Stay on Top of Your Work With Maura Nevel Thomas! [PODCAST EPISODE #23]

  • May 23, 2018
  • by Kate Borucka
  • No comments

Another Wednesday, another episode of our podcast!

Are you haunted by distractions? “An incoming email or a text message, or a chat request, the phone ringing.” Sounds familiar? Don’t worry, you can fight this with Maura Nevel Thomas who was our guest in this episode.

Maura Nevel Thomas is an award-winning international speaker, trainer, and author on individual and corporate productivity and work-life balance, and the most widely-cited authority on attention management.

Listen to #23 episode to find out how effectively fight distractions with attention management and how to use technology to your advance.

Keynotes of this episode:

  • Technology can be of a great value but it can also be a source of distractions – technology is the solution as much as it can be the problem.
  • Attention management is the new way of time management.
  • E-mailing your employees in the middle of the night harms their work.

Enjoy and let us know in comments what are your thoughts on today’s episode! 

Are you an iTunes user? Listen to the podcast here

Podcast Transcript

Kate: Hello guys! This is Kate and I’m back with another episode of the podcast “Stay On Top Of Your Work.” Today, my guest is Maura Nevel Thomas. She is an award-winning international speaker and trainer on individual and corporate productivity and work-life balance, and the most widely cited authority on attention management on which we are going to talk about. She is a TEDx speaker, founder of Regain Your Time and the author of Personal Productivity Secrets and Work Without Walls. She was recently named a top leadership speaker for 2018 in Inc. magazine, and she’s a frequent expert and regular contributor to major business outlets including as Fast Company, Huffington Post and Harvard Business Review. You can follow her on Twitter at @mnthomas, but don’t worry, you’ll find all the info about Maura below this podcast, so make sure to check it out.

Hi, Maura. I’m very happy to have you here today.

Maura: Hi, Kate. Happy to be here.

[00:01:15 – 00:04:21]

Kate: I have to say that this episode is actually quite challenging because as TimeCamp, we produce a time-tracking software which is also concerned with time management. And you say that time management doesn’t work, so I’d like to ask you why do you think it doesn’t work, or maybe why do we need something more except simple time management?

 Maura: Sure. Well… Time management used to work very well, I mean, time management is mainly considered, as TimeCamp, right?, with a calendar and a clock, and, of course, sometimes you need to track your hours and you need to effectively manage your time in order to count your hours to bill your clients or to track how you spend your time. But… We need way more than just a calendar and a clock, because it used to be that you could… Back in the days before the Internet, you could go into your office, because everybody had an office, and you could close your door, because everybody had a door, and, then, the only thing on your desk was the phone and, you know, maybe there was a typewriter way back in the day, maybe after that it was a dumb terminal or a computer.

In the days before the Internet, it was very easy to control your technology. But now, not only do we have so many interruptions by technology, right, but we also… the technology and the Internet has created in ourselves this understanding that we will be distracted every few minutes. And so even when we’re not distracted by an incoming email or a text message, or a chat request, where the phone ringing, even when that those things don’t happen, we expect them. If too long goes by without some sort of sound or distraction, we start to wonder in our head, “what” you know, “what… How come nobody’s contacting me, so I better check my messages. I must’ve missed some things.” And, so, it’s created this environment where we are constantly distracted and the more we are constantly distracted, the more we get constantly distracted. And so, the time management advice will say: If it’s really important, put it on your calendar and, then, it will definitely get done.” Well, that just doesn’t work anymore with all of the distractions we have. So, we need…

Well, certainly there’re still some sound advice, that we would put under the heading of time management. We need way more than that to deal with the 21st century technology and distractions, and the way that I put that
is attention management.

[00:04:22 – 00:05:20]

Kate: Okay… That sounds actually pretty good. So why did you actually decide to help people in organizing their work?

Maura: Yeah… I have been in the productivity business really for my entire professional career. Right out of college, I started working for a company that sold paper-based planners. I worked there for almost a decade. My last role there was director of marketing and as director of marketing, I needed to understand the whole field of productivity and what everyone was teaching and all the products and all the methodologies. And so I went to every class and I read every book and I saw every speaker. So then, when I left that company and started my business, I was able to take the best of what I had learned and roll it up into the methodology that I teach now which I call “the empowered productivity system.”

[00:05:21 – 00:06:57]

Kate: Okay, I’d like to go back to attention management. Can you explain a little bit what exactly is attention management?

Maura: Yeah, absolutely. Attention management is the ability to manage your distractions, to engage your flow, to be present in your moments, and really to unleash your genius. Because when we are constantly distracted, it makes it difficult for us to really engage our true brain power, and we’re multitasking, we’re giving everything just a little bit of our attention, we’re scattered, and we’re fractured and frazzled. And so that means that it undermines our ability to lean, our ability to really be present, to really engage the best of our wisdom, and our knowledge and our experience. So attention management is really more than just the ability to focus. It’s the ability to control your attention, so that you choose where your attention goes. It’s about being more proactive and less reactive, more thoughtfully responsive and less reactive. It’s really the continual ability to manage our attention in any moment.


[00:06:58 – 00:10:27]

Kate: So I’m thinking about work management, organizing work in general, and productivity. How to use what you just said to make our work more productive to avoid all these distractions?

Maura: Sure. So there’s really three initial steps to attention management. Attention management is a practice that we can work on really for the rest of our lives. Sometimes we will be good at it and sometimes we won’t be so good at it, but it’s okay. So three steps to attention management really are: first, you have to control your environment. We often behave as if we are at the mercy of our environment. “Oh, everybody keeps distracting me! It’s so loud in here, I can’t get anything done!” Well… Really, you can put up some boundaries and give your coworkers the message that you would prefer not to be disturbed and, really, you have to telegraph that message because otherwise, once they say “Hey, do you have a minute?” you’re already distracted, right? So you want to put up a sign or maybe put on headphones, or close your door if you have one, or take your work and go to a quiet location. But if you put up some boundaries and, then, you respect boundaries, your coworkers will as well. So controlling your environment is the first step.

The second step is controlling your technology. So again, we behave as if we are slaves to our technology, the phone and the text messages and the chats, the push notifications. “All these things are always happening and I can never concentrate.” Well… Every piece of technology that we own has an off button. Even if we don’t turn it off, we could put it on silence, not vibrate, and we could use “do not disturb” features. There’s lots of software that you can engage that will lock out certain distracting websites and things like. I understand that we can’t put ourselves in that little bubble for eight hours every day, but you could do it for fifteen or twenty minutes every hour for a couple… an hour or ninety minutes in the morning and then again in the afternoon. The frequency and the duration are really up to you, but the point is you can control your technology during different intervals so that you can get your work done. So that’s the second step.

The last step is really controlling our own behavior and that’s the hardest part. It’s about controlling our thoughts; it’s about controlling our own tendency to be distracted. And, really, our environments chip away at our attention span, because we’re so distracted all the time, but we can reset that, we can practice focusing, we can build up our focus muscle so that instead of chipping away at our attention span, we’re actually building up our attention span so that we learn to have more control over our own internal distractions and lots of ways, mindfulness and meditation practices can help you to have  more control over your thoughts. So those are three steps for attention management.

[00:10:28 – 00:11:31]

Kate: You mentioned technology. I think technology is such a huge part of our work, also life, that sometimes it’s really hard to actually withdraw from technology and all these distractions. Do you think that the use of special tools is actually useful in that, or not really?

Maura: Oh absolutely. As much as technology is sometimes the problem, often times it is also the solution so, there are lot of technology solutions that help us to focus on our work, and not be distracted and do one thing at a time so that we can do that one thing faster and better and then move on to something else, move on to checking our messages, the next task at hand. But, definitely, technology is the solution as much as it can be the problem.

[00:11:32 – 00:12:52]

Kate: So, as an expert on productivity, can you give us, maybe, some examples of tools that you use in the work?

Maura: Oh, sure. So, I find myself that I don’t need, necessarily to engage some of those tools that lock you out of different websites and different programs on your computer, but there are many of those. Flipped is one and RescueTime is one… I think, to me, the most important tools are the tools that we need to get our work done, and for me that it’s primarily a task list tool, because that’s one of the things that distract us.

In our mind, is that most people are running down their to-do list in their head all day, trying not to forget everything because they’ve got lists on paper, and sticky notes, and flags in their email, and things on the whiteboard and… and they’re very scattered and so they’re thinking all day long about “I have to do that and don’t forget to do that, don’t forget to do that, I get to do that, I get to do that.” That is very distracting. So, if you have not only a great task list tool but also the methodology to use it, then it can help you to stay focused on the task at hand. So that’s the most important tool to me.

[00:12:53 – 00:15:05]

Kate: I also use a task list tool and I have to say it’s a great tool. It saves a lot of my energy and help to stay focused. So, I’d like to ask you maybe about some of the challenges of work in terms of attention management. Maybe there are things like stress, burnout, lack of motivation. How can we solve these problems with attention management but also to keep the work-life-balance which is so important in our daily life?

Maura: Yeah… It’s so… We’re so used to constantly checking in on all of our messages while we’re at work and, you know, constantly checking our email or… Most people just leave their email open and downloading all day long into a new messages coming in every thirty seconds or one minute or two minutes. There’s always a new message coming in and we’re always called away “What’s that message?” “What’s that message?” “What’s that message?” And so then when we get used to that and so then when we’re not at work, that’s a habit that we’ve created all day, every day, while we’re working until it’s very difficult to stop that behavior just because we’ve walked out the office door, because it’s five o’clock and we’ve left our home, office, and gone into our kitchen or whatever. You still feel that tendency, “I better check my messages,” “I better check my messages.”

And since we always have a device with us where we can get our messages, we find ourselves just checking them all the time. And I don’t think it’s because we’re required to, I don’t think it’s because necessarily we even need to. I think we do it just really out of habit and, so, we checked the messages while we’re having dinner, while we’re watching TV with our family, while we’re out at a restaurant, while driving in the car. Well, liket every moment, we still have that urge to say, “I’d better check my messages, better check my messages, better check my messages.” It makes us unable to… It creates no boundaries between work and personal life and it reinforces that idea of chipping away our attention span, where we can never be present in our personal lives.

[00:15:06 – 00:16:13]

Kate: So I guess we should sometimes take a break from our mobile phone and just spend time with friends, family, and forget about the work, maybe.

Maura: Absolutely. And there are ways… I mean, it’s difficult, I know. Even when I go on vacation, I need my phone for the map and the driving directions, and maybe the restaurant reviews, and music, and podcasts, and all of those things. And so because our phones bring us not only our business information but also are recreational information and all other tools we use, the calculator, the flashlight, it’s really difficult to say, “Well, I’m only going to use the recreational apps and the tools and I’m not gonna check that you know push that email button.” But there are ways that we can get around that, like on the iPhone, for example, it’s very easy to temporarily disable an email account, so that even if you push that icon without catching yourself, the emails not there and, then, you go, “On that’s right. I didn’t want to check it.” And then, when you’re ready to go back to it, it’s very easy to just turn it back on again.

[0016:14 – 00:18:13]

Kate: That’s true. I’d like to go back to attention management and productivity in terms of team management. How to empower people on the team with the use of attention management?

Maura: Yeah, well… What I have found is actually that this central theme of my latest book, which is Work Without Wall. What I have found is that sometimes the biggest impediment to the team’s productivity is the boss and the behaviors of the boss, because the boss is subject just like the rest of us. The boss is subject to all of the distractions and all of the bad habits, and the boss is always checking an email, too. But the boss’s behavior has a magnified impact on the team. So, for example, I read an article for Harvard Business Review called “Your Late Night Emails Are Hurting Your Team” and it’s, you know, if the boss is sending emails at 10 o’clock, 11 o’clock, 12 o’clock in the evenings and on weekends, then the team is gonna feel like they need to be checking their emails even if that’s not the intention of the leader.

And, in fact, I work with leaders all the time and most of them tell me, “Oh my gosh, I didn’t mean for them to check their messages at night. It’s just, you know, when I had a minute, I was thinking about it.” So the leaders need to make sure that they are supporting the attention management of their team, you know, don’t be always dropping in, asking people, “Hey! Can you do this for me, can you do that for me?” You know, respect when they’re trying to get their work done, don’t send emails after hours or on weekends. Sometimes, work needs to be done after hours, or on weekends but a better thing to do when that happens is to use the phone. Because then people now like, “Oh, if it’s the phone, it must be important.” So those are a few things.

[00:18:14 – 00:19:24]

Kate: Okay, I’d like to ask you about mistakes people do at managing their team, but also at managing the work. Do you have any particular examples, maybe from your own work with people, of the most common mistakes?

Maura: Yeah, I mean, the most common mistakes are these habits that that I’ve been talking about, trying to do multiple things at a time, you know, opening that document or that spread sheet, because you have to get that important task done. But also having your email open and downloading at the same time. So task switching all the time, “Okay, where was I on that report. Look, a new email, let me get that, okay, now back to that report. Where was I…?” That contributes to lots of mistakes and it takes… it takes us longer to do everything.

When we’re splitting our attention among multiple things. So multitasking and allowing distractions not controlling your attention, to me, is the biggest mistake that people make.

[00:19:25 – 00:20:12]

Kate: Do you, maybe, have any special tips for people who have problems with productivity?

Maura: Yes. Again, I think the most important tip is to learn attention management and begin to practice it. It’s, again, it’s something that we some days will be pretty good at it, and some days will be not so good at it. But that’s okay. But the more that we recognize when our attention is being stolen, and take steps to prevent it from being stolen so that we can focus on the things that are important to us. The more we will get our own important work done and the more we’ll be able to achieve the results that are significant to us both personally and professionally.

[00:20:13 – 00:21:52]

Kate: I’d like to switch now to more creative part of the podcast, which is books. You are the author of two books: Personal Productivity Secrets and Work Without Walls. Can you tell us a little bit more about these books and why we should read them?

Maura: Yes, absolutely. Thanks for asking. Personal Productivity Secrets is for individuals looking to improve their own productivity. It identifies steps to attention management, you know what it is and how to practice it, but also the workflow management process that I have assembled in and refined and I teach called the empowered productivity system. So, a lot of people don’t understand that workflow management is a thing, you know, there is a systematic way that we can approach managing all of the details of our lives and I call it workflow, but, really, you could call it ‘life flow’ because it’s not only our professional lives in our work that we have to manage, but there’s also a lot of things we have to do to keep our lives running smoothly. We have all kinds of responsibilities and so a process for managing all of the details of our lives is really important and that’s what Personal Productivity Secrets teaches people.

And, then, Work Without Walls is about anyone who is a leader, anyone who has a team working for them, it’s about how to create a productive culture inside your organization so that tour team can bring their best to their job every day.

[00:21:53 – 00:22:46]

Kate: And what exactly inspired you to write these books?

Maura: Well, I just felt like I had some wisdom that was beneficial to people and how many people I could reach just, you know, one at a time or even in groups was limited and, to be honest, that of Wiley Publishing actually invited me to write my first book and so I did that at their invitation and then… Work Without Walls came out because I started working a lot with CEOs and senior leaders, and I realized how much information I had that could serve them if I just approached it from a different perspective, the perspective of how to create a productive culture for your team. So that was the catalyst for the second book.

[00:22:47 – 00:23:58]

Kate: That sounds good. Are there any other books that inspire you in your work? Because I really like the topic of books. Everyone always has a different set of books, so what about you?

Maura; Yeah, I read a lot of books about focus and about controlling your attention and about how technology affects the brain. So, some books that I really enjoyed… There’s a book called Distracted by Maggie Jackson, a book called Rapt by Winifred Gallagher. I really enjoy reading Daniel Goldman who writes about focus and flow and emotional quotient EQ. Nicolas Carr has written some great books… Cal Newport wrote a book called Deep Work that’s really useful. Edward Hallowell and his books Driven To Distraction and Crazy Busy. Those have been very helpful. So, that’s mostly the kind of books I read.


Kate: So now my list of books is getting bigger and bigger, so thank you for the inspiration. And I have a final question to you which is connected with the name of the podcast “Stay On Top Of Your Work.” And I think you kind of actually answered this question, but I am still going to ask you – how do you stay on top of your work?

Maura: Two ways, really: number one it is practicing attention management. And number two is engaging a workflow management process that helps me keep all of the details of my life in a way that makes it easy to manage all those details and make sure that nothing falls through the cracks. I believe that people have unique gifts to bring to the world and I want to help them bring those gifts in a way that inspires and motivates them rather than exhausts and overwhelms them so that’s really the focus of my work.

Kate: Okay that sounds good. Maura, thank you very much for the interview. It was my pleasure to talk to you.

Maura: Thank you so much, Kate, for having me there. Thank you very much.

Thanks for listening!

Connect with Maura:

Website || Twitter

Kate Borucka

Kate is a freelance translator, copywriter, and a content writer specializing in time tracking software, time management, and productivity. When not researching new software, she's reading books, or spending time outdoors.

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