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Neen James: Working and Leading in the Age of Distraction

Neen James

Do you find it hard to focus? Do you often find yourself frustrated after diving down an internet loophole only to find that hours have passed with nothing to show? You’re not alone. Don’t believe me? Here’s a Google Trends graph showing the number of people searching “can’t focus” and “phone addiction” on Google from 2004 to 2019. 

Google searches trend for "cant focus" and "phone addiction" from 2004 until 2019

Over the last few years, digitization has drastically shaped our world and the way we live. The way we work is no exception. We can send emails from our phones on-the-go, video-conference colleagues across the globe, self-promote and publish, sell our works online, learn new skills, and much more. The availability of information and speed of communication has never been greater. But not all of these changes have improved our ability to focus and work. 

With the whole world at our fingertips, we have entered an age of distraction. The average American spends over 4 hours a day on their phone and close to 11 hours a day in front of a screen. With our devices always within reach, being able to focus now means fighting off all the other tasks, tweets, buzzes, messages, alerts, and people vying for your attention. Technology has many benefits – but the reality is that it has also left many of us mindlessly scrolling, switching between dozens of tabs, and struggling to focus and sustain our attention long enough to complete the task at hand.

We hear these stories a lot from the Freedom community, so we have decided to create a new blog series – Working in the Age of Distraction – to explore the various tools, techniques, and strategies used by real professionals to help them succeed in a distracted world.

So this week, we decided to sit down with Neen James, Australian author, keynote speaker, and leadership expert. Neen is the author of nine books, including Folding Time and her most recent, Attention Pays. She has also been named one of the Top 30 Leadership Speakers by Global Guru for several years in a row because of her work with companies like Viacom, Comcast, Pfizer, BMW, and the FBI, among others.

As a leadership expert, Neen delivers high-energy keynotes that challenge audiences to leverage their focus and pay attention to what matters most at work and in life. With a strong background in learning and development and managing large teams at various corporations, Neen delivers actionable strategies that help employees avoid distractions, stop interruptions, and prioritize daily objectives and life goals.

So this week we thought we’d step aside and let her tell you about the tools and techniques she uses to be successful while working in the age of distraction.

As an author, speaker, and productivity expert – what does your daily workflow look like?

This question made me smile; I don’t have a daily workflow due to my choice of career. No day is ever the same as a keynote speaker. 

As a speaker I might be flying to a client site, or onsite and doing sound checks, serving the audience as their speaker and then heading home. 

Alternatively, I might be working with an executive team onsite at their corporate office. Or maybe I am working from my home office… no day is the same.

One thing I do like to have is a morning routine (regardless of where I am in the world) and no matter what time zone I am in.

For work-oriented morning routine: time is spent early in the day checking emails, social media, and responding to messages. Once that’s complete I focus on speech preparation, rehearsal, client relationships, and business development activities.

Our team also uses Slack for internal communications.

If in my home office: it’s easier to create a routine as I have the luxury of access to books, files, and notes. While on the road everything is electronic and handled in airports, hotels, and convention centers.

To keep myself accountable every morning I invest 15 minutes in a strategic appointment with myself to identify my top three (3) not negotiable activities that must be completed by the end of my day. 

These are then written on a post it note (I know, it’s pretty fancy), and I carry that with me to stay focused on getting the most important activities done first. 

Attention Pays by Neen James

What time-management techniques or tools do you use to meet deadlines and finish projects?

Oooohhh I love this question! Here are my go-to must haves each day because in my chosen career every speech or event is a project so this is a daily occurrence for us: 

  • Google everything – we use Gmail, Google calendar, docs, forms, and contacts so everyone can access the system, share ideas, time block for project completion, note deliverables and timelines, and make sure we are all completing projects on time and accurately. 
  • Slack for internal messaging and quick responses to avoid clogging up email and we have separate channels for conversations and projects. 
  • Freedom to block out the many wonderful and fun distractions I could happily waste time on each day and that helps me manage my time and attention. 
  • Hootsuite to schedule social media posts promoting client events, sharing content and curating conversations we are following to prepare for upcoming client events.
  • Zoom to connect with clients and their committees in advance of speeches and to work with our 1:1 executives in the coaching work I do with them.
  • Fitbit to ensure I move constantly and track my steps and keep energy high (especially when traveling).

Do you have a pre-work ritual or routine that helps you get focused and in the zone?

YES! – When I wake I drink match (KoMatcha is my fave brand and it’s really good for you and tastes delicious), I then check email, social media (I do a 15 minute drive by… meaning read them all, comment and then close it down), then  workout (that could be a routine my trainer gives me, I work out 1:1 with Jennifer Jacobs, owner of JMethod Fitness and also one of the Peloton instructors), I ride my Peloton when I am home (I am obsessed with this incredible exercise bike that is more like a community than a workout routine), I try to meditate in the morning (even if it’s only for a few minutes), and I then make my morning coffee and set up my 3 non-negotiable activities for the day in the strategic appointment I mentioned above. 

What aspect of your work is most challenging for you? How do you motivate yourself to continue when it’s tough?

Staying healthy on the road. 

With so many different flights, time zones, food choices, energy levels, red-eye flights, hotel beds, and lack of weekly routine on the road, that’s my biggest challenge. 

I try to combat that by traveling with protein bars, a resistance band, and tea (matcha and Kusmi detox tea). My lifestyle is one I have chosen and it can be demanding on the body so sleeping well (and often I go to bed crazy early) as I wake crazy early, and always try to keep an East Coast time zone, no matter where I am. 

When it feels tough or I am lacking energy, I stay accountable to others by messaging my trainer to tell her I have done my workout, texting my accountability partner to let them know what my scales weigh each Monday, set up goals with my accountability partner every Monday and then report back on Friday (don’t ever want to let her down and not have them completed so it keeps me productive while traveling) – I believe public accountability drives private accountability. 

When/where do you do your best work?

I am a morning girl. It’s my clearest thinking time with my highest energy. I love being in nature so if there is a way to work beside an ocean or water that’s my most creative and calm for strategic thought.  

I am really productive on the road if I take my laptop down to the lobby or bar area (surrounded by people) – I am not good alone in my hotel room and tired. So being around energy helps me get it done.  

Has technology impacted or changed the way you write/work over the years?

YES! I use Evernote to capture everything I think about.

We used Mind Node to scope out my latest book Attention Pays.

I used Zoom when struggling to write: scheduled writing sessions with an accountably partner and we would both Zoom in, say G’Day, and then turn the camera off, write what we had agreed to do, and then reconnect at the end of the writing hour (knowing he was there I wouldn’t do anything but write) it really helped me meet some deadlines for my editor and publisher. 

The ability to access everything from my cell phone was a big difference as we keep many notes in Google docs and it was helpful for the editor and team too. 

Obviously I used Freedom to avoid wasting time and would often set it up for 6+ hours a day while in the midst of deep writing for Attention Pays. Now I do it daily for shorter periods of time when I want to really focus on completion. 

How do you optimize your environment for productivity and focus? How do you incorporate Freedom into your schedule?

Freedom is used daily in our office – it’s just a part of our routine now and I wrote about that in the book, Attention Pays.

To stay productive we keep both digital and analogue systems. I still have paper manila files for upcoming client events as a central place to keep notes, brochures, and ideas for the speech and resources I want to share. 

Our digital files are well organized and easy to access for the team.

I don’t enjoy visual clutter so like to keep a really clear desk with nothing to distract me – I avoid keeping paper on my desk where possible. 

What advice would you give younger writers in regard to staying focused and motivated?

Develop a routine for yourself that works in your best writing hours. For me, that’s early morning, find yours.

Schedule appointments in your calendar as writing dates with yourself to get it done and honor those appointments.

Find an accountability partner who you can share your goals with and then ask them to help you achieve them by checking in on you.  

What projects are you currently most excited about?

Personally we just bought a new home in FL so I am transitioning my lifestyle to a warmer climate … and wow, moving house is a HUGE project! 

Professionally our program called Idea Shaping has become really popular and I have been approached about writing a book in this area, so that could be a fun project for me (although writing isn’t my favorite thing to do it’s a great way to share intellectual property). 

To learn more about Neen James or her work, you can visit her site at