A New Type of Productivity Training Can Increase Your Bottom Line

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Productivity training needs to be based in attention management, which means directing your attention where you want it to go. It’s about keeping the myriad distractions in an always-on world from hijacking your attention.

What does productivity training have to do with increasing a company’s bottom line? Just about everything.

With so many distractions in our Digital Age, companies from Aetna to Google to General Mills are more than willing to invest. These companies are turning to mindfulness training to help employees reduce distraction and manage their attention. 

On an individual level, mindfulness can take the form of meditation or yoga. It can help people understand when their minds wander from focusing on their breath or a pose. Research shows that mindfulness can reduce anxiety and depression and increase feelings of joy.

Productivity training can go beyond mindfulness training and teach employees a new skill that I call “attention management.” It allows busy executives and knowledge workers to recognize when their mental state is not serving them. It shows a workforce how to maximize productivity by controlling their attention. When entire teams or companies participate in productivity training based in attention management, whole cultures can shift and productivity and profits can increase.

What Is Attention Management?

After decades in the productivity industry, I realized that knowledge workers needed a new paradigm. In the 21st century, our biggest challenge is distraction. Productivity training must be based in attention management to provide the solution. Attention management means directing your attention where you want it to go. It’s keeping the myriaddistractions in an always-on world from hijacking your attention. It’s about being proactive, instead of always reacting to what’s happening to you.

The Four Quadrants of Attention Management

Attention management as a part of productivity training offers the opportunity to engage the most optimal brain state to achieve the best results in the moment. I’ve devised a four-quadrant model of attention management to illustrate how different mental states are best suited to certain tasks over others. For example, when you are “Focused and Mindful,” you are actively concentrating, fully present, and deliberately avoiding distraction. This is the ideal state of mind for, say, a job interview, or for tackling an important report or writing an article. 

However, if you are in the Flow quadrant, your mind is fully immersed and disengaged from a sense of self, where time seems to pass quickly and unnoticed until after. You can’t enter flow on command, but when you are actively concentrating, your brain might tip into flow on its own. While being in flow is not ideal for a job interview, it would be a good state of mind for doing something you’re trained for and good at. For example, if you are a CEO and one of your strengths is inspiring and motivating your team, then you might enter flow when you are giving a presentation at an annual company meeting. The other two quadrants are “Daydreaming” and “Reactive and Distracted.” The latter is necessary in some situations but in my experience, is the most common mental state at work and leads to mistakes, stress, and “busy-ness” without productivity.

Productivity training based in attention management offers hectic, distracted knowledge workers a new tool to tackle their new problems. This model to identify which quadrant is best suited for a particular task helps them to learn how to recognize the state they are in, whether it is serving them, and how to consciously move to the ideal quadrant that will maximize their productivity.

Does Productivity Training Reduce Burnout? 

Burnout is a huge problem in our modern workforce. And given that we send and answer work e-mails around the clock—including on weekends and during family vacations—it’s no wonder we feel frazzled! We’re constantly being pinged and “alerted” and interrupted. Learning objectives of productivity training based in attention management include:

  • How to better manage attention and consciously shift to the quadrant best suited to the task or moment at hand.
  • How to exert more control over their environment and their technology to create space for important work.
  • How to better manage internal distractions through workflow management skills.
  • How to master technology as part of the solution, rather than part of the problem.
  • How to value downtime to get recharged and re-energized.
  • How to feel more satisfied at the end of the workday—rather than stressed and frazzled—leading to increased engagement and decreasing feelings of burnout. 

What Happens if Whole Teams or Companies Complete Productivity Training?

Entire work cultures can shift when everyone on a team or in an office receives productivity training based in attention management. This is because afterwards, everyone is operating with the same set of new rules. Here are a few examples of what this can look like: 

Handling Interruptions: Prior to training, it may be common practice for employees in an open-office space to interrupt one another with questions and comments as they see fit.

 However, after training, employees are aware of the ideal environments needed to complete various tasks. They will recognize optimal brain states not only in themselves, but in others, and will think twice before interrupting.

Responding to e-mails: You’re probably well aware that employees across the globe are drowning in e-mail. Productivity training based in attention management provides teams with strategies to handle e-mail efficiently and effectively. 

When the entire team is trained, leaders, clients, colleagues, and vendors learn the best ways to communicate in different situations, and become comfortable that e-mails will be answered soon but not always immediately. The employee doesn’t feel pressured to constantly leave e-mail open and downloading, and has the skills to balance “responsiveness” with the uninterrupted time necessary to do important work well. 

How Is Attention Management Different from Time Management?

Attention management is a concept demanded by the Digital Age. It offers a solution to our always-on culture. Time management was developed before we carried Internet-connected smartphones in our pockets and could connect 24/7 with colleagues around the globe.

So How Will Productivity Training Increase My Bottom Line?

When knowledge workers take control of their attention, they regain time needed to work on top-priority projects that require the full complement of knowledge, skills, and abilities you hired them for in the first place. But they can’t marshal these resources in three-minute increments between interruptions. Productivity training based in attention management allows them to “unleash their genius” for the benefit of your organization. Whole companies that have completed this type of productivity training develop a culture that respects “deep work” and protects each individual’s attention. As a result, everyone involved is less distracted by urgent but unimportant tasks. Instead, they have more bandwidth to deliver important results.

Maura Nevel Thomas is a productivity speaker and trainer. She is an expert on attention management, and her 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, and author of three books. Nevel Thomas is a regular contributor to Harvard Business Review. Follow her on Twitter@mnthomas