Q&A with Maura Nevel Thomas Author, Personal Productivity Secrets: Do what you never thought possible with your time and attention… and regain control of your life (Wiley, John & Sons, Inc.)
ISBN-13: 9781118179673

As an author, speaker and trainer, Maura Nevel Thomas is on a mission to help people get the most out of the tools in their hands and have more control over their time, attention and quality of life. In this interview, she talks about why attention management is so important to her, why it’s critical to success at work and home. Plus she shares a few secrets from her new book.

You say that “time management” and “information overload” are outdated concepts. Why? Aren’t we ultimately managing our time each day?

Our minutes and hours are the building blocks of our days, but managing our to-do’s in terms of minutes and hours is an outdated concept. To truly be more productive with those building blocks, the most important skill to master is managing our attention.

How is attention management different from time management?

Time is fixed — we all have 24 hours in a day. Our attention is something we can sharpen and improve, and when we improve our attention, we improve our productivity. The more focused we are, the more we can accomplish. The extent to which we manage our time to perform any task or project only matters to the extent that we also apply our attention. I teach people how to defend their attention and manage their personal information using the latest tools available to us.

Aren’t the tools you’re talking about the same things that distract us? Our smartphones, social media, the Internet in general.

Yes, and that’s why learning to manage our attention is so important. For example, it’s wonderful to be able to look up anything and answer any question using your computer or smartphone. But we shouldn’t spend our entire day that way. I believe in Empowered Productivity, which encourages us to choose how we spend our time and attention. I teach a process that helps people keep track of all of their questions, to do’s, and commitments in one place. So, for example, when you have a question pop up, you don’t have to let it distract you from what you’re doing. You can use your smartphone to put it on your to-do list.

You are not a big fan of multi-tasking. Why?

When we multi-task, we get worse at everything that we do. Studies of “cognitive switching” show that we increase the time it takes to complete a task and decrease the quality of the tasks. That said, not all multi-tasking is bad. In my book, I give an example of “good” multi-tasking, such as talking on the phone and emptying the dishwasher at the same time. Now you wouldn’t have a business call that way, but you could catch up with a friend.
At work, conference calls are notorious sources of multi-tasking, with people instant-messaging, chatting, emailing during a call. Given that a typical employee at a large company handles 200 email messages a day, it’s hard to blame them. That’s why I spend a lot of time training people how to manage their email more successfully — and hopefully, they won’t have to multitask during conference calls.

The convergence of our tools – for socializing, entertainment, information and working – makes it harder to manage our attention. It takes an enormous amount of control to ignore your email inbox when it’s on the same device that has your music and friends’ phone numbers.

Our work is everywhere, we seem to take it with us wherever we go. Is that making us more productive, or less?
It depends on how well we are managing our attention. Surveys in the workplace show that people feel more productive when they take breaks. It’s convenient to have your work available to you if you’d like to check in, you just have to make sure to remember that your device are there for your convenience, not others’, and to remember that downtime, when you are completely unplugged, will energize your productivity and your creativity.

Your book is titled Personal Productivity Secrets. So what’s one of your secrets?

Learn to manage your attention is the first secret. A tactical “secret” is to organize your tasks by category and location, not by time. A third “secret” — master your tools to work for you. Use your smartphone and applications to simplify and support your most productive lifestyle.

In your book, you say a lot of people are stuck in reactive mode, or “stage one” productivity. We all have to deal with things that come up every day. Is it realistic to make it to “stage three” where we are working on major goals every day?

Yes, it is realistic, and I see it happen for people all the time. When we take control of our attention and have a process for keeping track of our commitments, communication and information, we are freed to work on bigger goals, a little each day. We are not distracted or stressed by the daily tasks, and we find that there’s suddenly enough time to get things done. Focus and attention is greatly enhanced by adopting a personal productivity process. I’m proud of the Empowered Productivity(tm) system, because I truly believe it’s the most universally useful process for managing the details of a busy life.

Do you have a personal productivity question for Maura? Send a tweet (@mnthomas), leave a comment on Facebook or send an email to info [at] regainyourtime [dot] com.

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