Holiday Fear

Keeping that summer feeling

Returning to work after an annual holiday needn’t leave staff wishing they’d never gone away in the first place, says Neil Massa, Smarter Not Harder.

Holiday season, great isn’t it? Two weeks off and plenty of time to unwind; rest, and re-charge depleted batteries. Well, that’s what holidays are supposed to do anyway. But how many times do you hear people say after their first week back, “It doesn’t feel like I’ve been away at all”. The problem is – for most people – holidays leave them with none of this positive feeling. In fact, far from leaving them suitably rested and recuperated, I’ve lost track of the number of people I’ve met who break into a sweat just thinking about the return to work, and find it actually leaves them as tired and as frazzled as they were before they left. With the effort required to catch-up, many wish they’d never been away at all.

Don't blame work, blame lack of time management

Some might say the culprit is simply the build-up of work – projects or actions needed that inevitably pile up. But we would say there is nothing inevitable about this at all, and that the real reason people fail to maintain their holiday state is lack of preparation.

The truth is, even if staff look at emails while they’re away (which kind-off defeats the purpose – but I digress), there’s a basic mathematical reality that most people fail to factor time in for: that for every week a typical worker is away, they need to set aside six hours of time to catch up with what’s happened (i.e. get back in the flow). For a two-week break – that’s 12 hours of ‘stuff’ that needs catching up on – this is stuff they might not even know about, that’s additional to new things that crop up as soon as people are back.

It may sound obvious, but people are far too ambitious about what they think (or are expected), to achieve in their first week back. Even if they spend three hours’ a day catching up, that’s four days’ worth of mornings that are taken up just getting back to state of normality. It’s when people forget about this, and start piling themselves up with new work, that feelings of being unable to cope begin to dominate.

The business of catching up

The failure of holidays to leave people properly rested is a business issue, and so the solution is one the business must support. It must accept what does need to be inevitable – that there is a fall in productivity during the week following each person’s return from holiday – because each person needs to schedule in this vital catch-up time.

Ideally, time catching up should be face-to-face – to discuss with people in person the details of what’s happened, who’s done what, what still needs to be done. It’s far better to do it this way, than try and wade through parts of emails, with replies from different participants that inexorably build up.

But allow it business leaders must. It’s worth remembering businesses will have benefitted from a huge spike in productivity, in the weeks leading up to that person taking their holiday, because they were working extra hard to make sure they got things done. Surely, time to recover from this, is time well spent, if it enables them to get back to work, and not feel they never went away?

Allowing for this six-hours per week away time means staff won’t fear their return to work. It may well be, they don’t need all of this – in which case, you will have earned back some of this time unexpectedly. But preparation is the key. Employees shouldn’t be scared of taking a holiday simply because they dread coming back.

Let’s take the fright out of ‘lite’

What’s the least amount of time people need to spend each month to effectively lead/manage one employee?

Wander down the aisle of your local supermarket, and you won’t fail to notice how many of the products you’ve long known and loved are now available as ‘lite’ versions of themselves.

In food retail, lite products aren’t totally new, but thanks to our desire to be more health conscious, they are increasingly gobbling up market share - after all, ‘lite’ does actually mean something. It’s officially a foodstuff that contains at least a third fewer calories or half the fat of the normal product. That alone (for most people), is a good thing. And while the introduction of ‘lite’ versions can sometimes be hard to sell to those who love and enjoy the ‘original’ (it may mean extra additives to maintain the same taste people are used to), on the whole, consumers don’t seem to mind. As long as manufacturers can answer a couple of basic questions – like “Will I get the same flavour with less calories?’ and ‘will I get the same enjoyment for less ingredients or cost?’ – they’re normally ‘in’.

This has got me thinking though.

With food the Holy Grail is for manufacturers is to discover what they can take out without compromising the taste, the nutritional value or massively increasing the price. And yet how often do you hear the training and development sector ask a similar question – ‘What can we take out, to make things better?’ After all, one only has to recall the LEAN manufacturing concept to understand you don’t need to be afraid of less.

The fact is, in learning, the ‘lite’ style of thinking simply hasn’t been applied to the way people need to be taught to lead and manage employees. I mean, you just don’thear people talking about ‘Lite Leadership’ or ‘Lite Management’, do you?

And I think there is a very simply reason why this “leap” in thinking has not yet taken place.

In learning and development, conventional thinking is still, just that: conventional. It tells us that to improve leadership and management you must put more stuff in. It’s all about giving learning more books, more theories, more concepts, more data, more skills, and more new ideas. Why? Because that’s what justifies the expensive price tag of the trainer, the big thud of the learners’ folders, or the plush hotel everyone convenes at to consume this learning.

Yet, I don’t think things need to be like this. I think the training sector needs to think more like the food sector: where the smart thinking is all about ‘what can we take out?’ I would suggest the new place to start is to clearly work out how can we all remove, de-clutter, simplify and streamline our learning processes.

For people who have followed or even promoted conventional thinking, I admit this is truly frightening territory. Why? Because for too long, most leadership and management development courses have all been about “putting stuff in” rather than taking stuff out, and having a model based on daily rates (days which they have to fill to give customers the perception that they are getting value for money).

This old-way of thinking must change – for the sake of the reputation of the L&D training industry if nothing else. At Smarter Not Harder we’ve spent years analysing exactly what works, and what is only essential, so that learners get the most from their time and the most meaningful learning from it. The question we are always preoccupied with is, “what’s the least amount of time people need to spend each month to effectively lead/manage one employee?” We answer that by supplying only the learning employees need to achieve this. It means our clients are able to lead and manage effectively in a third of the learning time. How many other suppliers – who all bill on a daily basis – will promote themselves this way?

We do it, because we feel we’re doing what the rest of the industry urgently needs to do – follow the ‘lite’ model. Just like in food – which was originally full of stuff you didn’t need – it is perfectly possible to create learning that is also ‘lite’ and which also has none of the unwanted, unnecessary ingredients. And remember, with us, ‘lite’ doesn’t mean ‘less’ or ‘lazy’ or anything that is less than satisfactory. When you give people back time, and when you enable them to operate using just the best bits of management theory, they understand that all the extraneous stuff they were consuming before just wasn’t giving them any nutritional value. So, let’s all go lite, and see how transformative it can really be.  

Why To-Do lists often become To-Don’t lists…

The reason most people fail with their to-do lists is because what they actually create is an ‘everything list’.

Like sunrise follows sunset, there are some things in life that are practically certain. Take, for example, that frequently shared life-lesson that someone, somewhere along the line will have definitely said to you: that if you want to get better at time management and productivity, you’ve got to do a ‘To-Do’ list.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Far be it from me to spoil the party (I’m just as certain some of you might know about a famous psychology study that found people are 42% more likely to achieve their goals if they write them down), but hear me out. The point of a to-do list is to divide your day in such a way that you are in control of it. That is its purpose. I don’t actually have a problem with to-do lists – it’s just the way people do them. For it’s my belief that not only do 99.9% of people fail to do them properly, in doing so they actually discourage themselves from ever utilising their time more effectively – which is the very reason they wanted to do them in the first place.

So why is this? Well, what happened last time you wrote your own to-do list? Did it turn into an impossibly long, never to be completed document where tasks got pushed to the next day, and then the next day, like a continually leaping frog? How did this list make you feel? Defeated? Arguably. Reminded of just how much you have still to get done? Probably. The fact is, people don’t like seeing their own disorganisation, and most of the time to-do lists are evidence of just this - labels of failure. They might have initially felt satisfying to create, but now they resemble receipts of under-performance.

However, it needn’t be like this. The reason most people fail with their to-do lists is because what they actually create is an ‘everything list’. Make your To-do list a ‘To-day list’ – things you should aim to get done that day [we believe this so much we’ve actually just trademarked the phrase].

Linked to this though is perhaps the single-biggest reason to-do lists lose favour – tasks are almost never assigned with a predicted time-to-take. It sounds simple, but it rarely happens. A To-Day list should really be incorporated into a daily schedule. That's where they make most sense to be, because tasks take time.

But there are other things people forget too. What about interruptions that give rise to new and unexpected tasks? While they may not be things we actually ‘want’ to achieve on that specific day [scientists say we are interrupted by something on average every eight minutes], we all suffer them.

What I hope is becoming clear is that we need to challenge ‘to-do’ lists. It’s only via a new way of thinking, that people can prioritise and make realistic judgements about what they can achieve with the available time in their day.

None of this is rocket-science. It’s simple stuff. But sometimes simple isn’t obvious. Time management is a skill that needs to be practiced, but take these few simple tips onboard, and you really will change the way you work. My advice is this: Turn to-do lists into to-day lists, to make the ‘do’ really become ‘done’.

The problem with productivity… (and it’s not what you think)

Improving productivity isn’t just about staff learning new skills;  it’s also about organisations themselves acquiring a new productivity mindset

Talk to any CEO or FD (as we do all the time), and the likelihood is that of all the things they worry about most, it’s ‘productivity’ that either comes top, or is very nearly top of their list.

Why? Well, the fact of the matter is, Britain has a longstanding ‘productivity problem’. Last year an All Party Parliamentary report concluded that UK output, on a per-hourly basis, was 17% lower than the G7 average. Not only is this the widest it’s been since 1992, but overall output per worker is 19% lower. Of all the G7 countries, only Japan performs worse.

In some respects it’s easy to see why this is the case. In industrial Britain, pulleys gears and mechanical processes dictated people’s output. But in today’s service-dominated economy, staff are no longer working production lines; they are no longer regimented by structure – and the reality is, that in these structure-less circumstances, consistent productivity is a pipedream. Not only do employees face an unrelenting tide of emails, meeting requests and miscellaneous activities that fritter away their time, most offices are open-plan – which also means ‘work’ is itself a fertile ground for interruption & distraction rather than focused concentration

And yet, despite all of this, perhaps the biggest problem with productivity is less that it actually exists (for this is almost a post-industrial certainty), but more the fact organisations don’t think it’s something staff can be trained & developed to improve.

Let me explain. Employers spend thousands of pounds putting their staff on all sorts of other courses, the latest of which is ‘resilience’ training – the new silver-bullet. But, really, all this does is reveal that organisations are looking at things the wrong way round. When you think about it, wanting staff to be more resilient isn’t really very good for employees at all – because it’s about firms saying they want their staff to take on even more work – just not feel as swamped by it.

The fact is, piling people up with more work isn’t a long-term answer to solving low productivity. The only answer is to make people better in dealing with their time in the first place. It’s a subtle, but important difference.

Companies we work with who recognise productivity is a learnable skill see the sorts of improvements resilience-led employers can only dream of. Clients that learn our productivity skills [being disciplined about time; having a system for planning the day; setting achievable lists; building-in interruption time; and working out periods of better ‘flow’] report productivity gains of 10-15%. Or, to put it another way, each member of staff gains around three days extra per month. These are gains that make a demonstrable bottom-line difference.

And it’s worth remembering something else too. Improving productivity isn’t just about staff learning new skills; it’s also about organisations themselves acquiring a new productivity mindset too.

So often we hear that people ‘fear’ being seen to be more productive and efficient than their co-workers – simply because they don’t want to be swamped with more and more work. Yet, it’s this culture of fear that maintains mediocrity and what encourages the ‘good enough’ (rather than ‘great’). Shouldn’t employers be striving for something better than this? Don’t they want to encourage their staff to be better bosses of themselves, so that they willingly grasp new opportunities; from a starting point of engagement rather than ennui?

What we find is that when employees feel in control, and have the tools they need to manage their time properly, they no longer just want to do the minimum, or just do what is good enough. They soon discover that with the time they have spare, they want to do more, suggest new things, take on new projects, simply because they’ve grown to want to do their jobs well again. Engagement is a powerful feeling to foster. Firms full of people that are highly engaged are proven to be more productive too. What’s not to like about that?

Paying it forward with Personal Productivity


Receiving positive feedback is something which will always put a smile on your face.

Since launching our Personal Productivity programme in 2007, we’ve taken great pride in seeing people’s lives change for the better – both in and outside of their working hours.

One of these individuals is Cheryl Osborn, Director and Co-Founder of learning & development specialists Motiv8us, who not only benefited from the programme personally but went on to help others do the same.

We recently sat down with Cheryl to discuss how this happened.


So tell us how you first came across the programme.

I’ve known Neil Massa for years. He used to deliver training when I was working at Reed and during one of our catch-ups he talked to me about this new e-programme which he was developing.
I then observed the programme being delivered a couple of times (purely as an observer rather than a delegate). I found I adopted a lot of the elements myself and started to use it in my own productivity – which is why I’m happy to pass it on now.
From then on it was always in the back of my mind that I’d quite happily deliver the programme to other people.

And how would you say the content helped you from a personal perspective?

Well, being a very busy person (who was easily distracted) it helped me to focus. This is particularly useful, considering I’m trying to run a home, manage a business, look after 4 kids, 5 dogs, and a cat! (It all gets quite stressful at times.)
Overall, the programme helped me to manage my time a lot better by properly planning, forecasting my time and my daily workload.
The email management aspect was particularly powerful for me. It helped me to stop constantly dipping in and out of emails and gain control over my inbox again. Using a Today List rather than a to-do list became absolutely fundamental to me because it took away a lot of personal stress by helping me get clear on the list of things I wanted to achieve that day – even down to tasks such as getting the washing and ironing done.
That’s why it manages my whole life, not just my work life.

What is it you find most rewarding about delivering the programme?

I find that there’s always a ‘lightbulb moment’ which happens when I start talking to people about how they manage or organise their time, as you know straight away that you’re going to be able to help them.
They often talk about how they’re constantly being interrupted or distracted by either their colleagues or their emails, and you know from the minute they say this that you’ve got a solution. That’s very rewarding.
Then when I’m delivering the programme, seeing the delegates’ faces light up (which is often followed by “how did I not think of that?”) is really rewarding as well.
I also do some of the coaching after the workshop, and I love hearing them tell me what a difference it’s made – even just by making the simplest of changes. For example there was an HR Director who told me how just changing her voicemail message had made such a difference to her. It stopped the ‘ping-pong’ voicemails from happening and it made contacts consider whether they really did need to speak to her at that very moment, or whether it could wait. Just by doing that she found she wasn’t being interrupted nearly as much as she was before.

Finally, what would you say makes this programme in particular different to any others you’ve delivered?

For me, it’s the fact that these things are so simple – they’re minor changes with a major impact.
A lot of time management programmes are full of such complicated techniques that, at the end of the day, no one bothers to do them.
I also do a lot of sales training and management training and, although these have a profound effect too, the impact and turnaround the delegates see aren’t nearly as quick as the ones from the SNH Personal Productivity programme.