Taking a tick-box approach

Space shuttle commanders use them. Airline pilots use them. Lifeboat crew members use them. And I use them. They are the backbone of a well-organised operation. And if you’re not already making use of them, you should start to do so right now. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you… the checklist.

Admittedly, a list of tasks and some ticky boxes might not be everyone’s idea of a cutting-edge business phenomenon. But a checklist can be an incredibly powerful tool. And here’s why.

List Screenshot
Part of the checklist for my weekly review (recorded on Todoist, my go-to app for lists)

For a start, a well-designed checklist helps you to do things right. And not just one time, but every time. Whether you’re preparing a 747 for take-off or getting ready for a team meeting.

They also stop you from forgetting things. Which, handily, also takes away the need to worry about forgetting things.

I have a checklist of things to take when I go training with my younger dog, for example. Because when she’s racing back to me from a textbook emergency recall is not the time to realise that I’ve neglected to bring her favourite ball.

A checklist also stops you from – deliberately or inadvertently – cutting corners. Because you have to consciously confirm that you’ve done something. And possibly even literally had to tick it off.

And when the pressure’s on, having a checklist of things to do means you can spend less time thinking about the best course of action and more time doing whatever it is you actually need to do to resolve the situation.

If they’re retained in paper or electronic form, checklists also provide a handy record that you’ve done something. I perform an annual service of my rowing club’s lifejackets, for example, and I tick things off on a list as I check them. So in the unlikely event that anyone asks, I can bombard them with enough paperwork to keep them busy for weeks.

The very act of preparing a checklist can also, in my experience, be highly beneficial. By forcing us to break down an activity into its constituent components and to reflect on how we approach them, it can help us to find better or more efficient ways of approaching these activities and tasks. Thus saving time, effort and money.

For me, though, checklists are about peace of mind. They allow me to think about and to record how I want to approach a particular task, so that when I actually come to do it I don’t have to reinvent the wheel or to worry about forgetting something important. And I get to pretend – for a moment, at least – that I’m a space shuttle commander, preparing to land on an unknown world.

If you’re interested in learning more about the power of checklists (and, let’s face it, who among us isn’t?), I’d recommend Atul Gawande‘s ‘The Checklist Manifesto’ (though buy it from your local independent bookshop, please). Or check out Matt D’Avella‘s short video on how checklists can boost productivity.

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