The Power of Checklists

A few years ago, if you told me a checklist would be helpful, I would have dismissed it,  My experiences with checklists has been of the army variety — an insane list of every single thing to do, complete with detailed instructions on how to do it.  The army had a Preventative Maintenance Checks and Services (PMCS) checklist we were supposed to follow when we were getting ready to use one of the trucks, as well as during, and after.  The list consisted of things like (this part I’m making up, since I can’t find any examples online):

Visually inspect the tires for any damage or cracking.   Verify the presence of each lug nut and test each one for tightness.

We had to do this list every single day, so it got kind of annoying reading what I already knew over and over again.   How many times did I need to read that I had to check to see if a headlight was present, if it was intact, and if it was working?  So I didn’t see the value of checklists because these were not that helpful to me.

Then came the book The Checklist Manifesto.   It’s a book by a surgeon on checklists.  The basic ideas I walked away with was:

1.  A checklist should be short and simple.  The army ones I’d experienced were always very wordy and detailed — they didn’t just remind you what you needed to do but explained how to do it.  If you already know how to do it, why do you need a checklist explaining how to do it?

2.  It should only be the things you’re going to forget/miss.

So, in the case of the army example, if I needed a reminder to check the headlights, I would only need one word: “Headlights.”   So I’ve been using checklists for things that I have trouble remembering.  An example is when I do research and have to record the bibliography.  I ended up making two additional trips to the library because I’d forgotten to get pieces of information about the source.  So I need a checklist to help me save time.  Here’s a sample of what I created for encyclopedias:


  • Article author (end of article)
  • Article Title
  • Encyclopedia name
  • Volume
  • Date
  • Call number


[Author].  [“Title of article”].  [Encyclopedia name, Volume ].  [Date].  [Call number.]

The checklists often go through multiple revisions as I use them.  Often I shorten the wording to the barest minimum, but I may also find that I need to add something that I hadn’t thought of before or realize there’s an item on the list I don’t really need.