16: The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande

16: The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande


Mike loves his coffee and he’s trying to drag Joe along. But that still doesn’t stop them from talking checklists and the power they hold.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://joebuhlig.com/16-the-checklist-manifesto-by-atul-gawande/


This post is gonna be long… sorry while I get rid of diarrhea of the mouth … The is an example of how I use a checklist to make sure my OmniFocus workflow is clicking.

In my pre-GTD days I resisted the idea of using a checklist to run my morning ritual. I had a Franklin-Covey Day Planner but never really utilised it to its fullest potential.

When I first started OmniFocus and GTD, I never really became productive. I had the most awesome projects and the coolest contexts. But for some reason, it never clicked. I would forget steps such as capturing, processing, and reviewing. I would try to tweak my projects and contexts to no avail. I was trying to tackle my workflow from the wrong direction.

It wasn’t until later that I finally figured it out. I skipped steps and I skipped often. Some days, I wouldn’t clear the inbox. Other days, I just want straight to doing but no project reviews.

When OmniFocus 2 came out, I was finally able to create a checklist directly inside the app. I set up my OmniFocus toolbar as my Planning checklist and my sidebar as my Action checklist.

Here is my current Planning workflow/checklist. All of the perspective buttons are arranged from left to right in the proper order that I want done.

When I wake up in the morning, I will click through each perspective from left to right:

  1. I’ll go to my inbox to see if there was any inbox items that need to be processed into different projects or Single Action Lists
  2. I go on to the Review perspective and process any projects that need to be reviewed.
  3. I visit the Forecast perspective to see my day. I can see deferred items and due items here.
  4. I check the Due perspective to remind myself of any overdue, due today, or due soon tasks that will show up here.
  5. I scan the Flagged perspective to see if I can unflag any task that may have been flagged accidentally. These are my Priority B tasks which have no real due date but I would like to work on them in the next 1-4 days. I have thought about putting a custom perspective that shows both due and flagged. That might save me from referring to two perspectives. But I have found that separating the Due tasks from the Flagged tasks lets me see my task list more clearly. I do want to differentiate between Priority A (Due) and Priority B (Flagged).
  6. I hit the “1 thing” perspective to see anything else that can be done. This is basically a context perspective that shows the First Available next action from all of my active projects. There are tasks in my active projects that aren’t flagged. I can review tasks that aren’t flagged and might need to be flagged so that I can be reminded to do it in the next 1-4 days.
  7. I look at the default Projects perspective if needed. I usually do this once a week to make sure my projects are up-to-date. Otherwise, I will see my projects in the Review perspective.
  8. I can also optionally look at the default Contexts perspective if I need to fiddle here.

When I click on each perspective icon at the top toolbar, I know that I will be hitting all of the perspectives in the order I want to go through. I go through the icons at the top toolbar during the morning ritual. I won’t touch them until tomorrow morning.

I intentionally placed my planning perspectives at the top toolbar. I reserve the left sidebar for my Action perspectives. These are the perspectives that I use throughout the day when I am working.

I start at the top with my Today perspective. This shows a list of tasks that are due or flagged. Eventually, I work my way down when I need to. I go to the Big Rocks perspective when I need o focus on the 3 Big Rocks projects that I have chosen for the week. I go to my @on-the-go perspective when I need to run errands. I go to my Admin perspective when I need to do administrative work (usually routine tasks). I might go to the @people perspective when I need to talk to people. Then I have my @office, @app, and @house perspective when I need to work at the office, doing computer work, or at my house respectively. If I find larger time blocks, I might check the @60 min or @1+ hour perspective for longer tasks. I can skip around the different action perspectives based on my current context. Am I at home or the office? Am I outside running errands? Or am I sitting right in front of my computer?

Keeping the planning perspectives at the top toolbar ensures I get through my morning ritual checklist. Then keeping the action perspectives in the sidebar ensures that I can see any of these perspectives/lists when I am in action mode.

No matter what task management app is used, I try to make sure I have my workflow set up. The OmniFocus toolbar and sidebar allows me to keep separate checklists for the planning perspectives and the action perspectives.


I think these structures are fascinating. The detail that each of us needs and the specifics are so different and yet so similar. It almost always comes back to the GTD process whether you think you’re following it or not. I’ve read too many articles of folks “leaving GTD” for something else but can’t help but see that they’re still doing it just with different names and terms. I think it ultimately comes down to this:

Thanks for sharing the details here @wilsonng. It’s a great reminder to be intentional and stick to the plan.


This made me realize something: this is what I do. I skip steps. I buck process. I want the quick results.

One major item I’ve been wrestling with after listening to this episode is how. How do I create processes for my life? I want to, but every time I try, I end up feeling overwhelmed at the overhead of managing “the system.” But that’s usually because the system gets out of date. Why? Because I skip steps, and because I don’t make or take the time to thoroughly do things. This is a helpful reminder.


It gets easier over time. It becomes an automatic workflow.

Leo Babauta’s Zen To Done (ZTD) methodology recommends breaking everything down into small habits. Adopt one habit at a time until it eventually becomes automatic.


If you had to do the entire GTD workflow all at one time, you’ll just start skipping steps that don’t seem crucial at first but it is needed to make the overall scheme work.

I remembered trying GTD for the first few times and crashing miserably. I’ll fall off the bandwagon and get back on the bandwagon because I didn’t adopt all of the habits or workflows.

After reading ZTD, I slowly worked my way into proficiency. What felt like unneeded overhead just became part of the ritual. Habits are often adopted one at a time.

Remember how tying your shoe was something that only your mom and dad did for you because it was just too difficult? Now you can tie your own shoes without any assistance.

Using a checklist will remind you to just go through everything and not skip a step.

In my case, I arranged my OmniFocus icons to represent that checklist. All of the planning steps are at the top toolbar. All of the action steps are in the left sidebar.

Sometimes it helps to just print your checklist on an index card. Then run through the process every day. Resist the urge to skip a step.

There was another saying that is similar:

Take care of your money and your money will take care of you.
Take care of your body and your body will take care of you.

So you can also apply it to your system.

Take care of your system and your system will take care of you.

If you neglect your money, body, or system, then it stands to reason that you get what you put into them.


I’ve been marinating on this for a few days because I feel as though I have a handle on this and yet I feel like a total failure. I haven’t been certain why that is. Though this struck a chord:

Doing reviews is hard work. I don’t want to do it. Running through a checklist every morning makes no sense. I have it memorized.

I think it comes down to the habit of following a written list versus working off of your mental list. That’s not an easy habit to form. We go through a lot of work to create the systems and the lists but until we’ve formed the routine of trusting them and following them (to the letter), we will let tasks, projects, and system maintenance slide.

If you follow this pattern of thought, what you see is the formation of habits and routines over time. If you think the list will help you accomplish the important work in your life, then by all means, create it. But it will take time and consistent effort to implement the discipline to follow the structure.


Just wanted to give you all a quick update. I’ve been intentionally working to implement these types of lists in different areas of my life. One of my goals for this year is Automation - to create a process or actually automate as much as I can in my life to ease the burden of certain actions.

The key piece of this, unfortunately, has been switching away from OmniFocus to Todoist. My day job doesn’t allow me to work on a Mac, and using an iPad for my task management was simply too cumbersome. I’m taking on a lot more responsibilities in the coming weeks, so I needed a solution I could directly work in on my work laptop. Todoist was my choice for this, and this has helped me keep up with my system so well.

Interestingly enough, Todoist has a feature where if you start a task with an asterisk (*) followed by a space, it turns into an incompleteble task (a task without a checkbox at the front of it). This has worked wonders for me in creating do-confirm reference checklists. I create a recurring task to complete the checklist, and simply refer to it.

This method has helped me eliminate having 50 tasks show up in my Dashboard view, helping me avoid overwhelm.

The main checklists I’ve developed this for are my Weekly Review, Daily Review, a financial review I perform, and some weekly reports I run for my job.

Thanks for helping me clarify some of these things :slight_smile:


This feels like quite a goal. The one watchout (that I’m sure you’re aware of) would be personalization. Sometimes I find myself automating things that shouldn’t be. It’s not wise to create a template of a love note. :wink:

What?! :scream: Are you okay? I know these things can be traumatic. :relaxed:

All kidding aside, I know Todoist is a solid product and I recommend it to some in your exact scenario.

Interesting. Does that effectively create a grouping of sub-tasks? I’m struggling to connect how it’s different than having a checkbox next to it. But that could just be my ignorance of the details of Todoist.


That sounds like something CGP Grey would do. :yum:

The biggest focus for me is to find areas where little tasks pile up and create cognitive overhead. These items tend to generate the most overwhelm for me.

I went down the rabbit hole of productivity software, and I barely came out alive.

In all seriousness, it was a difficult struggle. I tried just about every way I could find to keep OF the hub of my activities, but nothing reduced the friction caused by the context switching needed just to manage my system. In a way, I agonized over it for about 2 months. Then I finally made a decision. It was a liberating moment, though I grieved the investment I made into OF.

Someday I will switch back… I hope!

I think the initial design for the asterisked task was to allow the creation of headers for organization. While I’ve created some headers in projects, I’m also adapting them for my own purposes.

To answer your question, sub-tasks get created the same way with these asterisked items as regular tasks. You indent the item to the right by dragging or a keyboard shortcut. The difference is creating a task without a checkbox gets me around a couple of annoyances I have with Todoist coming from OF:

  1. You can’t set a due date or priority on a project, only a task.
  2. There are no defer dates to hide tasks/projects.
  3. The status of child tasks is not conditional on the status of the parent, meaning checked off child tasks (which are not recurring) do not regenerate as incomplete tasks when you check off the parent task (which is recurring).

This screenshot may help illustrate.

I checked off the child tasks, then checked off the recurring parent task. The child tasks are still marked as completed.

Using the asterisk method, I treat the top task like OF would a recurring project. I child the asterisked tasks. Then, when I complete the “project” task, I don’t have to worry about the child tasks being checked off or not.

I do fully realize this breaks down when I have a recurring process that isn’t completed in one sitting. I think Todoist’s templating features (which, sadly, use CSV files instead of the more elegant TaskPaper) will eventually be my solution. I simply haven’t gotten that far yet. :slight_smile:

Does that help clear things up?


I really want Omni to make an API for the OF database. If they do that, I’m carving out a few weeks to build a web version (assuming they don’t do this themselves). I’ve even considered manually working with the database to do this. But it’s simply too risky. One change from Omni and the whole DB could be corrupted.

Yes. That helps a lot. It makes me happy to use OmniFocus. :grin: I have a feeling I would be looking for any way possible to take my Mac to work. But I know there are all kinds of reasons this is a bad idea for some organizations.


Someone from the OmniFocus forums created a very basic web site that reads the OmniFocus XML file. It doesn’t really have much in the way of advanced features such as review and custom perspectives.


It says it is free for the beta period with a monthly subscription when/if it launches.

Here was the post from the OmniFocus forums:


I’ve learned within the last year that OF should not be the hub of my life. I’ve found that the less time I spent with my task manager (OF, Todoist, 2Do, Things, or whatever task manager), the better I feel and the more I get done.

I spend time in the task manager doing reviews (making sure the projects/tasks mirrors reality as close as possible), project management (planning and revising future next actions), quick capture (using the quick entry screen) and planning my day (choose 3-8 tasks to work on today).

If I left OF visible on my screen all day, I probably wouldn’t get anything done. I would be procrastinating in OF and Get Nothin’ Done - “GND” instead of “GTD”. I’d fiddle with projects and tasks. Any excuse to do nothing.

I’ll use OF (or whatever task manager) as a source or bucket list of next actions. I’ll pick a handful of tasks (3-8 tasks) to work on for today. I write those down on an index card and work off of that. Never work from your todo program. Typical choices are any overdue, due today, or due soon tasks. Then I’ll supplement it with a few flagged tasks (things I want to work on the next few days). Then I hide OmniFocus.

I work on everything on the index card and then check them off later when I’m done with a task. I never refer to OmniFocus unless I’m doing some quick capture via the OF Quick Entry screen.

My Mac’s notification center will show my Today perspective (due soon or flagged). My iPad will also show the same Today perspective. This allows me to check off tasks without having to return to OmniFocus.

My iPhone’s notification center is usually set to my errands list. When I’m outside on errands, going to work or returning home, I’ll be able to check off things I can do while I’m on the run.

I’ve also invested tons of time in OF and thought that OF should always be visible on my Mac. That just wasn’t the case.

But I’m glad you’re able to find something that works for you.


I tried. My organization doesn’t like BYOD, and they won’t buy Macs for employees since they won’t connect to Active Directory for management purposes. It’s sad. Especially since Macs have been proven to lower support costs.

I saw this the other day. It is very limited, but may be useful for me.

Ugh. wIlsonng knocks me back to reality. Gosh, I’m glad I haven’t ponied up and paid for Todoist yet.

I really like your approach. I think I’ve had a mindset where I’ve thought I need to have my system do the thinking for me. So like when Mike Schmitz mentioned he wants to make sure he’s in charge of his tools and not the other way around, that resonated with me.

An additional consideration I didn’t make is my new position will be very desk-centric. I won’t be on the road right away in the morning like I am now. Makes it difficult to plan. Now I’ll have that time and access to a very important piece of the picture - my iPad.

I think I’m going to re-visit OF in light of your workflow and possibly just use it on the iPad. And webfocus.io, if that stays a thing, might be helpful.


My approach took 20 years to get to this point. I suspect that we will all find different ways to approach things based now where we are in our lives. Your life is in transition so it makes sense to change your approach whenever the situation changes.

In the OmniFocus forums, I have started talking about using the task manager to organize your projects and tasks into something similar to a restaurant menu. You have many dishes available to order for your lunch. But you only have 30 minutes to eat. You couldn’t possibly order everything on the menu and eat it all. So I’ll choose a meal (a hamburger or a pizza or a taco or some Chinese takeout maybe) and put away the menu. I don’t need the menu when I’m eating. I’ve already chosen my lunch meal and I am set to eat until I am done.

In your task manager, plan ahead and choose 3-5 tasks to do for the next 3-5 hours. Write it down on a sheet of paper (or index card in my case). Now that your menu is set, get to work on those 3-5 tasks. Choosing your tasks will depend all on you. Maybe I’ll work on nothing but admin tasks (paperwork, reports, maintenance checklists). Or I might work on a Big Rock project (my marketing campaign for Spring 2017 or my 1040 taxes). I might even work on nothing but work on my computer (context @computer). I’m sure there are numerous books or blog posts that will suggest to you how to choose the thing you should be doing.

If I keep OmniFocus open, I might end up spending more time doing emergency scanning (looking for the next thing to do). I’d rather choose the 3-5 tasks ahead of time and keep in the flow.

Anyways, this is my current approach to task management. Might have to change it if something else changes in my life. For now, it seems to be working. It’s still a new approach for me to think of the task manager as a “menu.” Instead of working with the menu at the lunch table, I am ordering from the menu and putting it away. Then I get to work with the plates in front of me. I won’t be keeping the menu on the table. I don’t need it anymore. I’ve already got a full plate.

Tasks managers are great at organizing and keeping your projects and tasks. But they are horrible at making you decide what to work on. Choosing the tasks is up to you.

Good luck.


This made me realize that Mike isn’t here. So I invited him. :wink: cc: @bobbleheadjoe

When I think through my daily process, I realize that I spend most of my day working without OmniFocus in front of me. I have my daily list on paper. I reference OF on occasion but it’s not required. If forced to work in a PC only world, I may try to adapt that as something more prominent.

So many golden nuggets in this, @wilsonng. :blush:


I like this. I’ve often tended to think that my task manager should be autopilot, which is totally wrong, but very honest. Thinking of it more like a menu I pick off of versus a roadmap is helping me re-think my system now.

Ugh. I do this all the time. I’ve thought it helps me stay on task, but, in reality, it keeps me in an urgency mindset, which I’ve been trying to break.

Status Update

Wanted to let you know where I’ve decided to land in my system. I moved back to OmniFocus. With @wilsonng’s helpful insights, I now feel like I can use OF on my iPad more effectively.

I tend to have spurts of work in different time blocks: morning, afternoon, and after the kiddo goes to bed. I can either plan that work in the morning or before each block. So it’s those times I would go to OF, or when I find myself with some downtime and not sure what to do.

One frustration I have is there are tons of articles explaining how to use the GTD tools, but none really explaining how to develop a GTD-based system and mindset. Developing the mindset has been where I’ve struggled the most.

On another note, I hit a roadblock reinstalling OF on my iPad. According to OmniGroup support, I’ve hit an OS level bug that prevents me from restoring my OF Pro purchase! So, no perspectives for me yet on the iPad… :frowning: However, I’m considering finding a way to use my Mac at work. It’s my understanding that it just wouldn’t be supported. But I’m a nerd… so I can do my own support!

Really want to thank everyone for contributing and helping sway me in a direction that makes sense.


Well, my intentions weren’t necessarily to bring you back to OmniFocus but welcome back. I think the restaurant menu analogy applies to every task manager. You are correct that your task manager should not be your auto-pilot. I don’t want my computer telling me what to do.

Narrowing our focus to what’s on our plate will give us the drive to slowly chip away at the hundreds of Someday/Maybe projects that are lurking.

But don’t forget to do a periodic review (weekly, monthly, quarterly, etc.) and curate your projects. Prune and delete projects that not longer mean anything or has less bang-for-the-buck. Delegate projects to others who have the better skill set and/or tools to get the job done. When your projects list can match the current state of reality as best as you perceive, the more you’ll trust your projects list. We lose trust in it when your projects list no longer reflects reality. Review when needed.

I think the restaurant menu metaphor and the review cycle can be applied to any task manager.

Like you, I also work in spurts. I might just spent a large time block working on one Big Rock project. Or I might just decide to work on one context only (@Mac, @Office, @Warehouse, @Backyard) and try to get as much done as possible.

Keeping OmniFocus visible on my Mac encouraged emergency scanning and I would burn precious time trying to decide what the next thing to do would be. Nowadays, I already created a flight plan and figured what I want to do for the next few hours.

Our system will evolve over time. The restaurant menu metaphor was something that I had to discover on my own. Hopefully, others can pick up on it.

Then you’ll pay back by providing your own insights and gives others that “Aha!” moment that you kindly shared with us.

Win-win situation! Good luck!


Is this a bad thing? I know we need to be willing to take breaks and such but I find that I thrive when I’m cranking quickly.

Bake a cake! It’s party time. :tada: :dancer: :confetti_ball: :cake:

This is interesting to me. As a writer (assuming I pick it up again), I can see some value in developing content around this. I’ll think it through. But if you have ideas, I’m all ears.

I love this metaphor. Thanks for sharing this, @wilsonng.


Hehe yeah, I know. I was looking for an excuse, though. I didn’t really want to leave in the first place.

I do too, but when I live here, I only react to the world around me. There’s times I need to do this, but I want to develop the muscle of being more intentional. Urgency, to me, means I’m only putting out fires. I even treat the tasks in my task manager as fires, even when they aren’t. That’s really what I’m trying to break.

I’ll write some thoughts up and send you an email.


As long as urgency doesn’t turn into anxiety, stress, and desperation…