When I was a wet-behind-the-years newly-minted lieutenant in the Canadian Signals, I had the privilege of being mentored by an experienced Sergeant. One of the things she showed me was her two backpacks. She had two complete sets of personal equipment. One was for winter deployments, and one for summer weather. If you’ve ever been to Saskatchewan in February (at -40ºC and arctic winds) or July (at +35ºC and mosquitoes) you’ll understand that packing for these two different seasons are two very different tasks.

A laminated card was zip-tied to each pack. It listed what each pack contained. When she returned from an exercise she would re-pack it using the checklist and stow it in her closet ready to go for next time. Her gear was now packed and ready to go if there was an emergency and she was called-out on short notice.

If anything was missing or needed to be packed at the last minute (like energy bars or fresh batteries for her flash-light) she wrote them on the card using a grease-pencil. Developed over several years of experience, they contained everything she needed and nothing more. I wasn’t as connected with the Quartermaster as she was, so I never had two packs, but I did steal the idea of  self-updating checklists from her.

I’m a big fan of checklists. Pilots use them, as do surgeons and home inspectors. We all hope nobody forgets to do something they’re supposed to in these jobs. Especially if we’re the passenger, patient, or home-buyer.

I have many checklists for my different recurring tasks in my life. I have checklists for a weekend in the trailer, going to the rifle range, packing for Scout camp, starting my motorcycle,  or going kayaking. Over the years I’ve kept them in notebooks, in spreadsheets, and now I keep them on  a web-enabled cross-platform application (Evernote). When I forget something I add it to the checklist for next time. When I find I didn’t use or need something I drop it to the bottom in the “optional” section of the list or off the list. These lists are living, evolving tools that change over time.

At work or in the office I have checklists for running a meeting, going on a business trip, writing a monthly report, and making a presentation. That way I can focus on the content of the meeting, report, or presentation instead of what I might have forgotten. Like did I book the meeting room or not? I can make changes and incorporate lessons learned into each afterward, so I don’t forget the same thing twice. For example, on the presentation and report lists my last item is always spell-checking and proof-reading.

Over time I’ve learned what things I absolutely have to do, what I could do (the “optional” part of the list), and just as importantly what I can do without. Who wants to carry stuff around on a back-packing trip that you never use? There are exceptions like the first aid kit. I hope I don’t have to use it, but I take it along anyway. It has its own checklist.

I suspect everybody has some recurring tasks in their life. If you don’t already you may want to consider starting a set of checklists for yourself.