Checklists! A Simple Solution To Better Habits

In October 1935 the top brass of U.S. Army Air Corps gathered in Dayton, Ohio to witness leading airplane manufacturers compete for a lucrative contract to supply the military’s next long-range bomber.

The comfortable front-runner at the time was Boeing’s Model 299 which could fly faster and further than its nearest rival whilst carrying five times as many bombs. However, disaster struck seconds into the flight when at 300ft the plane stalled, turned on one wing and plummeted into the ground killing two crew members including the highly experienced pilot Major Ployer P. Hill.

Investigation revealed there were no mechanical failures to blame, the crash was caused by pilot error. Caught up in the complexity of the new plane Major Hill had forgotten to release the rudder and elevator controls. Boeing subsequently lost the contract and flirted with bankruptcy as the Model 299, despite superior specifications, was widely considered too difficult to fly.

However, not everyone lost faith in the plane and a group of pilots teamed together to brainstorm how future accidents could be avoided. Extra training was quickly ruled out as there were few in the Air Corps with more experience than Major Hill. Instead the group decided upon the simplest of solutions… a checklist.

The checklist provided an external memory of critical tasks to ensure safe take-offs, flights and landings. Many of the items were child’s play to an experienced pilot but crucially the list meant none got missed. The results were stunning! Using the checklists pilots flew the Model 299 for 1.8 million miles without incident. A large order from the Air Corps followed and the plane (renamed the B-17) went on to play a pivotal role in World War II.

Elsewhere checklists have been used in hospitals to dramatically reduce preventable mishaps, in financial institutions checklists have been used to make better investments and in the construction industry checklists have been used to build the world’s tallest buildings.

If such a simple idea can boost performance in these complex arenas why not apply the same concept to our fitness habits? A short list of items we accomplish on a daily basis to maintain a strong and healthy body and protect against the slow creep of inactivity and unhealthy lifestyle habits.

As Atul Gawande puts it “Checklists seem to provide protection against failures. They remind us of the minimum necessary steps and make them explicit. They not only offer the possibility of verification but also instill a kind of discipline of higher performance.”

In a world full of competing distractions, where the unhealthy choice has become the easy choice the minimum necessary steps and a discipline of higher performance have become increasingly important prerequisites for staying in shape.

Simple is best. A good checklist is short, precise and easy to use. A bad checklist is long, vague and complicated. Here is the list I try to follow:

  • Eat a healthy breakfast
  • Workout or move for 20+ minutes
  • Meditate for 10+ minutes

These are my minimum basic requirements for staying in shape. The checklist helps hold me accountable and (most of the time) triggers the desired behaviours.

Naturally everyone’s checklist habits will look a little different but once assembled try to avoid finishing a day with an unchecked item. Since consistency underpins any successful approach to getting in shape coupling this mindset with the right habits will almost certainly push fitness and wellbeing in a positive direction... and prevent it sliding back!


  • The Checklist Manifesto: How To Get Things RIght by Atul Gawande