The Power of Checklists



I’m a fan of using checklists to improve results.  Checklists are powerful tools for jogging your memory, reducing stress, and sharing know how. 

Fighter pilots use checklist effectively to eliminate task saturation, take away workload, and avoid forgetting something critical.   Many businesses use checklists to train new hires as well as run everyday operations.

In the book Flawless Execution , James D. Murphy writes about how fighter pilots use checklists to  get results.

Key Take Aways

Here are my key take aways:

  • Checklists help reduce task saturation.  Task saturation is too much to do and not enough time.  Checklists help you reduce task saturation.
  • Checklists lower stress.  Checklists minimize forgetting something. This relieves the stress of worrying about forgetting (especially when consequences are very bad).
  • Checklists free the mind.  You don’t have to waste your prefrontal cortex on mundane things.  Basically, checklists free you up to worry about higher level issues.
  • Normal procedures and emergency procedures.  Pilots have two types of checklists: normal procedures and emergency procedures.  The normal procedures are how to do everyday things.  The emergency procedures are for life threatening situations.  Pilots have very specific emergencies that are very well researched because lives depend on a fast and accurate response.  Emergency checklists seem unlikely to be useful to most people since you’ll either have time to think or the emergency happens so fast you won’t be pulling out a checklist.  It depends on the context.

Get Pilots Pointed in the Right Direction

Checklists turn experience into results.  Murphy writes:

“I’m sure you’re familiar with checklists, but let me tell you how pilot’s configure theirs.  For them, a checklist is a condensed portion of the flight manual — the standard operating procedures.  It’s a memory jogger.  It’s based on training, people’s experience, and the standard operating procedure of our company.  It’s designed to get pilots pointed in the right direction by taking an action that pulls them through task saturation.”

How To Do Everyday Things

Normal procedure checklists step you through everyday things.  Murphy writes:

“The normal procedures checklist is pretty straightforward.  It’s how to do everyday things — how to start the engine, how to configure the aircraft for takeoff, the air-refueling checklist, the landing.  … No matter how many times they’ve landed, they go through the pre-landing checklists because it takes away a big hunk of the workload and saves them the stress of forgetting something critical.”

Memory Joggers and Actions

Emergency procedures step you through life threatening situations.  Murphy writes:

“The black-stripe pages are known as the emergency procedures section.  This is the checklist that comes into play when the problems are life threatening.  These are the one-liners that can be read in an instant.  Pilots go right to a page that fits the problem and they see memory joggers and actions to solve the problem quickly.”

Checklists are an Absolute for Training

Checklists help you share best practices.  Murphy writes:

“Training is an area where checklists are an absolute.  Do you incorporate a checklist in the training of a new hire?  When you’re training a new store associate, do you have them walk along with your favorite manager in the hope that they’ll pick up good habits?  But is that person really learning the operating procedures of your store, or is he or she picking up the good (and possibly bad) habits of that person they’re training with.”

Photo by Kenneth Hynek.


  1. OMG, I love checklists! Real Simple (the website) has tons of great checklists that I love to download. There are probably other great resources for this as well. As much as I love checklists, I had no idea how useful and important they really are. Great insights here!

  2. In consulting distraction is one of the biggest obstacles – getting personally focused and getting all others into the focus is tough task, especially when working under pressure or trying to resolve production incident.

    Checklists are my secret weapon to keep myself and others on track – focused on the end goal.

    Good one!!

  3. Thanks J.D. This reminds me of a presentation BP that says that Powerpoint presentations should be more like check-list where a bullet jogs the presenters memory and serves more as a prompt than a script.

  4. @ Jannie

    You said it. Whenever I find myself overloaded, checklists are best remedy. Why spend my mind on routine, when I can spend it on higher level things.

  5. Hey JD,

    I hope this doesn’t come across as spammy but I thought I’d let you know that my wife and I have launched a checklist website called

    We’ve tried very hard to create an awesome checklists resource that people can use to track their own lists.

    I hope you’ll find it useful.


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