Merlin Mann recalls those days in his youth spent listening to the frenzied conversations of agents in his mom’s real estate office.

"They were drinking a lot of coffee and smoking a lot of Winstons," said Mann, 41, a writer and Internet personality who will deliver a keynote presentation at the Real Estate Connect conference next week in San Francisco.

There were two chalkboards in the room — one for listings and one for sales — said Mann, who would visit his mom’s office on occasion.

"It was really interesting to be around — to see how this combination of pure will and personality could get people through this incredible, strange career," Mann said.

His mom worked for an office in Cincinnati in the 1970s and picked up real estate again briefly in the 1980s. He recalls agents who were "screaming into the phone," the numerous giant books in the office filled with parcel data, and the lone early-model IBM computer in the office "that nobody used … it was immaculate."

He has experience in the real estate industry himself. He worked on a redesign of the Web site in 1999 and also worked for Homes and Land magazine. His career path has been a winding road: He has worked as a waiter, hardware store remodeler, courtroom exhibit designer, telemarketer and rock musician.

These days, Mann is known for his online wit and insight and his recommendations on organization and managing communications.

He is the founding editor of, a set of Web sites that are all about organization and personal productivity. He is a popular blogger, Twitterer (a user), and a video and audio podcaster.

The real estate industry — which is often characterized as slow to adopt new technologies — has moved beyond those early-IBM days, and Mann says that "attention management" is important for agents in this technology-flooded society.

"I think what’s challenging is moving past what is typically called time management — to attention management. In our heads each of us have our idea of what’s really important to us. But the details of what gets us from ‘A’ to ‘B’ is what gets complicated," he said.

"There is a huge difference between the very finite amount of attention and time each of us has versus the increasingly, infinitely large number of ways that attention can be spent. It definitely becomes about the economics of time and attention.

"In the case of an agent it is ‘How much can I afford to check my Blackberry during my kid’s play?’" he said, and other such conundrums.

A key is to set filters to focus yourself on things that are important, he said, and to "not allow yourself to be pulled in a million different directions."

There is a very real problem of information overload, and Mann said he works to keep this in check. "I don’t want to feel like there is a motor driving me around the Internet."

A lot of people like to check out new tools and move their information around from one place to another using these new tools, he said. "It’s light, but it’s not heat," Mann said of the use of some tools. In other words: They may not really be helping you.

There will be those folks who all they really need is a "yellow legal pad and pencil. This will all vary," he said. "We don’t really want for tools. What we really lack is a way to integrate (the tools) into our lives in a way that is healthy and sustainable.

"In a business like real estate there is a certain amount of technical skill and a certain amount of empathy. You’ve got to be able to talk to people. It’s really still all about humans."

That’s not to say that agents should abandon new technologies — just that they should spend their time where it’s worthwhile, he says. "If Facebook is giving you a lot of business, absolutely use Facebook. Be really honest about the number of hours you spend on it. Ask yourself: ‘Is it paying back in a manner consistent with the time you’re putting into it.’"

Mann has built up an Internet following around his unique content, through sites like 30 Seconds with Phone Guy that features comical video segments — in a recent bit he plays a character who is snacking on the phone while he tells the caller: "We’re not going to boil the ocean. Not this quarter, no, we’re not going to boil the ocean" — and The Merlin Show, which features colorful sit-down interviews with techies and musicians.

He recommends that agents be true to themselves in their online presence. Some of his favorite blogs are those that feature personality, passion and target a niche area.

"My sense is that the more you understand what you love and are great at, the easier it is to create a brand that is sensible and maintainable.

"Brand-building is not about spam and not about exchanging links. (It’s about) having something to say and connecting with your audience. Once you are producing stuff that people love, in a voice they can understand, the rest takes care of itself."

While Mann noted that there is a lot of horrible news in the housing and financial markets these days, "I think anytime there is a shakeup in a market it’s also a great time of opportunity," and he views real estate agents as entrepreneurs at the core who can "see past the bump."

Read more about Merlin Mann and his views on managing time and communications in these Inman News articles:

View Merlin Mann videos at


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