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Keep it Happy – ‘To-do’ or ‘Not To-do’…

Lists, lists, lists. I love a list… in fact, I’ve just gone through my list of things to do today, and one task is to finish this blog so I’d better get on. Written by trainee Ollie Coach, Deborah Stephenson

“We need to do a better job of putting ourselves higher on our own ‘to-do’ list” – Michelle Obama

What are your lists like?

Mine have to be hand written (nothing technical), and neat. Confession number one, I have re-written lists if I make a mistake or it’s messy. I know, I know… it would be more productive to do something on the list rather than rewrite it, but that’s just how it is.

My lists for shopping tend to be on scrap paper by the kettle, and I use post-it notes for work, discarding them as I complete them, and gathering up those left to add to my general ‘to-do’ list… which is of course the most important and biggest list of all. It is Command Central and lives in a very pleasing hardback day-to-a-page turquoise diary. I update it daily and usually write in pencil to avoid crossings out, confusion and yes… mess! 

There’s something satisfying about this record of things to-do and things I’ve done. I like having an idea of what’s coming up and what I need to think about. The sense of keeping on top of things makes me feel calm. Command Central gives me confidence that I will remember things, avoid nasty surprises and last minute panics, although those do still happen sometimes!

Lists are also proof of what we have achieved, and in truth, what I love even more than the list itself, is crossing things off it!

Whether you are a tick off, cross off, swift-line-through, or scribble-out-er, it feels good doesn’t it… and that’s because striking a goal off a ‘to-do’ list gives us a hit of that pleasurable reward chemical, dopamine. Even the smallest task can trigger it, and here lies a problem… not all tasks on our lists are equal. “Call school uniform shop” is considerably quicker and easier (usually) than “Paint shelves”, “Write blog” takes considerably longer than “Book hair appointment”, but crossing any of these off releases the same feel good feeling.

Not only that, but releasing it makes us want more, so there becomes a temptation to complete lots of small, quick or easy tasks rather than big, important or difficult ones, which brings me to confession number two – I have sometimes added something I’ve just done to my list, so that I can immediately cross it off and feel good! But hey, who hasn’t?!

‘To-do’ lists have become a necessity for so many of us now as we juggle our busy lives, and that’s good, because studies show that people perform significantly better when they write one. But while they can definitely improve success in reaching our goals, there is a darker side, and I know that my relationship with Command Central is isn’t always a healthy one. Sometimes the sheer number of tasks it presents can leave me in despair.

The ‘to-do’ list can quickly turn from Helpful Friend to Relentless Task Master. My husband says my daily lists are impossible (I prefer “optimistic”), but one thing is for certain – ‘to-do’ lists rarely shrink no matter how much we do, and it can feel dispiriting looking back at the end of a busy day to find we’ve only completed a few things. This can make us feel overwhelmed, anxious and disheartened, leading to a state of paralysis and guilt, making us far less productive, so fewer things get done, the list gets longer, the spiral begins again and all the benefits of that list are lost.

Some experts suggest shorter lists are better, (well yes!), and that we should just list six tasks a day or even three (which brought me out in a cold sweat), but research shows that constantly seeing the things we haven’t done can really set us back.

One solution I liked was to run a “NOT-to-do” list alongside the ‘to-do’ list. Ask yourself  “Does it need to be done now?”, “Does something else need to happen first?”, “Is this the most important thing I could be doing right now?”. Park things that can be done later. This is great for prioritising tasks while still keeping a note of what might need doing soon.

So check your ‘to-do’ list, is it a Helpful Friend or a Relentless Task Master? Resist the temptation to go for the easy stuff – ask yourself “Will this make a difference to a meaningful goal or am I just after the momentary reward?”. See if there’s anything you can move to the ‘Not-to-Do’ list and focus on the important stuff in that moment.

Sometimes I wonder whether ‘Command Central’ is just a big safety blanket. Maybe one week I’ll just go it alone – that would be interesting! I wonder how it would feel, what I would get done, and what I would miss? I’ll let you know!

And there’s something else too…

Put yourself on the list… I’m not joking. One of the best ways of balancing the ‘to-do’ list treadmill is to put yourself on it.

I read this in an article a while ago and was sceptical… why add more to my list when it’s already a struggle to finish things on it? Surely I should be able to manage nice things for myself without having to list them? On the other hand, if ‘Command Central’ is a record of all my goals, then maybe they should be on there? What would a Helpful Friend say?

I gave it a go.

At first it felt strange writing “Read”, “Exercise”, “Organise coffee with a friend”, these should be things I just do… but it began to make a difference. Granted these are probably the things that drop off the end during busy times, but being on the list gives them a particular importance. If they are there, I want to complete them. This is good for me, and probably down to something called the Zeigarnik effect…

Bluma Zeigarnik was one of the first psychologists to investigate lists. Her work in the 1920’s showed that we are more likely to remember unfinished tasks than finished ones, and that writing them down in a list effectively triggers the start of that task, setting off a subconscious need to make sure it is completed.


So I leave Bluma with the last word on all this… except to say that I’m now off to enjoy a hit of dopamine as I cross off “Finish Blog!”.

Deborah Stephenson, Ollie Coach trainee

I am an Ollie School trainee and a Director at an Independent Prep School for boys. I am a trained journalist and worked in BBC Local Radio for more than twenty years as a reporter, bulletin reader, news editor and programme maker. It was a great job, but I wanted to do something to support my own children’s wellbeing with a view to taking that on to support others and, in pursuit of a better work life balance, I resigned as the Assistant Editor of BBC Essex last year. Inspired by the Ollie School concept I was excited to be accepted for the training course and it has been a fascinating and enlightening and journey so far. 

To get in contact with Deborah, email

To find out more about Ollie and his Super Powers and how to become an Ollie Coach go to

Caroline Chipper

Caroline Chipper


Co founder of Subconquest Ltd, that trades as Ollie and his Super Powers. My many years of commercial experience is being put to good use managing the business side of Ollie, including working with our Ollie Coaches, and managing our contracts. In everything we do its about making a difference to those we work with. To find out more go to

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