The Difference Between a Checklist and a To-do List

What they are, how they differ and why they supercharge your efficiency.

A to-do list is an ad-hoc series of tasks that tell you what to do (For example: What needs to be done this morning).

A checklist is a template of tasks that tell you what to do in order to complete a certain process (For example: Onboarding a new client, closing the shop, planning an event).

Everyone has their own habits when it comes to staying productive and more often than not, ‘lists’ are one of the first things to be mentioned. The question is, what kind of list? Checklists and to-do lists have become synonymous with each other—I mean, you check each task off as you complete them, right?—but there’s actually a real and profound difference between them.

The history of the checklist

In Dr Atul Gawande’s brilliant book, ‘The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right’ (if you haven’t already, read it, it will change your life) he discusses where the checklist came from. In 1935, at Wright Air Field in Dayton, Ohio, the US Army Air Corps held a flight competition for manufacturers to produce the next fleet of planes for World War 2. To cut a long story short, the first B-17 flight resulted in two deaths, when the aircraft stalled shortly after takeoff. After further investigation, it was found that the Captain had left the elevator lock on, which caused the crash. So, to avoid any future human error, the pilot’s checklist was created.

The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande

How a checklist can boost efficiency

The thing about a checklist is that it’s a tool for a process you repeat time and time again. If you had to create a to-do list for every occurrence of this process, you’d spend a lot of time planning, instead of doing. 

What’s more, when you create a checklist and use it in real-life situations, you test the efficiency of that process at the same time. Because each step is recorded, you have a clear picture of what’s working and what needs to change in order to make it even more efficient. 

As fully-trained Virtual Assistants, our ibLE experts have checklists for pretty much everything—but that doesn’t mean they’re set in stone. Even though checklists aren’t as ad-hoc as to-do lists, they still adapt and change to each business, each person and even new waves of technology. Our VAs regularly collaborate with business owners, in-house PAs and senior management teams to develop custom checklists as a way of supercharging efficient processes across the business, as a whole. Learn more about how they can do that for you

“Good checklists, on the other hand, are precise. They are efficient, to the point, and easy to use even in the most difficult situations. They do not try to spell out everything—a checklist cannot fly a plane. Instead, they provide reminders of only the most critical and important steps—the ones that even the highly skilled professionals using them could miss. Good checklists are, above all, practical.” — Dr Atul Gawande

How a to-do list can boost efficiency

If you’re ever feeling overwhelmed, a to-do list is one of the first steps to feeling better. By writing those tasks down, you’re taking them out of your head and quickly eliminating the additional, and arguably, most difficult task of ‘I must remember to do this’. 

Psychologist and author, Dr David Cohen believes that our brains love to-do lists for three reasons—they dampen anxiety about the utter chaos swirling around our heads, they give us a structure, and they are proof of what we have achieved that day, week or month.

So how does that make us more efficient? 

Well, if you’ve ever been in a situation where you don’t know where to start, you’ve likely experienced the procrastination stage. By getting in the habit of writing to-do lists and feeling the sheer joy of ticking them off, you’ll skip right past procrastinating and head straight into doing, no matter how daunting those tasks may seem. 

Become an event planning pro with a to-do list

Now, mastering checklists and to-do lists are one thing, actually completing the tasks outlined is another—our virtual assistants can help you there. Get in touch to find out how you can hire an ibLE expert for as little as 5 minutes.