Packing a Checklist

Over the past 15 months, I have spent more time in the air than I care to admit. My partner started a work contract last year that’s a three-hour flight away, which kinda precludes commuting on a daily or even weekly basis. Fortunately, some creative living arrangements and job flexibility have made it feasible for one of us to visit the other every month or so – which is great from a relationship standpoint, but combined with regular holiday travel and friends’ weddings last summer makes for a lot of time on the road and in airports.

If you travel at most once or twice a year, you could probably get by with relying on your memory to make sure everything gets packed, or perhaps jotting down an ad hoc packing list if you’re worried about missing something. Given my frequency and diversity of travel situations, this approach is too error-prone. Sure, I may remember to bring the key to my partner’s accommodations, but if I’m also attending a wedding on the same trip, will I remember to pack my suit and a pair of dress shoes?1 Depending on my work load I may need to bring one or more electronic devices – do I have all the necessary charging cords and dongles to go with them? And most importantly, did I empty the fridge before leaving?

To reduce some of the mental load, I’ve turned to a simple but great tool: checklists. There’s a great book by Atul Gawande, The Checklist Manifesto, that details how checklists have made a huge difference in reducing errors in complex fields such as aviation, skyscraper construction, and surgery, and I can attest that it also works for trip planning. My approach to using checklists uses the online app Trello, but the same principles would work for any tool that lets you easily track to-do’s and also create new lists quickly and easy from a default or template list.

Here’s what my default packing list looks like in Trello:

A list in Trello, titled "Default Lists". Cards include Clothes, Toiletries, Electronics, Miscellaneous Items, Specific Travel Situations, Dog-sitting, and House Prep.
My default packing list in Trello

Each white box represents a “card” in Trello-speak. Within a card, you can add attachments, make comments, assign due dates, and most importantly for this exercise, create checklists.

Details for the Clothes card. There are 3 checklists - General, Formal, and Clothes for specific situations - each with several items (e.g. Pants, Shirts, Socks, Underwear, and PJ's under "General").
My default Clothes card

When I start planning for a trip, the first thing I do is use Trello’s Copy List feature to create a new list that includes all of the cards (and their accompanying checklists) from the Default list.

Choosing the Copy List option
Naming the new list
Et Voila! New list created.

The next step is to remove irrelevant items. For example, if I’m staying within Canada, I can remove the International Travel list since I won’t need a passport or have to worry about taking out foreign currency in advance. Similarly, it’s unlikely (though not impossible!) that I’ll need to pack both snow boots and sandals, so I can delete those individual checklist items. Because I’m working from a copy of the Default list (and not the original list itself), I can take out unnecessary pieces while keeping them available in the Default list for future trips.

Finally, as I start pulling items together and packing things up, I can start checking completed items off. Trello has a great feature in list view that shows on each card how many checklist items there are and how many have been completed. As a bonus, the field turns green once the checklist is complete, which can provide motivation to get everything done and also shows at a glance when lists are still incomplete.

There's now a new list, "CES 2019", with the same cards as the Default list. Each card keeps a running tally of completed and total checklist items. One card has all of the items marked as complete, and is coloured green to indicate this status.
Making progress!

If you’re travelling with someone else, Trello’s multi-user support makes this checklist approach even more useful. Additional users can be invited to a Travel board, at which point they can complete checklists, add or remove items, or be assigned to specific cards. The comment feature also can be used to communicate if there are questions about list items.

Beyond Travel

While this approach of using checklists obviously works for travel planning and packing, it can also be very useful in evaluation contexts. For example, last year I created a board for a specific project and invited my contract employee to it. During the data collection and initial analysis phase, we created individual cards for each interview participant and subsequently moved those cards through different lists for the following tasks:

  • Scheduling the interview
  • Assigning the interview and conducting it
  • Uploading the audio recording and assigning transcription to one of us
  • Transcription complete
  • Coding

Thus, at a glance it’s easy to see what progress is being made on data collection and analysis. Each card also include checklists for common tasks, such as printing out consent forms, recharging the audio recorder’s batteries, and confirming the interview time and location with the participant, to make sure nothing has been forgotten.

As this post demonstrates, I’ve been happy using Trello for this form of organizing – and as a bonus, the free version is more than adequate to use it for these kinds of lists. That being said, you could use anything from heavyweight task-management apps like OmniFocus to simple note-taking apps like Bear or Apple Notes.

  1. My family can attest to the difficulty I often have in remembering the latter.