February 20, 2016

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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 till 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. 

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.

“€œChecklists have so few disastrous consequences only because so much human activity is completely inessential in the first place. “€

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.

Where checklists are not in fact useful, they become a menace. They become the golden calf of the unintelligent or time-servers, with whom so many organizations are plentifully supplied. They become not an aid to work, but the very essence of work. The people who fill them think that, once they have done so, they have completed their task and can relax, their job done. Checklists have so few disastrous consequences only because so much human activity is completely inessential in the first place.

I saw a great deal of checklisting in my career. For example, when the prison department grew alarmed at the number of suicides in prison, or perhaps I should say at the publicity being given to the number of suicides in prison, it developed a form that in effect was a checklist, to be applied to any prisoner thought to be in the least suicidal or likely to attempt suicide (not quite the same thing).

The purpose of this form, I soon discovered, was not so much to prevent suicide as to prevent criticism after the suicide had taken place: For if the form had been filled correctly, it was possible to argue that all that could have been done to prevent it was in fact done. This kind of magical thinking was accepted more or less wholesale by the courts investigating the suicides of prisoners.


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