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.

Simon Williams

Simon has a degree in Marketing and worked for The Chartered Institute of Marketing before joining SNH as their resident marketing specialist. He developed the SNH brand and is responsible for their online presence and digital marketing strategy. In addition to this, he manages client projects and relationships. This enables him to stay close to what’s happening in our sector, understand our customer’s needs and what they demand from a high quality training provider. Simon is a huge fan of personal development and is currently studying for a Diploma in Digital Marketing with the CAM Foundation. He also has tremendous drive, exceptionally high working standards and bags of creativity which makes him a highly valued member of the SNH team.