Reap the Rewards of a Checklist: Two Easy Steps


Pilots use it; some doctors use it.  The benefits of its use have been documented.  What is it? A simple checklist. Are you taking advantage of it?

My sister and her husband are pilots. Each time I fly with them they pull out their pre-flight checklist.  Even with hours of experience, they use a checklist.  Why would experienced pilots who have initiated flights hundreds of times, still use a checklist? They know that for complicated activities, the brain needs support be to accurate.  Look at these research results.

In a study of surgeons in 2009, the use of a checklist, which covered steps before and after the surgery, was shown to cut patient mortality rates nearly in half and complications from surgery fell by a third. A similar study of an intensive-care checklist used in several hospitals in Michigan and reported in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2003, showed a 66% reduction in infections and $175 million saved in the treatment of those infections.[i]

You’re thinking, “That’s great but I’m not doing surgery at work or flying a plane. I don’t need this.” In my work with organizations, the most complex challenge they face is behavior change particularly in a team environment.  Whether it’s not interrupting each other, listening to everyone’s input, collaborating with the out-spoken team member who gets on your nerves or just sending in progress reports on time, these behaviors tank the productivity of a team. And behaviors are hard to change.  A meeting checklist can help.

The checklist helps the brain in three ways.

  • Working memory. Research in neuroscience shows that working memory (the part of memory that stores readily accessible information) only holds about four pieces of information at a time.  That’s not much. Checklists put important information back into working memory.
  • Rewiring. The brain resists new behavior. It’s takes less mental energy to do what it has always done. It will change behavior but only with a lot of practice and intention.  Checklists reminder the brain to practice.
  • Priming. The brain and body respond to what they experience most recently. Where people prime their brain with confident and powerful thoughts before going into a meeting, studies show they are 60% more likely to be viewed as a leader.  Checklists are a brain priming tool.

As an example, here’s how I use a checklist to help companies be more productive in meetings.

Identify ideal behaviors. How do you wish the team would behave to support collaboration and productivity? Here’s an example checklist that I used with a client:

  • Have a written agenda.
  • Start and end on time.
  • Stay focused on the objective of the meeting. Take divergent topics off-line.
  • Let each person complete their thought without interruption.
  • Everyone uses a calm tone of voice throughout the meeting.

(Note that each item is stated in a positive sentence – the way we want it to be not the behavior to avoid.) For this organization, these behaviors represent a desirable state that is a departure from the norm.

Use a checklist. These ideal behaviors were written in the form of a checklist. Team leads committed to briefly reviewing the checklist with the team as the meeting starts. In less than a minute, the team members have desirable behavior goals re-installed in working memory, they are reminded to practice which rewires their brain, and it primes them for a more productive meeting. All in less than a minute.

You can use this same approach for personal goals, New Year’s resolutions, or just setting the stage for a productive and happy day. Use it anywhere your brain needs a boost to remember what you want it to do. It couldn’t be easier.

[i] Study: A Simple Surgery Checklist Saves Lives, Szalavitz, Maia, Time, January 14, 2009.

Shelley Row
Shelley Row works with forward-thinking managers and leaders who must make fast, insightful decisions in the face of uncertainty and rapid change. Shelley’s original research through 77 executive interviews revealed the secret to effective decision-making: Use information and intuition. That research is validated through neuroscience. But Shelley’s work is grounded in more than just her research. Her life experiences taught her to think, feel, and act…and it made all the difference.