The Magic of Using Checklists at Your Business

April 06, 2019 07:47 PM

Surgeons, astronauts and pilots rely on them — here's why you should, too.


Writing lists can be a great tool in helping you stick to your boundaries. (Photo: areebarbar/Shutterstock)


by Joni Sweet


Every business has routine tasks that need to be completed, from opening up shop to managing inventory and cleaning. But if you and your staff are relying solely on memory to ensure everything gets done, it’s time to take another approach: checklists.


These to-do lists aren’t just for grocery shopping or an exceptionally busy day — they’re actually robust tools that improve efficiency, aid concentration and even save lives. In fact, one study found that when surgeons used a 19 item safety checklist, the rates of mortality and complications dropped. Checklists have also been used by major organizations, from Boeing to NASA, to prevent critical mistakes and improve operations.


“From the standpoint of cognitive psychology, checklists work for a lot of different reasons, mainly related to memory,” said Matt Johnson, professor and associate dean at Hult International Business School. He researches the intersection between business and psychology.


Your business might not be saving lives or sending men into the final frontier, but it can still reap amazing benefits from checklists. Here’s how.


Free up memory


Whether you’re running the show or focused on a particular task, there are a number of things to remember at any given time. Jotting them down onto a list can give you the headspace you need to achieve success, said Johnson.


“We can only hold on to so many variables in our minds at any one time,” he said.


It has to do with your working memory. Like your computer’s RAM, your working memory handles short-term commands and briefly stores information for the amount of time it takes to use it.


“When we write things down, we export the tasks to an external source, freeing up space in our working memory,” said Johnson.


Your long-term memory may also get a pick-me-up once you start using checklists.


“There’s some evidence that suggests when we write things down and interact with the materials, our long-term memory gets better. You’ll be able to retrieve it weeks and months later,” said Johnson.


Improve focus


Multitasking, combined with all of the interruptions that occur throughout the day, impacts productivity. A checklist can help streamline a day’s tasks and keep you focused on the most important things, said Johnson.


“Every time our minds drift or we’re interrupted, we have to reorient to the original task, and we suffer a task-switching cost,” he explained.


Over the course of the day, switching back and forth between different assignments drains your cognitive resources and depletes your energy. Creating a core checklist of essential chores gives you something to focus on when you’re tempted to do something else, like check social media, make an inconsequential call or clean up your desktop.


Reduce mistakes


Having the same routine helps you grow more confident in your mind’s ability to recall everything that needs to get done. However, even the best memories can fail. A checklist can help mitigate mistakes and forgetfulness, said Johnson.


“Even if it’s a relatively straightforward job, a task list makes processes more robust. It fortifies your approach to what you’re trying to do,” he said.


The checklist can be especially comforting and helpful when things go awry.


“If a staff member gets into a fender bender on their way into work, or they’re stressed about taxes or something else, everyday things become more difficult. A task list can serve as a valuable crutch to help people get through relatively difficult times,” said Johnson.


Standardize training


Checklists can also help new employees get up to speed more quickly by standardizing training and ensuring nothing gets forgotten along the way, said Johnson.


“When you’re onboarding a new staff member, you sometimes think a lot of the things you do at your business are really intuitive because you do them every day, but they may not be immediately obvious to a new person,” he said. “Having a standard practice of walking everyone through everything helps prevent any oversight.”


Furthermore, checklists help everyone on staff get trained the exact same way, reducing confusion about who’s responsible for tasks and how they should be accomplished.


Boost job satisfaction


Checklists can actually make people happy and boost employee satisfaction at your business.


“Evidence suggests checklists make work more enjoyable. They quantify what you’ve done, allowing you to look back over a few hours of work and feel a nice sense of accomplishment,” said Johnson.


It’s internally gratifying to cross things off a checklist, whether it’s filled with small, everyday tasks or the major milestones of a big project.


“We fixate on things we don’t complete. Checklists mitigate that because it becomes very explicit that things have been completed,” he said.


The benefits of checklists can work wonders for businesses of all sizes. The few minutes it takes to jot everything down will pay off with a reduction in mistakes, improvement in focus and increase in productivity.


“There’s no situation in which you’ll be worse off by having a task list,” said Johnson. “There’s real science behind it.”