The Catastrophe Checklist Manifesto: Simple Art of Overcoming Any (Shitty) Situation

In the event of decompression, an oxygen mask will automatically appear in front of you. Place it firmly over your nose and mouth, secure the elastic band behind your head, and breathe normally. If you are traveling with a child or someone who requires assistance, secure your mask on first, and then assist the other person.

What would you do in an emergency plane landing?

I am sure you have heard the word “checklist.” Your first thought may be a grocery list or a to-do list. Items on a page, in no specific order, that you must complete to achieve the desired outcome. But, if you are anything like I was, you may not understand the hidden power, and beauty, of a mindfully crafted checklist.

I first came to the simple power of checklists on a flight to Chicago. I was talking to the pilot before takeoff, asking him loads of questions about flying and life in the air. I have always been curious, and frightened, by the idea of flying a plane for a living, and I wanted to hear first hand how he dealt with certain situations.

When I asked him the question, what would you do in an emergency plane landing, his answer was surprising. “I’d use my checklist,” he said. In retrospect, it was not the best question to ask, as he swiftly moved on to something else, but I was intrigued by his answer.

A checklist? In an emergency situation? That can’t be, so I did some research and low and behold, I was proven wrong, once again.

A pilot does not rely on training or instinct to save passengers in a crash landing. Nor does he/she ascribe to a habitual method of doing routine business. Almost every action taken in the cockpit can be attributed to a checklist, a step-by-step guide to completing a task, no matter how dire the circumstances.

When you are navigating a plane thousands of feet above the ground it is not a matter of what you know, but rather what systems you have in place.

That is why checklists are so valuable, for pilots and you. But, before diving into how to create a checklist a checklist to manage your stressful situations skillfully, let’s first understand the why behind the checklist.

Why Systems Matter

Pilot’s have two types of checklists, non-normal and normal.

Non-normal checklists, a descriptive, albeit unimaginative term, are included in a book called the Quick Reference Handbook, located in the cockpit. Typically, there are two in each plane. One for the captain and one for the first officer. The QRH incorporates checklists for hundreds of situations and malfunctions, from minor to catastrophic, that the pilots can reference during flight. This is the type we will be discussing in the article below.

Normal checklists more closely resemble your typical to-do list. They are printed on paper, usually laminated, with each piece of paper containing up to twelve separate checklists. The normal checklist cover routine activities that take place every flight. Preflight. Pushback and Engine Start. Approach. They are usually short and take a few seconds to perform. However, no matter the seniority of a pilot, they are always followed.

Pilots understand the enormous power of systems. The checklist being one of the most important. It is part of their ecosystem and can steer them in the right direction when all hell breaks lose.

Couldn’t they just memorize the checklists?

Sure. I’m positive that the pilots are intelligent enough to remember the checklists.

So why don’t they?

Because pilots know better than anyone that how you do anything is how you do everything. If they miss one item on the pre-flight checklist or if they forget a few lines on the approach, the results could be devastating and deadly.

It is not about ego when you are carrying hundreds of passengers through the air; it is about systems. Your training and talents only go so far, and when lives are on the line, it is best to have a system devoid of human emotion that can handle anything that crosses your path.

Checklist Manifesto

In his book Checklist Manifesto, Atul Gawande beautiful articulates the lateral application of using checklists in the medical profession to treat patients quicker and more efficiently. However, he received criticism from the medical community, knocking him for diluting their profession down to a checklist. They viewed his use of a checklist as an attack of their talents, therefore their egos, and many dismissed his revolutionary findings.

Luckily for the rest of us non-medical people, Gawande carried on with his assertion and has effectively changed the lives of thousands of individuals around the world through the use of checklists. What he realized, that some medical professionals didn’t, is that by using a system like a checklist, you remove human error and judgment, and rely on a vetted process to achieve a desirable outcome. Not only is this better for the patient, but it also decreases the decision fatigue of the doctor, allowing them to have more creative energy to solve the tough cases.

Although checklists cannot be used everywhere in medicine, there are certain areas where they can, and thanks to Gawande, they are being implemented. Whether you are manning an aircraft, treating infectious diseases, or dealing with everyday stress at work, it can be massively valuable to have a checklist in hand.

Catastrophe Checklist: Dealing with Negative (Shitty) Situation

In meditation, you learn to still the waters and listen to the ripples inside your mind. The more you practice, the better you will get at being aware of stimuli, or malfunctions, that cause unskillful results and/or negative emotions. Similar to a pilot being aware of something wrong in the cockpit, you will become conscious of the signal in the noise. But unless you have a checklist to follow, you will rely on your past conditioning to react, which as we discussed above, could lead to tragic outcomes.

For me, the idea of creating a checklist to systematically deal with painful emotions in the moment was novel. Even after talking with the pilot and reading Gawande’s book, it wasn’t until months later that I had the diligence to figure out how to apply it to my own life.

Much like the medical professionals in the example above, I was initially put off. I viewed the checklist as a coping mechanism that would act as a crutch, taking me further from healing.

I suffered from what Ramit Sethi calls the unique snowflake syndrome. Wherein I believed that my form of stress and anxiety was so unique that no remedy or piece of advice would ever work. The moment this changed was during a journaling session when I posed this question to my subconscious:

How can I use checklists in my life to make it better/easier?

My conclusion was that if I could use checklists to deal with anxiety, similar to a pilot dealing with adverse conditions, I could drastically improve my life.

At first, I kept ‘normal’ checklists on a piece of paper in my wallet, in case I forgot the steps, which I tend to do when my monkey mind is really trying to escape his cage. Eventually, it became a habit and I no longer needed to carry them around. I had created an automatic system (i.e. checklist) to combat my stressful situations.

Anger. Anxiety. Fear. Stress. You name it; I had a checklist for it. I started to notice myself working with the surge of negative emotions quicker and more effectively than ever before. I was not coping; I was healing.

After a while the number of checklists became unwieldy, so I started to combine them until I ended up with a single, comprehensive list that worked in any stressful situation, which I now call the Catastrophe Checklist.

Before creating this mindfulness system, I had no set way of dealing with negative events, and so my brain would fall back into its caveman tendencies of fight or flight. However, after I introduced the checklist, I began to rewire my brain to act skillfully in the face of negativity. A month or two in, the checklist started to become the default.

Anxiety was not absent, but when the feeling arose in my body, I was able to diminish it quickly and get back to the activity at hand. Just as the pilot knows there will always be complications, I started to accept that negative feelings and emotions will always be there, and it was up to me to incorporate systems that could solve them.

My brain is far from being completely rewired, but I continue to grow 1% each day, and that, to me, is success. I found it extremely helpful to have an outline of a practical checklist when I was first getting started, so I have included my Catastrophe Checklist below. I hope it will give you a good outline for where to start. However, be willing to adjust the individual components until you find the cadence that works best for you. Learn the system, not the specifics.

The Catastrophe Checklist (20 – 30 seconds)

[ ] Notice the change in your physiology and breathing

[ ] Move your attention to the breath, which will be the anchor keeping you grounded

[ ] Feel your stomach expand; stay with this until the apex

[ ] Feel your belly contract; stay with this until all air is gone from your lungs

[ ] Breathe in for six seconds

[ ] Hold breath for six seconds

[ ] Breathe out for ten seconds

[ ] Repeat (3x)

[ ] Become aware of where you feel the tension in your body* (stomach, chest, neck, throat?)

[ ] Send the inflow and outflow of the breath to this region of the body

[ ] Repeat (3x)

[ ] Move to your thoughts or the stimulus of the reaction

[ ] Be curious. What caused this emotion to arise?

[ ] Ask yourself: Am I in danger? Can I do anything right now to solve what I am worried about?

[ ] If no, move forward with your day. Focusing on your breath for the next 3 – 5 minutes. Slowly drink a 12 oz glass of water

[ ] If yes, act skillfully in the moment. You have created space between the stimulus and your response, so you have the power to act in your best interest. Act swiftly, do not meddle. Mindfulness is not about inaction; it is about skillful action.

*Take note of where you feel the sensation in your body, so you can update this step in the future to say become aware of how the stress feels in your “body part.” Knowing this will speed up recovery

Ladies and gentlemen, as you start creating your checklist, please make sure your seat backs and tray tables are in their full upright position. Make sure your seatbelt is securely fastened, and all carry-on luggage is stowed underneath the seat in front of you or the overhead bins. Thank you.

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