Each year, over five million Americans spend time in an I.C.U. (intensive care unit). Studies have found that the average patient in intensive care requires 178 actions by medical staff each day. Each action poses major risks. About 50% of I.C.U. patients end up experiencing a serious complication. When that happens, the chances of survival drop significantly.
In 2001, Peter Pronovost, a critical-care specialist at Johns Hopkins Hospital, had an idea to reduce infections that can occur when doctors put lines into I.C.U. patients. Pronovost wanted to create a simple checklist with the following five steps for doctors:
- Wash your hands with soap.
- Clean the patient’s skin with chlorhexidine antiseptic.
- Cover the entire patient with sterile drapes.
- Wear a sterile hat, mask, gown, and gloves.
- Put a sterile dressing over the catheter site once the line is in the patient.
Since these five steps are widely known and taught, some people thought it was unnecessary to make a checklist for them. However, Pronovost persisted.
He asked nurses in his I.C.U. to observe doctors as they inserted lines into patients. Nurses were also asked to record how often the doctors completed all five steps. After thirty days, they found that doctors ended up skipping at least one step over 33% of the time.
With this data in hand, Pronovost and his team convinced the hospital’s leadership to authorize nurses to stop doctors if/when they were about to skip one of the five steps. With this new rule in place, the ten-day line infection rate dropped from 11% to 0% over the next year.
To make sure their initial findings were not a fluke, Pronovost and his team then followed doctors and patients for another fifteen months. Over this entire period, their simple checklist ended up preventing eight deaths and over 40 infections. It also saved more than $2 million in costs.
Encouraged by these results, Pronovost made some more checklists. Nurses and doctors also created some of their own. As a result of these efforts, the average length of a patient’s time in the I.C.U. was cut in half. The chances of a patient experiencing untreated pain dropped from 41% to 3%. Most importantly, twenty-one fewer patients died than in the year before.
Note: I first heard the above story through an article and book by Atul Gawande. See the References section at the end of this article.
Why should you use checklists at work?
As Peter Pronovost’s example demonstrates, checklists can save lives. However, you need not work in an intensive care unit to benefit from using checklists. They can be extremely valuable in any line of work. Here are four benefits of using them:
- They reduce errors and omissions. Even experts can make mistakes when performing basic tasks. Checklists eliminate human error.
- They ensure more consistent, higher-quality work. Consistency is one of the keys to long-term success. Checklists help you (and others) put your best foot forward every single time.
- They save you time and energy. Trying to store too much in your memory is a recipe for wasting time and feeling overwhelmed. Checklists free up more of your time and mental energy.
- They help you delegate and outsource. Checklists allow you to clone yourself, without sacrificing quality. Being able to hand off tasks to other people frees up even more of your time.
How can you use checklists at work?
Checklists are essential for any recurring project or activity that has multiple steps or parts. You could also create daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly, or annual checklists.
Ask yourself what tasks you repeat over and over at work. Then, start a checklist document or spreadsheet for each one. If your list is for a series of steps, be sure to put them in the right order.
If your checklist is not associated with a life-saving procedure, don’t obsess about getting it perfect right away. Just get it started, and refine it over time. Chances are that it will evolve, as you optimize your process. You might even want to get feedback from colleagues on your checklist to see if you are missing anything.
As an executive recruiter, I have checklists for creating job descriptions, researching candidates, and interviewing candidates.
Checklists literally save me hundreds of hours each year. They also free up my mental energy for other tasks.
Checklists are immensely valuable for any type of work. For example, a teacher could create checklists for developing lesson plans or grading papers. An executive could create checklists for getting ready for Board meetings or for conducting employee performance reviews. If you are a salesperson, you could create checklists for preparing for sales calls or presentations.
Do checklists make you less creative?
While some people might think that checklists can stifle creativity, they can actually make you more creative. They free up more of your mind, and they can also be used to remind yourself to think more broadly. For example, my writing checklist ensures that I include certain elements in each article. Without this tool, the caliber of my writing would be less consistent. It would also take me longer to produce great content.
Summary and final thought
All jobs have recurring tasks and decisions. Why not develop and use checklists for your work too?
They prevent mistakes, they ensure better work, they save you time and energy, and they make delegation and outsourcing easier. Every year, countless errors are made and countless hours are wasted by people who fail to use this productivity tool.
Even if you already have many checklists, I challenge you to identify and develop at least one more for your work.
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About the author: Pete Leibman is the Creator of StrongerHabits.com. He is a best-selling author, keynote speaker, and executive recruiter, and his work has been featured on Fox News, CBS Radio, and CNNMoney.com. His latest book is titled Work Stronger: Habits for More Energy, Less Stress, and Higher Performance at Work.
References for this article:
- The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande