How a Change in Mindset Improves Productivity

Key strategies for attention management

Dr. Miss
11 min readJul 14, 2021


Photo of small light fixtures hanging from long wires as viewed from below.
Photo by Skye Studios on Unsplash

Productivity expert Maura Thomas makes a compelling argument for discarding the time management mindset. She believes that blocking off portions of our workday for focusing on a project only works if we are, in fact, able to focus.

And, really, who hasn’t felt that pain. I know I feel it every morning when I sit down to work and my thoughts are squirrel!-ing around my head. There are the emails I need to send out, the dishes that need to be loaded in the dishwasher, the bills that need to be paid online. It probably takes over twenty minutes for my mind to settle into working mode. Clearly, even though I’ve met my time management goal of sitting down to work at 8 AM, just being in the chair isn’t enough.

So let’s look at shifting our time management mentality to a focus on attention management instead. As we begin this journey, it’s important to note that attention management isn’t a scorched earth approach to eliminating all distractions. Instead, it’s a change in mindset. When we take an intentional approach to how we respond to important tasks, we are able to avoid reactive behaviors. It’s about prioritizing and refocusing how we want to spend our time.

Control Your Thoughts

On an individual workplace level, email and push notifications are huge distractors, of course. But those are pretty easy to manage by adjusting the settings on our devices.

It is a much bigger challenge to control our thoughts.

Picture this: As you are working on a project, you remember that you have a small task that you need to complete. Maybe it’s sending out a quick email or sharing a document with someone. You’re worried that you’ll forget to do it, so you open a new browser window and take care of it. However, a few minutes later, another small task pops into your head and you worry that you will forget to take care of this one as well. And so you open another browser window and quickly complete the task.

Maybe you feel relieved that you took care of those tasks, but these actions derailed the creative flow that you were experiencing. The resulting disruption cost is the twenty minutes that it will take to refocus our concentration and reestablish that creative flow. Twenty!

So not only have you spent ten minutes on these small tasks that you needed to complete, but you have also lost the 40 minutes it took to get your head back into the right space for your project. Maybe it’s just me, but losing fifty minutes for two minor tasks does not seem like a good use of time.

When training yourself to control your thoughts, try the following:

Keep a set of post-it notes nearby.

As you think of a small, yet important, task that you need to complete, write it down. Then take the post-it note off the pad and put it out of sight. For me, I put my little to-do post-it notes behind my laptop. I know that they’re nearby, but keeping them out of my line of sight helps me to mentally set them aside. I also write each task on its own post-it because I find it satisfying to crumple it up after I have finished the task.

Photo of red laptop with blue and yellow post-it notes piled in front of it.
Author’s photo of the to-do post-it notes that collect behind her laptop throughout the day. The blue ones are crinkly because her secret superpower is the ability to drip tea everywhere.

Re-think your browser windows.

First, close all extra browser windows, particularly those that are completely unrelated to your current task. When it’s necessary to have multiple windows open in order to complete the task, I find that re-ordering them helps me to stay focused.

For example, when I am writing an article for Medium, I keep my draft tab as the first tab on the left. Any other tabs that I may need, such as for research, are kept to the right of it. It’s easy to put them in that order and, in the event that I do get distracted by something, I have trained myself to automatically return to the tab in the top left corner and return to work.

Author’s screenshot of three browser tabs along the top of the screen.
Author’s screenshot of how her tabs were set when writing this article. Notice how the draft is furthest to the left.

Maintain Team Focus on the “Why”

It can be particularly difficult for a workplace team to practice attention management when working from different locations. In spite of everyone’s good intentions, it’s easy to waste time and energy on low-impact activities that are not directly tied to the “why” of a big project.

When a team first begins a challenging project, they are fueled by enthusiasm and the novelty of working towards a new goal. With time, as these feelings fade, team members may silently wonder if the end result is really worth the effort. They may continue to work towards the goal, but they have lost the verve and enthusiasm they felt at the beginning. They have lost track of the “why.”

Team leaders can refocus their group by creating a “why” statement that appears on all documents related to the project. Every chart, slide deck, document, or agenda should have that “why” statement on the top of it. Whether they’re working in their basement or the office, reinforcing the message will renew the team members’ sense of purpose in completing the project.

Within my own little world of education, our curriculum director has established our “why” as “Because every kid deserves two languages.” It’s at the end of her emails, it’s on our agendas, and it’s the lead statement in the curriculum revision templates. It. Is. Always. There.

But this was still a typical day for me during our summer Zoom curriculum meetings:

  • Silent thoughts: “I’m tired of hearing Jane talk about the Seal of Biliteracy. I’m glad Illinois has it, but — geez! — just stop already. We know, we know! And we have work to do!”
  • Opened the curriculum revision template on the Drive to start discreetly working. Saw at the top: “Because every kid deserves two languages.”
  • Started to work on the document for about half a minute. Looked at the reminder statement at the top again. Sighed and minimized the document. Tuned back into the conversation. Reminded self that the discussion had value because it was related to our department’s goal.
  • Most assuredly repeated this foolishness a couple more times before developing better attention management skills. I’m all about progress, not perfection.
Author’s screenshot of the opening slide from a recent meeting.

Prioritize firmly, decline courteously

Google’s use of the Objectives and Key Results (OKR) framework supports the use of attention management for workplace teams. Once everyone is clear on the “why” of a project, the team can use OKRs to define no more than two or three high-level objectives. These may require several Zoom calls to ensure that the team has had time to process and reflect on the drafts of these high-level objectives.

Once the objectives have been finalized, the team must then define 2–3 measurable results, which, if attained, should indicate that they are moving in the right direction. For the duration of the project, the team should periodically revisit these measurable results and have maybe-tough conversations about the extent to which they are making progress in meeting these goals.

Keeping the Objectives and Key Results in a highly visible, shared document can be a useful touchstone for moments when new ideas come along. If a new approach will assist the team in meeting the objective, then it’s one worth considering. However, if it does not clearly complement the project’s OKRs, then it should be courteously declined.

Attention management does not dictate that new ideas unrelated to the “why” should be discarded. A new idea may be the catalyst for a future project and should be revisited later.

Within my education world, one of our Key Results was to have student enrollment in the electives continue beyond minimum graduation requirements. We knew that a lot of students had bought into the (usually false) thinking that they only needed two years of a foreign language for college applications and we wanted to change that.

As part of our objective of helping students become truly bilingual — remember! “Because every kid deserves at least two languages.” — we worked together to create a plan for increasing enrollment in our upper-level courses. We knew that language proficiency increased with years of study and we wanted to encourage the students to continue in their junior and senior years.

Thus, we developed an action plan that included:

  • Increasing student and parent awareness about the Foreign Language Honor Society (open to juniors and seniors)
  • Having upper-level teachers visit the lower-level classes to talk about the courses and dispel any misconceptions that may have been out there.
  • Increase the visibility of the foreign language clubs’ activities and to have the club officers, usually upperclassman, be more visible through the use of club “commercials” during homerooms.
  • Provide parents with information about the benefits of four years of language study prior to Eighth Grade Course Enrollment Night. Have staff members present at the event to provide clarification.
  • Work with the guidance department to disseminate accurate information about college application requirements, particularly for sophomores selecting their junior-level courses.

Another idea that came up during our meeting was to collaborate with the other departments to have an Electives Fair during course registration time. We agreed that the idea had merit, but we tabled it because we believe it would distract us from our goal of targeting sophomores and juniors to continue their language studies at the upper levels.

Establish Communication Norms and Time Locks

Video conferencing, emails, and shared documents are all important elements of team communication, but they may be hindering individual members’ attention management skills.

When it comes to email, I often feel an internal pressure to respond within 5–6 hours. Some of my team members respond far more quickly than that, but some may take up to 72 hours to respond. Thus, while some of us are prioritizing emails at the expense of project completion, others are prioritizing individual work time over team communication. Both mindsets have validity, but the lack of consistency can cause issues, particularly with time-sensitive decisions.

The use of Time Locks can be especially helpful for attention management and, indirectly, expectations for reply time. A time lock is a fixed period during the workday when people are able to work without interruption. This is not always possible, but the premise is that fellow team members will respect that boundary and not expect an immediate response to something on their own to-do pile.

Thus, a team can use time locks to help establish communication norms for themselves. It can be as simple as this:

  • The team will videoconference every morning from 8:30–10:00 AM.
  • Time Locks will be every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday from 1:30–4:30 PM.
  • Emails and feedback requests should be addressed within 24 hours of them being sent (not read).
  • These norms can be communicated with those outside the team by having autoreply emails such as, “I have received your message and will respond within twenty-four hours. If this is a true emergency, please contact Ms. ____ at extension ____.”

Within the education setting, time locks are a bit harder to apply, but my district has recently incorporated them into our hybrid / remote learning schedule. Every Wednesday, while the schools are being deep-cleaned, the students can meet with a tutor online or use the time to get caught up with missing work. This leaves the teachers free for collaboration and training.

After a lot of thoughtful discussion with the administration, 8–12 PM on Wednesdays has been designated as the teachers’ uninterrupted work time. No faculty meetings, no tech training, no teacher office hours. Instead, we are encouraged to meet with our Professional Learning Communities, but we can also use the time to simply work on our own. When I tell you that it has been glorious, I’m not exaggerating.

Photo of a plant, laptop, weekly calendar and notebook.
Photo by Emma Matthews Digital Content Production on Unsplash

Reframe Accountability as Appreciation

There may be times when attention management feels restrictive. Team members may push back with the complaint that it discourages creativity and the discussion of new ideas. However, we know that the six elements of systemic change never occur quickly and, when combined with evolving towards an attention management mindset, these timeframes can extend even further. Thus, positive reinforcement when making these adjustments may be invaluable for a team’s growth.

Daily review of the project’s “why” and OKRs can be enhanced with praise for team members’ individual progress. Having team members use “I” statements to recognize those who are doing well with attention management is important because it keeps the tone from becoming critical or accusatory.

For example, one could say, “I want to point out that Tamia’s revision to the document really helped me to remain focused on this portion of the project. Seeing her edits helped to clarify my own thinking about this next section that we’ll be starting.”

When viewed within an education context, our curriculum director makes a point of spotlighting instructional activities that hit our department’s other Key Result, developing the students’ communicative proficiency in the target language. Rather than spending any time talking about the teacher who is *still* trying to sneak translation worksheets into his lessons, she instead discusses a lesson she observed in which lower-level students were given the necessary supports to converse in the target language for 30 seconds, then a minute, and then for two minutes. (In a foreign language classroom, those are huge gains for non-native speakers!)

Not only did her approach highlight a strong instructional model, but it also generated enthusiasm and interest within (most of) the department. Some team members’ mindset about the “why” and our objectives and key results are taking longer to evolve, but the rest of the team’s positive energy is helping bring them along.

Your Attention Management Mindset Checklist:

  • It’s not about time management, it’s about how you manage your attention.
  • While working, use post-it notes to quickly jot down unrelated ideas and to-dos and then place them out of sight behind your laptop.
  • Close unnecessary browser windows and keep your current task open in the first tab on the left side.
  • Figure out the “why” for the project, create a simple statement, and have it be the headliner of every project-related document.
  • Create two or three objectives that will help the team achieve the “why.” Determine two or three specific, measurable results to help determine if the objectives have been met.
  • Establish communication norms that clarify expectations for response time, meeting times, etc.
  • Create time locks for uninterrupted work time.
  • Use praise and positive examples to fuel the team’s energy, particularly when project fatigue sets in.
  • Be patient with yourself. This change in mindset may take longer than expected, but it’s worth the effort. Vale la pena.

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Dr. Miss

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