Contextual Checklists Can Help You Add Order to Your Day

Updated July 23, 2021 by Iulian Ionescu | Read Time min.
contextual checklists

Did you know that checklists prevent planes from crashing and surgeons from cutting on the wrong side of the body? Sounds impressive, I know. I also know that your life, no matter how complex, probably doesn’t result in hundreds of people’s lives or someone’s body depending on your actions. Still, even in your world, checklists can make a world of difference.

Life Is Chaos

life is chaos One morning everything was hectic. The kids were complaining; I was stressed out about a work project; two eggs slipped out of my hand as I was trying to make breakfast. Nothing worked as it should. On top of everything, I had to be in the office early for a meeting.

In these moments, I turn into an army drill sergeant. I get super frustrated and start getting sloppy, which further aggravates me. That leads me to snap at the people around me, and aggravate them in the process. My actions enhance the chaos in those moments.

Eventually, that morning, everyone got ready, and we went out of the door. I dropped the kids at school, and I was on my drive to work. It’s a thirty-minute drive, and I remember feeling a little bit better, and my heart rate slowed down.

And it went on like that until I got to my desk, opened up my backpack, and realized that I had forgotten my work laptop at home. I cursed and felt nauseous. The files I needed were saved on the desktop, stupidly. My heart rate jumped. I had to grind my teeth, postpone the meeting, jump back into the car and spend another hour on the road getting my computer.

For all intents and purposes, it was a pretty terrible day. However, everything that day was preventable. One simple gesture—reaching out for my laptop—would have solved at least a big part of it and saved me one extra hour of commute.

And this was not an isolated incident.

Your Memory Can Only Take You That Far

human brain memory On many occasions, I’d park my car and walk up to my office, only to realize I had left my wallet in the car. Although not such a devastating event, it meant getting out of the building, walking into the parking lot, and fetching my wallet.

On other occasions, I’d forget my work ID at home, and I would have to get a temporary one from the admin.

Now mind you, I do have a decent memory, and I don’t suffer from any disease that impairs my ability to remember things or my attention span. So what was it then?

Doing some self-reflection and analysis, I realized that on the days that such things would happen, although my vivid memory about the day was centered around the mishap, there were dozens of other things that went very well. Analyzing it carefully, I realized that the problem was just that-the sheer amount of stuff.

I bet you experience something similar on a day-to-day basis. Several things must be done in an approximate pre-established order at different times of the day and various locations.

Must-Dos and Have-To Dos

checkmark For example, the morning time is a perfect situation to analyze. In my case, with two kids, my wife and I have about twenty things that need to be done in the morning for our day to start well. There are things that we have to do, and then there are the things that we want to do.

For example, the have-to-dos include preparing to-go lunches for our kids, going through their homework folders, and picking out clothes that match the temperature.

The want-to-dos might include things such as exercise, planning the day, or packing lunch for ourselves.

Without the must-dos, the day would turn quite bad. Without the want-to-dos, we would survive but go on with a sense of a lack of accomplishment.

Besides those two sides, there’s also the ‘Should I have done those?’ Or, even better, the ‘What else did I miss?’

So, as you go about your day, these things that you have to do at certain moments in your schedule live inside your head. You’ve managed to create certain habits and routines over time that help you to ensure that some are executed.

For example, as you get out of bed, you take a first trip to the bathroom, brush your teeth, and make coffee. For me, those things are so automatic that I don’t even register them, but I know I’ve done them.

Then, very often, you begin to let the way that you feel at that moment drive the following activities. For instance, you have to take your vitamins and exercise, but because today your day started a bit late, why not pack the kids’ backpacks first and get that over with? After that, perhaps you shower really fast to get that out of the way. Now, you’ve shifted everything around.

The point is that the things you want to do will suffer because of the things you must do. Also, the things you don’t know if you’ll do because they are buried too deep beneath the others are not even on your radar.

This is where contextual checklists come into play.

Checklists – A Powerful Productivity Tool

checklists items Checklists, in general, are a straightforward concept. It’s a list, and you check items off of it. When all the items are checked off, you are done.

The checklists can go from very simple to very complex; the purest form of a checklist is an itemized bullet-point list in no particular order.

A better checklist is one where the items are ranked so that things that depend on one another are sequential. So, if preparing the kid’s backpack involves checking their homework and making their breakfast, the last two items should appear first.

In this way, the checklist also provides a sequence that can be followed.

Also, things that are naturally timed first should appear first. For instance, making coffee to enjoy throughout the morning should be first because it makes sense, not because other items depend on it per se.

You probably use checklists in your life in several areas. One that everyone uses is the shopping list. That is nothing but a list of items you put together to make sure that you don’t forget to buy any of them. You know it’s all-inclusive because you’ve put thought into it by thinking about what you want to cook and what other items you need in your fridge and pantry.

So the power of the checklist lies in the fact that it is created at a time of no stress and is done thoughtfully. You have the time and space to think and define your checklist to be comprehensive and straightforward. Then, when the time comes to execute it-e.g., going to the supermarket-it doesn’t matter whether you are in a rush or not: The checklist is already there and will serve as a helper to your memory. Over time, when used correctly, checklists will help improve your overall personal time management.

Contextual Checklists

My day, and I am sure yours too, is divided into obvious chunks. For me, it goes something like this:

  • Early morning time – as I am the first to wake up, this is usually my time. During this period, I exercise, I write, I take my vitamins, and I groom myself
  • Morning time – now that my family is up, this time involves some family time and, together with my wife, getting us all ready to go and leave the house in order
  • Commute time – dropping the kids and driving to work
  • Work time (which is also subdivided into beginning, middle, and end)
  • Commuting back home
  • Early evening time (when the kids are up)
  • Late evening time (just me and my wife)
  • Bedtime

As you can imagine, most of the things we do in each of those intervals are pretty well defined. Although you might switch some of them, like exercising in the evening instead of the morning, they are pretty steady.

So how do you keep track of the myriad things that come into each of those time slots? How do you make sure not only that you do the essential stuff but that you don’t forget something critical?

My idea was to create what I call a contextual checklist. I bought a pack of twelve clipboards and twelve pens that attach to surfaces with a string (the kind that you find glued to public desks in a bank.). The thought was to put a nail in the wall in various parts of the house and hang the clipboards there. Then, I’d affix the pen next to the clipboard. By doing this, I make sure that there was always a pen next to it. (How many times have you had a shopping list only to realize you don’t have a pen and can’t check items off?)

Checklists By Time Of Day

time of day I started with six checklists. Because I am a geek, I made them in Excel, which allowed me to edit them quickly when I had to. I would print a week’s worth of checklists on Sunday and put them into the clipboards. For your convenience, I have attached here a downloadable template you can use:


It’s a bare-bone excel spreadsheet with a few tabs for the different times of day, as explained below.

Now, when I started with this process, I went a little bit crazy. I put things there that had already become habits, but I wanted to make sure that the lists were all-inclusive.

These are the lists that I started with (also tabs in the attached excel):

  • Morning wake-up checklist
  • Morning outgoing checklist
  • Evening checklist
  • Car checklist
  • Work checklist
  • Weekend checklist (this one had a bunch of empty slots to fill in manually throughout the week)

And here is the first draft of my morning outgoing checklist (note: Dani & Elisa are my kids):

  • Packed Dani’s water
  • Packed Dani’s snack
  • Checked homework and related things
  • Packed my lunch
  • Packed Rachel’s lunch & tea
  • Took my daily vitamins
  • Packed journal
  • Packed books
  • Headphones
  • Sunglasses, as needed
  • Laptop inside the backpack
  • Gave kids their vitamin gummies
  • Brushed Elisa’s hair
  • Prepared the check for cleaning lady + left door unlocked
  • Took the check for Elisa’s daycare
  • Put laundry outside
  • Took my wallet
  • Grabbed my phone
  • Took my backpack
  • Got my car keys
  • Took a snack for Elisa
  • Garbage out
  • Got a car garbage bag
  • Turned all lights off
  • Locked door
  • Took Elisa’s bed sheets
  • Took my work ID

As a matter of fact, here is a picture of this very list on my wall by the exit door. I’ll explain this a little later.

checklist on wall

Three-Point Confirmation

checklists productivity That first draft looks pretty crazy initially, but not as crazy as when I tell you that I also employed the three-point confirmation. Let me explain this by using my wallet as an example. I would take my wallet in my hand, squeeze it, and put it in my pocket. I would whisper ‘wallet,’ and then I would check the item off the list.

By adding touch, vision, and speech to writing, all at the same time, a trivial action such as picking up the wallet gets memorized. Many a time, I’d be driving to work, and halfway I’d glance at the place where I usually put my wallet, and I’d see that it wasn’t there. But because I had done the checklist routine above, I knew that it’s with me. I just didn’t put it where it belonged.

So the checklist not only ensures that you do the things that you must do and want to do, but it also gives you the peace of mind that you’ve done them all. Or, if you haven’t, that you have a specific reason.

My lists were structured as above, with columns for the days of the week. If I did something, I’d put a checkmark. If I didn’t have to do it, I’d strike a horizontal line. For instance, I only have to take the garbage out two days a week. Lastly, if I’d miss an item, I would put an X over the box.

Later on, during my weekly reflection, I would analyze the items that I regularly missed and understand why that had happened.

Checklists In The Real World

I implemented all these checklists at the same time and had them going for about three months. At the end of those three months, I had trained myself not only to do them habitually, but they began to sequence inside my head naturally. My brain started to pull instead of waiting for the push.

Whole chunks of the day turned into routines, and with that, my brain regained the space it needed for thoughtfulness rather than for worry. Instead of being constantly anxious about the things that I may have forgotten and discovering critical things that I had forgotten, I had gained a new level of inner peace. This is another benefit of checklists: they allow you to focus on creating good habits, which will slowly take the place of bad habits.

Initially, I was checking items off my checklist in real-time. So when I’d do an activity, I’d immediately check it off the list. After the first three months, I morphed into an after-the-fact checking. I would go through most of the period, and now and then, or simply at the end, I’d check off the items that were completed.

This proves that the checklists actually trained my brain, and now I had the sequence transformed into a routine.

In addition to this, checklists have been a critical piece of my time blocking and calendaring process, which is the subject of a separate article. Also, remember that checklists don’t provide the full process, and merely serve as a reminder system. To take it even further, think about creating a true to-do list system.

Checklists used wisely will act as a companion to your memory and will lead to less stress and anxiety throughout your day. Share on X

Creating Your Own Checklist System

So, what do you put on your checklist? The danger here is for them to be too short and miss essential items, or be too long and become a burden. The truth is that you can only know for sure by trial and error. The way I suggest you do this is to first sit down with a piece of paper and divide your day into chunks.

Split it into three to ten parts, from the moment you wake up until you go to sleep. An easy way to do this split is by your location during the day. So if in the first few hours of your morning you are home, that’s a chunk. If things change during that time, say other members of your family wake up, that’s a new split. Keep going and define those parts of your day.

Once you have the parts, start writing down all the things that you usually do. You may need to take an audit over a few days to capture everything, but after a few runs, you’ll have a pretty decent list of all the things you do in those chunks of time.

Next, arrange them in order of dependency and time. Things that you normally do first go first. Things that depend on other things go last, and so on.

Soon, you’ll have a decent checklist of all the important things that you do (which includes must-do and want-to-do). By the way, if you use a system of prioritization like the Eisenhower Priority Matrix, the things that you want to do are your Quadrant 2 activities. In comparison, the things that you must do are your Quadrant 1 activities.

Keep The Checklists In Your Face

After you complete all the lists, display them in the physical locations that make sense. For example, you may place your “Get out the door” checklist literally near the exit door, just as mine in the image above. You can place your “Evening routine” checklist near your bed. Make it easy and accessible.

By the way, from a practical perspective, as you can see in my image, I have purchased about 10 of those clipboards and 10 chain pens. I hung the clipboards on the wall and glued the pen holder next to them. In the case of my car-checklist, I glued the pen on the back of the clipboard, so it’s always there with it. When I go shopping, I use that same clipboard for my shopping checklist. I find the clipboard very handy because I can have a bunch of pre-printed checklists clipped and remove the ones that I complete. The pen near the clipboard at all times means that I can never give myself the excuse of not having a pen in my vicinity. This is as “keep it simple” as possible, but it’s also very effective.

With the list in your path at all times, begin checking items off the list day by day. Don’t stop for at least ninety days, which is the minimum amount of time it takes to establish a habit. My suggestion is to keep using the lists even longer, maybe an entire year.

I find that this method works particularly well in times of high uncertainty when you will struggle to keep the focus on what’s important. Structure works well when everything is structured, but it works even better when everything is chaotic.

I guarantee that you will see a significant change in your day. You will accomplish more, and you will have less anxiety during the day, which will give you the headspace to take on other things. Now, the idea is not to get more and more stuff on your plate. The idea is to make sure that the important things are on your plate and you complete them. In time, you will literally feel like you are creating time that you didn’t have before.

Checklists will do that for you. Use them wisely, and you will feel amazing!

Don’t forget to download the Excel Checklist Template file.


Usage is straightforward: when you do a thing, checkmark it; if you didn’t do it, put a cross in it, and if you didn’t have to do it because it wasn’t applicable on that day, put a dash. The dash tells you that you had a conscious thought about that action, and concluded that you can skip it. If you are looking for more complex templates, see the Resources section’s link below to the site Vertex42. No matter what you do, remember: Keep It Simple! Good luck!

“We are besieged by simple problems… Checklists can provide protection”Atul Gawande, The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right

Other Checklist Resources

Now, before you go, I have…

3 Questions For You

  1. Where in your life do you use checklists and why?
  2. Was there a time in your life where you feel like having checklists has improved your productivity?
  3. Do you use apps to create checklists, or do you prefer good-old pen and paper?

Please share your answers in the comments below. Sharing knowledge helps us all improve and get better!



action, organization, priority

{"email":"Email address invalid","url":"Website address invalid","required":"Required field missing"}