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What I’ve Learned from Bomber Pilots

In 1935, the prototype of a new bomber plane, known as the “Flying Fortress” crashed just seconds after it took off. Two of the five of the crewmembers, all of whom were experienced pilots, engineers, or mechanics, died in the crash. The cause of the crash was the failure of the crew to remember to unlock a simple mechanism.

This incident is related in an  episode of Hidden Brain, a terrific podcast hosted by Shankar Vedantam, NPR’s social science correspondent. Apparently, at least partially because of that tragedy, all airplane pilots now go through a checklist before they take off. Vedantam then interviews Atul Gawande, a prominent surgeon and the author of The Checkbook Manifesto, a brilliant book in which Gawande recounts how he developed a pre-operative checklist for surgeons and operating room staff and how this system has now been widely adapted in hospitals throughout the country to increase patient safety.

This podcast got me thinking about checklists on a broader scale. No, I can’t be a bomber pilot — my eyesight probably isn’t good enough— and my surgery days are over. But I do like the idea of a checklist— not as a to-do list, but more like what pilots and surgeons use it for: to create the list of things they need to do to assure a good outcome.. So I’ve decided to make myself a Self-Care Checklist.

In order for checklists to be effective, Gawande stresses that they need to be brief, specific — and, most of all, practical. In that spirit, here’s what I’ve come up with so far for my daily checklist:

  • Thirty minutes or more of physical activity

  • Five servings or more of vegetables and fruit. 

  • Thirty minutes or more of meaningful conversation.

And that’s it. I chose these three items because for me, they serve as anchors to help me be healthier, happier, and focused on what I need to do on a daily basis to assure a good outcome. Very simple.

If you create your own list, please share — I’d love to hear your thoughts.