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Want more time? Austin author shows us how to manage our attention

Nicole Villalpando
Maura Nevel Thomas

We all want to manage time. We want to maximize the amount of time we have to spend on the things we want to spend it on. And as parents, it can often feel like there is never enough time to do the meaningful things.

Our kids might also feel like there's never enough time to get things such as homework done.

The truth is: "You can't manage time," says Maura Nevel Thomas, an Austin expert in productivity.

Instead, we should be working on how we manage our attention. She has written the new book "Attention Management: How to Create Success and Gain Productivity — Every Day" (Simple Truths, $16.99).

"What our problem is now is the distractions," she says. The way to solve what we might call a time management problem (though that's not an accurate term, Thomas would say) is to use attention management solutions.

It's about managing those distractions so you can increase your focus on one thing at a time.

Ahh, the old "multitasking doesn't really work" adage. Nor does our need to be connected to work 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

One of the first things Thomas suggests is to change the notification settings on your phone. It shouldn't buzz or ding every time you get an email, a Facebook notification, a text, a phone call or a notification on a program like Slack.

Thomas' phone is set to silent, with no vibration.

"Let's face it, we all pick up our phones 8 million times a day, even if it doesn't buzz at us," she says.

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Instead, by turning off those notifications, you decide when you're going to check your messages, texts, etc. That way, you can really focus on something without interruption or even the idea that you might be interrupted at any moment.

One of the things Thomas does is train companies on how to be more efficient. She'll have them define how they are going to communicate under certain scenarios. Is texting the preferred method, or email or an instant messaging program? It probably shouldn't be all three all at once.

What all these notifications do is create a habit of distraction. We are expecting to be constantly interrupted so we begin interrupting ourselves. What this does for both adults and kids is create this need to fill every moment and doesn't give us any downtime for just thinking or daydreaming. When we let our mind wander is when insights are transformed, Thomas says. "I need to get out of my own way and let the brain come up with its own ideas without being distracted by the phone," she says.

Just being and daydreaming and letting the mind wander "is being productive," she says. "It might be the most important thing we do, especially if we have a creative job."

Thomas encourages people to try doing only one thing at a time. She recently watched a woman try to walk her dog and read a book. "I was waiting for her to fall off the curb," she says.

"We can't just be anymore," she says. "We are so habituated to having something to distract us."

Think about that the next time you are watching TV and scrolling through Facebook or waiting at a stoplight and checking email. Changing these habits is hard.

Thomas has written "Attention Management" on how to do that. She shared some ideas:

Just like you would remove all the junk food from your house if you decided to eat healthier, people who want to manage their attention need to start by shutting off notifications on their devices.

She also recommends doing awareness training by making a mark on a piece of paper every time you are distracted by an outside force or by yourself.

After you've eliminated the vibrating phone notifications, put yourself in an area where you're not as likely to be distracted. This might be an office with the door closed, the email program not opened and the phone not on. Set a timer for how long you will focus on one work or homework task. Make it short enough that you aren't dreading it but long enough to get something done. After the timer rings, you can decide to finish what you're doing or what time you will pick it up again. This works great for kids and homework.

Then you start building up to spending more and more time focused on only one thing at a time.

It won't be perfect all at once. And some days won't be as good as others, but Thomas says, "Every little thing helps. You don't have to do it all to see a difference."


Maura Nevel Thomas reads "Attention Management: How to Create Success and Gain Productivity — Every Day."

When: 2 p.m. Saturday

Where: BookPeople, 603 N. Lamar Blvd.