To cut workload and reduce stress: checklists

To cut workload and reduce stress: checklists

Atul Gawande’s The Checklist Manifesto convinced me checklists could help me do my job better.  I tried them: they did; I used them more and eventually wrote Ticked Off to share what I’d learned.  It was only in writing the book and reflecting on my experience that I realised the power they have to cut workload and reduce stress as a teacher.

At their simplest, checklists ensure I complete the most important things at critical moments. Highlighting the purpose of the lesson and checking you have all your worksheets may sound obvious – it is.  But that didn’t stop me from failing to do so occasionally due to pressure, distraction or tiredness.  Checklists reminded me of these key actions, helped me avoid foolish mistakes and so made for much better lessons.  But I realised that wasn’t all they were doing.

Imagine: it’s late, you’re tired, you’ve had a long day and you have five lessons and a revision session tomorrow.  As well as ensuring you don’t miss anything important and everything gets done, how can checklists reduce workload and cut stress?

1) Creating a checklist means choosing what not to do

You’ve decided that your lesson checklist includes an objective, new content, a hook, independent work and an exit ticket – so you are committed to fulfilling this for every lesson tomorrow.  But in making this commitment, you are implicitly making another one: not to do anything beyond this without a really good reason.  You may choose to do so for a special occasion, but for tomorrow, a busy day, once you’ve ticked everything off your lesson preparation checklist, you can stop with a clear conscience – you’ve done your bit.

2) Following a checklist means focusing on the most important tasks

Even under pressure, hours can disappear while I double-check a niche point I don’t want to get wrong in tomorrow’s lesson or seek authentic images for lesson resources.  These are minor parts of the lesson: following a checklist keeps me focused on those that really matter, and so deflects me from distractions and detours.  You can use your time more wisely, stay focused on the key points and ignore the distractions.

3) Checklists offer protection from random requests

Last-minute requests are hard to resist, particularly if they’re for students’ benefit.  Telling a friend or colleague you’re “really busy” is probably true, but it can come across as unconvincing and rude – isn’t everyone, all the time?  Saying ‘yes’ can be so much easier in the moment than saying ‘no’, even if it puts a dent in your evening.  Checklists help us to prioritise clearly in our minds what we are trying to achieve and by when.  Clarity about our priorities makes this far easier: “I have to finish four things from my evening checklist before going home – I’ll do this if I have time after that, if that’s OK”.  It even sounds more convincing – so it means that the last-minute request can be dodged.

4) Checklists help us feel better about what we’ve left undone

Students needs are infinite; our time and resources are finite.  We can never get everything we might want to do done.  Completing a checklist – whether for lesson planning, students’ additional needs or moving on from a disastrous lesson – offers one more benefit.  With a full day ahead, ticking everything off the checklist allows you to take a deep breath and relax.  If you’ve done everything you thought to put on your checklist, you’re unlikely to think of anything else particularly useful at 11pm: you can go to bed with a clear conscience, knowing you’ve done what you can – hopefully to get some sleep.

Every time I advocate checklists, I feel bound to emphasise that I’m not claiming they solve everything.  Checklists alone will not overcome the workload challenges and intractable problems facing many teachers.  But by helping me to prioritise what I do and don’t do and to recognise that I’ve done what I can, they have cut my workload and reduced the stress I feel.  I hope they may do the same for you.

For more on why checklists work so well, how to put them into practice, and examples, you may want to read Ticked Off: Checklists for teachers, students, school leaders.


(Adapted from a piece originally published in Teach Primary)