Let’s make Lists

6 Jan


I love lists. Both at work and in my day-to-day life, writing ‘to do’ lists means that I get things done. Without lists I’d flap around this world like a moth in a room full of lightbulbs. I would go as far as to say that lists changed my life. There are three main reasons for this (listed below):

1. Nothing is forgotten. Lists help me to get things done simply by reminding me of what needs doing and when.

2. Prioritisation. Urgent tasks are dealt with when they need to be, and non-urgent tasks can always be juggled or moved to a later date.

3. Focus. Perhaps most importantly, lists help me to think clearly, to focus on the job at hand. They take tasks out of my head and to a place that I know I can refer to at any time, meaning that I only ever need to concern myself with the present.

I used to write lists on scraps of paper and post-it notes, but the funny little Astrid character below – looks like a thumb torn off by a piece of agricultural machinery but I think he’s supposed to be an octopus – has changed all that. With this free app, all my personal lists are now stored on my Android phone, complete with dates and reminders.


At work I have Lotus Notes and another set of lists in the Task Manager, which also sit in my Lotus Calendar. And to top it off, because I couldn’t live without lovely stationery, I usually carry a notebook and pencil, not just for list making but also for noting down books I come across, recommended films and new music, plus useful quotes, articles, websites – essentially anything that I would previously have stored in my head and then forgotten about within 24 hours.

None of this, I’m sure, will come as news to any other list advocates out there. Lists rock.

Taking it up a notch is the checklist. I’ve never felt the need for checklists in my personal life. For me, it’s sufficient to have a ‘go shopping’ reminder, there’s no need to then break it down into ‘write a shopping list, check supermarket opening times, pick up wallet, pick up car keys,  prepare topic for till-based small talk, etc’. However, checklists at work are another matter. Marketing, like many other professions, often involves following set procedures. This is not to say that flexibility, agility and creative thinking aren’t important – they very much are – but there are basics in the lifetime of a project that must always be covered, and checklists help to ensure nothing gets missed. They’re not just for new staff either. Experience can lead to over-confidence and things getting overlooked. People working in teams can easily skip tasks by making assumptions about what others are doing. Checklists – if implemented and followed correctly – ensure that everything is covered.

I didn’t realise the true value of checklists until a friend gave me a book in a pub. It was handed over with words something along the lines of “I’m halfway through this and I’m done. It’s boring and repetitive. You’ll probably like it.” I read it and loved it. It was Atul Gawande’s The Checklist Manifesto.


To be fair to my friend, the book could safely have been reduced to half the number of pages and still got its point across. However, Gawande deals primarily with the value of checklists in the medical profession, breaking complex procedures into simple steps, and if convincing surgeons that checklists save lives means hammering the point home somewhat repetitively, then who am I (or my dismissive friend) to object? The book also brings in examples from the aviation and construction industries, and whilst marketing of ELT materials doesn’t get a mention, I’ve no doubt Gawande could rattle out a chapter or two on that if called upon to do so. Gawande found that even when presented with the evidence of improved performance, people are often resistant to implementing checklists in the workplace because they’re considered time-consuming, patronising and/or impractical. So, it’s all about careful implementation and adaptation, trial and error, monitoring and improving. A bottom up rather than top down approach. And it’s worth it. Checklists save lives.

As a marketer, I’m rarely called upon to save lives, but that hasn’t dampened my enthusiasm for lists and checklists, and the value they can bring. If you’re not a list lover already, I recommend you grab a pen and paper, your phone, your tablet or whatever takes your fancy and start writing lists. I hope you’ll be converted and find a new level of productivity. Or at the very least, learn to savour the joy of ticking off completed tasks and feeling that you’ve achieved something each and every day.


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