How to Get Organized (and Maybe Even Score Some Free Beer)

“Oh, yeah,” the pilot’s voice crackled across the headsets, “we just scored ourselves a free case of beer.”

Our knees nearly touched as I reached over him to point out the problem with the passing floatplane.

“Seven-Nine Lima,” he called across the radio, “check your rudders.”

The folks riding along with us had no idea why we were so concerned with our friends in the other plane.

And, not spending the last three months living on a remote island, they had little idea of how excited we were for that case of free beer.

But they got a grasp of the situation when the passing pilot returned our call.

“Eight-Seven Charlie,” the responding voice said slowly over the radio, “roger that and thanks. You probably just saved a few souls. What kind of beer do you drink?”

“Your beer!” we joked to lighten the mood.

Floatplane pilots have a sort of code. On the surface, it may look like it’s about a silly ritual and some lousy beer. But, really, it’s about keeping airplanes from flipping over, taking lives with them.

You see, while pilots of a typical plane take off and immediately raise the landing gear, floatplane pilots raise their rudders.

It’s as simple as pulling a stainless steel cable next to their left leg.

But every once in a while… they forget.

They realize their mistake as soon as they hit the water though. That’s when the rudder catches the water at a high speed and sends the plane careening violently, usually ending with the plane on its roof.

Not good.

When fellow pilots spot the problem from the air, they’re eager to hop on the radio and let the offending pilot know his mistake.

It saves lives… and keeps the fridge stocked.

Do More… Better

Figuring most readers aren’t taking their floatplanes for a spin this afternoon (although I know some who are), I’ve got another reason for sharing this story.

It has to do with your personal productivity.

You see, it was in Alaska – after several trips like the one above – that I learned the value of personal checklists.

I befriended lots of pilots while living in the state’s wilds. And I quickly learned that there are pilots who use checklists… and then there are dead pilots.

I figured if checklists were so vital to the men in the sky (some say they’re what helped us win WWII), they had to be useful for us land dwellers. I started using one immediately.

It changed my life.

I use one for just about everything these days.

Whether you run a growing business or relax by the beach all day, a personal checklist will make you better at nearly everything you do.

Perhaps the premier purveyor of the idea comes from the oh-so-smart folks at Johns Hopkins Medicine. But what they found after nearly a decade of research isn’t quite what we’d expect.

Oh sure, checklists help you get organized by ensuring the right things get done at the right times. But researchers found they had another peculiar use.

They fostered discipline.

Checked In

In Johns Hopkins’ case, doctors started using checklists in hospitals throughout Michigan. They wanted to reduce the risk of bloodstream infections for patients getting an IV – virtually every inpatient.

Almost immediately they saw a 10% drop in deaths.

And over the last few years, the death rate has dropped to virtually zero.

Now Johns Hopkins is trying to get all doctors to use them. And that’s where things gets wonky.

It turns out – the research shows – if doctors and nurses are forced to use checklists, the tools do little good. If they merely used a generic checklist created by some unknown person, patient outcomes didn’t change.

“It’s like saying five Hail Marys,” said Dr. John Birkmeyer, a surgery professor at the University of Michigan. “The words are coming out, but nobody is paying attention anymore.”

Instead of simply forcing folks to use checklists, researchers found that they must instead focus on the culture. In the case of hospitals, they aimed at creating a culture of safety – saving lives.

In business, though, checklists save money… they create better customer service… and they help build better products.

In our personal lives, checklists make sure we’re paying attention to what we need to… They help us get more done… And they even enhance our relationships (keep reading for that one).

But again, it’s not merely about creating a simple list and checking off some boxes. Checklists are about creating a culture of discipline.

Dr. Atul Gawande literally wrote the book on checklists. He’s studied their power and their nuances in depth.

“They remind us of the minimum necessary steps and make them explicit,” he writes in his book. “They not only offer the possibility of verification but also instill a kind of discipline of higher performance.”

Like I said… there are pilots disciplined enough to use checklists… and then there are dead pilots.

Personal checklists are not tough to create. In fact, they should be simple, basic and short – no more than seven or eight entries. They must be able to withstand the toughest, most stressful of situations.

Get Organized

I recommend creating half a dozen or so checklists for all the major categories in your life. Here are some examples of what I mean:

  • Financial: Create a list of tasks that are absolute requisites for good financial health. Include things like rebalancing, saving receipts, reviewing your budget, tracking your donations and measuring your savings rate. Visit the list once each quarter.
  • Household: This is one of my favorites. I’ve got seasonal lists and just tackled my “fall” list over the weekend. It’s super simple, but it serves as the perfect reminder that I need to clean my gutters, winterize any outdoor pipes, fuel up the snowblower, etc.
  • Connections: Our social network plays a huge role in our overall health and success. And yet few folks are disciplined enough to treat the idea with the respect it deserves. But a simple checklist that includes following up after meeting a new person (sending them an email, thanking them, etc.), sending birthday or anniversary cards, and updating your contact list will go a very long way in managing healthy relationships.

Again, it doesn’t need to be complicated. In fact, it shouldn’t be.

You can store your lists on your computer as I do or simply keep them in a notebook.

Done right, checklists enhance productivity… build stronger relationships… and put more money in your wallet.

And, who knows, they may ensure you never have to buy a case of beer for a couple of guys living on an island.

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