A conversation with productivity expert, Maura Nevel Thomas

This is part of my series on thought leaders in the innovation space. Check out the other articles here.

Maura Nevel Thomas started her business as a speaker and productivity expert after quitting a job that left her feeling stifled and unmotivated. “I realized that I hated jobs in general. I really didn’t like the restrictions put on me by a job, where I had to be, how long I had to be there, and who I had to ask to do the things that I wanted to do.”

Maura Nevel Thomas

A few years into her speaking and training career she was selected to take part in the Climate Reality Project. Initiated by Al Gore following the release of An Inconvenient Truth, the project sought to educate as many people as possible about climate change by training people from various backgrounds to spread the word through public speaking engagements.

In climate change and productivity training, Maura found a shared problem: the human tendency toward a shorter attention span.

Sustaining Innovation

While most people might think of innovation as the disruptive effects of scientific breakthroughs, Maura finds innovation also results from “combining existing ideas in a new way, or applying existing ideas to new applications,” or what’s referred to as sustaining innovation. This focus on sustaining innovation is evident in her corporate training work which is based on the premise that attention management rather than time management is the new path to productivity. “Attention management is all about the ability to fully harness your brain power, be present, single task, eliminate distractions, and get into flow to motivate yourself to do deep work and deep thinking.”

Maura Nevel Thomas at work

Thoughtful Work Requires Sustained Focus

Whether working in the innovation space or on the front lines of customer service, Maura believes an important initial step to improving productivity is acknowledging that the way we work has changed and exploring how the work environment can be a barrier or an asset.

While the nature of work has evolved from the repetitive, highly supervised setting of the industrial age to the arena of knowledge work, the work environment hasn’t progressed in parallel. In her book Work Without Walls, Maura explores the lag in workplace evolution and characterizes the type of environment that helps knowledge workers do their best work.

“Knowledge work is really done best with a lot more freedom and independence when people are happy and comfortable.”

Man working

But a peek inside an average office typically finds a barrage of constant distractions, interruptions, and multitasking — not the ideal environment for a happy and comfortable experience. Not only does this setting create a poor experience it also has detrimental effects on the quality of the work that does get produced.

“When we are constantly distracted, we really undermine our ability to learn. Our brain is going in a million different directions at once, so when we hear things, read things, see things, [the information] enters our brain in a very superficial way.”

Over time this hyperactivity chips away at our attention span to the point that we have neither the desire nor the ability to muster the sustained focus required to engage in thoughtful work. When the knowledge we consume doesn’t make its way into working memory we are limited in our ability to access that knowledge and act upon it later.

“If you can’t pull out some information that you learned and then use it in a new situation, which is to me what I think innovation is, then you haven’t learned and you can’t innovate.”

Increased Output ≠ Increased Productivity

The shift toward knowledge work can mean that output and efficacy can be difficult to measure by traditional means. On the other hand, maybe it’s our approach to measurement that needs tweaking. As the reliance on human creativity increases so must the value placed on qualitative measures over a strictly quantitative evaluation of output.

“In many organizations, a manager determines whether or not an employee’s doing a good job by how much face time they spend in the office.” The inherent weakness in this measure is that it encourages knowledge workers to exemplify dedication by putting in long hours. The lack of downtime can lead to a decrease in the quality of work by preventing the brain from getting the rest required to make connections that inspire creative thought. “It’s more about satisfying your lower level needs when you’re in that state than higher level brain function.”

A better measurement of success in the modern day work environment focuses on the ideas and solutions — or outcomes — of work over the output and is considered in conjunction with the needs and experiences of the human beings responsible for said work.

The Power of Autonomy

Maura has found that the best outcomes for productivity depend on an organizational structure that isn’t just specific to innovation programs but should be present across the organization at large. “It comes down to micromanaging and hierarchies and the way that companies centralize the power higher up in the organization.”

A recurring theme Maura hears from clients is that workers on the front lines who are interfacing with customers are often not given the authority required to effectively solve problems. They are prevented from taking appropriate, swift action either through a need to get manager approval or a limitation of technology.

Working together

From a customer perspective “the computer won’t let me do that” response makes for a frustrating experience with very few avenues for recourse. To remediate this scenario organizations must trust their employees enough to provide the autonomy needed to induce creative solutions.

“You can’t make rules for the lowest common denominator.”

Zappos is a company Maura admires for ditching the typical hierarchy in exchange for pushing power down to their front line staff. By giving their staff the autonomy to do whatever is required to solve problems and create delightful customer experiences, they’ve managed to meet the needs of customers in new and unexpected ways.

Structured Flexibility

In terms of daily productivity Maura shared one tip from which all knowledge workers can benefit. “One of the principles of productivity that is foundational in what I teach in my Empowered Productivity System is that it’s important to have a workflow management system and that system needs some structure, but you also need to create some flexibility within the structure.”

When planning daily work Maura has noticed that many people input their to do list into their calendar so that all the work that needs to be done is scheduled. The difficulty in this approach is found in its rigidity and its function as a barrier to just starting. Rather than being productive Maura finds that most people end up dedicating a lot of unnecessary time rearranging their calendar.

Go get em coffee and notebook

When she writes, Maura finds that her writing flows much more easily when she simply begins writing about whatever comes to mind at a time of day when her brain is primed for creative thought. The result is that she either ends up writing about her intended topic or produces something even better.

In lieu of a structured schedule, Maura suggests identifying the three things that must get done and creating some flexibility to do the work at the most conducive time of day which can vary from person to person.

Collaboration at the Cost of Focus

As with most new ideas, the success or failure is less from the idea itself and more from the implementation. When experimenting with new environments and practices to support knowledge work, Maura recommends a well thought out approach that considers multiple perspectives. For example, leaders who learn that open offices foster collaboration might quickly decide to remodel the office, tear down the walls, and put everyone in a common area. Maybe they get more collaboration, but they also get noise, distraction, and lack of privacy. These unanticipated consequences can sabotage efforts at focus and have a negative impact on creativity and productivity.

Laptops on a table

An open layout may seek to send a well-intentioned message to employees that the culture embraces collaboration and communication. But what message does it send about the company’s position on deep, thoughtful work and the power of really applying your brainpower in a thoughtful way? Intended or not the message the team receives is that the work they’ve been hired to do is not valued by the company.

Living a Life of Choice

Maura’s success has been centered around productivity and attention management as an innovation on the traditional concept of time management.

“The biggest impediment to living a life of choice (my ultimate definition of productivity) is distraction, and our own behaviors as a result of that distraction.”

The realization that sparked Maura’s work was the idea that, while we have zero control over time, we have total control over where we spend our attention. This applies to work environments as well as our relationship with technology.

People waiting for shuttle

Maura encourages people to recognize that by engaging with technology we must acknowledge that our behaviors are intentionally being manipulated toward distraction. “When our attention is manipulated, it leads to outcomes that we perhaps wouldn’t choose because we spend our lives being reactive instead of being intentional.”

Capitalism for Social Good

Social entrepreneurship is a field that excites Maura and draws on sustaining innovation by acknowledging the nature of unregulated capitalism as profit-driven and applying it toward what’s good for society. In capitalism the pursuit of maximizing profits often leads to unintended problems like contamination of the air that we breathe, the water that we drink, and the food that we eat.

Maura believes that applying the existing idea of maximizing profits to activities that have a positive social impact is not only a great model for a business owner it’s also something that consumers have shown that they are willing to support. “I really think that social entrepreneurship business with an eye to the social good has to be the future.”

If you want to read my other articles about innovation experts and practitioners, please check them all out here.