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Why Checklists Work

Check markIn The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right, surgeon Atul Gawande argues that one of the most basic organizational tools — the simple checklist — can improve the effectiveness of teams and individuals performing complex tasks. When properly conceived and used, a checklist ensures communication and confirmation among members of a team and catches errors. Even small errors can be a matter of life or death for a surgeon’s patient, whose care is handled by a large number of people, each performing different subtasks for the larger procedure. When Gawande’s team introduced a two-minute checklist to eight hospitals as part of a research study in 2008, deaths dropped 47%.

When are Checklists Helpful?

Airplane pilots rely upon checklists to ensure that both routine procedures and emergency responses are handled appropriately. In both kinds of situations, human memory is fallible. When an emergency arises, you may be injured or stressed and unable to think clearly. A checklist of people to notify in case of an emergency including neighbors, family members, doctors, veterinarians, and insurance agents can help. When the electricity goes out is not the time to be wishing you had internet access to find out the number to call to report a power outage. (Yes, all those numbers should be programmed into your cell phone too.)

Consider other possible household emergencies and how checklists might help. For instance, an emergency checklist with instructions on how to shut off the water or power supply to your home can be helpful, particularly if other family members might be unfamiliar with those tasks. If you are under stress because an extreme weather situation is impending for your area, it’s helpful to have an emergency preparedness checklist to make sure that you don’t forget anything.

Routine tasks that you perform every day can become blurred in your memory because they are so similar day to day. These mundane tasks can still benefit from a checklist, if the steps of the task are important enough that you want to make sure they won’t be omitted.

For example: I go to yoga class an average of four times per week and I’ve been going to this studio for over seven years. So at a conservative estimate, I’ve packed my yoga bag 1400 times. Most of the time, I get it right. But still, every couple months or so, I’ll arrive at class and will be missing something. If I’m interrupted while I’m packing my bag, or if I’m just busy thinking about something else, it’s easy to leave out my towel or post-workout sweatshirt. Once I made a checklist, it helped me avoid those frustrating mistakes.

Two Kinds of Checklists

There are basically two kinds of checklists, according to Daniel Boorman of Boeing, with whom Gawande consulted:

  • Read-Do: you read each step of the task, and then perform them in order, checking them off as you go, like following a recipe.
  • Do-Confirm: you perform steps of the task from memory until you reach a defined pause point, when you go through the checklist and confirm that each step has been completed.

If the pause point for going through the checklist takes too long, users tend to stop paying attention to the checklist process. Gawande recommends no more than ten items on a checklist for each pause point in the process. (Others suggest that five to seven items is ideal, given that seven items is typically the limit for most people’s short-term memory.) Many personal or household checklists (as compared with surgical or piloting procedures) would only consist of seven items anyway, rather than a longer list broken into subgroups.

Creating Your Checklist

Keep it simple: one page, easy-to-read font, with pause points clearly marked. Project Check’s checklist for checklists offers additional suggestions aimed at teams, but adaptable for personal use.

Make it useable: for a checklist to be most effective, you need to actually be able to check items off. This sounds obvious, but once you start glancing at the list and only thinking about its items, your memory is subject to the same blurring problem. Consider different options:

  • You can create a printable checklist in a word processing or spreadsheet program
  • You can use post-it notes or index cards for short checklists
  • For repeated use with less waste, consider making a laminated list or using a plastic sheet protector and checking items off with a dry-erase marker.
  • Digital checklists lists abound: try Google Tasks, Remember the Milk, Teaux-Deaux, or TaDaLists

Try it out and edit as necessary: after a few uses, evaluate whether you’ve included all the necessary steps and whether the checklist is easy and fun to use.

As we head back to school, checklists can help make daily routines go more smoothly and ensure that you leave the house with all your necessary items. Consider making separate checklists for different members of your household, since even young children can use a checklist with pictures instead of words for each item. Completing a simple checklist not only helps accomplish routine tasks, but increases a sense of personal accomplishment.

How might you use a checklist to improve some aspect of your daily routine? Let us know in the comments!

[Creative Commons licensed image by flickr user PNASH]

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