Your own task manager

Make checklists. Bring more order and success into your life.

Updated - January 12, 2015 01:34 am IST

Published - January 11, 2015 05:14 pm IST

One of the simplest strategies to avoid such mistakes is to plan ahead and create a checklist.

One of the simplest strategies to avoid such mistakes is to plan ahead and create a checklist.

Have you gone on a college vacation only to discover that you did not pack your blue sweater? After feeling quite euphoric on doing well in a Board exam, have you been overwhelmed by a sense foreboding that you may not have written your hall ticket number on the answer sheet? Have you ever been turned away by airport security personnel for failing to produce your photo ID at the entrance? On such occasions, you may have kicked yourself and cursed under your breath, “How could I have been so foolish?” Take heart! As human beings, we are all fallible. But we can minimise these frustrations, and, at times, fatal errors, by acknowledging our limitations and taking steps to prevent them from happening. In fact, one of the simplest strategies to avoid such mistakes is to plan ahead and create a checklist.

Checklist aficionado

I must confess that right from my student days, I have been a checklist buff. Be it packing for a trip, throwing a party or going grocery shopping, I always list all the things I need to do or buy. In fact, I am quite compulsive about list-making. Practically every morning, I jot down a “To Do” list and keep checking items off as I accomplish them. Of course, if a few items do not get ticked off, they creep into the next day’s list. Psychologically, making a checklist makes me feel more reassured that I can handle the day’s demands. The act of merely jotting down jobs helps me gain a better handle on them. Since checklists are such an ubiquitous part of my daily life, I decided to examine the research behind their utility and hear from another checklist aficionado.

Atul Gawande’s book, The Checklist Manifesto, is, in fact, an ode to this simple but powerful tool. Like the rest of us, doctors and nurses are also prone to overlook details every now and then, which, in the case of medicine, can prove very costly. Rather than decrying medical professionals for being tardy, we have to understand that they deal with high levels of intense stress round the clock and are thus prone to making some errors. But relying on a checklist can make a world of difference to medical outcomes.

Gawande cites research carried out by critical care specialist, Peter Pronovost of Johns Hopkins Hospital, who convinced doctors and nurses in ICU to devise their own checklists. Pronovost found that the average duration of stay of patients fell by half after checklists were routinely used.

Buoyed by this outcome, Gawande himself headed an eight-nation project to examine the efficacy of checklists for surgery. The project spanned a range of hospitals in high-and low-income countries that included Canada, United Kingdom, India and Tanzania. Gawande and his team gave a much-scrutinised checklist to doctors doing surgery in diverse settings. By comparing the outcomes of patients before and after the checklist was introduced, the researchers were able to measure the impact of the checklists. Gawande himself was astounded by the results — deaths after surgery fell by 47 per cent and the number of patients who developed major complications also reduced significantly.

No memory lapses

If a simple checklist can alter medical outcomes so dramatically, perhaps it can also bring more order and success to your life. Actually, even before the medical profession adopted checklists to avoid casualties, the aviation and construction industries have been relying on this technique for years to ensure safety. If doctors and pilots improve their efficiency by relying on checklists, perhaps, we too can reduce errors that occur due to lapses in our attention and memory.

As checklists are easy to create, you can use them in various facets of your life from making a list of chapters to study for an exam, people you need to call for a friend’s surprise birthday to documents you need to carry for a job interview. Checklists are especially useful if you are feeling overwhelmed or stressed.

Taking a few minutes to jot down what you need to do can help you get a task done without any glitches. But you have to ensure that your checklist enhances efficiency rather than hampers it. So, the checklist has to be easy to decipher and not longer than necessary. Make sure you use keywords that you are able to decode yourself.

Moreover, checklists can serve as a monitor or manager when you have a group assignment. Typically, when work is given to a group, there tends to be diffusion of responsibility, a phenomenon that has been studied by social psychologists. However, if you first create a checklist which also indicates who is responsible for what task, there is a greater likelihood of people not shirking their duties, especially as they are now well-defined.

So without further ado, you may want to check out the efficacy of this old-fashioned task manager for yourself.

The author is Director, PRAYATNA. Email:

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