How to Make Checklists: The Ultimate Tool to Save Time (With Examples)

How to make Checklists

Learning how to make checklists is a lifesaver.

Don’t believe me?

On October 30, 1935, the U.S. Army held a flight competition for airplane manufacturers in Ohio. The purpose was to build the “next-generation long-range bomber” and the Boeing Model 299 was winning. Boeing’s plane was faster, able to carry five times as many bombs as the requested amount, and was also more complex.

It even got a cool nickname: “the flying fortress”.

An experienced crew led by Major Ployer P.Hill took charge of the first test flight.

Unfortunately, the plane exploded right after take-off and killed 2 of the 5 crew members in the process.

The cause of the crash?

The crew forgot to release ONE locking mechanism.

Despite being caused by a human error, the investigators could not attribute the blame of the crash to the crew. It was simply too difficult to memorize all the steps required to fly safely.

To avoid more casualties, investigators reached a simple yet effective solution:

A flight checklist.

The list was simple and to the point.

After the checklist became widely used, the model 299 didn’t have any more accidents for the next 1.8 million miles.

Here is the truth:

“Your mind is for having ideas, not holding them.” – David Allen

Your memory is fallible.

Relying on your memory in your daily life is like relying on a faulty computer which will eventually fail.

You will be more prone to mistakes which will decrease your productivity.

Learn how checklists can help you never make mistakes again.

Why Are Checklists A Lifesaver?

Checklists are quick and simple tools used to carry out repetitive activities. They ensure that you don’t forget steps while performing a task.

A simple solution for complex problems.

In other words, checklists reduce mistakes by compensating for limits in human memory and communication.

For example:

If the process involves multiple people working in sequence, you can save a lot of trouble by making a checklist. The team will know exactly what to do and what was already done. You will not lose time communicating about the state of the project and commit fewer mistakes.

Additionally, the checklist can organize the work into a neat standard operation procedure (SOP).

On top of decreasing mistakes, checklists will also save you time.

Here’s a personal example:

I create videos for YouTube. When I started, I just did each step as I went: recording, editing, posting.

My process was clunky and it would take me a long time to finish a video. And when I finished, the videos had silly mistakes because I forgot a simple step.

But then I realized:

The process was repetitive and it always included the same tasks.

And instead of relying on my memory, I wrote down all the steps and created a checklist for every video I publish.

This ensures that I won’t skip any step: all my videos will have a thumbnail and a nice description, for example.

how to make checklists -

I just check each box as I complete the task. It is very satisfying and, in the end, I know I won’t have missed anything.

But while I am a great enthusiast about checklists, I found that they don’t work in all situations.

When Should You Use a Checklist?

The short answer: More often than you think.

You already use checklists without even noticing.

For example:

How do you leave your house without forgetting anything?

You use a very simple checklist of everything you need when you go out. You go through this mental checklist every time you leave that house.

And if you are anything like me, you will forget something if you don’t.

That’s a simple checklist you use daily.

In general, you should look use a checklist whenever the task is:

  • Repeatable
  • Easily Forgettable. Either because they are too complex or too simple

In the previous example, you use the “I am going out” checklist not because it is difficult to pick up 5 items. Rather, you use it because it is a boring task that you don’t want to think about.

The simpler the steps, the more likely you are to zone out and make a mistake.

The opposite is true when you do a complex task. You cannot memorize everything you need to do when there are lots of moving pieces. In this case, a checklist will help you through the process without relying on your memory. This way, you make fewer errors.

So next time you work on a project, ask yourself “Are there any repetitive tasks in this project that I will do again?”

Chances are you can improve your productivity and make fewer mistakes following checklists.

But not all checklists are created equal.

Good vs Bad Checklists

Like anything, there are good and bad checklists.

Good checklists don’t include every tiny detail because they can’t replace the person executing the action. They serve as a reminder for every critical step.

In general, a good checklist is:

  • Precise
  • Efficient
  • To the point
  • Easy to Use
  • Simple (just enough)

On the other hand, bad checklists are:

  • Vague
  • Imprecise
  • Long
  • Impractical
  • Too complex to use

These checklists will destroy your productivity, instead helping. You will spend more time figuring out how to use them than actually working.

Bad checklists overly explain as if the user didn’t have any knowledge, which makes it more difficult to use.

On top of that, you have to be careful not to use checklists as:

  1. To-do lists

Oftentimes, to-do lists are disguised as bad checklists.

For Example:

how to make a checklist - bad checklist

This is not a checklist. This is a to-do list with checkboxes.

A checklist deconstructs a task into steps for you to follow. Not every list with checkboxes is a checklist.

  1. Daily plan

It is common to use a checklist to go about your day. You put everything you need to do on a checklist and go item by item.

The problem?

Checklists have a big flaw: they are not time-bounded. This will lead to inefficient time management.

Instead, you should start to plan your days by using time blocking. Rather than making a checklist with your daily tasks, schedule them in your calendar. You will get a better grasp of how you are using your time this way.

How to make a Checklists Step by Step (With Examples)

Step 1: Identify What Key Activities Are Repetitive by Nature

You want to create checklists for systematic tasks. Activities such as:

  • Meetings with prospective clients
  • Editing a video
  • Packing for a travel

In my case, after publishing 3 or 4 videos, I realized that I usually forgot to create the thumbnail. It was something I needed but only remembered when I was hitting the publish button.

I guess this scared me because it is now the absolute first item on my checklist.

Step 2: Observe and Write Down Your Process

To observe, you can film yourself working. It will give a lot of information about your process (and it will also be fun to watch).

Write down the process from start to finish as you remember it. Assume you’re creating a workflow for someone who knows absolutely nothing about the work so it is as simple as possible. This will force you to think of all the steps that you need to complete for each activity

This way, anyone can follow and apply your checklist.

To do this, choose a format for your checklist: text or video (or both).

If you choose text, you can include images throughout the checklist. It makes it easier to explain but also to get a better understanding when reading.

For example:

I use Notion to write the process for each checklist I create.

how to make a checklist - write down your process

After you detail the process, it’s time to review and adapt.

Step 3: Review First Draft

Refine your process.

Review and update your checklist if needed:

  • Eliminate. Remove unnecessary information. The flow should be as simple as possible
  • Add detail. Some steps might require a more thorough description
  • Simplify. A checklist should be simple and easy to follow
  • Reorder. Shuffle things around if it makes more sense

Step 4: Test The Script

Test the workflow you have created.

Testing your checklist in the real world is a fundamental step, no matter how careful you were writing it.

It’s important that you execute only what you’ve written down. This way you’ll be able to tell if there are gaps missing in your workflow.

Take notes and correct the script as you go so you can complete it later.

Keep testing it until it works consistently.

Step 5: Teach Your Process to Others

Once it’s ready you can delegate the task to someone using only the workflow you created. Ask for their feedback so you can further refine your checklist.

Your checklist is ready!

To guarantee that you have created a perfect checklist, make sure you follow these rules, found in Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande:

  • Precise. A good checklist has clarity and is to the point
  • Short and practical. A checklist with too many steps can be confusing. 5 to 9 items are ideal
  • Simple and exact wording. Use the language of the profession
  • Clean look. It should be free of clutter and colorful words
  • Provides reminders for the most critical steps. A checklist is not a how-to guide but just a reminder

How to Use a Checklist?

You can choose between 2 methods of checklist utilization:

  • Do-Confirm. Performing the task by memory and experience and then stop to read and confirm with the checklist
  • Read-Do. Performing the task while checking the checklist at the same time

The Do-Confirm checklists are more efficient in simpler tasks where you use the checklist to not forget any item.

For Example:

Updating a simple database you are experienced with. In this case, you should go through all the process and you check from time to time if you did not skip a step. The checklist works as a safeguard against mistakes.

For the rest of the activities where the tasks are more complex, you should use the Read-Do method. Having a step-by-step checklist will save you the time of memorizing all the steps required.

That’s all there’s to it. Couldn’t be more simple to apply.

Your New and Organized Life

Using checklists will improve your work and increase your productivity. No more wasted time trying to remember what to do next.

Start using checklists and you will have all these bonus side effects:

  • Organization. By making sure you’re not skipping any steps, you’ll stay more organized. You won’t have to go back all the time to check if something “fell between the cracks.”
  • Accountability and responsibility. When something goes wrong, you’re able to pinpoint where and when in the process the error happened
  • Avoid distractions. If you only do the tasks in the list, you’ll be forced to avoid distractions
  • Motivation. Checklists are powerful because they make us take action
  • Discipline and consistency. Checklists always assure that the process gets done the correct way. And if there’s a mistake, you’ll be able to find it easily
  • Productivity. This is no surprise. If you do your tasks more quickly, efficiently, and with fewer mistakes, you’ll have more time for your other assignments
  • Delegation. Delegating tasks will be infinitely easier. With a guide to follow, there’s less room for mistakes and you’ll feel more confident

All you have to remember is to use your checklist, and you won’t forget anything anymore.

Daily Planning: The Next Step In Your Productivity Journey

Checklists are a great way to improve your productivity. They are simple to use and can be applied to a number of tasks.

But as I said, you should not use them for your daily planning.

This is because checklists do not bring the time structure you need to perform optimally.

After nailing down checklists, take your productivity to the next level by picking up the habit of preparing your days in advance.

In my in-depth guide on how to plan your day, I lay down my 3-step process to plan your day:

  1. Prepare your medium. Put a date on your notebook or txt file and divide your day into 1-hour time blocks
  2. Assign tasks to every minute of your day. Make sure you have a function to every hour of your day
  3. Add notes to your blocks. The more context you have, the less time you will waste going between blocks

By making your daily plan the night before, you ensure that you always know what you should be doing. You will waste less time on unproductive work and on switching tasks.

And the best part?

You get all for a small investment of 5 minutes per day.

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Hi, I'm Dan.

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Hi, I'm Dan.

I share ideas on productivity every Monday in my newsletter.


Strategies, tips, and hacks to work smarter in a short email.

19k productivity geeks read it. I’d love you to join.

Love your stuff

The only newsletter I subscribe to that I actually look forward to

I read your newsletter every week