One of the simplest ways to break down decision making is with checklists. All big jobs can be broken down into smaller steps, and identifying these smaller steps clarifies our thinking. We’ve all made checklists before, but we rarely consider their full potential and explore best practices.

In The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right, Atul Gawande describes a meeting he had with Daniel Boorman, who was the technical lead during the creation of Boeing’s 747-400+ and 787 checklists.

There are good checklists and bad, Boorman explained. Bad checklists are vague and imprecise. They are too long; they are hard to use; they are impractical. They are made by desk jockeys with no awareness of the situations in which they are to be deployed. They treat the people using the tools as dumb and try to spell out every single step. They turn people’s brains off rather than turn them on.

Good checklists, on the other hand, are precise. They are efficient, to the point, and easy to use even in the most difficult situations. They do not try to spell out everything—a checklist cannot fly a plane. Instead, they provide reminders of only the most critical and important steps—the ones that even the highly skilled professionals using them could miss. Good checklists are, above all, practical.1

Checklists are great for any repetitive or complicated tasks, but they are also ideal for any situation with distinct decision points or subsets of other tasks. They don’t have to be only for mindless or simple jobs either. Aviation checklists are built for normal and emergency procedures. In both cases, pieces of each checklist are done as required or during different phases of flight. With some forethought, a lot of our normal and emergency tasks in daily life can be planned for and captured on paper or as bits. As I discussed yesterday, it’s best to do your thinking in the right emotional state.

I’ve often put aside a checklist because it seemed to only be getting in my way, but upon reflection, it was always the case that my list just wasn’t very good. There are a few other features of aviation checklists that ought to shape our own creation process.

When you’re making a checklist, Boorman explained, you have a number of key decisions. You must define a clear pause point at which the checklist is supposed to be used (unless the moment is obvious, like when a warning light goes on or an engine fails). You must decide whether you want a DO-CONFIRM checklist or a READ-DO checklist. With a DO-CONFIRM checklist, he said, team members perform their jobs from memory and experience, often separately. But then they stop. They pause to run the checklist and confirm that everything that was supposed to be done was done. With a READ-DO checklist, on the other hand, people carry out the tasks as they check them off—it’s more like a recipe. So for any new checklist created from scratch, you have to pick the type that makes the most sense for the situation. 2

Many jobs are only made more tedious by having to tick a box off after each task is complete. Sometimes it’s better to do the work and and then check for completeness. It’s also very useful to have a checklist that can be paused or picked up at logical breakpoint to ensure a complicated job is done correctly. These breakpoints also take one long, unwieldy list and makes it much easier to use.

The checklist cannot be lengthy. A rule of thumb some use is to keep it to between five and nine items, which is the limit of working memory. Boorman didn’t think one had to be religious on this point.

“It all depends on the context,” he said. “In some situations you have only twenty seconds. In others, you may have several minutes.”3

I think this is a great rule of thumb. When I am stressed, I break out a notepad or index card and start writing. If this list expands beyond nine items, I take the time to edit it into smaller logical groups. This process makes any list seem less daunting.

One practical example is packing for a trip. Long ago, Seth Brown revolutionized the way I pack with this one post. Ever since I read it, I began filling my main bag with smaller bags and packing cubes. These are logical units into which I put like items, simplifying my packing list into many shorter lists. I complete these shorter lists whenever it makes sense, setting aside individual packed bags until it’s time to head out the door. This has greatly reduced my travel stress.

While I think checklists are the key to many good decisions, sometimes knowing what items should be on the list is the problem. In this case, we need a more freeform process that is still orderly enough to handle our internal and external challengers. That’s what we’ll look at tomorrow.

  1. Gawande, Atul. The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right. New York: Henry Holt, 2010. Kindle link↩︎

  2. Gawande, Kindle link↩︎

  3. Gawande, Kindle link↩︎