The Solution To Every Problem is a Checklist

Checklists were sent from the heavens to ease our suffering. They are no less than Gods themselves.

I promise you, whatever problem you have, a checklist is the solution.

It’s a great feeling to tick off a box on your to-do app or, even better, an actual piece of paper. You get an energy boost from it that propels you into the next item on the list. It’s basically free energy and energy is the most important tool you have when managing your over-packed life.

For example, I have trouble with keeping my energy levels high on the weekend. So I use a list to fix that. We all want to do two things on the weekend: take care of some chores and rest. Doing the chores ad-hoc, however, wouldn’t let me enjoy the rest. I’d keep doing “a little bit more” or, when I decided “that’s enough, I’m going to nap,” I’d be doing so out of frustration instead of accomplishment.

Doing some chores won’t make you feel as good as checking off a list of chores.

So make a checklist first and you’ll bounce through the weekend.

The Creation Energy

I would also argue that making the checklist itself is just as valuable or even more valuable than checking off the items. In making the checklist, you define the solution piece-by-piece. You set up a plan that you have some level of confidence in. You face the reality and get a taste of what it will feel like to accomplish.

Writing out a checklist relieves the stress of the unknown.

For example, let’s tackle a major problem we’ve all faced at one time or another — your career feels stagnant.

Okay, now that we know the problem let’s break it down into a step-by-step checklist of how to fix it.

Talk to my boss about different roles
Write out my career goals and stick them on the fridge
Find a mentor
Quit and move to Australia for a year and stare at the ocean

What about handling money? Well, most financial advisors will give you a slight variation of a pretty standard checklist like this:

Budget to reduce expenses as far below income as you can
Pay off high-interest debt (credit cards, credit lines)
Save an emergency fund of 3-6 months’ expenses
Set up a retirement investment account (RRSP, 401k, etc) and contribute as much as you can until you hit the legal limit
Set up a non-registered investment account and contribute what’s left over

These are simplified of course. You can build them out and break them down into sub-lists depending on your situation. The beauty is that when put in a checklist, two of the most complicated things we all deal with seem very manageable.

Actionable items

The only golden rule of a good checklist is to make every item on it clearly doable. If it’s not, keep breaking it down until it is.

Get a better job is not a good checklist item.

Send out 10 resumes is.

Before putting an item down, just ask yourself my favourite checklist question, “do I know where my arms will be when I do this one?” It sounds a little weird, but if you can’t picture where your arms will be (e.g. in the sink, on the keyboard) then the item isn’t actionable enough.

Reusable Checklists

To-do lists and checklists are not exactly the same thing.

A checklist, for example, could be reusable. Like a template. Every time you’re packing for a trip, you haul out your packing checklist. Tick, tick, tick, ready to go. No worries about forgetting something.

Todoist has a great feature where you can export checklist templates for just that purpose. Or you could get and import reusable lists from experts. For example, here’s a great one from Buffer for staying on top of your social media.

I use all kinds of checklists. Every bit of code that I’ve written starts with some sort of checklist. Here’s one from an old Crew project, when I was still using paper:

There are zero jokes in this list. It’s just the workings of a man gone mad.


Don’t rely on your brain to remember what to do. Or to decide what to do. Think of lists as your assistants who do the hard thinking for you.

I haven’t read The Checklist Manifesto, in which they praise the power of the checklist. It seems interesting but I haven’t read it because I don’t need to be convinced.

Checklists are awesome.

Reliance on the humble list may feel beneath you. Well, you are not better than the checklist. The checklist makes you better.


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