Painful, Surreal, and Surprisingly Effective: The Personal Checklist

personal checklistTired of productivity articles instructing you to break down large projects into smaller, more annoying, and less interesting tasks?

Or about how if even the teeniest little thing remains in your inbox at 5:00 on Friday afternoon, then not only will your entire weekend be shot, but also you are a terrible human being?

Well I figured with the New Year ringing in Resolutions about how It’s Really Going To Be Different This Time, No Really I Mean It Why Are You Looking At Me Like That, it would be a good time to share with you a favorite technique of mine which doesn’t require that you sacrifice a goat at an altar of David Allen.

This technique is weird, and not in a good way. More like a painful, aggravating way, but entirely worth it.

It really does work. You’ll measurably improve your productivity.

It’s called the “Personal Checklist,” which sounds boring and benign but is actually the emotional equivalent of punching yourself in the face.

Here’s how you do it.

The week of pain

Starting on Monday morning, you’re going to write down every mistake you make.

Every single one.

  • Make a spelling mistake in an email? Write it down.
  • Close an application when you meant to just close one window? Write it down.
  • Open the wrong document? Write it down.
  • Save a file but can’t remember where it was so you just save it again? Write it down.
  • Dial a wrong number? Write it down.

It doesn’t matter how you record the mistakes; use any technique that’s convenient for you. A pad of paper (yeah, you’ll need more than one sheet), a spreadsheet, some complicated Web 2.0 cloud-based always-available task-managing collaborative Wave-based ecosystem with little Gravatar heads peering at you, whatever.

You’re going to discover a couple of things:

  1. This sucks.
  2. You make mistakes all the damn time. Littles ones, sure, but still.
  3. Introspection destroys the ego, which doesn’t make you a good lunch companion.
  4. You realize you’re wasting a ton of time constantly writing the list, but then you realize you’re always writing because you’re constantly making mistakes.
  5. No really, this sucks.

It’s one of those 80/20 things

Confession: I didn’t make it through a whole week. I got to Tuesday afternoon before I cracked.

It’s OK though, because there’s nothing special about “one week” anyway. That’s not the point.

The point is that you make mistakes all the time, and you make the same kind of mistakes over and over again. And it costs you.

Maybe you’re a bad speller. Maybe your mouse finger is faster than your brain. Maybe you’re always misplacing documents and emails.

Folks love quoting rules like “20% of the activity is responsible for 80% of the problem.” I don’t know about those particular numbers, but yeah, it’s something like that.

Fixing the 80% — the Personal Checklist

This is actually good news though: You don’t have to fix 47 things about youself; you just need to fix 5, or 3 or even just 1, and you’ll be more productive.

Not only that, the “Week of Pain” just identified those things for you! You have empirical evidence of what slows you down.

So now all you have to do is write down just one, two, or three things you’re going to work on, and paste them somewhere you’ll see all the time, like the wall or a post-it note on your monitor or your desktop background or your mother’s Facebook profile.

Well don’t complain to me that you signed your mom up for Facebook. This is about productivity, not poor life choices. Sheesh.  (Don’t worry, I love my mom.)

Anyway, the great thing about a short checklist is that you can actually keep it in your head all the time. When you go to write an email, you can check spelling. If you misspell a word the same way all the time, you can either take the time (once) to learn it properly, or you can program your email editor to automatically change your spelling into the correct one. Hooray technology.

If you keep misplacing documents, you could read up on some filing systems and pick one. Or you could use a tool like Google Desktop which lets you instantly find any document by name or content, so it doesn’t matter that you suck at filing.

It doesn’t matter how you fix the problem, so long as it’s not slowing you down any more.

The checklist evolves

Of course at some point you’ll have completely licked one of the items on the checklist. You’ll have changed your work habits, attitude, or technology so that particular mistake rarely happens.

Good for you! But now it’s time to retire that slot on your checklist.

Go back to your list of mistakes, find the next problem you’re going to solve, and slap it into the checklist. Or maybe you have to do the Week of Pain again — at least for a day.

What, you thought you were done? Ha. You’re never done. This is like SimCity — you can never win, you just keep getting new problems thrown in your face.

I told you this was painful.

What productivity tips do you have? Have you tried this method? Leave a comment and join the conversation!

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  • If the concept for “Week of Pain” is new, it’s admirable – I can’t imagine myself writing down every single mistake I make. I would probably get so frustrated making the same mistakes over and over again!

    And the 80-20 rule still works here: fixing 20% of my habits would solve 80% of my chronic productivity problems. I will get down to it and let you know if this “Week of Pain” truly works for me.

    • Awesome I can’t wait to hear how it works for you!

      Like most ideas, it’s inspired by other similar ideas from related fields, and probably if you scour the Internet hard enough someone’s said something similar, but it was new to me as I did it and wrote it. :-)

      • mattmc

        It does remind me a bit of the Personal Software Process from Watts Humphrey of CMM fame.

  • Could use for logging those mistakes. Should work very well. — Stephan

  • Now you tell me about the goats? I’ve wasted so many already and I thought the results would come. This article was excellent. Light-hearted and fun!

    It’s kind of funny because this is exactly what I do. I have become ruthless in eliminating tasks that I do not need. I focus on 2-3 main things all the time and take massive action. It has helped me grow my blog nicely in the 3½ weeks it has been online.

    I’m starting to like you, Jason, so keep it up :D

    • Who’s to say it’s not the goats?

      Prolly should continue the slaughter just to be on the safe side.

  • Definitely, one of the weirdest techniques I´ve seen. :P But I bet it works. ;)

    The 80/20 rule reminded me of an interview with Tim Ferriss that I´d recently listened to:

    He said that if you´re stuck at something or feeling overwhelmed, a good way to just free up time and energy is by identifying the 20% of activities that cause 80% of your stress/time-consumption, and then trying to get rid of them ASAP. I think it relates to the results people can expect to accomplish with your Personal Checklist.
    .-= Eric Santos’s latest blog post: ericnsantos: Parabéns @christiantriad pela matéria sobre gestão do tempo no Fantástico: =-.

  • Mark

    In my opinion, for most of us it is not necessary to write down our mistakes, we are painfully aware of them, at least I am :-).
    A Zen philosophy says that ‘everything you put attention to, grows’. So in this case you put attention to the fact that you’re a failure.

    It is much harder to recognize what you did well; so what I do is write down the things I did well today.

    It works because it focuses my mind on what I am good at. It makes me feel good, and when I feel good, I am more open, productive, communicative etc.

    Maybe you can try that for a week too, and inform us on how that experiment worked for you!?

    • I completely agree that the main point here is that once you make yourself aware of what’s happening, you naturally tend to fix it.

    • Isn’t that the same mind-over-matter claim of Oprah’s The Secret? And most magical thinking?

      • What? You don’t believe in magic? Then how do you explain the fairies that swirl around me and tell me what to do?

  • My biggest productivity tip is to ignore fads: when someone does a solid study demonstrating that technique XYZ actually makes a difference to how much the average person (or people in category PQR) gets done, then I’ll give it a try…
    .-= Greg Wilson’s latest blog post: Another Neologism from Jon Udell =-.

  • The personal checklist is a great tip if you follow up with the one thing that most people don’t do: FIX YOUR MISTAKES !

    A Checklist of Pain is a great way to discover many of the mistakes you do repeatedly.

    My best tip is a combo: Use AutoHotkey and iKnow !

    (shameless plug) iKnow is for writing things down (/shameless plug) and AutoHotkey is for automatically correcting many of the mistakes you *always* make when typing :-).

    Hell, I’ll add another one:
    – don’t settle for a *personal* checklist – make MANY checklists
    ( )

    Maybe instead of writing for several days (which no-one would bother), how about writing a list every Monday (or once a month) to actually track any progress ? Or maybe this would be too painful when you realize how little progress you’re making ;-) ?
    .-= Atle Iversen’s latest blog post: Yellow notes =-.

  • I use simple To Do lists as well as quarterly goals. That helps me stay focused. The To Do is as low tech as a notebook with what I have to do.

    The most dramatic method on the self-help side is to write down your failings, screwups, etc. and then burn them in the BBQ. That way, you acknowledge you messed up, dealt with it and moved on.

    I am a firm believer in not beating yourself up when you screw up. Everyone screws up, misspells a word or says something bone head. Acknowledging it and moving on is the best thing.
    .-= Jarie Bolander’s latest blog post: Rands In Repose: Wanted =-.

  • Carlo

    Does the personal checklist tie in somehow with all the talk about “focusing on your strengths rather than your weaknesses”, or is the latter simply a ton of smooth-talking BS?

  • Major Letdown

    This article fell far short of the promise of the checklist image you used. When I saw that I was hoping you would literally be telling people to forget everything else and just focus on: 1) not being an asshole and 2) watching Youtube religiously for 2 hours a day. But instead you yammer on about some blandly *helpful* crap. You could’ve been the next David Allen, speaking to big sold-out venues adorned with pictures of assholes with a red slash through them and a Lonelygirl15 on an endless loop. Oh well. Your loss.

  • Great stuff…. This concept is to make you realize your mistakes cost you money, time, client, etc. (I agree with you on this)

    I see this exercise as making you better, and I am all about getting better…

    Thanks for the inspiration!

  • I bet this technique works, however my biggest problem is procrastination… I will try this technique but I doubt I’ll do it anytime soon, too much stuff to do for now ;-)
    .-= Ricardo Sanchez’s latest blog post: Creating application for our users, not us. =-.

  • Few things:

    – The self-conscious, self-critical parts of the musician’s brain drop in blood flow during improvisation.
    – Most physics discoveries were accidents.
    – The discovery of penicillin, and many other great discoveries, was from a mistake

    Here’s some research:

    Happy new decade

  • When started reading the post, I knew I would not be able to last 1 week. Glad to hear that’s normal :-)

    I’m going to give it a try tomorrow. I am curious, maybe something interesting will come up out of this. I’ll let you know :-)
    .-= Giammarco Schisani’s latest blog post: Happy New Year =-.

  • I like a little thing called: Things To Get Done Today list myself. This is just so you can actually focus on what exactly has got to get done and not just what you should be doing on a daily basis.

    I’ve heard about this 80/20 rule and I think I will try it. Of course, anything different in life is a new and fun experience in my opinion and something that helps you improve your productivity or skills, most definitely.
    .-= Eric’s latest blog post: Happy New Year 2010 =-.

  • I am a professional comic book artist turned Entrepreneur/ Marketeer and something I saw over and over again is that we excuse, ignore or just can’t see our mistakes. Not until they are either pointed out by someone we respect. I’m going to try this “week of pain” but maybe I’ll wait until next week…Ahhhh!


  • I find I can’t really get down to serious work until I declutter. The problem is, of course, that my perpetual mistake is that I’m untidy. Ergo, like Sisyphus and his boulder, I’m constantly pushing my boulder up the ‘tidy is best’ hill, and you know how the rest goes…..
    .-= John Clark’s latest blog post: New Year Challenge =-.

  • Mmmm I use checklists for everything. But here’s where I draw the line my friend. Also I’m quite critic of myself, so the week-of-pain trip could leave me seriously depressed.
    .-= Shuje’s latest blog post: Talking is not the goal of a meeting =-.

  • This is probably the worst advice I saw coming from you, Jason. Week of Pain… how did you come up with THAT?! Really, I know that you are trying to focus people on fixing the things they do wrong, but instead of writing down every single mistake you make and then trying to fix them, why not focus on what you actually have to do – i.e.reaching your goals?

    From a self improvement standpoint, the checklist of mistakes could potentially work, with one problem: how do you know what mistakes to fix? Which mistakes will yield greatest results when fixed? Is misspelling when writing emails the same as missing an important meeting? Besides, do you really know all the mistakes you are making?

    From a productivity standpoint, I believe in setting goals, identifying what needs to be done to get to those goals, then executing. Mistakes will happen but if you focus only on mistakes, you’ll never get there. So do create a checklist and add the key things you need to accomplish that week. Avoid interruption and focus. Made a mistake? No problem, make sure you correct course in time and forget about it.
    .-= Daniel Kuperman’s latest blog post: Marketers Listen Up: How to sharpen your social media skills =-.

    • Well, they can’t all be zingers!

      Seriously, I do appreciate your critique. Makes the complements elsewhere more meaningful. :-)

      Although you’re right that big-picture stuff is perhaps more important on some level, optimizing your everyday environment is useful too. It’s not either-or.

      Studies show that software developers who use a technique like this can reduce their incidence of bugs by 30%. That’s significant!

      Now your argument is that it’s more important that the developers be working on the right thing, and I wouldn’t argue with you. Still, that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t try to reduce bugs.

      Optimization is useful both at the macro and micro level.

    • Joe

      I disagree Daniel. For some it might be hard to notice your own mistakes. Even classify them according to severity. So have someone else do it for you! Any married person will tell you that their significant other carries a mental note of all the things you’ve done wrong recently. My wife sure does, and she certainly lets me know about it when the list gets long enough.

      And yet its another example of how these mistakes may seem somewhat harmless and insignificant compared to the big picture, but in reality they do add up. It may not even have an effect on you, but someone else. My wife may overlook my mistakes every day until I goof up something important. Then out comes the checklist. I have overlooked them, but now I reflect on what I have done and make a vow to improve my performance because it is affecting someone else.

      You should always keep your destination in mind, but also be aware of the roadsigns along the way!

      • Joe, I see your point. I think part of getting better and solving your mistakes is also to get good feedback from others (supervisor and peers), which is in most companies not well done. When was the last time you got really good feedback?

        So maybe this is out of the scope or intent of this blog and comments, but something that could make you better and would have great effect on the company you work for is the whole approach to giving feedback. Food for thought.

  • Good stuff there.

    My twist on ‘mistakes’ is to verbalize them, telling myself off in the 3rd-person typically starting with “Tch tch, Oh Robbie!”
    It doesn’t take long for colleagues to stop staring, honest!

  • This is yet another fantastic article, Jason! I often go through this exact process in my head, since when I make mistakes over and over I tend to catch on pretty quickly. Perhaps when I’m having a really tough time I’ll resort to the pencil and paper approach and see how long I can make it :P
    .-= Ben Radler’s latest blog post: How To Install and Set Up a WordPress Blog Website using MAMP/XAMPP =-.

  • What an awesome way to improve yourself. Recently, I have convinced myself that self-awareness is the key to personal improvement, in every area. I keep written notes of my goals and progress for my work, health, personal life — which I update rigorously every week. However, it never occurred to me to write down my MISTAKES. That is an entirely new dimension of self-awareness that I had totally overlooked. Thank you for enlightening me!

    Utsab’s new people search engine: . I like when you leave me feedback.

  • Amazing advice! Personally, I have more fundamental tip on productivity: books & articles on human behavior, psychology:

  • What a great way to find your 80%!  I like this much better than the idea of “constructive criticism”.  I am critical enough!  Makes me think of a great article I read last month on how there is no such thing as constructive criticism and how we really only take it as judgment because most people don’t deliver it well:  Happy New Year all and good luck with those resolutions!

  • Elgin Parel Maglunsod

    those minor mishaps really screw our whole life and every day … we are all tired, wasted and more. but this few tips makes appealing more than what i “facebook it drama” or what i have on my blogspot.

  • Its the New Year 2012, its something new to work on.