The Simple Checklist: A Critical Tool for Critical Work

The gist: When you want to work smarter and faster on your most critical work—even if it’s creative—a simple checklist is what you need.

Think you have a busy day? Try working as a trauma specialist in one of the busiest hospitals in the world. That’s where Peter Pronovost found himself in 2001 at Johns Hopkins.

A patient would arrive, and it would take the herculean effort of dozens of professionals around the clock to save, stabilize, and nurse them back to health.

Studies show the average trauma patient needs 178 individual actions performed for them each day to regain health. These are critical, life-saving interventions. With so many to do, there’s great risk: if even one is missed or performed wrong, it could kill someone.

So, Provonost conjured up a novel concept that went on to revolutionize the world of medicine and patient care by making their work faster and more accurate, saving millions of lives.

The groundbreaking technology? A checklist. That’s right, a lousy, old checklist.1

Despite widespread use the world over, the checklist had never caught on with surgeons, doctors, nurses, and others involved in the business of saving lives under difficult and stressful circumstances. File that under “humans be crazy.”

If a checklist can save a life on the brink, it can probably do wonders for you, too. Or, at least, your daily to do list.

Since learning about the power of the checklist, I’ve started implementing it in my life. In fact, I’m following one as I write this very article, using my favorite to do app, Trello.

If you want to work faster and make fewer mistakes on your most critical work, you’ll want to develop your own.

How A Checklist Helps You Work Faster And Smarter

Here are some of the top objections to using a checklist for everyday tasks:

  1. I’m too busy to be constantly referring to a checklist.
  2. What I do changes too much to follow a checklist.
  3. I can already remember everything I need to do.

Here’s the funny thing about these objections: The more of them you identify with, the more important it is you have a checklist.

This is especially true if you think you can remember everything. Plenty of research has shown when you’re under stress, you’re far more likely to forget things you know and make mistakes you otherwise wouldn’t.

But a checklist can actually lower your stress by reinforcing information you know and raising your confidence in the work you do.

When you’re doing something difficult and the clock is ticking, your brain goes into overdrive trying to recall every detail you need to cover. With a checklist in place, you offload all the mental work necessary to remember these things, freeing up more headspace space to just do them. No more decision fatigue.

Even more, a checklist builds the habit of reliability by preventing missed steps. When you use it, you can feel certain you’re not forgetting anything. Over time, this raises your confidence which can lead to doing higher quality and more creative work.

But how do you create a great checklist?

A Checklist For Creating Great Checklists

Now you’re totally pumped (yeah, checklists!), and ready create one. But how do you make one that’ll lead to great results: faster, better work with fewer mistakes?

We can look at the lifesaving work of Peter Pronovost again for clues.2 Think of this as a checklist for creating great checklists.

1. Start with the goal in mind.

A checklist isn’t any good if it’s not absolutely clear what its purpose is. This should be specific:

“Do [x] faster.” Or, “complete [y] more accurately.”

In Pronovost’s case, the goal was to be impeccably accurate. So, his checklist focused on listing every action needed in exactly the right order with enough detail to describe how to perform them perfectly.

Whatever your goal is, adjust for that.

2. Focus on improving small, repetitive tasks.

What about when your work is variable and changes frequently? How do you make a checklist for that?

Life in the ICU is crazy, and every patient’s care is different. Rather than create a checklist for something so nebulous, Pronovost focused on one thing: a checklist to reduce line infections (the tubes that go in and out of a patient’s body).

That’s a tiny fraction of what an ICU staff does, but it’s standard and repeatable. Improving that process alone has saved countless lives.

Look for bits and pieces of your own work that are small and repetitive to improve. Little tweaks lead to big improvements.

3. Put the steps in the right order.

For a sick patient, it’s critical that every step of their care is not just performed correctly, but in the right order. One mistake could cost a life. So Pronovost focused on making sure each step was listed at the exact right point in his checklist.

Your checklist will not be as useful if your brain has to scour the list for what to do next so spend time putting your work in the right order. This does more than just eliminates mistakes, it sometimes eliminates work altogether.

4. Make adjustments early and often.

Unless you’re some sort of genius rocket doctor (even then…), your checklist won’t come out perfect on the first try. A great checklist is built over time with adjustments from actually using it in the field.

Make time to edit your checklist. Add steps you initially forgot. Drop steps that turn out to be unnecessary. Re-order them to make yourself faster or more accurate.

The Final Word on Checklists & Productivity

A checklist is hardly a revolutionary concept, but Peter Pronovost used one to make small improvements to our healthcare system that has saved millions of lives.

No one’s life hangs in the balance of your checklist (I hope). But your sanity, schedule, and reputation might.

Start building yours today, and you’ll be well on the way to working smarter and faster every day.


  1. Source: The Checklist
  2. Source: A look into the nature and causes of human errors in the intensive care unit [pdf]