What is the difference between a check list and a todo list?

People create checklists every day on paper. Others call them to do lists and check them off. What’s the difference?

The label for something is merely a convention. That’s not too important in our opinion. We do want to decipher checklists and to-do lists, however.

A to-do list - for projects and goals in a complex world
That’s an ad hoc list of action items that you can jot down on a piece of paper to check off later. Most people create such lists when they feel overwhelmed with a project or a goal. It’s too complex to be resolved with a simple task or a known routine. Some planning some procedural thoughts are needed. The completion stretches over a certain amount of time. One challenge is that things could fall through the cracks. And the list is a measure to make sure nothing is forgotten.

To-do lists help in a complex world that has a lot of surprises and unforeseen events.

Source: Niels Pflaeging on Twitter

A checklist - for routine processes in a complicated world
To fully understand checklists, we need to introduce “complicated” in comparison to “complex.” A complicated world has no surprises. It’s not simple and easygoing. But it’s predictable. If you want to build an iPhone or a Rolex watch: that’s complicated. Inventing one is complex.

A checklist will help you to control processes in areas where you already know what “good quality” is. These are things that you and your organization have completed successfully often. Your organization knows how to do it. The checklist helps keep up quality, erasing errors and making things reliable and efficient.

So in short:

Use todo lists for projects and complex problems. Checklists are strong when the problem is complicated and you already know how to proceed and you do not expect a lot of surprises.