I have reached the age of making lists of things to do. This is partly an implicit recognition of declining powers, but also the result of a long-standing desire, so far never fulfilled, of making myself efficient in the way that managers are supposed to make employees efficient. I want to turn myself into a production-line worker, so that I no longer go up and down the stairs wondering when I arrive at the top or the bottom why I am there and what I have come for. Lists, I had hoped, would keep my nose productively to the grindstone.
It hasn’t really worked. Darwin in his autobiography says that he always noted down written evidence that contradicted his theory because otherwise he was sure to forget it. Most people, of course, behave in precisely the opposite and less meritorious way, noting down either mentally or physically only those things that bear out their prejudices. Well, when it comes to lists, I am like most people: I look at them and select those tasks that I shall enjoy doing, leaving the others until last, which often means, in effect, forever. This is because by the time I reach the tasks I don’t want to perform, another list of tasks I don’t mind performing occurs to me, at the bottom of which, once again, appear the tasks I don’t want to perform, not necessarily unimportant but indefinitely postponed. Checklist Manifesto Best Price: $2.57 Buy New $9.99 (as of 07:00 EST - Details)
Ah, but how satisfying it is to place a tick beside a task on a list that has just been completed! This is irrespective of the intrinsic value or importance of the task completed, which may in fact be perfectly trivial. The sense of accomplishment resides in the tick itself (provided you don’t cheat by ticking before completion). I begin to see the pleasure that some bureaucrats take in pure procedure, the Platonic form of which is a procedure unattached to any purpose other than itself.
In this sense, we live in an increasingly Platonic procedural world. I have discovered that you can fill in and return forms with any old tosh without anyone ever noticing the contradictions or impossibilities of what you have returned. You can say you are 125 years old without raising anyone’s eyebrow. It is the filling and the returning of the form that is important, not the information (or misinformation) that it contains.
The checklist is another bête noire of mine (I hesitated over whether to put the circumflex in, now that the Académie française has declared war on that often redundant diacritic mark that so confuses schoolchildren, especially the lazy kind, though perhaps not as much as other diacritic marks). The surgeon and writer Atul Gawande published a book, The Checklist Manifesto, extolling the checklist as a solution to much human error, and I readily concede that some activities, such as flying an airliner, are much the better performed for checklists. But flying airliners is not what most people do most of the time; one needs to know when a checklist is just the thing and when it is merely a simulacrum of purposive behavior, like a mouse licking its paws when cornered by a cat.