Mental Health: When Checklists Don’t Work

During this time at home, you may have heard from friends and loved ones, or witnessed on social media, how productive people have been. From my highly productive neighbors, I have seen countless home projects completed, closets organized by colors, and excess items donated from cleaned out junk drawers.  

However, I look around my house and my winter boots are still sitting on the floor, Halloween trickortreat baskets are on top of an ice cream maker in my hall closet, and at the end of the day, every toy and book we own is thrown around my living room. Despite the mess, the ambitious list of projects that I wanted to complete back in the first week of quarantine is sitting on my kitchen table with nothing checked off.  

Does that sound familiar?

I know the strategies I am supposed to use to complete these tasks and feel productive.  Not only do I know them, but my job is teaching others how to be productive and how to create checklists to complete those long to-do lists.  

Don’t get me wrong. I truly believe that writing down your plan, breaking down tasks into small steps, prioritizing tasks, and checking off each item when completed helps people accomplish their goals.  However, that strategy may not work for everyone.  

Creating a checklist is based on the idea that we are all verbal learners; that an individual learns by reading information.  However, the truth is that many of us are non-verbal learners. We learn by seeing and doing. Additionally, there are several challenges when using a checklist approach. Some people may experience feelings of being defeated if all of the steps are not completed. They may have thoughts that if one thing goes wrong they need to give up on the task or have difficulty coming up with alternative solutions if the plan doesn’t go as hoped.  

Does this mean that if I am a non-verbal learner I should give up on my todo list?  No, it means that you just need a different approach. One approach that focuses on non-verbal skills is the “Get Ready, Do, Done” model—created by Kristen Jacobsen and Sarah Ward, who are speech and language pathologists and experts in executive function support.

Using this approach, I start by picturing what my project will look like when it is completed.  I then imagine myself completing each step of the task.  To make this process more concrete, I can even take a picture of the project I want to work on and draw on the picture of the order in which I will complete each step. In order to help determine how long I need to spend on a project, I can incorporate time estimates for each step. I can also take time to problem solve potential barriers or frustrations. With the use of this non-verbal approach, you can start completing your home projects and join all of your friends and loved ones in showing off how productive you have been.