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At first glance, checklists and to-do lists seem pretty similar. Both are lists of tasks with checkboxes to indicate if the thing has been done or not. However, when you look a little closer, it becomes clear that they serve different functions and that incorporating checklists to your workflow might be an easy way to improve efficiency and reduce errors among other benefits.

While both checklists and todo lists are lists of tasks, todo lists are constantly changing and are flexible in terms of the order of the items and ease with which items can be added or removed.

Checklists on the other hand are more rigid and indicate the specific order that the tasks should be completed in. The steps in a given checklist generally correspond to a single goal, conversely, tasks in a todo list might have no relation to each other and represent independent objectives.

Checklists vs Todo lists

Why use checklists?

So, why should we use checklists if todo lists seem to provide more flexibility? In certain situations, the rigidity and focus that checklists impose is actually a benefit.

Not everything you do on a daily basis falls under the category of creative, unique, and one-off tasks. It've very likely that at least some chunk of your day is spent doing tasks that don't change much. Or if they do change, there are aspects of those tasks that stay the same.

Checklists are perfect for this type of multi-step, recurring activity. Let's go over some the benefits of using checklists.

Reduce errors
There have been studies done in the areas of healthcare, aviation , and management that have shown that using a checklist to ensure that all the necessary steps are complete for a given procedure reduces the number of errors committed.

When doing tasks that we're familiar with, it's tempting to start working and trust that we'll remember all the necessary steps. I'm sure you can recall an experience where you've simply skipped an important step or forgotten it altogether, even when doing something you're very familiar with.

Having a set list of tasks to cross off once you've completed each step is a simple way to ensure you never miss a step. Either you've done it or you haven't and the checklist bears witness to that fact.

Improve efficiency
Think of all the steps even simple activities can have. Each transition from step to step is an opportunity to get distracted and try our hand at reinventing the wheel.

Not that there's anything wrong with trying to improve how we complete a task, but once you've figured out an efficient way to do something - it's likely you'll only end up getting distracted by deviating from the standard way of doing something.

Having a checklist lets us focus on the task at hand and then guides us to the next one. We essentially reduce the cognitive load on ourselves of having to recall each step along the way. That gives us the freedom to focus on what we're currently working on without the voice in the back of our minds worried about what the next step will be.

Enabling continuous improvement
Checklist also serve as snapshots in time of how we complete a given activity. That gives us the opportunity to analyze them and consider improvements.

Imagine the opposite situation where we're simply going on instinct and doing whatever makes sense to us at the time. If we want to review our actions in the future because what we did turned out to be a good way to do it, we'll have to rely on our memory to not miss any steps. Likewise, if what we did turned out to be a bad idea we'll have to rely on our memory to recall each step as we try to not repeat the mistake.

A checklist makes this process simple. We can go over each step, consider it, come up with alternatives, and craft new checklists to try. And if the new way we come up isn't better, we can simply go back to the old way of doing something - since we have the written record.

How to create effective checklists

Now let's move on to the steps to create a practical and effective checklist. It's by no means a complicated process but certainly worth keeping in mind as we craft our next one.

The steps

  1. Identify the goal - Decide the purpose of the checklist. What is it that you hope to accomplish by using it.
  2. Write the main steps - Capture the key steps that make up the process.
  3. Break down the tasks - Identify the individual steps required to complete each step. Break the key steps down into manageable items.
  4. Organize the tasks - Check to see if it makes sense to group certain tasks. If a step has no prerequisites and can be grouped with other similar tasks to make the process more efficient, do so.
  5. Review the checklist - Once you're satisfied, go over your checklist to make sure you're not missing any steps and that they can be followed in the order you've written them.
Steps to creating effective checklists

Things to keep in mind when writing checklists

When writing your checklists, there are also a few guidelines you should keep in mind to ensure anyone you share the checklist with will be able to complete it. It's also a good idea to follow these guidelines even if you're the only using the checklist - you might not use a list for weeks of months and so you won't know what you meant at the time if it's not immediately clear.

Use clear language
Use simple, clear language that is easy to understand. Avoid jargon or technical terms that might be confusing to others who are not familiar with the task.

Keep it concise
Keep the checklist as short as possible while still including all the necessary steps. This will help prevent the checklist from becoming overwhelming or difficult to follow.

Where should I use checklists?

Checklists lend themselves to be used in any repeating, multi-step activity that has fixed elements. You're essentially coming up with a recipe, so while the quantities might change depending on the number of people you're feeding, the actual ingredients don't change.

If there's an activity that you find yourself doing over and over, that's generally a good candidate for a checklist. Here are some examples to get you thinking:

  • Daily routines
  • Workout routines
  • Cleaning routines
  • Content creation
  • Writing activities
  • Project planning
  • Employee onboarding
  • Product development
  • Customer support
  • Meetings
  • Client estimates
  • Blog posts
  • Event planning
  • Quality control
  • Safety checks

Implementing checklists into your workflow

Workflowy makes it easy to create, manage, and use checklists as part of your existing workflow. By using existing features, we can make our own checklist library and retrieval system.

Keep your checklists in a single place
Our first recommendation would be to create an item in your account  where you can store and group all your checklists. Putting them all in a single place makes it easier to review and update them.

Keep your checklists in a single place

Group your checklists
Grouping checklists by category or type of activity makes it much easier to review and update them in the future. Avoid keeping them scattered throughout your account unless you have a good reason to do so. If you're collaborating with others, having a single checklist library will make it much easier for others to find useful lists and contribute to the library as they create new lists.

Tag your checklists
Tagging your checklists will make it easier to retrieve them in the future. We recommend you use a short tag to make it quicker to write. Something like #cl for 'checklist' could work.

The nuts and bolts
To actually use your library, you want to use Workflowy's mirror feature to place the checklist wherever you're working. You can use the slash command or simply type double parenthesis "((" to bring up the mirror menu.

Using the double parenthesis '((' to bring up the mirror menu

Next, type the hashtag you gave each checklist to narrow down the search and then type the name of the checklist and insert it.

The last step is to detach the mirror, leaving the copy of your checklist in place.

Detaching the mirror from the bullet menu


Hopefully this guide has cleared up the key difference between todo lists and checklists, and has shown you how you could benefit from implementing them in whatever workflow you already have.

When used properly, checklists can provide an additional layer of efficiency and consistency in anything you apply them towards. Far from stifling creativity or being restrictive, checklists give you the confidence that what you're working will have a baseline level of completeness that doesn't rely on how well your memory is doing on that particular day.

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