Originally published September 25, 2008
It wasn't some sort of test or mind game, honestly.
The interview was with Maura Thomas, a woman who makes a living as a productivity trainer; she helps people learn to not only manage their time, but, as she puts it, "to manage their focus."
So what was she to make of a reporter showing up a few minutes late to the Starbucks on Bee Cave Road? What if the reporter also showed up without a pen?
Thomas did not go ballistic. In fact, she probably got a lot done while waiting. The owner of her own company, Burget Avenue Management Services Inc., Thomas has her whole life wirelessly connected. As she advises many of her clients to do, she uses a smart phone that synchronizes information she keeps in Microsoft Outlook. To-do lists, e-mail, calendar items: They're all there, readily available.
It's just one weapon in Thomas' arsenal.
The slim, tanned Austin entrepreneur came to town from Massachusetts in 2002 hoping to provide marketing and business management tools to small businesses. What she found was that clients were much more interested in her expertise in another area.
"What people wanted to know was how to be more productive with their time and personal work flow. Now all I do is training," she said over an iced decaf Americano, sweetened.
Thomas knows about productivity. She got her start at Time Design, the same company where David Allen, author of "Getting Things Done," was the trainer. Indeed, some of Thomas' techniques will seem familiar to devotees of Allen's "GTD" fundamentals.
Her method, called the Empower Productivity System, helps clients clear their minds of all the clutter by putting tasks into a trusted system they can access at any time. In Allen's book, a lot of that is done with notepads, Post-Its and a good paper filing system.
"I think one of the weaknesses of 'GTD' is David Allen goes out of his way to not teach on any specific tool," Thomas said. "He just speaks in the abstract. People need to figure it out on their own, and I think that's a real stumbling block."
Thomas advises most of her PC-centric clients to use Microsoft Corp.'s Outlook as a catch-all for appointments, e-mail and tasks. She also helps Mac-based clients who raise their noses at Microsoft Office products.
Although every business is different, Thomas says her techniques have been stress-tested and don't require much tweaking from client to client. "There is a way to do it that works. It's just like learning to fly a plane," she said, "The pilot wouldn't say to you, 'Let me see how you like to fly the plane and I'll customize my flight lessons to the way you like to fly the plane.' It doesn't work that way."
So what works? Having a unified system to keep all your information is the main step. But she also advises clients to keep e-mail use limited to twice a day; be proactive in the morning, then check e-mail and answer calls an hour or two into the workday.
"We spend way too much time being reactive," Thomas says. "It really leaves no time for being proactive."
Multitasking, she says, splits our attention and keeps us from devoting all of our energy to the things that need it.
Other tricks: using Jott.com, a service that allows you to call in and leave a voice message that is then automatically typed and sent to your e-mail or to-do list. It's more practical, she says, than carrying a notebook all the time for getting down ideas or tasks.
Thomas has stretched her business in new directions over time. She's now doing public seminars and looking to offer her teachings as products such as streaming video and CDs through her Web site, www.burgetave.com. She's also started teaching about voice-recognition software and continues to advise some business owners on how to manage their finances.
Skillfully managing her own time and clients well has allowed Thomas to spend more of her off-work hours with her husband, a statistician, and to get more involved in the Austin business scene.
She's involved in the group Bootstrap Austin and is on the board of the Trail Foundation, which works on the trail along Lady Bird Lake.
Thomas has mastered the art of seeming focused and relaxed at the same time. It's a good combination for an Austinite.
A clear mind is a productive one.
"We cause our own stress because we have all this stuff we have to do, and we don't have a good tool we can rely on," Thomas says, her cup of coffee running low. "You can only truly manage it when you can see it, and you can only see it when it's out of your head."
We'd love to hear more, but we're late to another interview.