Perform like a surgeon

Three weeks after I hired Maria (not her real name) she distributed her first press release for me. She published the draft version instead of the final. Maria was not a native English speaker and the draft was chock-full of grammatical errors. This was the most public mistake my company had made.

I was very embarrassed. Still, I let Maria make a lot more mistakes over a period of two years before I finally let her go. With little experience managing people or running a company, I was a pathetic boss (10 years ago).

a small mistake in a job searchIf you make mistakes at work like Maria, you might coast by for a while too. Or, you could use checklists and stop making mistakes in the first place. Ever since Atul Gawande popped up with his book The Checklist Manifesto, I’ve been using checklists and encouraging my team to use them as well. In fact, now we run through a checklist when we let someone like Maria go. We also use checklists for recruiting, interviewing, and reference checking.

Would it feel demeaning to you if your boss asked you to use a check list for a simple task you’ve performed many times before? If you answered yes, imagine you’re about to have your appendix removed and the operating surgeon is known to be one of the best in the country. Does he need a checklist that starts out like this?

1. Wash your hands

Probably not. Do you want him to use it anyway? I do.

If you just graduated from college, life might appear simple. But, if you’ve been through life’s big traumas like death, divorce, moving, illness, etc., you’ll know in your bones why checklists are not for dimwits. Experts are susceptible to stress and distraction like anyone else; that’s why checklists that save lives might possibly save your job someday. Use them.

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  • Melissa

    I thought that this was a little humorous, growing up my entire family used checklists and had master checklists to ensure that every detail on the other checklists were met.

    From my first day working at CVS when I was 16 to today, I’ve made checklists to ensure that I can physically see what I am up against for the day, week or even month. Lists have made my day to days go by so much more smoothly. During the mornings, I evaluate my outstanding items to prioritize for the day so if my managers, clients or bosses require anything pressed for time from me, I can see and rearrange my priorities as needed.

    Checklists save time and keeps people in check from their priorities- it also helps when we have our weekly status meetings, I can summarize everything I’ve accomplished or am currently working on within minutes while other team members may take a little longer.

  • Elizabeth

    I was excited to see the reference to Atul Gawande in this post. I have read every one of his books, and I was highly influenced as a fifteen year old back when I first read “Checklist Manifesto.” Since then, I have found it a priceless tool in my box for keeping all of the dates and responsibilities straight in my head. Using checklists even for simple weekly meetings that happen on a regular basis has reminded me to attend them more than once when I would have forgotten had I not used a checklist.
    Not only are checklist essential for my daily life now, but they will be instrumental when I get my DVM and begin to track equine surgery. Just like Atul Gawande found, I am sure that checklists will save a reasonable percentage of my patients from infection and fatal complications.

  • peiqianlong

    I do find checklists help me function effectively in things I do at work and at home especially with projects done over a period of time. I tend to forget small details sometimes. The checklists allow me to be on track all the time.

  • When I first started doing part-time accounting for a small construction company, there was MUCH to learn. The only way I was able to keep my head on straight and build a momentum was through this sort of checklist-style workflow. From expense sheets to billing clients, I made sure to record the exact steps for completing each task so I could replicate what my boss was looking for without having to bug her whenever I forgot how to do something.

  • Tracey Cooper

    There is something very interesting and funny all at the same time about this. i actually read this on a friends page a few days ago, i sort of skimmed through it, but i went to take a test for a new job on Tuesday and i thought back to it. There were a few things that stayed in my mind those things were to be precise, dedicated and remember the facts. As i completed the test i was able to smile at the paper as i handed it in. i knew i had given it my all and the vital life that i was going to change in doing so was my own. Sometimes we focus so much energy on others that we neglect to care for our selves so I choose to think like a surgeon on my own behalf to give myself over to vital thinking and use precision, attention to detail and confidence to change my own life. Needless to say i landed a great job with Amtrak and am on my wasy to something greater

  • This section alone has led me a promotion in my current workplace. I work in a service industry job, and our workplace is absolutely plastered with helpful guides and checklists regarding equipment and proper responses to certain situations that may or may not arise. By reading these checklists and guides I became a “go to guy” amongst my fellow employees, which my managers took notice to and mentioned to the General manager who promoted me to Shift Lead. Given more responsibilities, checklisting has become a vital skill and requirement in order to succeed in my work place. After watching this interview on The Daily Show while pursuing a career in Healthcare (freshman entering college), it goes to show the benefit of knowing that checklists are useful in all industries.

  • I love the comment “this is so simple it just might never be used.” We all do tasks at work that we think as routine, and we surly could not forget how to do that task. Stress at work, or from home will distract even the best of us.

    I run a power plant and we have start-up check lists, daily round lists, and shut-down check lists. Although we know what we need to do when starting up or shutting down, it is great to have a check list so that nothing is missed in the process.

    I took the very long check lists that were used 30 years ago and made a short list that still includes what needs to be done, it just does not list the reasons behind each step. This is an easy to use check list that does not overwhelm the user.

    Check lists will make even huge tasks easier to manage and help stop mistakes before you do them. This is a great reminder to KISS “Keep It Simple Stupid.”

  • fo515

    I think using checklists is a very smart idea. No matter if its for work or your own personal goals. It helps to write things down and see how you are measuring up on your own goals. It keeps you self motivated and  you get a sense of pride for accomplishing the task at hand. 

  • Pyrite2u

    I’m LOL … Perform like a Surgeon, indeed! The reason Gawande wrote the book is because healthcare, until the last 6 to 10 years didn’t use them — and resist them to this day. (Read the IOM’s report: To Err is Human – 100,000 preventable deaths per year then have risen to 5 million today — Dr. Berwick started, but was denied directorship appointment to CMS)

    Gawande got the checklist idea from an airplane manufacturing consultant (think of how many people are killed when a plane goes down – as opposed to the one by one killing in heathcare). And as you can see from the other commenters, they all use them because they are a great best practice idea.

    Sigh, what we all do everday to ensure our excellence isn’t as ‘sexy’ as a ‘thinks he’s god’ surgeon and wouldn’t generate interest. So here’s KUDOs to all of you heros!

  • cmitthauer

    I have observed the unlimited human potential in all of us.  This human potential allows us to achieve many short and long term goals.  Short term goals such as daily tasks are usually routine but sometimes a routine is victim to circumstance.  

    Circumstance is an unforeseen variable that may disturb normally behavior such as performing daily task.  A checklist, as mentioned above, offers us an opportunity to continue routines without missing a step.  Just as a surgeon must wash his hands before surgery, this first step is critical.  Contamination in surgery is unacceptable with known consequences such as infection.  Every consecutive step will be equally critical.  The surgeon does not feel insecure about using a checklist.  The checklist offers the surgeon confidence.  

    Confidence is a major driver for success thus the checklist is directly linked to success when followed correctly.  A checklist also offers consistency.  A procedure can be repeated successfully because written documentation has proven it to be successful.  

    As I continue on with my career, I have used mental checklists to achieve future goals in the past.  Mental checklists are susceptible to a loss in train of thought which is caused by circumstance.  When the circumstance involves external factors such as family, work performance is impacted.  I continue to practice written checklists because of its easy level of difficulty and its successful results.  No step is left unnoticed and every step can be tracked.  I would recommend the practice of using a checklist because it encourages confidence and it is practical.

    My career involves corporate administration.  A checklist is highly beneficial in my department.  The direction of the checklist allows the operation of the department to perform effectively every day without any step becoming unnoticed while accounting for the actions of each staff member.

  • Jcchristian7

    I’m currently in school and working full time as a waitress. I constantly need to use checklist throughout my job. There are many tools I need to bring with me to work and if I don’t have them; I can’t do my job. Sure, I can ask for a new item from my boss if I forget to bring something but it makes me look disorganized and unable to handle the responsibilities of my job. Every day before I leave for work I have to run through; do I have a lighter? enough pens? my order book? apron? employee card? name tag? enough money in my change bank? Once I get to work, it’s more list. Do i know my section? My section partner? today’s specials and sold out items? Once i get to my table; even more list. If I miss something in my spiel I can easily be written up. I have to go over my requirements: did I talk about our grill? fresh fish? specials? use the assigned adjectives to describe our menus items? address my station partner? say my name? ask what the guest is celebrating. After that…guess what, more list! Do the guest have drinks? enough napkins? salads? bread? ect. I do my job everyday and every minute i’m double checking what I do. If i didn’t i would become overwhelmed, flustered and get fired in a minute.

  • bpm1390

     Trust me this works. No matter how long you’ve been at a job, there will
    always be days where your mind slips and you may forget something
    important. There are some days when my boss give me 11 or 12 tasks to do
    in only a few hours and i would probably forget half of it if I didn’t
    write it down. Having a list can be an invaluable resource regardless of
    your career.

  • guest

    Trust me this works. No matter how long you’ve been at a job, there will always be days where your mind slips and you may forget something important. There are some days when my boss give me 11 or 12 tasks to do in only a few hours and i would probably forget half of it if I didn’t write it down. Having a list can be an invaluable resource regardless of your career.

  • Tward79

    Check lists help me every day. Without them, I would be much more disorganized and less successful.
    They keep me on task and give me motivation to get everything done.

  • Kimberly Eaton

    It would be impossible for me to do my job(s) both at work and at home without check-list.  I have been making check-list since I started my first professional position at age twenty-one.  People would ask why do you have to write everything down, you are so young.  I would say, “I am young but imperfect and I want to complete all of my assignments.”  Twenty-six years later, I am still writing check lists because they help me function.  I actually use checklists for training that I conduct twice annually.  Since I only conduct the training in the Fall and Spring I know my checklist keep me out of trouble.  I have done the trainings for several years but I leave nothing to chance.  I use the checklist and keep it before me prior to every session.

  • Ash.henry

    I worked as a personal assistant to a wonderful lady with CP and still help her out every now and again because we became friends during my employment.  I am an avid list-user and routinely used them when I was at work. Everyday I’d ask her what needed to be done and make a list of all of it on note cards that went on the fridge. By the end of the week, the note card was covered with tiny lists. It not only helped me to remember everything I needed to do without asking her every time I completed a task but she also found it extremely entertaining. To this day, she teases me about my “little teeny lists” but misses them. If you can make anything you do, lists included, extra specially by putting a bit of ‘you’ in it, you’ll be surprised at who notices (and how much it makes a difference!)

  • Laura_padron1991

    I totally agree with this lesson, I am aslo like a checklist freak. If I dont orgnize myself with a checklist I will forget small but very important details in the task that I perfoming. Being organized is one of the most important qualities that a person should have, and as the lesson says, it sometimes may save lives. 

  • Juliagarcia12

    I like to be seen as the perfectionist (although no one is perfect), and as I like to keep organized my rule is to take things day by day with setting daily goals on getting things done and correctly. Keeping a checklist is something I do daily. As a wife, mother of 2 and full-time student I like to say “one and done”. I get things done correctly and once rather than 2-3 times because of mistakes. My daily goals are my priorities, and will only get done through a checklist. My checklists are categorized from the most to least important things than non the less still have to be completed. My checklists is my time management tool, my orgaznizer, and daily planner. Without it I would be lost, and un orgaznized. As a future educator, time management is very important because I will teach my students all they need to know in one days lesson rather than leaving things for another day and skipping or missing out on their education. 

  • Jon

    No matter how many times you have performed a set of steps, you will
    sometimes forget to do one of them.


    There is a saying in aviation: “A pilot should read from a list those items
    that he has to perform every flight and recite from memory those items that he
    has to perform once in a lifetime.”

  • Tljjblauert

    I believe in the value of using a checklist. I admit that I do not have the best memory, so I create checklists for most things that I do, even if I do them on a regular basis. It is a way to make sure I do not forget anything. I also think it becomes a great tool if someone else has to do that job for me.

  • Melissa Leeper

    I am a major proponent of checklists.  I use them when doing assignments for my college courses, when managing my finances, and when moving.  My moving checklist is the most important.  My husband is in the service and the first two moves we did as a couple were horribly disorganized and stressful.  Now after eight years of marriage and 10 moves, many cross-country, my checklist is extremely detailed and my moves run smoothly.  I credit my moving checklist in saving my marriage and my sanity!

  • Mrsjdupree

    Checklist are great tools to ensure that daily goals and situations requiring immediate attention are addressed. I believe that time management is one of the keys to being successful. Being an adult student, full-time manager for my employer, mother, wife, and business owner, it is imperative that I find a balance to maintain healthy living and enjoy life. Without my checklist, my life would be a mess.

  • Chantal1408

    This is so true!!!! I use checklists for everything even for my chores at home, Im a single mom and work full time, therefore I cant allow to miss anything on personal or professional side.  chantal1408

  • FHoman

    I completely agree with using checklists and feel that they are very important with many aspects of life.  Whether it’s for work, school, or going to the grocery store, checklists have helped me. I often find myself making lists of all the school work I need to get done before a certain date. I make lists on my laptop, on post-its, and in my agenda book daily. Checklists help me to be less forgetful which I sometimes am because of my hectic schedule.  I can honestly say that checklists make me a more productive person because they help me prioritize my goals.

  • Paulina Almada

    Definitely, using checklists can be very important, and from experience I can tell you it can really make a difference.Before, I did not use checklists, and I sometimes forgot to do things. I would have something to do, and I would say, ok, I’ll remember, but I often did not remember in time. Leaving things for my memory to remind me was not working, and I would sometimes have to do things late. Fortunately my mother suggested using checklists, and indeed it helped. Now every time I have things to do I write a checklist, and that way I never forget to do anything. This works the same way in work. Just like it is very important for a surgeon to write a checklist and prevent deaths, writing checklist in your job can also help you keep that job.So remember, use checklists.

    • Jeannie Cheatham

      I use a checklist whenever I have a task to do. I have used them in the workplace and now for school. I not only use a checklist, but i write things down in order of their importance. This way I am sure things are done in a timely manner. chosen for top 75 websites for your career

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About the author


In 1997, Eric Shannon launched the first job board for bilinguals who speak English/Spanish at Eric still serves as CEO of LatPro Inc., developer of He lives in Boulder, CO with his wife and two girls.