Non Sequitur Fridays

The Mental Checklist

This post is part of our Non Sequitur Fridays series, which will feature a different Wistia team member's take on a non-Wistia-related topic each week. It's like our "employee of the month" but less "of the month"-y. Max Schnur is an engineer at Wistia. His last Non Sequitur was a three-part epic, "How Baldur's Gate Shaped My Life".

I didn't always think a lot about time and project management. Actually, once upon a time, I never thought about it at all. I just worked as hard as I could as fast as I could, and that was usually good enough. But as my responsibilities grew and my day-to-day tasks became more disparate—that is, less "just" coding—I couldn't keep up with the deluge. In response, I developed some habits that I think helped me get a handle on it. Of course, as with many other things in my life, my inspiration involved a video game.

The process is called The Mental Checklist (or sometimes The Mental Loop). It's really simple: I create a list of things that I want to frequently assess. Then I execute and re-assess based on that list. It sounds simple, but oh man, it really works.

I was introduced to this idea through Starcraft II, a real-time strategy game where you must build an economy, build an army, scout the terrain, and research new technology in order to defeat your opponent. At a high level—although I'll probably get speared for presenting it this way—the game pits two project managers against each other, and their goal is to drive their opponent's project to failure.

Anyway, there are people who specialize in playing and analyzing these games, and I was watching one of the best, Day9, talk about this very subject in a Day9 Daily. (BEWARE: SUPER NERDY.) (Side note: Day9 talks a lot about unrelated topics. You might want to jump about 10 minutes in.) I implemented the mental checklist in my own gameplay and saw my mechanics dramatically improve in a matter of hours.

Basically, we have this problem: we always want to be doing the right thing at the right time. But our situation is constantly changing, either because of outside forces or because our execution reveals an unforeseen obstacle.

Imagine the optimal path of a project as a squiggly line. Now, imagine we can only see a small portion of that line at a time, and we're using a pen and a ruler to trace it as fast as we can. The more often we move and realign the ruler, the closer our line will be to the optimal path. And it goes without saying: the faster we can realign and draw, the faster the line will be completed. (If you need help with this metaphor: realignment = planning and drawing = executing.)

But realignment is the important thing to remember. No matter how fast you can draw a line, if you're drawing it off the page, it doesn't matter: you're totally off track. Consider that the optimal project path might include increasing your execution speed. So meta. In light of that, if you're realigning properly, then you may also increase speed as required.

Pro gamers will unconsciously reevaluate their checklist once a second, and then execute on their decisions during the milliseconds in between. They are really, really fast, and they practice 12 hours a day to get to that point. They are an extreme example of incredible human hand and brain speed, but it shows you the level of efficiency we can push ourselves to.

Obviously, for most of us, a pro gamer's speed and intensity aren't sustainable over a full day of work. To be effective in real life, the mental checklist needs to be altered slightly.

For me, not much had to change. Instead of memorizing the list and reevaluating it once every few seconds, I write it down and evaluate it between one and five times a day. Because the timeframe is longer, my list also includes tasks for self-improvement, and can include unfocused time, too.

My Work Mental Checklist

  1. {Major Project} - do I know the state of it?
  2. {Major Project} - do I have a to-do list?
  3. {Major Project} - do I have any blockers?
  4. {Major Project} - am I going about this the right way?
  5. Devs - do I have outstanding requests for help?
  6. Support - do I have any outstanding tasks?
  7. Emails - do I have any outstanding emails/replies?
  8. {Secondary project I'm helping on} - do I know the state of it?
  9. Is Trello up-to-date?

My Personal Mental Checklist

  1. Do you have inspiration?
  2. Do you have exercise scheduled into your day?
  3. Is Google Calendar up-to-date?
  4. Have you set a bedtime for tonight?
  5. Do you have a book to read?
  6. Do you have outstanding communications? (family? friends? emails?)
  7. Are you learning something new?
  8. Are you speaking slowly and clearly?

My Process

I look at my personal checklist when I get up in the morning. When I get into the office, I look at my work checklist. I spend 1-5 minutes mulling over the questions in my head. Then I create a new entry in Evernote, like "PLAN FOR THE DAY - 9/22/2014". That entry is just a to-do list with checkboxes.

It's important to me that each entry on that list be short and actionable. For example, in no particular order:

  • Talk to {Person} to see where they're at with {Major Project}
  • Email {Other Person} in support thread from yesterday
  • Allocate 2 hours to work on {Major Project}
  • Update Google Calendar
  • Add {Feature X} to Trello
  • Watch class on Linear Algebra at Khan Academy

Then, I pick something easy on my list, do it, and check it off. If new information comes in, I evaluate it in the context of my mental checklist. Depending on that, I'll either add it directly to my to-do list or to Trello. Or maybe nowhere at all. Not everything deserves to be on a checklist.

A Relaxed System

Sometimes, I can check off all my boxes. Usually, I don't. Sometimes I transfer unfinished checkboxes from yesterday to today. I often forget to check things off from the previous day, so occasionally I'll go back and do that. But to be honest, the historical data isn't that important. No one else is looking at it and judging me. It's like having a zen garden: you wipe out yesterday's work and only focus on what you build today.

After a while, maybe a month, I'll notice that I'm automatically doing some things on my list without thinking. At this point, they've become a habit, and I may be able to remove them from the written list. Now I have less mental overhead, and I'm free to add something else if I want. This is real-life leveling up!

About my own list items

Even though they're not directly stated, you might notice that the items on my lists reflect my priorities. Indeed, the mental checklist exists mostly to make up for, or systematically improve, my own deficiencies.

For example, I have a ton of different communications that I need to keep up with—work email, support, family, friends—and I know I won't remember everything without the list. Reading further, you'll see that I strive to learn new things, I'm trying to exercise more, and that I have a bad habit of trying to speak faster than my mouth can move.

If you make your own list, I encourage you to think broadly about what you want to accomplish each day, what you're already pretty good at, and where you can improve.

Why the Mental Checklist?

I believe the Mental Checklist is the most direct path to efficiently managing a project and improving yourself. There are a variety of productivity tricks that people employ: zero inbox, zero desktop, some "fail early", others set a "key task" for the day, maybe you only open email or chat at certain times. All of those tricks can be helpful, but I feel like they are bandaids on the edge of the real issue.

Evaluate, execute, reevaluate, execute. If you're honest with yourself and can identify your weaknesses when you reevaluate, then you will converge on the optimal execution path. Whatever productivity hacks you can find, if they help you on that path, use them. But instead of a series of disjointed hacks, consider them tools in the context of your mental checklist, and implement them with that in mind.

I try to understand what I'm doing and why, then I act on what I discover. Some of us do it unconsciously, but formalizing a framework has helped me immensely. Maybe it will work for you too?

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