Checklist

Dear L,

For a long time, I didn't subscribe to the ideas that advocates augmentation of our minds. The idea of designing tools to transform information exchange was never appealing to me. I assumed, every piece of transient information could remain in my mind; Augmenting that process was synonymous to admitting defeat to modern life. And it wasn't any different during high school. I perpetually struggled to keep everything organised, not unlike my time in engineering school. Only recently I realised that the flaw was not completely in the system I was inhabiting, but in my attitude towards information. You see, as humans, in modern society we are expected to deal with an abnormal amount of information; From infinity pools of social media to study materials. Be it in high school or blue collar workplaces, sometimes just pure social and personal upkeep; Unless one uses sharp tools to brick together pieces information, it's easy to get lost in mental juggling. I have come across people who are naturally very good at this, but to my disappointment, I had to accept at some point last year that I am not one of them.

In 1935, in an aerial demonstration of at that time a significantly complex  airplane, a crash occurs. Investigation revealed that an operator missed a critical step before the plane was cleared for flying, he forgot to unlock a critical piece of the control surface. That model of airplane, ended up flying millions of miles without any accidents; US Army Flying Corps named the model B-17 and managed to turn the aircraft that was initially dubbed "too much airplane for one man to fly." to an ultra reliable machine. The secret, checklists!

Dr. Atul Gawande says, modern medicine has also has entered its B-17 phase. In an article, he talked about operating complicated systems and surgeries; How thousands of complicated processes make it possible for modern medicine to perform borderline miracles. He writes, in his own doctor-ly way about a patient in critical condition, "He was, we liked to imagine, a simple machine in our hands.". Inhumane as it may sound, the criticality and complexity of the situation shows in his writing.

It was as if we had gained a steering wheel and a few gauges and controls, but on a runaway eighteen-wheeler hurtling down a mountain. [...] Less than five per cent of patients with his degree of organ failure make it home. And a single misstep could easily erase those slender chances.
"... you have to make sure that a hundred and seventy-eight daily tasks are done right"

The patient in Dr. Gawande's story survived.

Medical practitioners, like Dr. Gawande rely on extensive checklists to tame such situations. He even went on and wrote a book about it. About checklists!

Checklists are one of many meta-instrumentation that enables predictable control over temporal complexity that, like doctors and aviation technicians, we live in. Be it producing a film, to writing an open letter every week, the idea of splitting projects into smaller chunks doesn’t only allow our minds to be free of clutter, it also allows us to tame time as a dimension of our day to day life.

YouTubers calls it productivity hacks, I call it marking time and space, like a cartographer who’s also an explorer. It’s like talking to future me while a flying spaceship; Checklists are my flight computer. This tool have become absolutely essential for me to be able handle projects, from personal upkeep to learning new material; From grocery lists to travel plans. Information hierarchy, mode of operation, all goes into consideration. I have lists, I have list of lists, I have lists to create other lists, matrix of lists, lists that automatically produce new lists, list to re-evaluate the other lists, connected lists, list that gets triggered in specific places or in specific times, computer programs that analyse my lists to create lists of things to take into consideration on my next list. All these sounds very complicated, but all this was a result of active development. I didn’t wake up one day and created all these systems, it was a slow deliberate evaluation of my mind’s shortcomings.

Counter intuitive as it may sound, even though I spend a considerable amount of time in my “flight computer”, I am rarely distracted by it. List, is a misnomer; It’s structured information. A structure that reflects my mind’s modal shift through a day, maybe week, sometimes months. It allows me to focus on one thing, and one thing only, leaving the rest on a piece of paper, or a computer database. Soon after these tools materialised in my life, I have found myself getting bored, going for aimless walks and reading books that I would have otherwise avoided. Knowledge is a boon and a burden. Taming it is a chore, but a useful one. It allows me to be reliable as ever, while being absolutely free to do whatever I wish with my time. The amount of information we need to handle on a daily basis is just not going reduce; If we somehow manage to reduce the influx of information, we run the risk of not knowing enough about our environment to act upon, and if we let it run wild, we end up in a perpetual catch up. Neither very useful.

Build a flight computer.

The Plane Crash That Changed Aviation Forever

A Life-Saving Checklist | The New Yorker

Book Summary: The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande

Does each click of attention cost a bit of ourselves? | Aeon Essays

Best,
A

Arijit Dasgupta

Arijit Dasgupta