The term “checklist” was made popular by Dr. Atul Gawande. He found that using checklists in the medical field helped save lives. I’m interested in using checklists to help us be more effective at what we do.

We all tend to suffer from human fallibility to some degree. The human brain is imperfect, it will be distracted, and it will fail to remember everything that needs to be done. It will make it difficult to coordinate with other people.

We expect ourselves and others to never forget a thing and to use our head to store everything, but this never works.

Stuff falls through the cracks when we overlook them. Ignoring these small things can cause big problems. These are minor things that could be easily avoided.

When we combine the human brain with a checklist, we make sure that basic things aren’t forgotten and that we put ourselves in a position to master the thing that we’re trying to do.

We should be systematic about what we do. It’s not about dumbing things down. The point is to not think about things that are routine because they take up valuable real estate in our minds.

According to Gawande, checklists are well-written guides that walk us through the key steps in any complex procedure, or anything that requires a series of steps to complete. There are critical reminder-type lists that we all need in order to let our minds relax. This goes back to creating order.

My application of checklist is simpler, yet equally effective. If I’m doing the same set of things more than once, chances are that I need a checklist. For instance, when you’re traveling, and you always pack the same set of things, why think about them? Why not have a checklist of those things so that you don’t have to think about them every time you travel? You simply take out that list and check off things to pack, which frees your valuable attention on more pressing matters. In this example, the point is to have a critical list of a few things that you need for travel no matter what. Of course, having and using a checklist is not meant to be a tickbox exercise; its to make sure that before you do anything, no problem remains unaddressed.

There are a few reasons for having (and using) checklists:

  • Checklists bring order to your private universe. It frees up the mental RAM allowing you to be fully creative.

  • When we externalize routine things to a checklist, it allows us to be present and it gives us the space to be fully creative.

  • Checklists make whatever is inside of our minds explicit. It removes the need for thinking about things that don’t require thinking; this saves valuable time and attention for things that we need to think about.

  • Checklists help us figure out the patterns in our mistakes, thus driving peak performance. It’s not about doing the right things so much as not doing the wrong things.

  • The reason for having (and using) checklists is to make sure no necessary steps are overlooked and that everything is in order.

  • Checklists make it easy for us to manage the complexity of our work. It helps us focus on the key things we can never miss.

  • In any team environment, checklists can be huge — be it surgical environments or teams in organizations. It helps everyone be on the same page without confusion, which leaves zero room for misinterpretation.

  • Checklists make doing the mundane/routine tasks easy/automatic (no thinking required). This can be especially critical because failing to do routine tasks can lead to big problems from ignorance and/or ineptitude.

If there are so many benefits of using checklists, why don’t we use them in our everyday life? Well, for one, having (and using) a checklist is perceived as a sign of weakness by most. We let our ego get in the way by thinking we don’t need them. What we forget is that using checklists don’t undermine our intelligence, it enables it. We resist the mundane task of ticking a check box and/or following a predefined protocol. When it comes to doing routine tasks, we rely on our judgement and perceived thoroughness. And this is often where we fail.

Gawande points out in his book that we fail for two reasons: ignorance (mistakes we make because we don’t know enough), and ineptitude (mistakes we make because we don’t make proper use of what we know). He says that mistakes happen not mostly from ignorance, but from our inability to manage the complexity in our work.

When things become increasingly complex, checklists not only help, but are required for success. They help us in being more disciplined when it comes to driving performance.

Of course, using checklists also requires tremendous self-discipline, which we’re not built for, and is something we need to work at. Having a checklist in any work environment is not a passive process. It requires self-engagement.

So how do we go about making a checklist? There are some basic things you want to make sure that you don’t forget. Think about the steps you need as a kind of discipline every time you’re doing something that can help you be prepared for the unexpected.

Determine the sets of things that are recurring in your life. For instance, if you travel a lot, you might consider having a travel checklist of things you want to do before, during, and after travel.

When creating a checklist, don’t worry about adding all of the things to it immediately. Focus on having the essential. Use the Explore, Evaluate, Execute process to create your initial list. Then, tweak the list over time. Don’t worry about having a perfect list at the outset — you won’t, and that’s okay. Learn what works and add/remove things over time. Creating a checklist is not a one-time thing. It is dynamic and evolving all the time.

When it comes to creating (and using) checklists with others, make them as granular as possible so that anyone reading that knows exactly what’s going on (leaving zero room for misinterpretation). They need to be precise, to the point, and practical. Not everything warrants having a checklist. Use fewer checklists for only the essential things. Also, the fewer the number of items on checklists, the better. Make sure that you only have the most critical things on them.

Pick a tool that makes it easy and quick for you to create these checklists. I use OmniOutliner Pro to create and print my checklists, though any outlining application (with the ability to create check boxes) should suffice. The important thing is that there should be no friction with creating these lists. Less friction raises the chances of you actually using the tool.

You’ll see practical applications of checklists around you everywhere:

  • Use a travel checklist for efficient travel. Having it doesn’t mean that you pack everything that you have on your list. It just means that you want to consider all the options so you don’t miss anything critical.

  • Have (and use) a daily checklist for doing the essential every day.

  • Do a daily review to stay on top of your commitments.

  • Review your projects every week to keep your Trusted System current and up to date, which gives you the right amount of control and focus. Doing a regular review of your projects requires having a process in place. Reviews could include weekly, monthly, quarterly, semi-annual, and annual.

  • Checklists can be great when creating any kind of report.

  • Checklists can make it easy for you to delegate things to others.

  • Morning and evening routine is a great example of sub-conscious checklists for things you do every day without thinking.

  • Any kind of service company that checks you in. For instance, hotels and car rental companies have a list of things they need to do when renting out a room and a car.

  • Other examples include checklists for pre-flight, medical surgery, quality testing, emergency evacuation, event planning, etc.

Powerful, well-designed and effectively implemented checklists can be instrumental in reducing mistakes no matter what type of work we do.

To be great at what we do is about having self-discipline and humility. We’ll never be great at what we do if we just keep thinking about doing things in our heads. It requires the willingness to have discipline.

Checklists can help us navigate the extreme complexity of our lives. Having checklists doesn’t restrict you, but it liberates you and gives you the space to be fully creative and think about things that actually require thinking.

No matter how expert we may be, well-designed checklists can help us all improve outcomes in our lives. Don’t underestimate the power of checklists. It can save time, money, and even lives.

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