Make Your Dumb Smart

Most of us know the times of day and days of the week when we do our best work. Tuesday mornings I feel like I am on fire, getting lots done with all cylinders firing. By Friday afternoons, though, I feel burned out. I am tired, daunted by the pile that has accumulated in my inbox, and am looking at forty eight hours (the weekend) in which I could get all this work done.

Until a few years ago I would head home early on Friday and leave the piles until Saturday morning; I needed that fresh mental energy to simply figure out what to do, let alone do the work. Since learning and refining work efficiency and effectiveness techniques, I have a new approach to Fridays, one that leaves me better prepared for the week ahead and with less work to do on Saturday morning. The difference? The checklist.

One Tuesday morning – my “smart” time – I created a list of all the things that I need to do every Friday to wrap up the week behind me and prepare for the week ahead. I typed up this list, printed a number of copies, and pinned them next to my desk. Since then, each Friday I have taken down one checklist and start working my way down the list. Because my list tells me to, I: empty and process my inboxes (digital and analog), empty my outbox, review my major projects and determine next action items… and the list goes on. With few exceptions I have not headed home until all of this work was done.

Yes, I still have homework for the weekend, but I know exactly what that work is and I find it much easier to get down to work once I find the time.

How can a checklist make such a difference? Even though I am, perhaps, my worst self on Friday afternoons, I am able to get more accomplished because I did the “smart” work, making the list, ahead of time. My previous Friday problem was not the pile of work, but the lack of energy to prioritize or attack the work. I don’t have to think about what to do, I just do.

For those of you who want to learn more, Atul Gawande has written a whole book about the checklist, or for a summarized version, this New Yorker article as well.

And for those of you who think a paper checklist for Fridays is a little too dorky, Shankar Vidantham’s Hidden Brain podcast has a great episode on “Deep Work” that will hopefully inspire you to stay on task. Or if a Friday checklist isn’t dorky enough, author, Cal Newport, not only has an end of week checklist but an end of day checklist which concludes with him saying “Schedule Shutdown, Complete.”

Participants in this summer’s two-day workshop From Busy To Intentional: Managing Your Work Life for Greater Efficiency, Effectiveness, and Joy will learn how to integrate this practice into a larger, time management system. Hope you can make it.

Andrew Davis is the Head of School at Mt. Tamalpais School in Mill Valley. He served as a Head of Middle School and Director of Admissions at Crystal Springs Uplands School before assuming his present responsibilities. His teaching career includes three years as a middle school history teacher at the Hamlin School.