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Checklists for a Successful Life

Pilots live and die by checklists. After all, we humans are capable, but fallible. And though we learn from mistakes, we don’t learn from mistakes we don’t survive. If checklists play such a vital role keeping pilots and their passengers alive, can they also help keep your financial, career, or personal goals alive?

Pilots live and die by checklists. After all, we humans are capable, but fallible. And though we learn from mistakes, we don’t learn from mistakes we don’t survive.

If checklists play such a vital role keeping pilots and their passengers alive, can they also help keep your financial, career, or personal goals alive?

Why Checklists?

On July 18, 1934, The U.S. Army was evaluating the Boeing Model 299 at Wright Field in Dayton, Ohio for a contract. On a test flight, the aircraft took-off, climbed briefly, then stalled, turned over on its wing and plunged to earth, erupting in flames on impact. Though a heroic Army officer pulled the pilots from the burning wreckage, both later succumbed to their injuries.

The cause of the crash was pilot error. The pilots had forgotten to remove the elevator control lock prior to take-off. (When deployed, such locks prevent high winds from tossing a parked aircraft into the air, but also render the plane unflyable).

Boeing was in a predicament. Another incident with the Model 299 would snuff hopes for the Army contract, possibly ruining the company. Boeing needed to prove to the Army – and the public – the Model 299 was not “too much plane for one man to fly,” as some newspapers criticized.

Their solution was pilots’ checklists. The memory aides for pilots commanding ever more complex aircraft (modern airliners now have hundreds of gauges and controls) have become an international aviation standard.

(Boeing, by the way, landed the contract, and delivered over 12,500 of the planes the Army would designate the B-17).

Checklists ensure safe flight by ensuring nothing – regardless how trivial – is overlooked.

Checklists for Life

How many times have you forgotten to pack your lunch, return a phone call from an old friend, or pay a bill?

Little things seem inconsequential but they can have disproportionate consequences. In an airplane, a few notches of flap deflection on a small cockpit lever can spell the difference between a perfect takeoff and tumbling into the trees.

In life, a forgotten lunch means buying a more caloric (and costly) meal, an unreturned call might mean a missed job opportunity, and a skipped bill can scar your credit for years.

The busier we get and the more we have to remember, the more likely we will forget some things. Checklists ensure everything is in front of us.

Try creating a “morning routine” checklist and using it for a week. Include everything you usually do from the time you wake up until the time you arrive at work.

It seems silly, but include things like “Shower – Taken”. Pilots rarely forget to start the engine, but it’s still on the list.

More useful will be items like “Lunch – Packed”, “Lights – Off”, “Bills – Mailed”. (You’ll want to include things that you may only do once every week or two as well!)

Checklists for a Successful Life

But checklists aren’t just for the forgetful. They’re also for the compliant.

Pilots are trained to thoroughly inspect their aircraft before every flight. When done properly, this pre-flight inspection can easily take 15 minutes – time any pilot would rather spend in the air. Though 99% of flights these inspections reveal nothing wrong, a skipped or rushed inspection when there is a problem can be fatal.

That’s why “Pre-flight Inspection – Completed” tops every before takeoff checklist. Yes, it is so pilots don’t forget the inspection. More importantly, it is a glaring reminder not to willfully neglect it.

How often do you neglect things you should do? Going to the gym, getting the car tuned-up, or taking steps to improve your finances? Every week? Every day? I know I do.

Here’s exercise number two. Just as you created an “after wake-up” checklist, create a “before bed” checklist of the major things you want to accomplish each day. If you have certain activities you only want to do on some days (like working out), create day-specific checklists.

Some of the things on my checklist include drinking enough water (I never get enough), making time to add to this site, and reading for pleasure each day.

Regular daily practice of anything – even in small amounts – is a fast (and mostly effortless) way to learn something new, change your body, or accomplish even a lofty goal.

I think checklists can help you stick to your daily practices, whatever they are, and maybe even transform your life faster than you thought possible!

About David Weliver

David Weliver is the founding editor of Money Under 30. He's a cited authority on personal finance and the unique money issues we face during our first two decades as adults. He lives in Maine with his wife and two children.