Earlier last week, I binge-read a fun book called A Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande. Serendipitously, this happened to be a great week for brushing up on the art of the checklist (although, really, isn't every week a good week for brushing up on checklists?)
It was a particularly good week for checklists -- at least in the MiserMom household -- because we've reached the point in the school year where N-son typically starts falling apart, and sure enough, this year he has started disintegrating right on schedule. A quick on-line check of his grades gave us most of the scrabble letters we'd need to write "FLAFF". His squash/academic tutors wrote with descriptions of trying to organize his notebook, and then a subsequent home inspection showed the notebook had papers from all subjects interleaved, with a few left-over assignments from last year (a different school even) mixed in for good measure. And his bedroom, which has always been a bit of a construction zone, was awful even for him. (I know people make fun of teenage boys' bedrooms, but this round of mess was seriously bad. As in, ants were crawling all over me while I was helping to clean it, and his drawers contained biohazards I won't even name here. Really, really dirty room).
To compound all this, N-son has a real aversion to being criticized or corrected, so cleaning up with him puts him in a totally grumpy mood. We call it the "hedgehog" -- very prickly.
Stage 1 of intervention is to clear out the mess and get things back to presentable. We spent about two evenings going through his bedroom and then his school notebook. Stage 2-through-whenever is trying to come up with a system that maintains some semblance of order for a while, to postpone as long as possible the next round of disaster.
Fortunately, N-son loves checklists and to-do lists. These lists don't feel like criticism or correction to him; he sees them as a form of autonomy. So it was lovely that I'd just read Gawande's book, because The Checklist Manifesto is more than just a love letter to how great checklists are, it also has some advice on what makes a good checklist (and what makes a bad one).
First of all, a checklist is different than a to-do list. A to-do list is something we create with mostly one-time tasks, but a checklist is repeated every time a certain situation arises: one example Gawande uses is a pilot's pre-flight checklist. Another example he doesn't use, but which is probably more familiar to most people, is K-daughter's leaving-the-house mental checklist: "keys, phone, wallet, baby". She repeats this four-item list to herself every time she heads for a door (and yes, she sometimes would have forgotten the baby if she hadn't!)
What makes a good checklist?
- It has to be short: he suggests no more than 9 items (and preferably, fewer than 9). If you get longer than that, people tend to start skipping the checklist, and it becomes worthless.
- Because of the need for brevity, the items on the checklist should be crucial items, ones that people are apt to overlook under stress. He gives a lovely example of this: a checklist that pilots use when an engine dies on a single-engine Cessna has only 6 items. None of the items are "call the radio tower", because pilots always remember to do that. But one of the items is "FLY THE PLANE" -- because if you're freaking about how to turn the engine back on, steering and maintaining altitude are easy to overlook.
- The items on the checklist have to be precise and specific. "Room clean?" is too vague, but "all empty hangars are downstairs" is specific.
Gawande notes that a checklist is more than an OCD way to maintain control over your tasks, it's also a great tool for ensuring communication between various parties. N-son now has at least 5 different adults helping with his homework at various times; his four-item notebook checklist will help not only N-son, but also all those adults helpers plus his teachers know what his system is. (Okay, cross fingers that what I'm saying is true).
Already, N-son has managed to maintain a surprisingly clean room for a whole week, as confirmed by my husband. (And note that the checklist means that N-son knows what to clean, and also that my husband knows what areas *I* think are important to check, so the room has stayed clean without any direct intervention on my part). And even more, N-son seems to be really happy about having this direction about what "clean your room" actually means.
For what it's worth, here is N-son's bedroom checklist. We'll continue testing how well this works.
1. Trash cans emptied; trash bags removed.
2. Newspapers, school papers, and all other papers in recycling or put away.
3. Picked up.
4. Swept and/or vacuumed.
5. Empty hangars downstairs (not on doorknobs or on the floor, but hanging on a rod downstairs)
6. All shoes in the closet, on the floor
7. Clothes in correct drawers (shorts in shorts drawer, etc)
8. Clothes are all clean.
9. Clothes are neatly folded.