Have you ever met someone who changes your thinking in a profound way? They challenge what you thought you knew with an energy and enthusiasm that’s contagious. Or maybe it’s a way of thinking you have too, but you were never able to put it into words properly. Enter Neen James. Neen has a boundless energy that is quick-witted and always offers powerful strategies for paying attention to what matters most, so you can get more done and create more significant moments at work and at home. She is the real deal!
Attention Pays™: How to Drive Profitability, Productivity, and Accountability with Neen James.
To get the results you want, you need to get attention. But most people don’t know how to get it and keep it. People often see attention as a transaction, something to trade, but it’s much more than that. Neen has identified that people pay attention at three different levels; personal, professional, and global, and she’s designed a powerful methodology that makes it easy to leverage all three.
Neen’s Intentional Attention model helps individuals and organizations to be more deliberate about the choices we make and the actions we take.
Join speaker, author, and sassy little Aussie, Neen James, and discover what makes attention valuable and why paying attention in very specific ways drives profitability, productivity, and accountability.
During this podcast we discuss:
The interview transcript is below for reference.
Neen James is the author of Folding Time™ and Attention Pays™. In 2017, she was named one of the top 30 Leadership Speakers by Global Guru because of her work with companies like Viacom, Comcast, and Abbot Pharmaceuticals among others.
Neen has boundless energy, is quick-witted and always offers powerful strategies for paying attention to what matters so you can get more done and create more significant moments at work and home.
Neen is the kind of speaker that engages, educates, entertains, and delivers the real-world solutions that apply in your organization, your home, and your community. She also provides one-on-one consulting in a variety of leadership topics and loves serving her audiences. Find out more at www.neenjames.com.
Website | www.neenjames.com
Twitter | @NeenJames
Instagram | @NeenJames
Book | Attention Pays™: How to Drive Profitability, Productivity, and Accountability on Amazon
Hi, Neen. Welcome to the show. I’m so glad you’re here.
What a treat it is to serve your listeners. Thank you for inviting me to be a part of this important project.
Yes. Thanks so much, Neen. I’m thrilled to have you here. Ever since I met you at the ASAE Annual Meeting in Chicago this year, I’ve been so inspired by all the transformational work you’re doing with different companies and people to drive change and maximize impact. Thanks for taking the time to be here today. I’m thrilled.
It’s my privilege. ASAE is amazing. What an incredible people go there, whether they’re a small association or a major one, the people do some incredible work.
I absolutely agree. It was my first time. I’ve been a member for about five years, so being able to see people in person and enjoy spending time networking was really a treat.
Oh, that’s cool. Their agenda, like the education programming that they put together, was phenomenal. I’m so glad. That was your first one and it was my first one too.
Excellent. Well, I’m so excited to introduce you to the audience today. I’d love for you to start with who you are and what you do.
Well, Emily, I started in corporate business in Australia. I worked in retail banking, telecommunications, and the oil industry and you’ve got to imagine there are not many chicks in oil in Australia. I am obsessed with getting the world to pay attention because I think when we do that, companies make more money, associations increase member engagement, and we have deeper relationships.
You know, I get to work with people in associations like ASAE, but also corporate clients like Comcast or Johnson & Johnson – even the FBI. Meeting planners often refer to me as the energizer bunny and I think what’s unique about me, Emily, is I am the oldest of five. I know I sound like I’m five, but I’ve written nine books and one of them is Attention Pays. I am so obsessed with this topic because clients come to me, Emily and they say things like there’s never enough hours in the day or there’s so much to do. They don’t know where to focus first. So they’re not achieving the results they need with their board, with their members, with their clients. I fix that. Whether it’s as the opening keynote speaker at conferences or whether it’s working one on one with an executive or maybe it’s working with a bullet, the reason I do what I do, Emily, is because I just want the world to pay attention.
I think that when we pay attention personally, professionally, globally, we make a greater impact on the planet. So that’s who I am and that’s why I do what I do.
I love that. It’s just so inspiring as someone who’s been overwhelmed, overworked, tired in my job and even having it flow over into my personal life. Your book and this topic has been really interesting to me since it’s been put on my radar. I think that people really do want to pay attention. Like you’ve said, it’s just hard. We’re trying. We just can’t get there, so I’m excited to dive into that and talk about why this happens and how it happens and how we can overcome it.
Sure. You know, when you think about, to your point that you opened up with, Emily. It is my belief that people are overwhelmed, they’re overstressed, they’re overtired. And I bet the listeners of this particular program would agree with those things.
In the book, Attention Pays, we call it the Over Trilogy. When you combine that with the fact that we live in an attention deficit society and the challenge is we want to pay attention, we truly do. But we’re not paying attention to the right people, the right things, the right way. And so part of my mission is to start an attention revolution where we get people to think about maybe how they’re paying attention, who they’re paying attention to, and what deserves their attention. You know, one of the things I realized early in my body of work, Emily, is we can’t manage time because time is going to happen literally like it or not. We can’t manage time, but we can manage our attention. And that was the key for me, I realized we get to choose the actions we take and the choices we make. That’s why this is so important.
Absolutely. That’s so good. One of the things you’ve talked about in your book is three different types of attention. I’d love for you to dive into what those three elements are and how people can master them.
You know, if you in a position to write some things down, this might be the place to do it. I think we pay attention three ways. Personally, it’s about who deserves your attention, which is really about being thoughtful. Professionally, it’s about what deserves your attention and that’s about being productive. Globally, it’s about how are you paying attention in the world, and that’s about being responsible.
So let’s say you’re running a small team, maybe you’ve got a small association or an association management company, maybe you’re a nonprofit and you’re working with volunteers, right? So personally we want to think about how can we be more thoughtful with the people that are in our lives. The people we work with or the people we share our homes with. Professionally, it’s about what is the best use of our time, how can we be more productive and focused on the right things? And then globally, it’s about how we truly making a difference in the world with the resources that we have. How do we be responsible with members, friends, and the association and what we stand for? I think anyone listening to this, regardless of what type of organization you’re part of, smaller or larger – when you think about your attention as a choice personally, professionally and globally, every single day, you get choices to make.
You talk about each – being personal means being thoughtful as an individual, professional is that productivity, which I think a lot of us struggle with and then globally for community in the world. The people who listen to this podcast feel exactly that as they’re trying to maximize their impact. Day to day, they’re trying to figure out how to get more hours in the day.
I’m in part of a Facebook group and we are constantly in there joking and teasing about how to get more hours in a day.
There are though! This is what’s so crazy about time. Time is going to happen whether you like it or not. You and I both know and so do the people in your Facebook group that you and I only get 1,440 minutes a day and time doesn’t care. Time does care. It doesn’t care if you are a volunteer or a CEO. How old you are, how young you are, how rich you are. Time is the great equalizer. We have to think about the fact that you have to eat, we have to sleep, we have to work out like they’re not negotiables. Right? Right. So we have the time. We need to be more productive with that. And I think the key to that is let’s look at time really differently. My belief is we need to look at time in 15 minute increments and the reason that I think this is valuable is because, it’s my understanding of the clients that I work with, no matter where they are on the planet, that nobody has an hour anymore.
Like if you asked someone for an hour meeting, you can’t see them, but the eyes are rolling into the back of their head. They’re like, don’t have an hour. So what I believe to be the most powerful amount of time is 15 minutes. Because think about what you could do in 15 minutes. You could brainstorm how to deliver exceptional member value in 15 minutes. You can reach out to a board member and ask them to help you with a fundraising activity in 15 minutes. You could do a business development call and explore how people could get more involved in your association or your organization in 15 minutes. You can make a healthy meal in 15 minutes. You can have a one on one with your team members. 15 minutes is the key to conquering that crazy inbox that so many listeners have. I believe in 15 minute meetings. I do 15 minute workouts. I really believe 15 minutes is the key to productivity.
Let’s look at time differently. Let’s give something our undivided attention for 15 minutes and we’ll be sure to get it done.
That is such a good mindset shift because when I look at my to do list, I do not think of things in terms of 15 minute increments. In fact, it really jives well with this idea that if I had 15 minutes of dedicated attention, I could get so much more done, but there’s just so many distractions that are keeping me from doing that. What tips or advice do you have for overcoming some of those distractions?
Let’s talk about some of the major culprits, right? So major culprits of distraction. Let’s start with social media and by the way, I have a love/hate relationship with social media. I love that I can see my family around the world through things like Facebook. I hate Facebook for the crazy that it is.
So what I do is I do what’s called a 15 minute social media drive by. So every morning when I make my coffee, I sit there with my juice. So my smoothie or you know, what I’m feeling that particular day. But for 15 minutes I go across and like posts on Facebook, retweet, come into an Instagram, connect with people on Linkedin and what I’m doing is spending 15 dedicated minutes while I’m having my coffee. I believe in associating activities with the particular results you’re looking for. I’m going to have my coffee anyway, so I might as well make it productive and social media to me is a part of my business. I need to be involved in social media, but I certainly don’t need to be on it all day, which by the way is very easy to do because as of this recording Halloween has passed and so everyone’s posting photos of their adorable children in their crazy costumes and that is an amazingly wonderful waste of time.
So let’s talk about social media. You can manage social media by also using technology to help you. For example, I installed the Freedom App on my phone and on my Mac. It is a website blocking app. Now I know that sounds crazy than attention expert needs a website blocking app. But it allows me to block certain sites that I think will potentially be a distraction for me. People may want to consider looking at something like that as a tool. If you’re trying to get really focused work done, maybe you’re doing a member engagement survey, maybe you’ll try to host a particular meeting, maybe you’re having a brainstorming session with your team. Maybe you’re trying to just get through your email inbox, by blocking distractions you have, you can’t go to those sites. That can be really helpful.
Another strategy when you think about other major distractions – email is a major distraction and I can guarantee everyone listening to this call, you can sit on your email from 6:00 AM to 6:00 PM and not get through your inbox because the challenge with email, is email is a request from someone else for your time to help them achieve their results. I think what happens is we feel like if I could just get one more email, then if I could just get one more email done – it is a massive distraction and not necessarily productive.
So I would encourage listeners to think about if they could check your email in 15 minute increments throughout the day? Maybe you do it when you first get to the office instead of when you first wake up and you’re on your way to the bathroom. Or you could you do it maybe mid-morning or just before you go to lunch? Maybe do it mid-afternoon to be able to actually working on things outstanding? Then maybe you check it one more time. But the challenge with email is we seem to be connected 24/7 and the challenge with that is we set a precedent for our teams. Leaders who are listening to this, I need you to stop emailing people after hours because when you do your stealing minutes from other people, you’re stealing minutes from people’s families because if you’re the boss, people feel like they need to respond.
Now, for some of the listeners they are running a volunteer board and they’re probably a working board, so people are doing this on top of their full time jobs. They have companies that they run in addition to serving in the roles that they have. So we need to be very diligent about the emails that we send and we have to manage. So email is a major distraction and honestly, Emily, we are our own worst distraction. We are responsible for our attention and yet we split our attention constantly. I do not believe and have not found any validation in any research that I’ve performed, that our attention spans are declining. I don’t believe in that at all. I have literally hired researchers to find the evidence that it’s declining. And now the myths that we have is that we have the attention span of a goldfish. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to be compared to a goldfish. No. Thank you. Attention is split and that’s the difference.
We have to choose what are we allowing our attention to be focused on and where are we wasting our attention? Because just like time, you know, once we spend our time, we never get it back. And so we have the choice to that, allowing ourselves to be distracted. And just for the record, I am as guilty of this as anyone listening to this. So I am also a work in progress. Let’s just be honest about it. I may have written the book on it, but it’s still for me, a daily challenge.
Emily, one thing that we can do is, you know I mentioned the 15 minute appointment, a 15 minutes strategic appointment with yourself as valuable because if you want to manage their distractions, consider spending 15 minutes with yourself every day. One strategic appointment with yourself, that 15 minutes you identify your top three, non-negotiable activities. So before your head hits the pillow tonight, what are three things you absolutely must do? Here’s why this is powerful. If you determine that you are going to get three things done, don’t allow yourself get distracted until those things are complete. Now I have a super fancy way of managing them. On a Post-It note. That’s right. So on my post-it note, I write at the top today I will, and then I write down three things I will accomplished before my head hits the pillow tonight. It’s kind of like a decision filtering system and I’m not allowed to do other things until those three things are done. So our listeners who are like, oh my to do list is long. I never get through my projects. Maybe try this very simple, easy, no cost solution by making an agreement with yourself that you will spend in 15 minutes identifying your top three, non-negotiable activities that you must get done right. I’m going to post it, carry them with you everywhere and use them as a decision filtering system.
Now they could be people who are listening to this and they love crossing things off a list. I wonder if anyone of them would be willing to admit they actually write things on a to do list just to cross them off for the feeling that we did something today.
And so what I want people to consider is your attention is your choice. What you choose to allow yourself to be distracted by is 100 percent your choice, so consider social media, email and ourselves. Those attention grabbers can be very dangerous. We need to look for solutions and all of the solutions I’ve outlined don’t cost you any money.
Those are amazing recommendations. The 15 minutes social media drive by, I’m going to call it that every time I do it too. The top three activities, I’ve heard that before. The idea of focusing on these three activities, I am guilty of checking my email as I’m getting out of bed and before I head to the office. It just happens, but I love this idea of putting it on a post it note, making sure it’s visible throughout the day, making sure you start with those three things to get them accomplished. I love that.
The other thing that you have been talking about is this idea of distractions. You know, we get it from social media as you’ve mentioned. I also think about things like all the content that’s available to us. I hate to admit that I have this list of all the articles I’ve seen on social media that someday I’m going to read. Of course! So how do you help people cut through some of that clutter to make sure that we’re just focusing on the right things? My intentions, I think, are good, but that’s not where my time needs to be.
I love the desire that you have to be well read and to be able to add value to your listeners and I do believe all of these are from a place of good intentions. As you know in the book, Attention Pays, the difference in my book is that I talk about intentional attention because I think it’s when we do things with intention, they have a greater impact. Here’s the challenge. Let’s go back to email for just a second. Emily, if people have emails in their inbox that are older than two weeks, I can pretty much guarantee you’ll never get to those emails. You want to. You intend to, you have a desire to respond, but the reality is in two weeks-time you’re going to have 400 more emails, if not more, and so I think what people need to consider is what does that really do?
So a quick suggestion for many of my executives that I give them as few of emails that are in your email inbox for longer than two weeks, just drag them off our of your site. Just see what happens. Just do it. But you’re not going to get asked about them because other people also have moved on and chances are if you don’t respond to what they want, they’ll email you again anyway.
I think when it comes to articles, there’s a couple of ways you can handle that. One could be that you set yourself an appointment maybe on a Friday afternoon before your week has ended and you put it in your calendar and encourage yourself to spend maybe 15 minutes going through those and find the ones that are most valid and valuable. Or maybe you create a cataloging system so that you can use it in Evernote or somewhere where you can file them away that if you are looking for, then you could then go search Evernote for that particular article, but find a way to make it part of your routine.
One of the things you’ve seen me write about in the book is the importance of systems because I believe systems create freedom. My friend Tamsen Webster, one of the smartest women I know, she created a phenomenal program called The Red Thread. Tamsen is brilliant and she has a marketers heart as she comes from marketing. She has what she calls a swipe file, so when she reads these amazing, great things, she puts them in the swipe file. She shares those swipe files regularly so people could check out TamsenWebster at Tamsenwebster.com, but she’s such a smarty pants, you know, when I see things that I want to read from her, if I don’t click on them straight away, I’m going to lose them. I think that speaks to another point, Emily, that you don’t open something unless you’re willing to action it. So if you see an article that comes in and you do want to read it, then do it now or drag it to a file that you reference later.
But I think we need to stop beating ourselves up about unread journals and unread articles or unwatched TED Talks, you know, we have all these great aspirations, but often those things, if they’re not important for learning right now, we have this beautiful intention to get educated and to stay current and relevant as a leader, but that requires a system that means you need to dedicate time.
One system that I have is industry magazines that are important to me and to my clients. I take them on the plane with me and I spend most of my time in airports, hotels and convention centers, so it’s a part of my system that I take those on the road with me. In the same way, I love to read magazines for pleasure, so I’ll take it on the plane with me. As soon as I’ve read it, I’ll give it to one of the crew and I’ll say, hey, would you like a magazine? Because there’s no point in me taking it back. Anyway, I do the same thing with books. I read books and friends often ask me to write reviews of their books and so I’ll take the book with me on the trip and give it to someone at the other end. That way I continue their learning for someone else and I don’t have to pack it to bring it home. So trying to find a system, if you’re trying to increase your reading, make it part of an activity. If you catch public transport, maybe that’s the way to do it. If you prefer to listen, maybe you subscribe to things on audios so that you can listen while you’re working out or while you’re traveling. You could use audio learning. I’m not a great audio learner, to be honest with you, but I do love podcasts.
So for me, I listened to a podcast when I get ready for work in the morning. And so that’s part of my routine when I’m doing my hair and makeup. I’m listening to a podcast. Doesn’t matter if I’m in a hotel or if I’m at home. So when you create these systems, Emily, to increase your learning, you’re paying attention to developing yourself as a leader, but you making time in time. You’re really making the most of those things.
But the other thing I had to do, Emily, I had to unsubscribe to thousands of different emails, thousands of magazines, you know, I am subscribed to absolutely everything. One thing that I use on my email is a service called unroll.me, and it helps me unsubscribe because people feel like they need to add me to their lists, bless them. And um, that is said very sarcastically. I use unroll.me on a weekly basis. I go in and unsubscribe from things. So don’t be concerned about getting yourself off lists if you’re not reading what is being sent to you and you don’t think you will save your inbox and get off the list.
So create systems for the things that are important to you and just move along from the things that aren’t.
That’s great. Talk to me a little bit about this idea of work/life integration.
I don’t believe in work/life balance. It’s such a big fat myth. It’s just so crazy. Like I think people have this visual of a set of scales where work and play are equal but that’s not true. Right? And I think no one has the right to enforce the beliefs of work/life balance on you because we’re all at such different points in our careers. Sure, when I was very early in my banking career, I was working like a lunatic because I wanted to very quickly get promoted.
I was studying at the time, did my MBA, and I was working like a crazy person. That was my choice. And now I’m in a different point in my career and I’m hustling for a different reason. I’ve been speaking for nearly 15 years now and what I’m doing now compared to maybe a brand new speaker may be really, really different. And so at the time of this recording, I just did my last keynote for the year and the only things I have left are some small board room conversations with clients and the rest of my years is pure play as I’m traveling family in Australia to do wine tasting in New Zealand to spend Christmas in London. But that’s my idea of fun now. My fall was ridiculous. My spring in my role is as silly as you know, because we get connected and get to play together on Instagram. And things like that, but the reason I share that with you is it isn’t suitable for most people, but it works for me.
Integration is where it’s at and what work/life integration is – think of it like a triangle instead of a set of scales. Think of it as the environment that you’re creating and what do you think about the expectations that you have of yourself and the goals that you have and what other people’s expectations are of you. Then think of the third side of the triangle as emotions. What emotions do you want to bring? When I was doing my MBA, I felt guilty like all the time. I was. I felt guilty about studying because I wanted to be with my husband. Then I’d feel guilty if I was with my husband because I should be studying. And so I had this crazy sense of guilt and guilt as an emotion is one of the most negative emotions.
And so if you really want to think about work/life integration, decide what it looks like for you. What environment do you want to create? What expectations do you have and what emotions do you want to bring? And I do believe that work/life integration is so much more achievable. Work/life balance is a myth. I mean the people listening to this get to determine what’s important to them. I love to play, I’m Australian. Aussies work hard and play hard. Then I became an American citizen and I know that Americans, they work hard, that is our core DNA. Work, work, work. I think we all need to consider we can work really hard providing we have time for rest and recovery. I know that for me the rest of this year is about recovery. It’s about being able to work really hard so that I can play and enjoy that. I think what happens is we just keep working, working, working. Maybe we launched a big initiative, maybe we do a new survey from members, maybe we have our annual fundraiser and we work so hard, but then we don’t plan any recovery time and we just think we can still keep operating at that level and we can’t. Our bodies need recovery, our brains need rest, and that’s where we get the most creative is when we have that time of rest and recovery.
Even taking a small amount of time to step away really does bring a fresh perspective when you come back. Couple last questions for you as we wrap up today. The first is when you first started in the industry, looking back, is there any advice that you would give yourself when you were first starting out?
My advice would have been to trust myself more. See when I was new, I listened to everyone else. I think you can get over guru-ed. There was so many people I admired and so I listen to everyone and it should have listened to myself. That is one thing that I would encourage people to think about. You have this incredible intuition, this gut reaction, sometimes we need to trust that and listen to it. When you pay attention to that, you will be more aligned with your own authenticity, your values, and your beliefs. So I wish I’d listened to myself more and not wasted so much time and money on everyone else’s advice.
Well said. We all have a unique perspective to bring and I think as we look to some of these gurus, sometimes it dilutes some of what our message would have been for the world to hear. So I love that message too. And last question for you today. What is the smallest action that someone could take to have the biggest impact?
Listen with your eyes. Let me explain what that means. I learned this lesson for my five-year-old friend. I was sitting in my neighbor’s house. We were having a cup of coffee. Her name’s Eileen and her son’s name is Donovan. Donovan was five, so he kept inserting himself into the conversation. And Emily, I’m sure you’re listeners have five-year-olds and they know exactly what I’m talking about. So he got so frustrated with me because he was asking me questions and he didn’t think I was listening. He jumped up into my lap and he was so mad. He said, Neen, you’re not listening to me. And I was, but not enough. And he grabbed my face with his hands and I leaned towards him and he said, Neen, listen with your eyes. And Donovan reminded me that we don’t just listen with our ears, we listening with our eyes and with our heart and with our soul. The easiest, no cost, attention-grabbing strategy today that you can apply as a listener is listening with your eyes.