Attention Management - Maura Thomas

Check out episode 489 of “Cool Things Entrepreneurs Do” as Thom Singer sits down with his friend Maura Thomas.  Maura a leading expert in the field of “Attention Management“.  She is has a new book coming out that helps people do more than grasp time management or find productivity.  Maura shows you how to manage where you put your attention.
She has been speaking on this topic for over a decade, and has put together a great book that is a must read.
Listen to this podcast interview and get inspired about attention management.

About Maura Thomas

Maura Nevel Thomas 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. Her proprietary Empowered Productivity™ System, a process for achieving significant results and living a life of choice, has influenced the practices at organizations such as the U.S. Army, L’Oréal, and Dell. She is a TEDx Speaker, founder of Regain Your Time, author of three books, and was named a Top Leadership Speaker for 2018 in Inc. Magazine.
Maura is frequently cited as an expert in major business outlets including Forbes, Fast Company, and Huffington Post, and she’s also a regular contributor to the Harvard Business Review, with articles there viewed over a million times. Follow her on Twitter @mnthomas.

About Maura’s Book – Attention Management

Attention Management: How to Create Success and Gain Productivity–Every Day
Have you tried everything to become more productive—but you’re still too busy and stressed? That’s because the old approaches to productivity just don’t work in today’s fast-paced, tech-driven workplaces. What does work? Time management is outdated. Attention management is the solution you need.
Attention management is the most essential skill you need to live a life of choice rather than a life of reaction and distraction. It’s a collection of behaviors, including focus, mindfulness, control, presence, flow, and other skills, that will support your success. Productivity speaker, trainer, and author Maura Nevel Thomas shows you how to master attention management with practical strategies that make an immediate impact.
  • It’s hard to offer your unique gifts when you are overworked, overtired, and overwhelmed.
  • Attention is now the most valuable commodity.
  • This book provides the tools and strategies to regain control of your life and work.
  • You can do more of the things that matter most to you.
  • Coming soon from Ignite Reads: “Spark impact in just one hour!”

Check out this episode!


Thom Singer is a keynote speaker and master of ceremonies / EmCee.  He is the host of the “Cool Things Entrepreneurs Do” podcast and the author of 12 books.


Transcript of episode 489

Thom Singer:                     00:01                    Hello and welcome to another episode of cool things entrepreneurs do. Today I am really excited because I have a special guest with me, Maura Thomas is here and she has been a guest on the show before, Gosh, I don’t know, about a year and a half ago. And the second part that’s exciting is we’re not doing this interview by Skype. We’re actually doing it live in Maura’s studio. And so this is kind of exciting. We have beautiful art behind us. Uh, we’re being videoed by her husband, Shawn, and you’ve got to find the snippets of this if you’re listening to this in audio because the art is Shawn’s art and it is absolutely amazing. But the reason we’re here today is because Maura is releasing a brand new book and the book is called Attention Management, How to Create Success and Gain Productivity Every Day. Now, Maura, you have been an expert in attention management since before the term really even existed. So welcome to the show!

Maura Thomas:                00:53                    Thanks. I’m so happy to be here!

Thom Singer:                     00:55                    So tell us about Attention Management, the book. Tell us what made this happen.

Maura Thomas:                00:59                    For sure. I have just found that we are in this time where time is not our problem. We all have the same 24 hours in a day. Everybody’s always had the same 24 hours in a day. And so as long as we keep phrasing our challenges as “time management,” I think that really puts us behind the eight ball because, time isn’t our problem: we can’t slow it down, we can’t get more of it. Everyone always has the same amount. Our problem today is distraction, and distraction is making us frazzled and frustrated and like we can’t even hold a thought in our head. We can’t really engage our brain in a meaningful way, and so…the book—I started writing about this around 2009 is when I started to think about it. And so, and it’s been a theme of all my books, but I’m really excited to have “The Book” on attention management.

Thom Singer:                     01:49                    So here’s the interesting thing. When you say attention management and you and I have been friends a long time, I’ve heard you talk about this for a long, long time. It sounds so simple. And like, well Duh, of course, but it’s really not that simple is it?

Maura Thomas:                02:02                    In some ways it is. I think about attention management as not just focus, which is what some people think, well if I’m managing my attention then I’m focusing. But I think it’s more than that. It’s a, I think of attention management as the practice of a collective amount of behaviors. Things like, not only focus but mindfulness and presence and flow and the ability to know what brain state you’re in and to sort of switch according to what you need, the resources that you need to marshal in that moment, whether it’s presence in a conversation or your brain power for the task at hand, but to understand where you are and to marshal the right state of mind to maximize that moment.

Thom Singer:                     02:46                    So you bring up something that always gets me excited. And that you said sort of being in the flow, and I’ve interviewed a lot of entrepreneurs on my podcast and many of them talk about that they’re, when they’re really in that flow state, they’re excelling. But how does someone even get there?

Maura Thomas:                02:58                    Yeah, flow is not a place that we can get to, right? We can’t say to our brain, “I will now be in flow.” Right? It just doesn’t work that way. Flow is a state that if you are focusing, if you are working really, really hard and staying focused, then you might flip into flow state. It’s a thing that your brain does all on its own. Flow state is a place where the part of your brain that recognizes you in time and space, right? Like I’m sitting in this chair and it’s kind of cool in here and I wonder what time this is going to be done and like I’m hungry. All those things, all that disconnects. You don’t have any sense of that and you are fully immersed in the task at hand and time just seems to fly and your highest and best self comes out.

Thom Singer:                     03:41                    So I struggle with that because I’m the person when you, you know the old saying, oh we’re talking about …”Squirrel!” And you’re off in the other direction. I am and you know this cause we’re friends. I am notorious for “squirrels” taking me out of the other way. What can people do when they suffer from “Squirrel Syndrome” to sort of get that attention management handled?

Maura Thomas:                03:59                    Yeah, there’s, there are many ways to manage your attention and to sort of recognize the state that you’re in. One of them is that you have to take control of your environment. If you are in a place with a lot of distractions, then it’s really hard to stay focused if you’re in a busy open office. You need to give your colleagues that signal that you would prefer not to be disturbed. I think about it as riding a bike. You start to build up the momentum. You’re pedaling and you’re peddling and you get some momentum and you’re ready to start cruising and boom! You’ve got to hit the brakes. And it’s the same thing with your brain power. You start to focus, you start to get into something, you know, you get your head into something, your brain is kind of wrapped around it and you’re in it, and then somebody goes, “Hey Thom?”

Thom Singer:                     04:42                    Squirrel!

Maura Thomas:                04:42                    Yeah, exactly. And no matter how much focus you had in that moment, no matter how much momentum…Poof! It is gone,. As soon as somebody says, “hey, Thom,” or “Do you have a minute?” or “Can I talk to you for a sec?” Or whatever it is, they say, then it’s gone. And so controlling your environment is one of the many steps that I outline in the book.

Thom Singer:                     05:01                    So I think this is hard for entrepreneurs because we wear so many hats and we have so many things going on and we have to sort of be chief bottle washer on top of everything else. But there’s a lot of terms that sort of flow around this whole area that you call attention management. We talk about productivity, we talk about time management. And you sort of led into this in the intro, but, but I know that you don’t love the term time management and yet, you know, so many times we see that as like a top thing that entrepreneurs are looking for. Oh my God, I have to have time management. So why don’t you love that term?

Maura Thomas:                05:31                    I just think it sets us back. We think about managing our time. If only I could manage my time better, but really managing your time means at a certain time I’m going to do a certain thing. But even if you manage your time and you say, okay, it’s a nine o’clock I’m going to do that thing. But if, if you don’t also control your attention when you’re doing that thing, if you’re called away by every squirrel, right, then the time will still pass. You can’t stop it. It’s not like you can hit pause on time when you get distracted and then say, okay, now and now I’m back at it. So the time still passes. And so how you spend your time only matters if you’re also managing your attention.

Thom Singer:                     06:07                    So entrepreneurs get stressed out. Stress is a big part of this. So if I’m good at attention management, does that help me with stress management?

Maura Thomas:                06:15                    For sure. Because every time we get distracted, it’s like that momentum, right? We get that momentum. Imagine how frustrated you would get if every time you got some momentum on that bike. boom! Breaks, breaks, breaks, right? Every time you built up some opportunity to sort of cruise and like, I’m in this now and here I go, then you, then you have to hit the brakes. It’s frustrating! It takes much more effort. It takes much more time to get where you’re going and you feel like you just kind of want to give up. And it’s the same thing when you’re trying to engage your brain power and get into that, that deep, that place of deep focus and perhaps even flow. It gets frustrating and you feel like you can’t even hold a thought in your head for more than a couple of minutes at a time. And so that’s stressful. So attention management really lowers your stress for sure.

Thom Singer:                     07:04                    So if I was to go buy your book, which I already have one in my hands, so I don’t have to, but if someone else was to go buy your book, what are some of the key messages that they’re gonna find in this book?

Maura Thomas:                07:15                    So many things. The first is about how we are sabotaging ourselves because I think a lot of people don’t recognize that the behaviors that we engage in usually come about, out of necessity over time without a lot of intention. And so we just sort of figure out how to get things done. But it’s not always the best way. Like many people tell me if it weren’t for multitasking, I wouldn’t get anything done. And the truth is you would get so much more done faster and better if you didn’t multitask. And so we allow all these distractions and so we don’t even realize that some of our habits are sabotaging our…I call it our ability to unleash our genius, right? Because to bring your full self, not just your wisdom and your experience, but also your, your humor and your kindness and your compassion and your empathy, all that things that, those things that make you, you, your unique gifts.

Maura Thomas:                08:06                    You can’t really marshal them. Um, for the moment at hand when you try to do it in two minute increments. So it talks about how we sabotage ourselves. How practicing attention management will help you. How exactly to practice attention management. Every chapter has tips: “Here’s some action steps that you can do right now to get better at this.” So it’s really comprehensive and it’s still only, um, it’s from Impact Reads, which is about, “spark impact in just one hour.” So it’s designed to be consumed really fast. It’s a really easy read.

Thom Singer:                     08:40                    Yeah, it’s a nice, it’s a nice sized book. It’s not something that’s going to overwhelm me.

Maura Thomas:                08:44                    Why don’t you show the folks, Thom!

Thom Singer:                     08:47                    If you’re watching on video, here’s the book, right? If you’re listening, just imagine a perfect-sized book, absolutely!

Maura Thomas:                08:56                    It’s got pictures, it’s quick and easy read. It has lots of important points highlighted and bolded so that you can sort of skim through and get just what you need, when you need it. There’s also an index in the back so that when you’re like, “what was that thing she said about…what are those tips to control my environment?” You can just flip to the back, look at the index, it will tell you exactly where to find it.

Thom Singer:                     09:18                    So a lot of people who manage teams have problems, and they talked to me about this. When I talk to people about sort of workplace potential, one of the problems people have is that their employees are unfocused, their employees are all over the map. So can this book help leaders be able to bring some focus and bring some attention management to their team?

Maura Thomas:                09:36                    Absolutely. Because part of the reason that the team is so unfocused often is because of the environment at the organization. It’s very tech heavy. Everybody’s got emails coming in. Sometimes leaders give messages that actually sabotage the team’s ability to do their best work. For example, “we need to respond quickly, fast response times equals good customer service.” And so when we convey that message that we need to be responsive, that means fast response times… if fast is good then immediate is best, right? And if immediate is best, then people have to have their communication tools open all the time, interrupting them every few minutes because every few minutes we get an email or a text or a chat or a notification. And so really getting clear about what we mean about good customer service because good customer service is really thoughtfully solving people’s problems, not just immediately answering them. So that’s one of the ways that leaders can think about, can use the ideas in the book to improve the culture at their organization.

Thom Singer:                     10:41                    Well, let’s go a little deeper into that. If somebody works for a company where it’s, “you must respond now, you must have your phone with you at all times” and things like that, what can the individual do if that’s the message that’s coming from above? Is there anything that the person can do if they’re not the manager?

Maura Thomas:                10:56                    Yeah, I think there is. I think one thing is to have a conversation about, if you are a knowledge worker, you are hired because of your brain power, right? Because of all the experience you have, the wisdom that you have. And so you need the opportunity to marshal those resources in the service of that job. And in order to do that, you need, I mean, the things that I say when I work with leaders is, “Does the work that your people do at your organization ever require more than two minutes of sustained attention? Right? And they laugh, but it’s true that we put them in an environment where they often can’t get it. And so I think that argument is really easy to make as an employee is to say, “look, I have this report to write. It’d be really great if I could just have an uninterrupted 30 minutes or 45 minutes to get this thing done and get it done fast and get it done well.” I think that’s a really easy case to make.

Thom Singer:                     11:51                    So I know in my own career and my own life, one of the problems I face is that sometimes there’s tasks that are very important that I have to get done. And yet I dread them partially because where am I going to find that uninterrupted hour to do it? Secondly, cause it’s just not my favorite thing to do. So how can people deal with that? Is that something you address in the book?

Maura Thomas:                12:11                    I do. I address that in all of my books actually. But in this one in particular, because you know you’ll get it done faster and better if you just put yourself in that little “attention management bubble” where you don’t allow any interruptions. But another thing is that we often put things on our list. We write things down in a way that isn’t really clear. We’ll say something like, work on the report, right? Or, plan the event or something. But we don’t, it’s, you can’t do that. You can’t plan an event in one sitting, you know, what does work on the report mean? Are you editing the report? Are you writing it from scratch? Do you need to talk to anybody else about it? So I think getting really specific allows us to have the right task at hand.

Maura Thomas:                12:53                    And so then when we sit down to do it, we can say, okay, for the next 20 minutes I’m going to do just this. We can close out our email, put our phone on do not disturb. We know exactly the outcome of that task. You can set a timer and then what might happen is that once you get “in it,” the timer goes off, but you’re like, “yeah, but I’m almost done. I’m just going to crank the rest out right now.” And then not only do you get more important work done, but you feel more satisfied at the end of the day because you’re like, I did that. And I did that and I did that. And I feel like I check things off my to do list. And so you feel satisfied and therefore you enjoy your job more.

Thom Singer:                     13:26                    So let’s go backwards in your career a little bit. So you have been really focused, kind of obsessed about this topic for as long as I’ve known you, which is easily probably 10 years. And when I think of attention management, I think Maura Thomas is the expert out there. If you Google some of these terms, an article you wrote many years ago for Harvard Business Review comes out on top, but how did you get to being this expert on attention management? What’s your background?

Maura Thomas:                13:51                    Well thanks for saying all those nice things. I appreciate it. I have been in the productivity industry for…from my first job out of college was for a company that sold paper based planners.

Thom Singer:                     14:02                    Like the kind that we all carried around before our phones had calendars?

Maura Thomas:                14:06                    Exactly. With the leather, you know, the leather binders with the zipper that gave you back problems.

Thom Singer:                     14:10                    I loved mine. I loved mine. I miss having the big paper calendar with the zipper because being unfocused and not having good attention management, I could cram everything into it and just zip it up and it was fine.

Maura Thomas:                14:21                    Exactly. Exactly. I loved mine too. I did. But I worked at that organization for almost a decade and then, and got a really deep knowledge of the productivity industry, not only in the U.S., but what everybody was teaching at every other company all around the world. And so I got a really deep education and then I started my business in 2003, helping people with these productivity skills. And then, around 2008, 2009, that’s when I started to realize, man, now that we all have the world in our pocket, you know, with our Internet connected devices in our pocket, at our fingertips, literally, right? It’s just so hard and the better and better these technologies get at stealing our attention, the harder it is for us, and the more compelled, the more distracted we are, the more distracted we become. And so that’s when I started, in working with my customers and just realizing, distraction is everybody’s problem. It’s such a challenge. That’s when I started to realize, well, why are we still calling this time management then? Because, because if distraction is our problem, time management isn’t our solution. Attention management is so it’s, yeah, it’s sort of been a focus for, as you said, for a awhile. I’ve been reading obsessively in psychology and neuroscience and how this technology affects the brain and it’s been really enlightening and really fun.

Thom Singer:                     15:40                    So you started your own business and you said 2003. So what are the biggest changes you’ve seen in the world of productivity? Going back to the time of those paper-based planners, what are the biggest changes that you’ve seen from how we deal with attention management?

Maura Thomas:                15:53                    Yeah. Well before we all had the world at our fingertips, distraction was a much more manageable problem. Right? It was like the phone on your desk or another person in your office. And those things were pretty manageable. Right?

Thom Singer:                     16:06                    Like my wife couldn’t text me while I was working on something if she wasn’t in the office and if I had the phone turned off.

Maura Thomas:                16:12                    That’s right. That’s right. So, it was much easier to get things done. You could put your phone on do not disturb. A lot of people had receptionists back then. We all had offices with walls and doors. Right. We could close the door, so it was a lot easier back then. As you said, I loved my paper based planner also, but once and making this switch, I will tell you, making the switch from paper to electronics was painful and it was ugly.

Thom Singer:                     16:40                    I was at the National Speakers Association conference and so were you, and they actually talked about someone who still used their paper planner. They didn’t keep it all on their phone and even I who was late to make the move to a digital calendar almost gasped. Are there still people out there?

Maura Thomas:                16:54                    There are. And I think really, you can, you need the right kind of planner. Most planners are just a calendar with some extra pages in them. And that’s really a time-based system, right? So, that doesn’t help so much. I think you can, you can still manage the details of your life in a paper based planner. But I think it’s, it’s so much harder. You know, like I said, it was ugly to make the switch. It was painful, it was horrible. But the benefit is that I’ve done that for my clients and so now I can spare them that, that pain and just tell them, you know, this is how you can do it. It’s not painful. It’s pretty easy. I lay it out step by step and, and once I did make the switch, I realized how, you know, I mean the productivity gains were just exponential. So, paper has its place. I’m a big fan of paper. I think we still need to handwrite in order to help us learn. But storing and managing and organizing the details of your life is not the place for paper.

Thom Singer:                     17:47                    So you have been a leader out there speaking and doing workshops inside companies for well over a decade. And how receptive are people when the company hires you to do a one or two day workshop? Because you do a lot of those or when they find out, oh, our keynote speaker is going to be talking about your attention, how responsive are the audiences to you coming in and talking to them?

Maura Thomas:                18:06                    For the most part I can tell you it is like water in the desert for most people. I think people are, are really feeling it. They’re really feeling the pain of, of distraction and that frazzled, flustered kind of feeling that we have, at the end of a day where we feel like, “I was busy all day, I am exhausted and yet I feel like I still didn’t get the most important stuff done!” And that’s really disheartening and it causes us to feel disengaged. So I think for the most part people really take to it, they find it really compelling. There are some people out in the world who are really kind of adrenaline junkies, right? They love that fast paced, like busy, busy, busy all day. You know, switching, switching, everything is, it’s different all the time. It feels really exciting. And I would say if that works for you, that’s one thing, but I think, you might want to check your blood pressure and talk to your family, and see if that’s really working for you the way that you think it is.

Thom Singer:                     19:09                    So what’s the biggest lesson then in the last couple of years now that most people have made this transition over to digital? What’s the biggest lesson that you’ve learned personally about productivity and attention management?

Maura Thomas:                19:20                    That is a great question. I think it is that we have forgotten as a society, I think, that our technology exists for our convenience, right? We bought our devices for ourselves not so everyone in the world can interrupt us all the time. Right? And the fact that we have, are losing sight of that, that it’s there for us and not for everybody else, combined with the fact that technology is getting so much better at stealing our attention on purpose—that’s by design—those two things are really combining to put us in this place where the most important thing I’ve learned is that we have to get control of our technology. As much as technology…I’m not a Luddite by any stretch of the imagination. I love my technology, but you know, as much as technology is often the problem, often it’s also the solution. These great apps that help you to eliminate distractions. And there’s airplane mode and there is…I mean your technology has an off button, right? Most people…

Thom Singer:                     20:22                    Why, what are you talking about? I could turn my phone off?!

Maura Thomas:                20:25                    Most people don’t, may not even know where it is, but it has one. But if you feel like you can’t turn it off, there’s still do not disturb or airplane mode. And I’m not saying that people should go off the grid for hours at a time. I’m just saying that you should check your phone and check your notifications as often as you feel is necessary, but do it in between other things, not during other things. And then your productivity will improve. So controlling your technology, taking control of that technology is the biggest lesson.

Thom Singer:                     20:54                    So I’ve got a couple of more questions for you and I want to wrap up talking about the book. But first I have to thank the sponsor of my episode. So this episode is brought to you by pod fly productions. Pod Fly does all the heavy lifting and the technical work so that you can focus on creating great content and interviewing cool guests on your podcast like Mara Thomas. If you want to start a podcast, and I know that a lot of the listeners of this show would like to have their own podcast, I encourage you to jump over to and check out the offer that they have for the listeners of this show. So Maura, as we wrap up this interview, how does it feel, first of all, I mean this is your fourth book?

Maura Thomas:                21:32                    Third book. Yeah.

Thom Singer:                     21:34                    How does it feel when the box of books arrives and you cut it open and you get to hold the book for the first time?

Maura Thomas:                21:42                    It feels so great! And you know what’s so awesome? Sourcebooks is the publisher of this book and they sent a nice little letter in the box saying, congratulations, relish this moment. All your hard work has paid off and now it’s held in your hand. And that is how I feel. I’m really proud of this work of this book. When I read it for the last time before it went to the publisher, I put it down and I looked at my husband and I said, “this is a really good book!” I’m really proud of it. So I’m excited for people to read it.

Thom Singer:                     22:10                    So if someone buys the book, what’s the one thing you hope…I mean there’s just, there’s so much…as I leaf through it, there’s so much information here, but what’s that one little thing that you hope everybody walks away with?

Maura Thomas:                22:22                    The feeling of empowerment. We can often feel like we are at the mercy of our environment, at the mercy of our technology, at the mercy of the high expectations and the constantly distracted world that we live in. And really it doesn’t have to be that way. You can become empowered over your attention, over your technology, over your ability to live a life of choice, rather than a life of reaction and distraction.

Thom Singer:                     22:52                    That’s awesome. So where can people get the book?

Maura Thomas:                22:55                    Anywhere books are sold! It’s available…you can preorder now. I hope you do! If you preorder, send your receipt to me via my website and I will get you on the list to receive all kinds of free supplemental material including the audio book. But the book will start to ship in early September.

Thom Singer:                     23:18                    That is awesome. And if somebody is listening to this and they’re like, oh my gosh, my company suffers from a lack of attention management and they’re going to go out and buy a copy of the book for everybody. But they realized that the book only takes them so far. They really need to have a speaker come in or have you come in and do a full workshop. How do people find Maura Thomas?

Maura Thomas:                23:35           thanks for asking. And there’s a, there’s information about all my trainings, all of my other books and I should mention that I publish under Maura Nevel Thomas, so if you’re looking, you might be confused. That’s still me.

Thom Singer:                     23:50                    Well thank you so much for being a guest again on cool things entrepreneurs do.

Maura Thomas:                23:54                    Thanks for having me. It’s a pleasure Thom.

Thom Singer:                     23:55                    And thank you so much for this book and I tell you what, I’m expecting big things out of attention management. I’m expecting to see this book go “boom” to the sky! So thank you so much for tuning in. I say it every time. If it wasn’t for the audience, we wouldn’t have a show. So run out now and buy Attention Management by Maura Nevel Thomas. You want to make sure that you read that book. If you like the book, make sure that you let Maura know, go ahead and reach out to her.