Trade Your To-Do List For A Checklist

As a professional coach, it’s not uncommon to hear a client express regret in some aspect of their life. In my experience, around the age of 44, an unimpressive career, a stale marriage, strained relationships, failed ventures, poor health and roads not chosen seem to carry extra weight. In the US alone, 70% of people are disengaged at work, 71% are overweight or obese, 18% are dealing with some form of anxiety or depression and divorce rates sit uncomfortably just below 50$. These sobering stats don’t suggest that people have merely taken their eyes off the road, they suggest we’ve been asleep at the wheel completely.

It might be easy to attribute these alarming stats to the lazy, sad, self-absorbed or non-contributing individuals of society, but the math doesn’t add up, the percentages are simply too high. So what gives? How can the human spirit with all its amazing potential, be reduced, statistically speaking, to a shade of mediocrity? Or, perhaps these stats are the result of unavoidable tradeoffs. Is it possible our plagues are the bi-product of ambitious energy being rerouted to grander pursuits? Is the fee for a successful career the sacrifice of health, marriage or mental stability? It’s hard even to articulate that thought in a way that sounds believable.

The Culprit

When I press clients about their current level of performance in these areas, their response is often some version of “I’m too busy”. Since our typical client is an already high achieving individual, executive, or business owner we know they are busy. The problem is the process through which they attempt to organize and prioritize all they have on their plate. Dig into a high achievers “busy” and you’ll inevitably find a to-do list. A list of tasks typically associated with short term objectives and prioritized by a level of urgency and volume of demand.

It’s not uncommon to find tasks associated with the struggle areas above sprinkled throughout the list. Go to the gym, spend time with the kids, read a book, go on a date, etc. Yet, in the frenetic pace of real life, they are the first to be deprioritized. This, ironically, is because the impact of this reprioritization usually only hurts the individual, and or those they love. “They’ll understand”, “I’ll make it up to you” and “It’s just until…” is the repetitive anthem of the to-do lister. To successfully avoid the aforementioned plagues you’ll have to take back control of your time and grip the wheel with sincere intention focused on long-term goals.

Enter the Checklist.

In his book, The Checklist Manifesto, Dr. Atul Gawande doesn’t outrightly suggest you should ditch the to-do list for a checklist. Yet, his research and description of the value a good checklist offers implies it would be a good idea. A checklist, if used, is great for preventing a catastrophe in complex, high stake scenarios where the margin for error is almost zero. Checklists are used to keep planes safely in the air, build giant skyscrapers, inform business investments and, particularly close to Gawande, reduce the number of complications from surgery.

Gawande points out two challenges of human nature a checklist helps circumvent.

    1. The fallibility of human memory and attention. — specifically when it comes to “mundane, routine matters that are easily overlooked under the strain of more pressing events” (e.g. trying to remember what to buy at the store without a list and surrounded by tantalizing offers)
    2. The tendency to skip steps even when we remember them. — This means making small concessions until one day you realize you’re the 44-year old and you’re no closer to meeting your own expectations.

“Checklists seem to provide protection against such failures. They remind us of the minimum necessary steps and make them explicit.”

~ Atul Gawande, The Checklist Manifesto

In this sense, a good checklist is simple, easy to understand and ensures the basics are covered for long term success. With this substructure in place, attention can be fully turned to the unexpected but inevitable short term variables of your life… your to-do list. You can now navigate new markets, appease shareholders, battle office politics, or anything else you’re ambitiously trying to protect, pursue or procure.

Where to Start

If the ultimate goal is to arrive at the end of your life with good health, strong relationships, freedom, and financial security, your daily practices must reflect those goals and a checklist is a tool you will need to get there. Your checklist will vary depending on where you are and where you want to go but the checklist below is a good starting point.

  1. Plan your day– Our clients know that a man or woman without a map is lost. It is your opportunity to draw that map and follow it every day.
  2. Exercise – Walk, run, lift weights, or do yoga. Do what rejuvenates you.
  3. Meditate or Pray – Connect with something bigger than yourself. It will keep you humble, grounded and relaxed.
  4. Connect with a loved one – Meaningfully connect with someone you cherish. Send a text, make a call, shoot an email, plan an activity, talk.
  5. Serve – Find someone to help. Pay a compliment, pay for a meal, help with a task, make an introduction. This helps you look outside yourself.
  6. Read – Learn something new about a topic important to you which will better your life. This investment will have immeasurable returns.

Just like a checklist establishes readiness for surgery or take off in hopes of successful outcomes, so does the prioritization of a daily checklist aimed at preventing complications for long term goals.

An airline whose crash rate approaches double-digit percentiles would never be tolerated. Yet, we have throngs of people stuck in bad jobs, unhealthy bodies, bad relationships, social media and internet induced mental sickness.

In a world that criticizes a “check the box” mentality, I suggest exactly that.

Check the box.

Avoid catastrophe.

Arrive at your destination.


Greer Method Complete Coaching provides one on one coaching for executives and business owners. We give our clients the know-how to confidently and aggressively pursue goals with the help of an integrated team of expert coaches, habit locking technology, and proven processes.

Jared J. Greer is the founder of Greer Method Complete Coaching. He is an executive coach, 7-time Ironman finisher, marathoner, ultra-marathoner, husband, and father of four.

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