How Checklists Make You Smarter – The Works

Apollo 17 Lunar Surface Checklist

“Discovering” something that everyone else knows about is like planting your nation’s flag in the flower bed at the mall and feeling accomplished for the effort. To say that I’ve come to understand that checklists are a huge part of The Works (the absolute must-do parts of business, sometimes also called the Grind), is really to my embarrassment and to your possible advantage, if only to hear my thoughts, and even if it’s to nod simply and sagely, and acknowledge that you arrived there first.

Checklists are what drives one through The Works.

Checklists Push You To Cover More Ground

We are driven by a need to feel accomplishment that comes from some place far back in our primal days. Kill a sabertooth and you are cheered by the tribe. Fail to bring home dinner and people might die. It’s primal. Though I believe strongly that external sources of praise (or criticism) aren’t useful to us, I’m pretty darned sure that when you drive your own sense of pride, it’s a good thing.

If I write down three tasks to accomplish, I can try and hit all three in a day. If I write down 29 tasks and hit seven, it’s more than three. From what I’ve observed in my own behaviors, somewhere in the middle is best. Push yourself to accomplish as many tasks as you believe you can, and set a number of tasks that’s a stretch to reach, but that isn’t insurmountable. In this way, you can cover more ground.

Checklists Free Your Mind for Creative Thinking

A lot of what we do in The Works of our own business is grinding stuff that simply has to be done. Paying bills or invoicing customers falls into this. Making sure you check the links in your newsletter is that kind of work. Every time you can put together a checklist, especially a repeatable one for series of tasks that you might perform more than once, you’re giving yourself a lot more opportunity to have your brain wide open for other pursuits, such as problems that might arise, any nuances that could also aid the experience, and/or any creativity that might benefit your business efforts.

Checklists Cover Your Back

In my days of product support and release engineering in telecom, we wrote MOPs: method of procedure documents, and these were used internally for all the details of an upgrade or similar projects, and they were used externally to explain to our partners how we conducted our business. Quite often, we’d learn something from executing against our MOP documents that would find its way into a future iteration of the process. Other times, we’d experience a problem that wasn’t any where near predictable. In those cases, we’d do what we could to adjust future MOPs, but it was part of our experience to learn that not everything can be covered. I’ll tell you that visiting your Vice President, several other VPs, and sometimes the client whose whole platform you disrupted was a little bit easier to deal with if you had what felt like a strong list of procedures in a reasonable order and with a lot of care and consideration.

Consider Three Types of Checklists

In my mind, there are (at least) 3 types of checklists you might consider for improving your own business, and for getting through The Works. First are tasks that are personal and repeatable. You might put your health and fitness goals in this category, for instance, plus any growth projects you’re pursuing like learning guitar or practicing another language.

The second kind of checklist would be repeatable processes, which you might use for projects like creating your newsletter, or publishing your blog, or doing the actual guts of the work that relates to your business. These are repeatable and could be gathered into packs of lists that would invoke the concept of “project.”

The third list is more of a daily task list, and it should be your “to do’s” and errands and whatever you’re pursuing that is something that might repeat, but is more calendar-minded in nature. Reminder to get the cat’s shots updated would fit well on this list, as would a reminder to check in with your vendor who hasn’t returned with a price quote yet.

With these three types of checklists, you will find a lot more ease of experience in getting through the grind. Are you using any kind of checklists or systems like this yourself? Have you seen a difference when you pursue your lists than when you don’t? What did I miss in the system?

What’s your experience? I’m sure we’d love to hear it. I know I would. runs on the Genesis Framework

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  • Dragan Bosnjak

    I recommend you to read The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande for some explanations why checklists are so important and how they can improve your private and work life!

  • Ricardo Bueno

    I definitely think that checklists help you maintain some level of sanity in the chaos that exists in being an entrepreneur (or a creative). I write mine the night before. Sometimes in my notebook and on my iPhone (I’m using Any.DO on the iPhone). It’s a pretty simple, and awesome app and I’ve set it on the dock on my homescreen so that the little annoying, red notification serves as a reminder of the tasks I need to get done for the day whenever I’m looking to get distracted.

    But here’s another cool app I’m using that I find kind of revealing… I’m using aTimeLogger to track how much time I spend on various activities throughout the day (exercise, reading, web surfing, sleep, etc.). It logs and creates a report for each of those things.

    It’s kind of a self-audit so I can see where I’m being productive and where I need to improve.

    • Margaret Fisher

      Absolutely love Any.DO! Being able to add a task wherever I am is a lifesaver. I also track my time for client and my own admin work with Paymo. Developing systems is far easier when you know how much time each task will take you to complete. Great post Chris!

  • Christopher Somers

    Great stuff. I try to use a checklist everyday. In my biz, there is SO much to do that if you forget one thing (a follow-up call or a follow-up email, you may lose a potential client.

  • Sebastián Lora

    Indeed, I’ve always (in my professional life) found that crafting (check) lists of things that must be done is a sure way to end up doing them and not leaving any behind. However, what I’ve found most “powerful” in my day-to-day life, is setting the alarm on my mobile phone to remind me of things I need to do, be it water my neighbour’s plants when she’s away or prepare my next meeting with my boss. Online and portable checklist.

  • Jarie Bolander

    Checklists are invaluable. We would use them all the time when I was getting my private pilots license. Those checklists were essential for a safe flight and instilled in every pilot the confidence that you would not miss something.

    I extended that positive experience to my work life with checklists for key critical aspects of what I do. It helps tremendously to not have to spend time thinking about the mechanics of a process — all you have to do is follow the checklist.

  • Alan Fowler

    Great post, and I’m a big believer in the power of checklists. I’ve been developing checklists for my law firm.
    Does anyone use anything other than a wordprocessing document to create their checklists?

    • Kristin

      I use my calendar as part of my checklist process. Many parts of work must be done for repeating events, sometimes solo, sometimes part of a team. So for each event, We have 3-4 calendar invites created: 1) send out a reminder to clients 1 week prior to event, and double check facility, order catering, etc.; 2) after event, ship equipment to next site, double check feedback survey was sent, etc.
      At the beginning of the year we also set up calendar meetings for our newsletter. That includes the checklist to review for topics, dates (write, review, test links, send) in the meeting, etc. This way, GTD indirectly, we have these in the calendar rather than digging through emails or askign each other – when did we agree to send out the newsletter next?

  • Christina Bauer

    I NEED checklists in order to get things done on time! There’s usually so much going on with work and my personal life, that without checklists, I’d be lost and would usually forget to do something. Great post!

  • Ryan Hess

    Checklists are a great motivator for me. I get a great feeling of accomplishment every time I complete something and physically get to check it off the list. Great post Chris.

  • jenn4good

    I would be completely lost without lists, in both my personal world and work world. I definitely do find that I accomplish more, and more efficiently, when I have my list in front of me – it’s that satisfaction and strive to check things off!

  • David Kemper

    Thanks for the post. I can tell whether a day will be productive or wasted on whether or not I have a checklist for the day. I use PlannerPad. I write a list of thee things I want to accomplish by client, plust admin, personal and prospects, then block these into days. If I’m too busy to create a checklist, then I need to slow down, because Ive become a “Human Doing” rather than a “Human Being.”

  • John Deisher Jr.

    I have a daily “To Don’t” list of things I know are upcoming but I don’t want to distract from that days work. If I start to work on/think about it, I dismiss it because i know i will work on it, but just not today. It helps me to focus on that days priorities.

    • Chris Brogan

      Definitely good.

  • Darleen

    I need lists and accomplish more with a list. I group all from all categories into one list per calendar day. If I separate then cannot schedule.
    There is a master list and daily list. Personal items must get done and then business list is scheduled. We are currently going through a renovation and wedding for daughter – without lists nothing would get done. My husband doesnt use lists other than calendar – this calls me a nag ;) I think that is same as project manager :)

    • laineyd7

      Nag = project manager – I like it!

  • Dixie Redmond

    I hate the idea that I need a checklist, but I do. My biggest accomplishments involved checklists.

    But I tweeted this about checklists, “Making checklists are like wearing tight pants after vacation; w bit uncomfortable but they help direct yourmfuture actions.”

    I should change my viewpoint about them and see them more as launching pads.

    • Chris Brogan

      You and me both. We want to think we can just roam free.

  • Bridgette Collado

    I totally agree; checklists are a must. Must echo that it frees up space for creativity.

  • Patti Fousek

    You know, I’ve tried online project management tools, task apps, etc. The only thing that really works for me is the good old fashioned check list. Putting pen to paper makes it somehow more important.

    • Chris Brogan

      Yeah. I’m in the same boat. Though I *love* the new BaseCamp. SO much simpler than the old version.

  • Matthew Reed

    I am a chronically disorganized person…until I launched my own coaching business, and had no choice but to pay deep attention to details. Creating S.O.P. checklists for every part of my business has helped SO much. When I get a coaching inquiry, I know exactly what to do and how quickly. When it is billing time it all gets done. Those checklists have a memory for the details that I don’t.

    • Chris Brogan

      Me too. : )

  • Dan Kirby

    Great post – btw have you read a book called ‘the checklist manifesto’?

    I think where checklists really add value is where you call ‘repeatable processes’

    At my business Techdept we are check listing everything (and I mean everything – from credit control to estimates to testing) – pooling our experiences of “the best way” to do something… Therefore freeing up time for real creative thinking

    We task all our staff to improve these checklists – which everyone has to follow no matter their organisational status – we call it an open business system

    Kinda like the emyth ‘prototype’ concept meets open source culture

    • Chris Brogan

      Good book. I read the article it was based on instead. : )

  • Brenda Horton

    I separate my checklist into four quadrants:
    Personal (money, health, spirituality)
    Family (meal planning, vacations, home items)
    Business (that’s a big list)
    Community (volunteer, fundraising, charity)
    I then take that checklist and turn it into an action step with start dates and due dates.
    I also give it a measurement of success. In other words, I define my success by stating the outcome I am trying to achieve.
    It’s a bit more than a checklist, but a lot less complex than a project management tool.
    I am currently working on building an app called ActionPlanr that runs on a PC and Mac. It’s designed for busy women (but I think the men wil like it too.)

    • Chris Brogan

      Well that’s neat. Kind of a 7 Habits on a list.

  • Puanani Leal

    I even make checklists for dinner parties. Really detailed ones separating items by course and store. Check them off one by one until dinner is served. I keep the lists for posterity.

  • Laura West

    Systems are sexy! When I first started my biz over 10 years ago I thought freedom in my biz meant rebelling against too much structure…like checklists! Ive come to realize that the boring, mundane lists actually give you the creative freedom you desire! I love creating checklists for the repeatable stuff so you dont have to give energy thinking aout it…you spend your energy on new ideas, writing, connecting and launching…ir even maximizing what uou have already created!

    • Chris Brogan

      I like your enthusiasm. : )

  • laineyd7

    Checklists cover your back; that’s not a reason I’ve thought about, but it’s perfect. My greatest reasons for using a checklist are: 1) I actually get things done and 2) that feeling of accomplishment in seeing the item checked off on my list. I use the calendar in my phone, but my favorite “app” is a piece of paper with handwritten list, left on the counter where I’ll see and use it.

    • Chris Brogan

      Agreed. I use an index card in my back pocket.

  • Jim Kelley

    Chris very nice post…I just had a long conversation with someone about goal setting and writing down your goals and reviewing them regularly…in many ways I think of my daily lists as mini goal lists…i.e. the battles within the war of achieving my goals…I also look at my lists and check them against my goals and if there is something on my list that does not align with my goals I question why is it on the list. Keeping doing good things!


    Brenda Horton, you’re done! I’ll look to you.

  • David Delp

    For me the most important thing about list items, besides shopping lists, is that each item is an opportunity to focus. And focus feels great!

    John Deirsher Jr.’s Don’t list is a great idea. I support it whole hearted. I sometimes call them Don’t (Yet) lists. It’s so important to decide what you won’t do so you can focus on what you will do.

  • Pat Thomas

    I have always kept in-depth checklists. My reasoning: CHAOS OR CHECKLISTS! Your choice

  • Freedom Jackson

    Make plan Work Plan.

    Good post I always find it more helpful to start off the list with the most annoying aggravating item that you know you don’t want to do. That way the remainder of the day is down hill and you feel accomplished.

  • Rhys Jones

    I use checklists every day. I also apply a rule which is the opposite of one most of us were taught as children. My rule is “Try to put off to tomorrow the things that don’t have to be done today”. This rule means that the things on today’s checklist really are important. The list is not cluttered with items that can wait.
    A more sophisticated version of a checklist is a mindmap. Does anyone else use them?

    • Chris Brogan

      I love mindmaps, but I don’t use them as my to-do system. Maybe my planning before the to-do.

  • Lindsay Hunt

    I’m so much more productive when I have an agressive to-do list for the day. Otherwise, I check off my 3 items and think I’m done. I used to stress out when there were items left that I didn’t finish, but now I remind myself that I accomplished more than I would have if I only listed what I thought was possible.

  • Braden Talbot

    Just don’t put 20 things on the daily checklist.

  • Jackie Shelley

    There’s a FANTASTIC book on this by Atwul Gawande called The Checklist Manifesto. He talks a lot about how amazing checklists are for saving lives in surgery centers and in huge construction projects, like skyscrapers and stadiums.

    Ever since reading the book, I downloaded and use an app called “Ultimate Checklist.” It’s fantastic for making checklists on my iPhone, and I can then email them to myself or print them out, or just use from my phone screen.

    Great topic! I’m going to have to use this one (I plan to copycat you a lot, hun :)

    • Chris Brogan

      I read the article his book was based on and found it quite interesting, indeed. Haven’t heard of that app so will look. : )

  • Andrew Stein

    This is great perspective, for sure. I would add a fourth – Checklists benefit: “Checklists set expectations and priorities for Transformation or Change Management.” This is a bit different than the personal and repeatable.

    With so much interest in change management and corporate transformation, it’s easy to think that this can happen overnight. We definitely want to prevent that. Also, there are different priorities among leaders in the executive suite, it’s critical to set these expectations so they don’t cause failure before the team even starts.

    Transformation Lists are lists of tasks that must happen in phases. What list must be done in phase 1, 2, and then 3. What are dependencies among them? I’m not suggesting this replace full-blown project management systems, but as a consultant, I talk with executives that want to “become social media present” overnight. But they haven’t done the basic vision, mission, segmentation positioning and messaging exercises. Putting these items in a list, relating their dependencies almost always is an eye opener. And, ensures success for an outcome. And, most effectively, helps leaders show teams that they don’t have to break their backs to achieve a goal that in and of itself, looks monumental and crushing.

    • Chris Brogan

      Oh, I like that thinking, Andrew. Setting expectations is a really important part of the puzzle, too.

  • Nando

    This my language, @Chris Brogan. I’m a systematizer (and recently learned through a coach it’s an innate quality).

    Back when I was employed in a previous lifetime, I systematized everything I could: Documentation and workflow at a sign shop resulted in a 250% in productivity in my department (downside: broke the CNC router since we accelerated the maintenance schedule); at a different company, I templatized all typical commercial sign drawings produced (wham, free time to surf the web!).

    For my own use, I have the mother-of-all-WordPress-developers-checklist (ok, maybe it’s not all that, but I find it very useful for core, repeatable tasks).

    I recently discovered and dare say productivity has increased because of the ease with which I can manage my task lists. Prompted me to finally get an iPhone (app not available for Android).

    Precisely trying to cover more ground, I came up with a Blogging Workflow Checklist ( a while ago. I recently updated it, but now, as part of a new project, I’m going to split it in three (Preparation, Blogging Workflow, Online Promotion). I love the feedback I get when people let me know how this helps. Also in the works: self-help SEO, and other marketing tools for small business.

    Let me know if I can help (or if you want to see other work in progress). Good post.

    • Chris Brogan

      Very cool stuff, Nando. Thank you for sharing this. I never knew that was your bag. : )

  • Linda Adams

    The thing that frustrates me about checklists is that people often put too high a level of detail in checklists. I liked The Checklist Manifesto because it focuses on a short list of one page and only the things that need to be done. Not a detailed list that runs many pages (army PMCS) and explains everything in excruciating detail like everyone was a beginner at it. When I do one to joggle my memory, it might look like: X, Y, Z. I just need the reminder what fields I have to fill out, so not: Fill out field X with __.

    • Nando

      Very good feedback as I make lists for others to use. Maybe I should consider two lists: a low-detail list for advanced users, a high-detail list for novices.

    • Chris Brogan

      The lists I like the best are the ones that help me without me having to think much about it.

  • Lynn

    There is a need for a to do list and I love how you deconstructed it – very helpful. these are the lists that direct our will (it is cool to think of degrees of will: latency, readiness, initiation, execution and completion as Pierre Janet wrote about)

    But there are two other lists that are ridiculously essential to our fulfillment of a sense of self:
    the to THINK list – our ability to think is extraordinary but our thoughts must be free to evolve into truth and not arrogance, superiority or convention and habit. Thoughts run from truth to lie. What do you plan for your thoughts and the experience of truth?

    Then there is the to FEEL list. What creates a beautiful feeling of self? Can we master our feelings and create an ongoing experience of equanimity. How would this effect how we shape our future and the future of the world? Feelings are the cause of all wars and the basis of peace.

    These two lists are essential and often get overlooked in our drive to act.

    Chris, do you have a to THINK list? a to FEEL list?

    Thanks for the inspiration.

    • Chris Brogan

      I have a list of commitments, visions, reminders and chants that I read daily. I think that covers those two other lists. : )

  • OBVAVirtualAssistant

    When I was very young my mother use to
    make a list of the works I had to complete. It’s actually a very good habit to
    have checklists and especially for VA’s like me. Its only when you don’t have
    to remember too much you can explore the fullest.

  • Mary Legakis Engel

    I love my lists, and so does my husband… Unless his name shows up at the top! ToDo by Appigo is the best for iPhone. And you can email your list to others!

  • Alessandro Geminiani

    I’m a big checklist fan! That’s how I’ve got through postgrad…

  • Haim At Iqtell

    We’d like to invite you to try our Productivity app IQTELL.

    It manages all your checklists and connected them to all you email accounts, calendars, evernote accounts, contacts, bookmarks and more and allows you to create projects to manage them if the going gets though.

    We also support GTD (Getting Things Done).

  • Ashley Saunders

    Getting Things Done talks about the importance of checklists as well – great read to get you motivated. Remember to prioritize your lists as well.

  • Rebecca Livermore

    I love checklists because they help me get more done and also provide the sense of accomplishment.

    I find Microsoft Outlook to be a great way to manage checklists (using the tasks function) because I can set up recurring lists, turn email into tasks, prioritize, and many other things to manage them well. Once a good system is in place, it’s very easy to manage it.

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  • Bob Walsh

    +1 for The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande. However, something that has buried under the avalanche of to-do list apps. A Checklist IS NOT a to do List. The point of a checklist is to confirm that certain specific things are verified in a given situation: the patient has not been given drug X, the doctor has washed his hands, the pilot has today’s weather forecast. They may or may not be about doing something.

    What a checklist is about is improving the outcome: the post is written better, the patient doesn’t get an infection, the pilot doesn’t fly into a storm. They tend to be precisely the tiny, important, steps skipped in a hurry. And, a Checklist is repeated, not completed.

    Finding this functionality in an OS X or iOS app has eluded me so far – anyone know of a solution?

  • Shirley Tan

    I love checklist, only way I can operate my life without going crazy. Thanks for the article Chris

  • Travis Gardiner

    This was very timely for me. I am working on a large project and found myself getting bogged down. I created a simple paper check list on post it’s and wow, it was that easy.

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