Top 5 Productivity Tips
Guest: Maura Nevel Thomas
Topics: Productivity, work-life balance
Chris Ressa 0:00
This is retail retold the story of how that store ended up in your neighborhood. I’m your host, Chris ReSSA. And I invite you to join my conversation with some of the retail industry’s biggest influencers. This podcast is brought to you by DLC management. Hi, everyone. I’m excited to announce on Sunday Night March 6 at 7:30pm I will host a live asked me anything virtual event. I’m going to talk about all things commercial real estate and retail. Check out retail retail.com/ama. For more details on how to sign up for the event. And submit your questions today. Join me on Sunday, March 6 at 7:30pm. Eastern Standard Time. Sign up today at retail retail.com/ama. For more information, I hope to see you there. Welcome to retail retold everyone. With us today is Maura Nevel Thomas, an expert in productivity and work life balance and a pioneer in the concept of attention management, which he calls the new path to productivity. You may have seen more his work before in places like TEDx, the Wall Street Journal, or one of the many books she’s written or contributed to. Or maybe you follow her columns on Forbes or Harvard Business Review. She’s also great at pretending to exercise. And she much prefers TV shows movies and books that have a happy ending. Hi, Maura, thanks for joining me. Welcome to the show.
Maura Thomas 1:29
Thanks, Chris. Happy to be here.
So more, that was a lot. But give us a little bit more about who you are and what you do.
Yeah, I work with teams and and conferences I am my mission is to help people live a life of intention and choice rather than a life of reaction and distraction.
And the way that you get to that is when you’re working with teams is through productivity training. Is that a fair?
It is yeah, I go in and and depending on the event, I do workshops and presentations anywhere from 45 minutes to two and a half days.
And what is productivity training? What are we doing in a productivity training?
Yeah, it’s it’s a great question. So there is a very specific definition of the word productive, that guides my work. And that definition is achieving a significant results. So how productive you are is how much progress you have made on the results that are significant to you. But the significance changes with the time horizon. So if I were to say to you, what was the most significant thing you accomplish today, you probably have a different answer than if I asked you at the end of the week, what was your most significant thing this week? And you’d have a different answer at the end of the month, and at the end of the year. And ultimately, when you ask people at the end of their life, what was significant to you what was important, the kinds of things they say are things like I had an impact, and I made a difference. And I was kind and I loved and I was loved. And so those things happen in moments, right? What if somebody, if somebody feels kindness from you, that happens in a moment or a an accumulation of moments. So when I say I help people be more productive, I mean, I help them achieve the most important things on their to do list for today, in this week and this month, but ultimately, that they live a life of choice and that they live a life by design and that they live the kind of impact on this world that they want. So that’s what productivity means to me.
Okay, that’s a good jumping off point. I want to bring it back a little bit to some things that are more personal to you. I’ve got three questions for you. We call this clear to the air. They are personal questions. Tell me when you’re ready.
I’m ready, go.
Okay, question one. When is the last time you did something for the first time and what was it?
My husband and I are working on this right now. We are learning about Web 3.0 which I’m still not even sure I know what that means but weren’t more working on.
As am I? As am I? I just went to a conference that had a boatload of information on web 3.0 was the NRF the national retail Federation’s conference and there are retailers who are opening up stores in the metaverse and a lot of things happening as it relates to web 3.0. So anyway, I got it. What have you guys done so far?
We are are low. I mean, it started with crypto. And then we moved into like smart contracts and like what’s possible on smart contracts? And now, there’s this whole, like, it’s mostly financial for us. But it’s learning about, like how to leverage crypto assets as part of your investment portfolio and how things are gonna change once smart contracts become more widely used, I think. I think it’s big, I think it’s going to change a lot. If I can wrap my brain around it. Maybe I can benefit from it in some way. And help other people.
I couldn’t agree more. Okay. Question two. What is one skill you don’t possess? But wish you did?
I really wish I could sing it all, but I think it would be fun.
It was I have zero musical ability zero. Okay, last question. What is one thing most people agree with, but you do not.
Um, I have always been a person who questions authority and kind of bucks conventional wisdom. I love you know, why do you think that? What what? Why do you say that? What, what makes you say that, and I feel like, we all have beliefs and ideas. And some of those beliefs are conscious, we know about them, and some of them aren’t. And so I love it. When people ask me like, Why do you think that? Because it really makes me think about why do I think that? And should I think that? And is that the right thing to think? And can I defend my position? Is it intellectually honest? So? I think those are, those are fun.
I love it. Okay. Excellent. Thank you for playing that game with me. So today, we’re going to talk about your top five productivity tips. And I learned a bunch of tips from you through reading some of your books, the first book I stumbled on, and you’ve written many was to do to done which I listened on Audible and was super refreshing because it was quick, on Audible, I have listened to many books that are 10 hours long. This was 90 minutes, and it had some super tactical information that you could apply right away, which doesn’t happen in every business book that you read. So I thought it was great book. And that led me to other books that you have read, written, and all super interesting. Especially someone who likens themselves to a productivity nerd, even if I’m not excellent at it, but I do enjoy the topic a lot. So I like lists, do a lot of top five on this on this show. So even if they’re not, we’re going to pretend they’re in some order. What is your number five, productivity tip for everyone out there?
Move from paper tools, productivity tools, to digital tools, a lot of people, you know, have their paper calendars in their notebooks that they carry around. And they tell me Oh, I, you know, I tried to do. I tried to use computers, but I just liked the feel of paper. And I write like to write things down. And I like to check things off. And it’s just better. But really, I think people say a lot like, this is what works for me. And back to that sort of questioning authority questioning things? Is it that it really works best for you? Or is it just that it’s your habit, and it’s comfortable for you? And I get it that it’s comfortable and you’re used to it. But if you’re gonna, you know, I think give give something else a fair shot. But here’s the thing about paper, you can’t back it up. You can’t reorganize things that are on paper very easily. Paper can’t remind you of things. It’s hard to share things that are on paper with other people. So I think we need three primary tools. And I think that if they are all digital, you’ll be better off. And that’s a calendar, a task list and a note, a place to keep notes.
Yes. So I think this is an important one. To move to digital, you make a great point that it’s habit or doesn’t really work best for you. There’s an analogy in your book that I think is really thought provoking. For those who love sticky notes and notebooks and who keep things in email as to dues. And I’ve had a task manager for a long time. I haven’t been as efficient with it as I have the last 90 days because I’ve been using some of your system. I would the the analogy that I thought was really interesting was the analogy about a puzzle. Can you explain that analogy to the audience? Because I thought that was really interesting.
Yeah, absolutely. Most people keep all of the things that they need to do, personally or professionally, in some combination of their brain, a notebook that maybe you bring to meetings with you a legal pad where you write down all your to do’s, sticky notes, because those are the really important ones. A lot of people have like their big projects on their dry erase board. And then you know, the grocery list on the refrigerator. And then we’ve got all this stuff in our email that we either mark as unread or flag it because there’s something I need to do with it there. And so when you have all the stuff that you have to do all of your responsibilities, all of your I call them actions, right? All of your stuff scattered in all of those different places. That would be like that’s like trying to do a puzzle when you have all the pieces scattered all over the house. Right? If you had all the pieces, puzzle pieces scattered all over the house, it would be frustrating, it would take you much longer, there would be no context, right? You couldn’t organize things in any way. Because each piece by itself is not that useful until you have all the other pieces. It’s easy to get distracted, you run run to the kitchen, trying to find that one piece you need. And then you’re like, Oh, I’m hungry, I need a cup of coffee or you know, whatever. And you’re like, forget about the puzzle. It’s easy for things to get lost, you don’t know how much is really on your plate is this puzzle 50 pieces or 5000 pieces, I’m not really sure, for all the same reasons that it’s not useful to do a puzzle with all the pieces scattered all over the house, it’s not useful to try to manage your life when all of the actions that you need to take are scattered in all those different places.
That’s a really strong comparison. appreciate you sharing that comparison. Okay. So number five is move from paper to digital. What is number four?
I would say another really important thing is that it’s not the tools are important, but they’re not the most important thing. A lot of people tell me, you know, oh, I, I tried digital tools. You know, I tried this app and that app, and it didn’t work for me and I went back to paper. Well, that would be like saying, I bought the same set of golf clubs that my favorite PGA pro plays golf with. And I’m still not a PGA pro. Those are horrible. I don’t get it, right. It’s the same thing. It’s not the tools that matter. It’s how you use the tools. But there’s a really important distinction there. So a lot of people think I have a tool, right? I have this app. And I know how to use it, I opened it and I figured out if you click here and this happens, and if you click there, that’s I add a new task. And you know this, that’s how it works. But again, that would be like saying, If Tiger Woods came up to me and said, Maura, here are my golf clubs, use them, you will play golf. Awesome. And I would say, but I don’t know how to use these golf clubs. And he would say that’s okay, let me tell you how to use the golf clubs. You hold the grip end, and you swing the metal end. So now you have my clubs. And now you know how to use them go be a pro still doesn’t learn, right? Right? It’s pro golfers know how to use their clubs in a way that I don’t know how to use their clubs. And I would say that I teach people how to use productivity tools in ways that they don’t already know how to use productivity tools. So it’s the it’s the method or the system. It’s the collection of habits and behaviors for using the tools that really make the difference.
I like to say all the time, but a lot of things. It’s the driver, not the car, so
that’s right. That’s a great way to say it. Yeah.
Okay, that’s super helpful makes a lot of sense. What is number three?
We write things. Okay, I don’t even know I I’ve got so many floating through my head because I don’t know, which are most important. But I’m sticking on task lists for a minute because I’ve got I’m thinking about meetings. I’m thinking about email and I’m thinking about distraction and I’m thinking about all kinds of different things. but sticking with tasks for a minute, we write things on our list in a way that the way I say it, it creates friction. So for example, we often write things on our list in a way that we don’t really know what we mean. Or we know what we mean. But we forget sort of where we are. Right? So we’ll we’ll write things like, plan the party. It’s like, right, like, oh, yeah, the party. Where was I on the party? I don’t have time for that. Now. What’s, what’s next, right? So when I tell people is that on your list, you need not just action verbs, because plan is an action verb, but you need actionable action verbs, right? So if I said to you, Chris, go plan go. That’s not actionable. Right? It makes you go, mmm. Right. But if I said, call the caterer. You’d be like, Oh, okay. I know, I know what that means. Right? Totally. So write things on on your list in a way that’s very specific. Don’t say organize the meeting, if you mean, email, the team about the meeting, don’t say, plan the party, if what you really do need to do next is called the caterer don’t say, research competitors, if what you really mean is do an internet search of commercial real estate in Phoenix. Right? So be as specific as you can, and that will remove all the friction, because when you’re like, Oh, I on the phone number, what was I gonna say about that thing, I’ll do it later. Right? Any any little thing that that stands in your way makes it less likely that you will do the thing. So when you put it on your list, put be as specific as you can, and put us put the phone number if you’re calling someone, what notes about what you need to say. So that you can just do it, when what and that way, whether you have two minutes or two hours, you can make progress on on your most important stuff.
It’s it’s a great point, something I’ve been doing for years, because I’ve heard a bunch of people talk about is a brain dump. Right? Where, and so I’ve, where that’s you just sit down and it takes me a minute to do and put like every task down. Let’s call it on paper that you have to do in your life, both personal professional, whatever. I typically try to do a quarterly but I, I would say last couple years, I didn’t like once or twice a year to really sit down. Because sometimes in the past my diligence on my task manager might have got away from me a little bit. And and like, I think it’s good to like, just Alright, is there anything that’s in my head that should be on in a system, I think it’s good to go through a process to do that. Because I find your it’s never perfect, but hopefully you can get as much as possible. And the reason that I think the precision of language matters is depending on where you are pretty. I have a lot going on in my world, managing some large teams, husband, father lot going on. And when I did this in November, I had I came up with an 86. So in the context of 80 things, if you’re not specific, and you’re not precision of language on what the actual thing you need to do is you end up in the scenario you say, which is an which my lists had before, which was planned the party. That means nothing. So I think it’s a great example.
Yeah, and there’s all kinds of guidance and instructions for doing a brain dump in from to do to done. And then once you have the brain dump, then what do you do with it? There’s all kinds of requests, but then
yeah, totally. Okay. Number two, what’s next?
I think that I recommend that people throw out the phrase time management, just sort of kick it to the curb, stop using it, stop thinking about it, stop saying it to other people, because we can’t really we all know we can’t really manage time. And also, the phrase time management implies that the reason we don’t get done what we need to get done is because we don’t have enough time. But we’ve all had the experience where you’ve said to yourself at the end of the day, oh my gosh, I got so much done. There was such a good day. And you’ve also while also had the experience where you thought oh my gosh, I was busy all day and I have gotten nothing done. Right and in the As to instances, you have the same 24 hours. It’s not like you had more time, one day and less time, another day, same 24 hours. And this phrase, time management came about, like a century ago, way before all the challenges that we have now. So our biggest challenge today in the 21st century is not that we don’t have enough time. And so we have too many distractions. And you can’t solve a distraction problem with a time solution. The antidote to distraction is attention. And so my next tip is substitute the phrase time management with the phrase attention management. And what that does is it raises your own awareness and the awareness of everybody around you about whether or not you are in control of your attention, or whether you are allowing it to be stolen. And also whether or not you are stealing other people’s attention. And it just changes I see that on the teams that I work with, it just sort of causes this sort of subtle shift in how everybody behaves.
I love this one. And I think it’s really great. There’s a quote out there that’s, it goes something like, you have exactly the same number of hours per day that were given to Helen Keller, Michelangelo, mother, Teresa, Leonardo, Da Vinci, Thomas Jefferson, Albert Einstein, and the list goes on. And I think that quote, always has me thinking. And you make a good point, it’s, it’s about what are you doing with that time and focusing on versus because we all have the same amount of time in in a day as all those brilliant people that I mentioned before? So I love this one, it’s really interesting. It’s it makes you self aware of say, Are you paying attention to the things that are actual priorities so that you can be proactive and anticipatory versus reactive and drowning? So
that’s right. And we all have these stories. Again, back to question your stories, question your beliefs, question, your assumptions, question the the, the things that are guiding your behavior, because we all have these stories that we tell ourselves, maybe not even consciously, but it’s how we feel. And that manifests in how we act, things like I have to be always, you know, always have my email and my slack open, for example, or, you know, teams or whatever chat tool you use, I have to be responsive, I have to always be accessible. And the truth is, you don’t have to, it’s just a story that you’re telling yourself, and, and if you feel like you need to be accessible to any person at any time through multiple different communication channels, then you’re just you’re let, letting other people’s priorities guide your days, instead of being in control of your attention. I mean, you can’t really be in control of your life, if you are not in control of your attention.
Good quote, what is the last one?
Yeah, following on to that being, yeah, being in control of your attention so that you can be in control of your life? We can’t, we can’t be in control of our attention if we don’t first regain control over our technology. Because our technology is designed specifically to steal our attention. That is its job. If you think about apps and software and even websites, the success metric of apps and software and websites is how often do we get people on it? And how long can we get them to stay when they get
such and such a thought provoking point. Right.
And so the entire world is conspiring to steal your attention and keep it from you. But it’s difficult because all of these technologies that are designed to steal our attention are the same technologies that we often need to achieve our most important things, or at least that make it easier to achieve our most important things. So not always, because sometimes it’s a conversation with another person or just being together being present doing something away from technology. But a lot of our professional goals especially depend on our ability to communicate with other people and use the internet and that kind of stuff. So but we need to remember that our technology we have our technology for our convenience, not so anyone in the world is going to interrupt us all the time and So what I mean by this is things like when you’re, when you’re working on other things, close out your email clients, and just don’t have it open, a lot of people get two computer monitors so that they can have their work on one screen and their email and chat on another monitor. And if that’s the case, you are pretty much guaranteeing I mean, most of us get some sort of message every minute or two. And so you are pretty much guaranteeing that you can never devote any amount of attention to anything else, because every minute or two, what’s that email? What’s that chap? Who’s that from? What is that is that anything, and so maybe blackout, that second monitor on your phone, turn off all the push notifications for all the stuff, all the little apps that have the little red numbers that say, you know, 578, you know, all this stuff, make those all go away, you can make them all go away? Because that’s what they are designed to do. They are designed to tempt you and say, Hey, here’s the thing you’re missing, come on back and open up this app, it’s just there to manipulate you most software is developed using the same sort of sort of behavior analysis that slot machines use. It’s manipulative. So in order to control your attention, the first thing you have to do is regain control over your technology.
Well, so powerful. And I think I speak for everyone, when you see the notifications, it’s hard not to get FOMO. And you’re like, oh, no, what’s going on in this app that I don’t know about in you? It’s hard not to immediately go in. So that is certainly thought provoking.
Yeah, that’s why if you make the notifications go away, and then you don’t see them, then you don’t get tempted. Yeah,
for sure. Okay, so those are five, unbelievable tips to become more productive. I’d really appreciate it. Is there anything about productivity, or attention management that we haven’t discussed, that you want to share with the audience that you think is impactful? Before you go?
Only a million more things, Chris, how much time do you have? I’ll just reinforce what you said, from to do to done is the second book in my empowered Productivity series. And each of them we call them one hour reads. They’re designed to be read or consumed in roughly an hour. And they are stuffed full, I tried to strip out all the like the fluff and the stories. And this is where this originated. And here’s the history of email and right. It’s just got, here’s what you should do. And then if you want more, there’s links and information that you could then kind of go off but but the three of them, they all stand alone, but they all also build on each other to share my my whole empowered productivity system for achieving most what’s most important to you in your life.
Excellent. If you haven’t yet, read any of them, Please, everybody, go get them. They’re fantastic. I want to take us to the last part of the show, just nothing to do with productivity. But I have three fun questions for you. Are you ready?
I’m ready. Okay.
They’re all retail related. Question one. What extinct retailer Do you wish would come back from the dead?
I read one of my favorite stores to shop out with the limited. They had great sizes that fit me really well. And I just love the style and I’m sad that they’re gone.
Yes. Okay. Question two. What is the last thing over $20 that you purchased in a store?
Books at I’m a big fan of local bookstores here in Austin, Texas, where I live, we have booked people, but a lot of times when we travel, I’ll find that a local bookstore and, and go spend a little time and I usually walk out with an arm full of books.
We literally have a property under contract in Austin right now. So stay tuned. Okay. Last question. If you and I was shopping at Target, and I lost you, what aisle would I find you in?
kitchen gadgets or home organizing?
Got it. Fun. Got. Okay. Well, listen, this was great. I really appreciate you coming on and sharing these productivity tips with us. Hi everyone. I’m excited to announce on Sunday Night March 6 at 7:30pm I will host a live Ask Me Anything virtual event. I’m going to talk about all things commercial real estate and retail. Check out retail retail.com/ama For more details on how to sign up for the event, and submit your questions today. Join me on Sunday March 6 at 7:30pm. Eastern Standard Time. Sign up today at retail retail.com/ama For more information, I hope to see you there
thank you for listening to retail retold. If you want to share a story about a retail real estate deal that you were a part of on our show. Please reach out to us at retail retold at DLC mgmt.com This show highlights the stories behind the deals from all perspectives. So it doesn’t matter if you are a retailer, broker, entrepreneur, architect or an attorney. Also, don’t forget to subscribe to retail retold so you don’t miss out on next Thursday’s episode