A young man contemplates decision growth—the subject of this email
January 23, 2024

How Checklists Can Save Us From Ourselves

Read time —
4 Minutes
The first principle is not to fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool.

Richard Feynman, the famous physicist, wisely understood our weaknesses. His quote highlights an important point. The obvious solution to overcome our ability to be easily fooled is to counter this trait. It is to create constraints that prevent us from fooling ourselves.

Charlie Munger knew this.

His book, Poor Charlie's Almanack, more than hints at a solution. The following quote — found in the book — offers us a sizeable clue.

“No wise pilot, no matter how great his talent and experience, fails to use a checklist.

A checklist is a simple tool that helps us remember and perform all the steps in a process or situation. They also help us avoid errors, biases, and blind spots (which is why pilots use them).

In this article, we will explore:

  • The power of checklists and how they improve our decision-making
  • A story of how checklists transformed the aviation industry and saved lives
  • Some tips on how to create and use checklists for your own purposes

The Power of Checklists

We have been using checklists for decades.

You'll find them in various professions, such as aviation, medicine, engineering, and more.

They improve safety, quality, efficiency, and reliability of complex systems and processes. Checklists also help us make better decisions. They provide us with a structured and systematic approach.

According to Atul Gawande, author of The Checklist Manifesto, checklists help us in three ways:

  • They help us remember the essential steps and actions that we may forget or overlook
  • They help us communicate and coordinate with others following the same process
  • They help us verify and validate that we have done everything correctly

By using checklists, we can stop ourselves from fooling ourselves. We can use checklists as a safety net to stop our blindspots from interfering with our choices. The upside to this is better quality decisions and outcomes.

How Checklists Improved Airline Safety

A great example of the effectiveness of checklists comes from the aviation industry.

Air travel is one of the safest modes of transportation in the world. This achievement comes from the standards and procedures pilots and crews follow. Checklists play a critical role in ensuring these standards and procedures are upheld.

The use of checklists in aviation began in 1935.

A Boeing B-17 crashed during a test flight, killing two of the crew. The investigation revealed the pilot had forgotten to release a flight control lock. This oversight prevented the plane from lifting off.

The incident prompted Boeing to develop the first pilot's checklist. It listed out the steps and checks that needed completing before takeoff.

Since then, checklists have become part of aviation culture and practice. Different checklists exist for the different phases of flight. These include preflight, takeoff, landing, and emergencies.

Each checklist is concise and easy to use. Often, they contain verbal or visual cues to ensure the crew miss nothing. Unsurprisingly, checklists also facilitate communication and coordination with air traffic control, amongst others.

Airline safety has improved dramatically over the years. In 2020, the global accident rate was 1.71 per million flights. In the 1970s, this was nearer 17.10 per million flights. The primary driver for this improvement has been the use of checklists.

How to Create and Use Checklists

Checklists can help us improve our decision-making and performance.

It doesn't matter who you are, you can benefit from using checklists. At a simple level, they can help you organise your tasks, manage your projects, and so on. At a higher level, a checklist can enable you to overcome biases and blindspots you might incur. All that changes is the criteria you use to build the checklist.

Here are some tips on how to create and use checklists effectively:

  • Define your checklist’s purpose and scope. What do you want to achieve? How will you achieve it? What are the risks or challenges?
  • Research from reliable sources. What are the best practices or standards? What are the common errors or pitfalls? What are the lessons or tips from others?
  • Organize and prioritize your checklist. What is the order or sequence of your steps or actions? What are the most critical items? How can you group or categorize your items?
  • Format and design your checklist. How can you make your checklist clear, concise, and user-friendly? How can you use visual elements, such as colours, icons, or images? How can you use cues, such as prompts, questions, or commands?
  • Test and refine your checklist. How can you test your checklist’s effectiveness? How can you get feedback from others? How can you monitor and measure your results or outcomes? How can you update or improve your checklist?

Checklists offer us a powerful way to help us make better decisions.

Using checklists enables us to overcome our cognitive limitations. We can avoid biases that damage decision quality.

A checklist helps us leverage collective wisdom.

Checklists are not a sign of weakness or incompetence. They are a sign of professionalism and competence.

Improving communication, collaboration, and the coordination of others is just one upside. A checklist also fosters a culture of safety, quality, and excellence.

Lastly, they prevent us from fooling ourselves.

I can't think of a better reason to justify using checklists in my decision-making.

A boy posing to thinnk before making a decision.

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