This week I’m recommending–and sharing my key takeaways from–Maura Thomas’s excellent new book, Attention Management.
Managing our attention is a key productivity skill
In this week’s episode, we continue our Productive Reading recurring series. Please follow the links below to listen to previous episodes in this series.
- Episode 133 – by Gary Keller
- Episode 147 – by Charles Duhigg
- Episode 166 – 3 books written by Brené Brown
- Episode 182 – by Courtney Carver
- Episode 211 – by Jeff Sanders
- Episode 230 – by James Clear
- Episode 250 – Free to Focus by Michael Hyatt
This time we’re talking about another book with similar themes to Hyatt’s book, as I’m sharing some of my most important takeaways from Attention Management, by Maura Nevel Thomas. (Quoted material below is from the book
Who is Maura Thomas?
This is the introduction found on the back cover of the book:
“Maura Nevel Thomas is an award-winning international speaker, trainer, and author on individual and corporate productivity and work-life balance, and she is the most widely cited authority on attention management. . . . She has trained tens of thousands of individuals at thousands of organizations on her proprietary Empowered Productivity System, a process for achieving significant results and living a life of choice. Maura’s clients include . . . Dell, Old Navy, the U.S. Army, L’Oréal, [and others]. She’s been featured in “a variety of national business outlets, including The Wall Street Journal, NPR, Entrepreneur, and The Harvard Business Review. She earned her MBA from the University of Massachusetts and has studied productivity for over 20 years.”
Why did I read this book?
A copy was sent to me and I was intrigued by the title as well as the subtitle: Attention Management: How to Create Success and Gain Productivity Every Day.
Key takeaways and quotes
1. Distinction between time management and attention management
“Time is not our problem, as we all have the same twenty-four hours in a day, and we can’t control time.”
Not that we should be comparing ourselves to others, but if we feel like the reason we accomplish less than others is because we have less time, need to ponder this statement: we all have the same 24 hours each day.
“Our problem now is one of distraction-from our ever-present technology and its ability to deliver communication and information to us in unlimited ways all the time. This, in turn, has created expectations of immediate and constant availability, further fueling our need to stay connected, and therefore, our constant distraction. And since distraction is our problem, “time management” is not the solution. The antidote to distraction is attention. Our ability to manage our attention is our most important defense against a world that is constantly conspiring to steal it.”
2. The assault on attention and how key it is to living meaningful lives
“Attention is now our most valuable commodity.”
“to live the lives we really want to live, what we actually need to master is managing our attention.”
“we’re now in a new world. A world that is never ‘off.’ A world where there will always be more work, streaming, or socializing we can instantly access to fill our time.”
She talks about the technology that helps us in our personal and professional lives, such as computers and tablets and smartphones, but notes:
“those devices, and the content we view on them, are intentionally designed to steal your attention. . . . The job of the internet is to keep you on the internet.”
She looks at the ways the internet and our connected devices use a scientific understanding of the way the brain works to keep us virtually addicted to them, and looks at the negative impacts:
“When you change what you’re doing in response to every incoming distraction, you never get the quiet, uninterrupted time you need to get in ‘flow’–that immersive, highly focused state where you both do your best work and feel most satisfied by your work.”
“if part of your attention is always lured away by these distractions, your mind never gets the calm, restful time it needs to recharge. As a result, you get cranky, impatient, and scattered [sound familiar??!], and your judgment, learning, creativity, and problem-solving suffer.”
This really resonated with me. Since most of the most important things I do, and the most important goals I have, require me to exercise good judgment, effective learning, creating, and problem-solving, knowing that the constant distraction impairs all of them is eye-opening, and I’m motivated to figure out what to do about it.
“time management is less useful today than attention management. If you’ve ever felt frustrated because you never have enough time, can’t increase your productivity, or aren’t making enough progress on your important goals, this is probably why: how you manage your time is only relevant to the extent that you also devote your attention.”
3. Unproductive workspaces and the effects on our productivity at work
Maura talks about the harm caused by always being on, never really leaving work behind.
“Even if your daily habits are solid, you’re still at risk for exhaustion, burnout, and dampened creativity and motivation if you never take your attention away from work for longer periods, like weekends and vacations.
“To be healthy and to do your best work, you must devote attention to the rest of your life.”
Paying attention to the rest of our life reminds us of why we’re working.
4. Encouragement to be proactive and intentional about managing our attention (and why it matters)
She encourages us to take specific actions to improve our attention management, among them taking “opportunities to rest your mind and inject moments of calm into your day.” As a result of that specific change, she says, “you feel more creative and inspired and you generate more insights and solutions.”
She quotes 19th-century psychologist William James as saying:
“Attention is the taking possession by the mind, in clear and vivid form, of one out what seem several simultaneously possible objects or trains of thought.”
She notes that the key word in that quote is “one”. She says, “You can’t give your attention simultaneously to all of the things that demand it.”
I loved the quote below so much that underlined it and starred it!
“The ability to maintain control over your thoughts and actions, rather than inadvertently relinquishing it, is your defense against the damage our fast-paced, technology-rich, always-on environment does to our minds, bodies, and souls – it’s essential for living the life you want to lead.”
I would add that it’s also essential to making a life that matters.
“Your attention determines the experiences you have, and when looking back on your life, it’s easy to see that the experiences you have determine the life you live. Therefore, you must control your attention to control your life. Since productivity is about directing your activities to the things that are important to you, attention management is the logical path to get you there.”
This makes sense (“your attention determines the experiences you have”): it explains why two people can be in the same place with the same events happening yet have completely different experiences of it: what we pay attention to is the primary determiner of how we experience our life.
5. The four quadrants of attention management for productivity
Each quadrant is determined by the amount of attention you’re giving and the amount of control you have. So, at any given time we might be:
- Reactive & distracted
- Focused & mindful
- Daydreaming (which is important to our mental well-being, creativity, etc.)
“Your brain needs restorative time to reflect, process, and consolidate information. We need those times when our minds can wander, because often these are the times when insights are generated.”
- It’s hard to come by, because “Our constant distraction has made us so used to constant stimulation that now, in any pause of activity, we have become conditioned to pull out our phones for stimulation and distraction. Quiet moments feel boring and unproductive because it seems that we aren’t ‘doing’ anything.”
- “when we are in a flow state at our jobs, we do our best, most creative work, and we feel more deeply satisfied with what we are doing.”
- “today’s distraction-filled workplaces are the enemy of flow”
- “flow is a brain state, not a behavior, [so] you can’t enter a flow state at will. But what you can do is create an ideal environment.”
- Eliminate distractions
- Engage focus
6. Suggested actions to take to implement the concepts in each chapter
- In chapter 3, Maura recommends some steps to get started on your attention management journey, like turning off your smartphone and other connected devices at certain times, and using airplane mode for other times (when you can do work but not receive messages and alerts that would distract your attention from what you’re doing).
- She also offers great suggestions for managing your environment, including other people who might interrupt you – setting boundaries. (This was a great follow-up to my conversation with Helen Wright in Episode 269.)
- Other ideas for mastering attention management:
- Create pockets of quiet time
- Practice mindfulness (e.g., meditation)
- Spend time each week free from technology – go outside or to an event and leave your phone behind
- Take regular breaks, and make time for some type of movement each day
- Nurture yourself.
“To build the willpower you need to better manage your attention, practice self-nurturing behaviors like these: prioritize rest, fuel your body well, get outside, avoid multitasking”
Some final thoughts
Like everything else, attention management requires first awareness and then intentionality. We become aware of the distractions that are grabbing your attention and take intentional action to address them. Live on purpose instead of reactively.
“If you allow all the incoming demands on your time to set your agenda, your most meaningful work will languish.”
“the most important resources supporting productivity aren’t time and money–they’re body and mind. Self-care . . . isn’t a ‘nice to have.’ It’s essential. Any effort to be more productive that doesn’t acknowledge the necessity of physical and emotional well-being is destined to fail.”
This book is a quick read with lots of actionable ideas. I encourage you to read it and see if the approach she describes will help you get better at focusing your time, energy, and attention on what matters most to you, so you can get the results you want.
What do you think?
Any thoughts on Thomas’s focus on attention management as being more key than time management to a meaningfully productive life? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below this post or in The Productive Woman Community Facebook group, or send me an email.
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