The Surprising Power of Checklists

This week, I went to a conference. It was my first in-person conference since the pandemic. It was a two-day event, so that meant an overnight stay. To prepare for my time away from home, I did something I hadn’t done in years; I packed a bag.

This comparatively simple task took a lot longer than I imagined. I packed the things I knew I would need, but just when I thought I was done, I remembered something I had forgotten.

My Apple Watch charger, allergy pills, water bottle, and a collection of other small things failed to find their way into my bag on the first attempt. In my head, I struggled to think why. I knew that I needed them. I packed them for all my previous trips, so why didn’t I pack them this time?

The answer was obvious. I needed a checklist.

Checklists Are Everywhere

Up until that moment, I was never sold on the idea of checklists. I have a task manager to help remind me about the things I need to do, but checklists? I never really understood the value that they had.

The truth is, checklists are much more common than you might think. Last month, I bought a new car. After days of haggling over the price, I walked into the business manager’s office, ready to sign my life away.

When I was done with the endless stream of papers he put in front of me, he reached for one more. It was a checklist. Line by line, he worked his way down the list to make sure we had signed all of the papers that needed to be signed.

Checklists Save Lives

In the aviation world, pilots use a preflight checklist to ensure that everything on an aircraft is working correctly and that the proper precautions are being taken for the safety of everyone on board.

Unfortunately, this is not without good reason. Studies have shown that improper or non-use of checklists is a major contributing factor to aircraft accidents.

In his book, The Checklist Manifesto, Atul Gawande gives many more examples of how critical a checklist can be. For instance, in 2007, the World Health Organization introduced its Surgical Safety Checklist. They trialed it in eight different hospitals, and the results were remarkable.

Deaths fell by almost 50%, and so did infections. In addition, the checklist saved the lives of 27 people, and 150 more patients were spared from human error in the operating room.

Photo by JAFAR AHMED on Unsplash

How to Write a Good Checklist

Essentially, there are two types of checklists you could create.

  1. Checklists you use after you have completed a task
  2. Checklists you use before you begin a task

The business manager at my car dealership used a checklist after completing all the paperwork. He gave me everything he thought I needed to sign, and then he checked the list to make sure he didn’t miss anything.

On the other hand, a pilot will complete a checklist before flying the aircraft. This ensures that problems are identified while the plane is still on the ground. Issues like these are easier to fix and don’t cause a flight risk for the passengers or crew.

A good checklist should be concise. If you can keep everything on one page, so much the better. Nobody wants to wade through pages of tasks on a checklist, so limit your items to the most crucial steps.

Checklists also need to be precise. There is no room for ambiguity. Attach any values or measures required to make a task more specific or accurate. For example, don’t put “Set loudness” on your checklist if you are leveling audio in a podcast. Instead, write “Set loudness to -16 LUFS.”

Finally, you need to test and revise your list. Can it be more efficient? Does it need more clarity? Have all the necessary steps been included? These are essential questions to ask.

The Best Checklist Apps

There are fewer checklist apps than you may think. For instance, you can create checkboxes in apps like Google Keep, but you either have to duplicate the list before you check things off or manually uncheck all the tasks once you are done.

Instead, you need a checklist app that can create recurring tasks or reset a checklist with just one click. Here are some apps that do just that.


If you want to add more precision and efficiency to your life, checklists are a great place to start. They are easy to make, and their effectiveness has been proven time and time again. You won’t need them for every repetitive task you do, but when you work out the best place to use them, you’ll be shocked at the amount of time they save you.

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