Most people accept that having a to-do list helps us to stay focused and motivated at work. Ticking an item off the list, or even getting the whole thing cleared, makes us feel good, and so we’re more likely to get things done. So we’ll want to do more. So we’ll be more productive. But what if instead of increasing our productivity, our to-do list is making it worse?

It’s important to understand how motivation works. Our brains have billions of connections between nerve cells. When we learn something new, it usually connects to things we already know. That’s why it’s hard to remember random facts – if they’re not related to stuff we already know the connection will be weak. Repeating that learning experience strengthens the link – think of practising a musical instrument or revising for an exam. Also when we do something and get a reward, that makes a connection; if we get a reward every time we do the same thing, the bond gets stronger. This reward might be getting a paycheck or praise or simply the satisfaction of ticking something off a list. So it’s possible to define motivation simply as a connection in our brain between activity and reward.

This theory supports using a to-do list for motivation – we associate the task with getting a reward. But actually it’s not that simple. There’s a crucial difference between outcome and process. An outcome can be defined as what we get at the end, whether that’s a tidy kitchen or a completed piece of writing. To-do lists get built around outcomes. We can define the process as the actual task, such as cleaning the kitchen or writing a report. The reward is associated not with doing the task but with getting it done. Our brain is linking the reward to the finished job. In other words, we’re actually motivated not by doing something but by not having to it any longer.

This is bad news if we want to increase productivity. Imagine we’ve decided to take up running because we want to get fit. With our motivation based on the outcome (fitness) rather than the process (running), we buy ourselves a pair of running shoes and set off. Unsurprisingly, the first time we do it, it’s hard work. We’re tired and sweaty and our legs hurt. But we’ve told ourselves we’re going to run a mile, so we complete it (outcome again). Once we’ve managed 1 mile, we’ll aim for 2 miles, and then build up until we can achieve 5 miles. That’s a perfect example of a plan to increase productivity. But it turns out to be hard. Why? Because getting to the end of 5 miles isn’t much better than getting to the end of 1 mile; it’s certainly not five times better. Because we’re focused on the outcome (getting to the point where we can stop running), it’s hard to see why we should work so much harder to get the same result.

In work terms, this is pre-senteeism, when people turn up for their contracted hours and do the absolute minimum that’s required. They aim to get to the end of their shift, so why would they do more than necessary to make it through the day without getting sacked?

Why would someone put time and effort into running, gradually increasing the distance they run, until one day they can complete a marathon? Most do because they enjoy it. Yes, they feel motivated by the outcomes (losing weight, having more energy, being able to tell people they’ve run a marathon), but they probably won’t keep on doing more unless they’re also motivated by the process. The outcome alone isn’t enough to drive productivity.

We already know that if we enjoy our jobs, we want to do more and we want to do better. If we love what we do, it doesn’t even feel like hard work. Our motivation is entirely related to process. When people volunteer, it’s because they get a sense of satisfaction from what they’re doing. Again, that’s motivation linked to process; volunteers, by definition, are doing more than they have to. This is the absolute opposite of a to-do list mentality, which doesn’t take any account of whether we enjoy what we’re doing, only that we need to get it done.

Is there an alternative? We don’t have to give up our to-do list entirely; a checklist is a valuable tool to make sure we don’t forget things. But think about qualitative outcomes too. Rewarding ourselves for doing something well, rather than just getting it done, helps our brain to make connections that link to doing a task rather than simply to finishing it. If we write down what we enjoy about our jobs, we can decide which things are process and which are outcome. If our outcomes outnumber the processes, then we need to spend some time working out how we can change this.

To-do lists are useful to help us remember things, but they’re not good for productivity. Focusing on getting tasks ticked off motivates us to finish jobs rather than to get satisfaction from actually doing them. That leads to a mindset of simply getting through a shift or a working week and causes pre-senteeism and lack of productivity.

Take some of the pressure off

When it comes to contract management, there’s a lot we can do to streamline our to do lists. Contract Insight – our contract management software – can be customised to offer reporting capability, data fields and workflow functionality tailored to suit individual business needs. To find out more, why not contact me at john.obrien@four.co.uk?