Writing Checklists: Tips & Tricks From 15 Thriving Businesses

writing checklists

In 1836, Edward Bulwer-Lytton came up with the adage “the pen is mightier than the sword“.

Bulwer-Lytton was referring to good writing and effective communication being the most powerful tool of all. So powerful that it could win wars.

In business’ modern-day war against tough deadlines, seemingly never-ending workloads, and stiff business competition, Bulwer-Lytton’s adage still rings true.

Particularly when it comes to penning checklists.

Here at Process Street, we’d go far as to say that checklists are something of a secret weapon hidden in plain sight. They maximize productivity, minimize stress and anxiety, and can keep perilous human error at bay.

But the rewards can only be reaped if checklists are well-written.

Not sure how to write checklists properly? Confused whether you’re penning checklists the right way or not?

I’ve got you covered in the following sections where you’ll learn what checklists are used for, why they’re so useful, on top of being given tips and tricks for writing checklists from 15 thriving companies:

Now, it’s time to march onwards! 🥁

What are checklists?

what are checklists
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A checklist is a list of items, tasks, or actions that should be carried out (or at the very least, considered). Once the item, task, or action has been completed, the user then checks it off to mark it as done.

Although checklists are primarily utilized for work-related purposes (i.e. pilots are required by law to use pre-flight checklists, and a blog pre-publish checklist makes a content marketer’s life much easier) they can be used in pretty much every avenue in life. For example, many people use shopping checklists – be it on their phones or on pieces of paper – when buying their groceries.

Why are checklists so useful?

The reason why organizations across the globe fawn over checklists is primarily due to how great checklists are at reducing human error.

Speaking of wars, let’s travel back to 1935.

In Dayton, Ohio, the U.S. Army Air Corps (USAAC) held a competition for airplane manufacturers. The prize was a lofty one – an offer from the USAAC to use the winning plane line as part of their arsenal.

At the time, everyone believed Boeing had it in the bag.

Why?

Because Model 299 was a state-of-the-art weaponized plane. It was built with aluminum alloys, could hold and unload over 5 times as many bombs than the Air Corps wanted, and despite its ability to carry such a load (and also weighing 15 tons itself), it could fly incredibly fast. It was even dubbed by Richard Williams, a reporter working at The Seattle Times, as the “Flying Fortress“.

Boeing 299
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Now, I’m no betting man (nor was I even alive during 1935). But if I were, my money would’ve gone on Boeing’s Model 299.

And I would’ve lost it all.

On its second evaluation flight, the plane – which had test pilot Major Ployer Peter Hill at the helm and Boeing employee Les Tower in second command – took off from the runway normally. But after reaching about 300 feet, it stalled unexpectedly. It then proceeded to nosedive to the ground.

Hill and Tower both lost their lives on October 30th, and many observers watching were injured.

Needless to say, the immediate action was to disqualify Model 299 from the Air Corps’ competition. The next action was then to uncover why, exactly, the Flying Fortress – which had initially been the clear front-runner – went down so quickly.

Investigators found that Hill had forgotten the disengage the gust locks. In fairness, the locking mechanism was a new addition to planes, and it was yet another step added to the already-complex process of flying such a plane. But it was still a human error that caused the crash.

Despite the crash – and it causing major harm to Boeing’s brand – the Air Corps still believed in the plane’s potential. So, they ordered 13 units of the new B-17 plane – a slightly remodeled version of the 229 prototype – which came out a year later in 1936.

In terms of pilotry, operating the new B-17 was very similar – not much at all had changed on that front. But instead of training the pilots differently, Boeing introduced something novel, as Bill Walton explains in his post Model 299: Boeing’s Big Bomber Design Rose From Its Own Ashes for AVgeekery.com:

“Boeing pondered the cause of the crash of the Model 299. They proposed a solution that is still in use today. In fact their solution can be found in just about every aircraft manufactured anywhere since World War II. You probably wouldn’t want to fly without one.

Their solution?

The checklist.

Had the Model 299 pilots had one that day they would have removed the gust locks prior to takeoff.”Bill Walton, Model 299: Boeing’s Big Bomber Design Rose From Its Own Ashes

In the first mission with pilots using checklists, 3 of the newer B-17 planes were flown 980km (610 miles) off the Atlantic coast. All three planes arrived back in perfect quality, with no defects or issues at all, let alone any crashes.

It was a success – and widely publicized in the press as so.

B-17
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After more test flights, Boeing had fully-secured the Air Corps’ trust back in them and their planes – all by providing their pilots with a pen-and-paper checklist. Hundreds of B-17s were then ushered into the Air Corps’ arsenal.

Today the B-17 has something of legendary status. That’s because, in World War II, the B-17 was used as the U.S. airforce’s most effective weapon against Nazi Germany. It’s estimated that around 640,000 tons of bombs were dropped from B-17s, which is nearly half of all bombs used by the U.S during WWII. Some even say that the B-17 was the U.S.’ major advantage in defeating Nazi Germany.

Suffice to say, the humble checklist is an extraordinary tool – especially where human error is concerned.

But it’s not only us at Process Street who think the checklist is one of the best inventions ever. Many others do, too, as the checklist even has its own national holiday each year on October 30th – the date the 299 prototype fell.

Tips & tricks for writing checklists from 15 thriving businesses

Now that you understand why and how checklists are so useful, it’s about time we got to the nitty-gritty and looked at some tips & tricks for creating some pretty darn incredible checklists.

In case you aren’t already aware, the Process Street team has been undergoing qualitative research regarding checklist usage.

Specifically, we’ve been asking top businesses about their processes for creating checklists, using those checklists, editing them, and then keeping them optimized.

Some of the insights we’ve published include:

Click on the links to open them in new tabs – but don’t read through just yet!

The 15 unseen, never-published-before tips & tricks are coming up. Believe me when I say you wouldn’t want to miss out on these. 👌

Checklist writing
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Starting us off is Marc Sloan, the CEO of Context Scout. Marc advocates for listing everything related to the task at hand, then editing through so it’s more organized and more actionable:

“My checklist for making a checklist to complete a task:
1) What’s my aim? Why do I want to complete this task? Write it down. This is the most important step.

2) Do a brain dump. Write down everything I can think of that is related to this task in one big, unordered list.

3) Go through the list and take everything that is an idea and put it into its own, unordered list.

4) Everything that’s left is an action. Transfer all actions into an ordered list. Place them one at a time and position them relatively by dependency (i.e. task A goes before task B) and importance. To figure out importance, refer back to the aim.

5) Go through the ideas list, is there anything there that hasn’t been addressed by an action. If not, create an action that addresses the idea.

6) The action list is now a checklist. Get to work.”

Interestingly enough, Marc isn’t the only one who professes that this is a stellar method for writing checklists.

Katie Kuchta – who’s a Marketing Manager at LawnStarter – also advises that you initially use the checklist as a braindump, then reorganize and write the list so it’s clear and practical (which is everything you want a checklist to be!):

“Being organized is one of my biggest personal strengths. When I train and continue to coach employees, one of the first things I get them into a habit of doing is creating a daily checklist. Every morning, before you begin anything, reflect on what you did the day prior. Then, in no particular order, write down everything (that comes to mind) that you need to do before the end of the workday. Once you’ve jotted down everything, reorganize your list by way of priority.

The practice of jotting down everything as it comes to mind *then* organizing it after can help in many ways. It can help you determine what you are actually capable of completing during work hours and preps you for the following day. It’s also therapeutic in the sense that you’re writing down everything that’s on your mind that morning — reducing any overthought or stress on certain items — that you now have a set date or later time to tackle.”

Rebekah Joan, who’s a freelance writer and blogger, writes and edits her daily checklist in a similar way to Marc and Katie. Considering she’s a busy writer herself, definitely heed her advice when it comes to writing checklists!

“When starting my checklist, the first thing I do is write down any appointments or meetings I have for the day. That way, I can keep that lost time in mind so I don’t add too much to my plate.

After that, I write down my top five priorities, which I base off of due dates and highest ROI.

Once I have my top five priorities written down, I list other low-priority tasks I’d like to get done. If I don’t get to them, it’s no big deal. But if I finish my top five priorities, I know exactly where to go from there.”

Not everybody wants to note everything down when writing checklists. I’m not one of those people myself – far from it. If there are any other methodically-minded people in the house, this next tip from Saurabh Jindal at Talk Travel is for you:

1) Don’t go overboard. Write things which you can practically achieve.

2) Ideally, prepare a list for 2-3 days in advance. This way you can handle any emergencies wherein you are not able to check an item off the list.

3) If possible, use a technical tool such as Evernote or Google Keep to create your checklists. Thus you can access them anywhere, and you don’t have to worry about them getting lost.

4) If you aren’t able to complete all your tasks in the checklist, then write fewer tasks. Add to them, as and when you complete your tasks.

5) Always remember, the checklist is for you. It is for you to properly use it and increase your productivity. You are not creating it because everybody else is doing it. You are doing it, to complete more tasks.

6) Don’t get pressurized because of the checklist. Take it easy.”

Similar to Saurabh, James Canzanella – who’s at the helm of IM Nights – says that when writing a checklist, you shouldn’t go overboard. Instead, only list the tasks of the highest importance:

“I’ve been using checklists to run my online business now for many years. In fact, I create them using Google Docs so that they can be edited or checked off from anywhere.

Nevertheless, one of the biggest tips I have when it comes to checklists is to only write down the important tasks that you need to accomplish. For me, I make sure that my checklist is set up for tasks that allow the biggest growth for my online business. Doing this allows you to focus on important tasks while neglecting tasks that are only taking up your time.”

Eye7‘s Rahil Chaudry, too, thinks you should write and keep your checklists void of non-essential information:

“Keep it simple. People tend to overegg it when doing a checklist and start adding items for the sake of it, and the checklist can turn into a mini-essay.

Break up the checklist into digestible chunks, and also combine similar tasks in time or process into one signoff. It stops the checklist sprawling and keeps it concise.

This can stop people from dreading using a checklist and encourage them to fill them out if they are easier and less time-consuming.”

Next up is Heidi Mertlich – the owner of No Physical Term Life – with 5 brilliant tips (the first being to make the list specific):

“1. Make your list specific. Write down exactly what you want to accomplish. For example, instead of listing, declutter workspace, you could state, file all documents and wipe down surface tops. Utilize an app, an online calendar, or simply paper to keep easily refer to your list.

2. Make them measurable. Checklists that can be tracked are more likely to be kept. Use an app or a calendar to monitor your daily, weekly and monthly progress.

3. Find an accountability partner. Peer pressure is the real deal. Positive peer pressure makes accomplishing your checklists more likely. Partner up with a trusted individual who has your best interests in mind, and clearly communicate the items you are planning to accomplish.

4. Make them reasonable. While it may sound exciting to create an outlandish checklist, disappointment and discouragement may ensue.

5. Make it fun. Sheer willpower only lasts so long. Incorporate fun into your checklists. That way, when the willpower subsides, you will still find a reason, through smiles and laughter, to keep it up checking off your to-do list.”

checklist writing tips
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I Like to Dabble‘s founder Daniella Flores is someone who likes to get things done with checklists. She writes two checklists each morning; one where she’ll prioritize tasks of high importance, another for lower priority items:

“I actually start every workday with a checklist. What I have found works the best is using 2 checklists; 1 for the higher priority items (3 to 5) that need to get done right away and the other for the rest of the items I know I have to get done but they don’t necessarily have to be today, tomorrow or this week. I always work with the 1st checklist of the higher priority items first and found this to be very productive. If I get the 1st list done in a day then I can start knocking off some of those items from the second list and get ahead of the game.

Checklists have revolutionized the way I work because before I would just go off what was in my head and often missed other items. Writing it all down really helps me stay on track and kind of sets me off into that constant process improvement mindset where the more I am getting done the more I can see what else to optimize. I also see the more productive I am, the more free time I have rather than playing catch up all the time.”

On the topic of being methodical, Chloe Brittain, the owner of Opal Transcription Services, takes checklist writing and keeping organized to the next level:

“My favorite tip for checklists — particularly large and complex ones — is to assign tags to items, which allows you to filter the entire database of items by very specific parameters. For instance, you might assign tags like priority level, the department or person responsible for the task, what stage of completion the item is currently in, etc.

I always structure my checklists so that they’re easy to manipulate. That way, I can easily brainstorm, add and remove items, and make frequent edits, and nothing is set in stone. Flexibility is critical.

My top advice for writing checklists is to not only list an action, but also (where practical) the desired outcome of completing that action. This can help you prioritize items, as well as incentivize you to keep checking items off your list!”

If you’re super methodical, you may think of checklists like manuals. This is exactly how Seth Rouch thinks, and it informs his approach for making and writing his checklists:

“I prefer to think of the checklist as a manual. The goal of it should be to create a system in which anyone could do the task at hand.

It also acts as a motivator. People need to feel as though something has been accomplished and the visual enhancements that a checklist or manual bring, will reinforce a worker that the task is being completed and they are that much closer to completion.

Start by breaking things down to being as simple as possible. Think of this as the IKEA instruction manual for assembling whatever you just bought, but for a task someone needs to do.

Example task: Toast bread

– Locate bread and set on counter.
– Locate Toaster and set next to bread on counter.
– Locate outlet and plug toaster end into outlet (insert photo or go into further description of outlet and toaster end etc.)
– Once toaster is correctly plugged in, then take out slice of bread. (If bread is not sliced, then add further instruction here etc.)
– Insert slice of bread into the designated toaster slot. (provide a photo or go into more detail about keeping the bread in once piece/not bending it/keeping it straight etc.)
– Once bread is in toaster, adjust toaster controls on front to level 4 (or low/med/high etc.)
– Press down on toaster lever until it clicks and does not pop back up.
– Release your hand and then wait for toaster to heat and complete.
– (Provide steps here if above is not working etc.)
– Once complete, remove now toasted bread and use for next purpose.

This could have been written into an entire page. However, a checklist will allow for the functionality of simplicity and knowledge of when something has been completed as directed.”

No matter if you want to write your checklist like a manual or go about it via the braindump route, Home Studio Today‘s Dave Reed advocates for choosing a modern checklist app, among other suggestions:

“1. Pick one good piece of software and learn it inside and out, then use it for everything. I often see people at work jumping from platform to platform trying to keep all of their notes and files in order and it’s simply dizzying. Find one app that stores all of the different data types that you use and keep everything in one place. Less time spent finding your next task means more time to complete the task at hand.

2. Organize your checklists by task, then include as much detail in your lists as you need to complete the task. Modern checklist software allows you to embed documents and links so you don’t have to waste time searching for references that you already have.

3. Take a few minutes at the beginning and end of each day to go through your checklists to clean up and consolidate. If I only have a few minutes left in my workday, I may not have time to complete anything, but I can certainly set myself up for an easier day tomorrow.

4. Always start every meeting with a blank checklist. You may not end up needing it, but more often than not there will be at least one takeaway or action item that you will want to capture.

5. Break down large tasks into multiple checklist items. This makes the task feel more manageable and achievable, and makes it easier to codify into SOPs at a later date.

6. Always archive checklists, never delete. You never know when you’ll need to do a similar task again and will benefit from having an old list to reference.”

Considering Process Street is a state-of-the-art checklist app, we couldn’t agree with Dave more. Additionally, we agree with Aleka Shunk, the founder of Bite Sized Kitchen, who also says that business software in the form of a checklist app is a good idea:

” – Don’t write the checklist on something you will lose or misplace! I have written many checklists in the past and will always forget them at home, or at work, or worse, lose them.

– Have your checklist easily available so you can add or cross items off throughout the day allowing you to prioritize what’s MOST important.

– Use a checklist app on your phone if your job requires you to be on or near your phone throughout the day.

– If you are feeling overwhelmed or have anxiety about your workload, writing a checklist will help tremendously! Seeing all of the tasks on paper that need to be accomplished allows us to feel more in control of our day and stay focused throughout.”

Checklists are also particularly great when it comes to accountability, says Bryan Pattman at 9Sail, who suggests employees should write checklists each morning:

“Our company uses checklists throughout our day to day operations to make sure that all of the tasks that need to be accomplished for our clients are completed. We have a daily morning meeting where everyone lists their top priorities for the day and throughout the day they cross off these tasks.

In the next day’s meeting, everyone creates a new checklist where they will move any uncompleted work over and add any new tasks to their list. We believe that these checklists allow every team member to know what is going on throughout our operations team and it holds people accountable for the items that they list.”

The penultimate tip for writing checklists comes from Abir Syed at Upcounting.com. If writing checklists seem a little daunting, he suggests making a checklist as you go:

“I’d say that if you have a recurring process that you know is amenable to a checklist, but can never actually bring yourself to take the time to create one, try making one as you go.

The next time you have to do the set of tasks involved in that process, keep a set of notes and document each step as you go. You can start at a higher level rather than getting into the nitty-gritty right away to make it less intrusive. And you can always improve on it the next time you go through the process. But that’ll save you from having to make make a checklist another thing on your to-do list.”

Leading us out is Bryn Elizabeth Bonino, a Digital Marketing specialist at Bryn Elizabeth Co. Bryn’s personal story will show you how to go about writing checklists if you feel you’re starting to burnout which, unfortunately, can happen to anyone if workloads aren’t managed properly:

“I use checklists all the time. I used to keep your average checklist of what needs to get done, for what project, and when it’s due by. But when I was particularly busy, this would get overwhelming. When I wouldn’t be able to get everything done, I’d feel burnt out about the situation and I’d sometimes not look at a checklist for periods of time.

Now I keep my checklist list in a Google Sheet, and I tie each task to a larger philosophical reason for why the task makes the world a better place. I set an intended due date, and if I don’t meet that date, I write down why.

I only regularly look at what is due in one week. At the end of the week, I look at my ongoing to-dos and I decide what needs to be done the next week.

This way, I am constantly growing and learning what I am capable of. I feel more motivated because I feel like I’m contributing to making the world a better place. I also feel more in control and calmer when I am more strategic about managing tasks.”

Phew.

That’s 15 tips and tricks from our knowledgeable research pool covered. (N.B.: I’d also like to thank Alexandra Franzen and the team at Vision Office Systems for responding and informing us how they write brilliant checklists themselves!)

If you’re now thinking “But they were all so good! What are the absolute core, main points I should take from all these tips and tricks?”, have no fear.

In the next section, you’ll be looking at the key takeaways! ⬇️

Writing checklists: The key takeaways

write great checklists
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I’ve condensed the above writing lessons and tips from the 15 businesses into this TL;DR, bullet-pointed list of key takeaways.

These’ll help you stay productive, reduce stress and anxiety, and win the modern-day war against strict deadlines, large workloads, and the businesses you’re competing with!

Without further ado…

  • Write your tasks down (somewhere safe). ✍️
  • It’s no use having a mental checklist – you’ll forget things, so physically write it down. But don’t write it on the back of that old crumped receipt that’s been in your pocket for a few months – or even that spare piece of paper on your desk. Lone pieces of paper are prone to being lost, stashed in the drawer never to be seen again, or accidentally chucked in the bin.

  • Keep it short and succinct. 👌
  • When it comes to checklists, brevity is key. No matter if the checklist helps you complete a specific process or if it’s more of a daily to-do list, make sure what you write is clear, can be understood easily, and also makes sense to any colleagues, friends, or family members who you may be working alongside.

  • Make it manageable. 👍
  • Surely you know The Scream. But did you know that the man is screaming in the painting because he just looked at his checklist which had over 100 tasks in it? OK, maybe that’s not exactly the truth (or in any way truthful at all), but having a long list is sure to strike fear into anyone. Don’t bloat your checklists. Keep them manageable.

  • Keep it flexible. 💪
  • Bouncing off the above tip, checklists should be flexible – especially checklists concerning processes. Who knows when you may need to add, change, or remove a step or task from a checklist? Being flexible helps you to keep agile, too!

  • Use the checklist throughout the day. ☀️➡️🌙
  • Now, one shared, overlapping tip most of these businesses had was to start your day with a checklist. Not only that, but they also advocated for using the checklist throughout the day, ticking and completing tasks as you go. A checklist is most effective when you keep returning to it, using it as a daily aide.

  • Utilize checklist software! 💻
  • Writing checklists should be quick, simple, and painless. After all, you don’t want to be spending all your working hours writing the checklists – you want to check tasks off from them! So, to create and write checklists efficiently and effectively, use Process Street.

Use Process Street for writing checklists efficiently and effectively!

Process Street is superpowered checklists.

If you document workflows, business processes, and integral procedures as templates, you can then launch an infinite number of checklists from those templates.

Essentially, this means once a process has been documented, you’ll always be able to complete the task(s) at hand to a high standard – and without human error sabotaging your efforts. Every. Single. Time.

To learn more, check out the short, informative video below.

Those with impressive memories will remember that, earlier in the article, I described Process Street as a “state-of-the-art checklist app”.

That’s because Process Street’s incredible workflow features transform standard checklists into out-of-this-world checklists.

These features are:

  • Stop tasks. ✋
  • With stop tasks, you’ll never accidentally skip over an important task again. Stop tasks halt you from moving onto the next task until the present task’s required action has been completed.

  • Conditional logic. 🧠
  • Ever wanted your checklists to automatically and dynamically adapt to your changing needs? Conditional logic has been created exactly for that!

  • Task permissions. 👀
  • Sometimes checklists are personal. Sometimes they contain sensitive data or information you don’t want colleagues looking at. With task permissions, you can hide tasks and the information they contain from other people in your organization.

  • Task assignments. 👤
  • Checklists are great for team-wide collaboration. That’s why, with task assignments, you can easily assign colleagues and collaborators to the tasks they need to complete.

  • Role assignments. 👥
  • Similar to task assignments, role assignments is another assigning feature, but this time it’s a way to dynamically assign tasks to different roles on your team.

  • Webhooks. 🎣
  • Send automated messages or information straight from your Process Street checklist to other apps. For instance, webhooks can be used to shoot a message into Slack once a certain task has been checked off, informing your colleagues that you’ve just completed an important task.

  • Approvals. ✅
  • If the tasks you’ve worked on need to be approved by your line manager – or if you’re the line manager and you need to approve the work of others – the whole approvals flow is made incredibly easy (not to mention fast!) with approvals.

  • Embed widget. 🌐
  • The embed widget allows you to directly add, view, and interact with other apps inside your checklists. As an example, you could add a Google Doc, Google Sheet, an Airtable view, or even another checklist! Say goodbye to tab hopping.

Want to try out these nifty workflow features yourself?

Of course you do.

Sign up for a free account, and then use your 14 day trial of our Pro plan to get to know them a little better.

Plus, don’t forget to watch this webinar hosted by our customer success team.

If you’re new to creating and writing checklists, then you can also ease into it by using one of our premade templates first.

In the template editor, you can change, add, or remove the template’s tasks or text, making it possible for you to adjust the template to your unique needs.

To get you started, you’ll find an embed of our daily to do list checklist below, and a list of other daily, weekly, and monthly templates to help you do the best work possible.

Do note that these templates are only the tip of the iceberg – there are far more templates (hundreds, in fact!) that you can add to your account via our template library.

Daily To Do List Template

Click here to get the daily to do list template.

With those templates, this post comes to its end.

You’ve learned some amazing tips from 15 thriving businesses, found out how Process Street’s BPM software (which is a checklist app) can help you with all your checklist-related endeavors, and even been given some free templates to get you started.

I can’t wait to hear about the fantastic checklists you’re going to create, write, edit, and use.

Onwards and upwards! 🥁

Do you use checklists regularly? If so, what are your tips and tricks for writing checklists? Let us and the rest of the Process Street community know in the comment section below. 💡

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Thom James Carter

Thom is a junior content writer at Process Street. He has previously worked in copywriting and content creation for multiple start-ups and SMBs. He’s interested in technology, culture, homebrewing, and hiking up the hills and mountains near his home in Edinburgh, Scotland.


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