A boring but useful blog post about checklists

There’s nothing exciting or groundbreaking in this blog post, and there’s nothing that isn’t obvious. But sometimes the boring stuff is useful.

Often, success or failure comes down to paying attention to small details. Stupid, easy things like remembering to save your data or making sure you don’t skip a step in your preparation, execution or analysis. When the pressure is on and you are doing things in a hurry, it’s all too easy to forget a small but important step in your procedure. This is where checklists come in useful.

Whenever you have a repetitive process involving multiple small steps, make a list of essential steps so you can make sure you do it the same every time. For example, if your data analysis involves formatting your data, write down the precise steps so you can make sure you are consistent in your treatment of every file, and so you can do it again the same way if you gather more data months later.

If you are doing lab experiments, interviews or fieldwork, make a list of essential steps. Add to or modify this list whenever you make a mistake. Having it in writing will make it easier to write up your methods, and will be a useful resource if you want to teach someone else how to do your work. No matter how good you get, follow the checklist every time; confidence can turn to complacency very easily.

Often, the difference between a good researcher and a bad one is not academic knowledge or intelligence, but attention to and care over practical details. Making a list takes minutes, but can save you months if it helps you avoid stupid mistakes.

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This post was inspired by the book, “An astronaut’s guide to life on Earth” by Chris Hadfield; astronauts, despite their years upon years of excessive training, have checklists for everything. As Hadfield says, “sweat the small stuff”; in his case it kept him and his crewmates alive, in your case it can help you get your PhD.

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