Published: April 26, 2020

“Distracted is the nature of our work environment these days.” — Maura Nevel Thomas


Productivity during a crisis? It’s complicated. It’s an up and down, hit or miss, day-by-day kinda thing.

Some days, I feel pumped, ready to attack my overly ambitious list (crafted during one of those super-woman moments). Other days, I just want to sit on my couch, watch Netflix, or simply stare at the wall. I suspect your experience isn’t too far off?

Why this matters
We deal with stress and crisis differently. Whether productivity is your coping mechanism, or you’re not feeling like getting things done right now, it’s all okay.

If you’re lucky to have a job that allows you to work from home, you can’t entirely forget about productivity though. We still have to work (and thank goodness for that too!)— no matter what’s happening out there.

No matter how nutty things may have gotten inside our homes.

When it comes to productivity, it’s less about time management these days. It’s all about attention management.

Maura Nevel Thomas wrote the book (literally) about attention management. Thomas explains that we have four normal brain states. And to practice attention management, we need to understand what each of these brain states is good for because they ultimately affect our productivity.

  1. Reactive and distracted. This is when our attention is divided — like say when we’re trying to multitask. Several tabs are open at the same time and we’re constantly being interrupted. Thomas says this our typical state of work 😟
  2. Daydreaming. This is when we’re choosing not to focus on anything in particular and we’re letting our minds wander. This state is restorative for our brains. The key here is to resist the urge to grab our mobile device to fill every moment.
  3. Focused and Mindful. This is when we’re fully present and deliberately avoiding distraction. To stay in this state, we need to make an effort to maintain attention for an extended period of time.
  4. Flow. If we’re lucky, our brain can tip from focused and mindful into flow. It’s when we’re laser-focused and fully absorbed in a task. Note: This is a state and NOT a behavior.

Not every task requires us to be in a focused and mindful state. Sometimes, reactive and distracted is good enough. (I can easily fold laundry while listening to a podcast while keeping an eye on the slow cooker. But writing this newsletter definitely needs focus, and ideally, flow!)

The ultimate goal of attention management is to recognize which brain state we’re in so we can shift to the one that will help us produce our best results at that moment. Each of the four brain states has a related amount of attention and effort or control.

With the exception of the flow state, we have the ability to decide which state we enter. “Most of us stay in the reactive and distracted state all day long,” says Thomas. “Distracted is the nature of our work environment these days. But there are times when you may actually want to choose it.”

Bottom line:
Getting a handle on productivity is challenging these days. Understanding our brain states gives us a bit more control of ourselves. We can choose and shift depending on what can give us the best results at that moment — which may simply be to put down the iPhone and allow our minds to wander for a brief respite (I wrote that one for me!).


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  • Because the Closers vs Openers debate involves jobs and our livelihood: this article is the most reasoned analysis of the argument that I’ve seen. Warning: It presents both sides of the argument. So, if you’re not interested in hearing “the other side”, don’t read this.
  • Video: You Control How You Play | Ryan Holiday. Perhaps the most motivational 3-minute video I’ve ever seen. I watch this one a few times a month as a reminder.
  • Audio: Navigating Business in Scary Times | Exponential Wisdom. Peter Diamandis and Dan Sullivan discuss how industries will transform during this global pause, and what implications we’ll see in our everyday lives.


There’s a need to both manage and lead during crisis situations. Two different things, requiring different focus and action. “Crises are often over-managed and under-led.” If you’re in any kind of leadership role, you’ll want to know if you’re leading through the crisis or managing the response.


Sought-after career coach Allison Locket put together this 3-part audio guide Rise Through Change at Work packed with strategies and tools to weather chaos and create a more fulfilling future state.
Thank you for your support!


“You’re not lacking whatever you think you’re lacking. It’s your opinion that you’re in a deficit that is far worse than any potential deprivation.” — Ryan Holiday


If you work in the transportation or travel industries, you have prime seats to a once in a lifetime reshaping of that world. The current lockdown delivered the short-term blow (or benefit, if you’re looking at it from the environment standpoint). But in the mid to long-term, as we start getting out of the house, it’ll be interesting to see how our travel habits have changed. Will long-distance travel decrease for good, as we’ve all now gotten comfy with – and gotten good at – online meetings and conferences? How will we feel about public transportation? “Public transport operators will need to reassure users that they will not be infected. This means more cleaning, protective screens, improved air filters, and less dense seating.” Less dense seating in planes? Yes, please!


… when you picked up the phone, dialed a number, and TALKED to someone? Well, the humble phone call has made a comeback! There are few things as nourishing as the human voice, especially during a lockdown. “We are craving human voice,” says FCC Commissioner, Rosenworcel. Now, if you’ve fallen out of the habit of actually talking to people on your phone, or you’ve never had it, to begin with, this one from The New Yorker offers a brilliant how-to.


Everybody agrees that when this is all over, we won’t be returning to the normal that we left back in… it feels like eons ago. But what does it take to adapt to a new normal that’s the opposite of what you envisioned for yourself? Kristen Girard and I explore this question in the latest episode. A key takeaway from this episode: We all have the ability to be resilient and to bounce back STRONG. Listen to Episode 126 on your mobile app or on the website: Adapting to and Living a New Normal.


Second Breaks is researched, written, and edited by me alone. Each issue takes hours to develop and requires paid subscriptions to numerous journals, magazines, and books to get the widest and best source of information. If you find value in the newsletter, I’d so much appreciate you subsidizing my coffee habit 😊 It helps with the research and the writing!


For those of us fortunate enough to keep working from the safety of our homes, our challenge is to create space. To create the buffers in our schedules to catch our breath, to exercise, to hug our loved ones, or whatever it is we enjoy doing that helps put our mind at ease.

It’s not only good for us. It’ll benefit the people who count on us as well.

Best wishes for a safe and sane week ahead. Send over any comments, a picture of your quarantine haircut, a picture of your home office, or a picture of your non-mobile ☎️

Cool beans,
Lou Blaser


A former management consultant and IT leader, Lou Blaser is the editor of Briefing Notes and the host of the Second Breaks podcast. She is also the author of Break Free: The Courage to Reinvent Yourself and Your career. Lou’s work is focused on exploring how to navigate, thrive, and turn midlife into the best phase in our life.

The world of work is changing.

Stay smart about it.