The difference between checklists and to-do lists

We talk with everyone we meet about checklists. Everyone. What we’ve found is a common misunderstanding about the subtle difference between checklists and to-do lists. And if you’re selling checklist software (like we are), the difference is important.

Checklists are How To-Do

Checklists are best described as an agreement in an organization on How to Do specific (important) processes. They are codified “best practices” about how these processes should be done. Examples from our customers include a Daily Store Openingchecklist, New Client checklist, Monthly Review checklist, Listing a Property checklist and others.

To-Do lists are What To-Do

To-do lists, on the other hand, are unique, ephemeral (thankfully!), and ad hoc in nature. They are your list (or your team’s list) of what you need to get done (today, this week, etc). There are tons of tools for managing to-dos. We have used Remember the Milk,, and most recently we love Google Keep.

An Instance of a Checklist is a To-do list

Here’s where it gets interesting. When you are using a checklist, that is effectively a to-do list. Got that? The thing you refer to when you’re building up a list of steps you want everyone to perform — that is a checklist. When they use it, they’re using the checklist, but it is acting like a to-do list since it is a list of what to do.

Why does this matter?

It matters because checklists are an important part of process improvement activities. By focusing on getting the right things done the right way — the How — checklist are quality and consistency focused.

To-do lists don’t provide this structure, nor do to-do list software solutions focus on this continuous improvement process. To-do lists focus on getting things done, especially at the individual productivity level.

As always, if you haven’t read The Checklist Manifesto, we often have some free Checklist Manifesto copies to give away. Just contact us.