. A former Army general and World War II Allied Forces Supreme Commander, Eisenhower was no stranger to making hard choices. However, with so many to make, prioritizing those choices necessitated a way to optimize his decision-making and task completion. He created the Urgent-Important Matrix, which we now call the Eisenhower Matrix.
The Matrix follows a simple concept. You prioritize to-dos based on their level of importance by separating them into four quadrants.
Top left quadrant: the "Do First " list. These should be completed by you ASAP. Utmost importance.
Top right quadrant: the "Schedule" list. These tasks are important, but not as urgent as those in the top left. i.e. they can be scheduled for completion (by you) at a later date.
Bottom left quadrant: the "Delegate" list. These babies are urgent, much like the "Do First" items. However, they don't need to be done by you. They can be assigned to others for immediate completion.
Bottom right quadrant: the "Don't Do" list. The tasks in this quadrant are not that important or urgent. In the spirit of time management, they can be forgotten if need be.
As you can see, this approach adds weight. Allison is a huge subscriber to this approach as a project manager, as it makes it easier for her to get projects started and completed through efficiency and delegation.
Using the Eisenhower Matrix, you not only know what you have to do but HOW and WHEN you have to do it!
Speaking of a linear approach, let’s talk about every scrumaster’s tool of choice, the Kanban board.
Can you Kanban?
No, it’s not a moon of the planet of Tatooine. Kanban is, in fact, a highly popular ‘lean’ workflow management method used largely by software developers. This approach provides a visualization of both a process and the progress of individual steps within it, from start to finish — with the aim of maximizing efficiency and improving operations.
Work is represented on Kanban “boards”, allowing multiple teams to coordinate and handle even the most complex projects in a single environment.
And, while this approach further cuts through the noise of the day-to-day, there are still times when even more dynamic tools are required to wrangle in the complexities of orchestrating projects, managing teams and running a business.
Technology is the key to unlocking this next-level task management.
Old school meets the new at Designerds
There’s no denying the effectiveness of the basic checklist. Sometimes, we need more.
Technology can help in the simplest of ways, in the form of notifications, reminders and digital task lists. Holly, our Creative Services Manager, swears by Apple reminders.
At Designerds, we tap into a number of tools to keep us well-oiled and smoothly operating — Figma, Miro, Slack, and Monday.com to name a few.
Tech allows checklists to be far more precise and flexible to the user’s needs. For instance, many of the tools we use offer varying layouts or views to organize the work.
Monday.com has become an integral tool in the day-to-day operations of our organization. It allows us to group projects by boards, which then have smaller focus groups for different team needs or assets within one larger initiative. Furthermore, we can alter the view to then see all items in a Kanban setting, as a Gantt chart along a project timeline, or again as a simple chronological list.
Where physical checklists cannot remind you of an upcoming due date, or allow for collaboration with teammates, technology has opened new ways of working. In fact, the No. 1 reason we were able to move toward operating 100% remote is due to these technologies that keep us connected, organized and efficient.
Tools like Monday have become so foundational to our operations that we have expanded our use to include other aspects of running the business beyond projects and into workload management, time tracking and more!
Moral of the story is no matter how you check your list, and whether you love ‘em or could live without ‘em, we’d be lost — literally — without them.
This #NationalChecklistDay, give your to-dos a little love, maybe a new monogrammed pad to show them off or a special background on your mobile notes app. They deserve it, it’s hard work keeping us all in order!!