“I thought you said we didn’t need my tent!”

I had been happily setting up what I thought was my tent for the evening, but this snippet of conversation from the other side of the clearing dragged me out of my wilderness reverie. We were 18km into a four-day canoe trip, setting up camp on a beautiful island on a remote lake. Missing tents were not going to improve anyone’s experience of the adventure.

Still, there it was: six people and two 2-man tents. At least two of our number were a tent short of covered. Not good.

We were all too big to attempt sardine style sleeping arrangements in the available tents. And neither the fresh bear scat we’d found on arrival nor the poultry-sized mosquitoes of this patch of forest made sleeping under the stars anything other than suicidal.

It got worse. By the time we got to dinner we were clear that we were short on water bottles, and cutlery too. At breakfast we discovered we had enough coffee for two days of normal consumption, plus a couple of days of headaches. Oh dear. Now there was some danger of homicide as well.

“But wait”, I hear you saying, “Aren’t you the GTD® guy? Why didn’t you have a checklist for the trip?”

That’s the thing, we had a checklist. A good one. Built on a four-way call by grown-ups reasonably experienced with this kind of thing, and then bettered over ensuing weeks after an overnight practice trip. Everything was on the list.

So how come no tent, no coffee, and the shortage of spoons?

Well, just as there is no system for organising your life that can help you if you don’t have a good strong ‘no’ muscle, there is no checklist that will help you if you don’t look at it in appropriate moments.

A few of us were looking at the checklist individually but not together, and not at crucial points in the run-up to our departure.

Let’s look again at that last sentence. Some of us were looking at the list, and some of us were assuming that someone else was looking at the list. We had a subtle but significant accountability problem.

We were looking at the list as individuals, but assuming – not checking – that all of the things that people had committed to doing were getting done.

We were not looking at the list when it would have been of most use: just prior to departure. As I think about it now, I think we missed two steps:

  • A follow up to our prep-call with all of us on board, to check that we’d all done what we said we’d do
  • A final check before setting out, with the checklist in hand and everything out of the bags to see that it was all with us

The good news? It was a summer trip, with temperatures in the 20s during the day, and mid-teens overnight. Despite a few missing items and extremely sore shoulders that come with paddling into a seemingly omnidirectional headwind and humping canoes over interminable portages, no one was ever going to die.

A tarp and some mosquito netting was improvised into a tent-like construction, spoons were shared, and coffee was rationed. Mostly we got to laugh about our stupidity in supplying our venture, and enjoy the radical change in perspective and use of time that comes with zero connectivity. We read books, played cards – even charades were briefly in the mix, until the vampire chickens descended at dusk. Everyone expressed interest in a longer adventure sometime soon.

The benefit of having even a bad or unused checklist is that you can improve it as you notice things missing or identify opportunities for enhancement. Between us, we collected 26 items as we went through the trip, and our checklist is now much more fit for purpose.

First item on the list?:

  • Look at checklist

Last item?

  • Book massage for date of return.
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