Productivity, Focus & Follow-through

What helps & what hurts
– so that you don’t unintentionally
make accomplishment harder  –

© Madelyn Griffith-Haynie, CTP, CMC, ACT, MCC, SCAC

The Motivation/Activation/Focus Continuum

As I’ve explained in the Activation articles, cheerleading – or any other attempt to motivate someone who is struggling with activation – is likely to backfire.

There are many tips and techniques that can help a person who struggles with Executive Functions initiate action and stay on track to completion, but most of them are counter-intuitive. The “typical” advice only works for the “typical” person.

Attempting to explain the differences between the neurotypical and the neuro-diverse, I’ve said many times, “The reasons they don’t do things are seldom the same as the reasons we don’t do things.”

Different causes mandate different approaches and ideas.

One of the best ideas I know is to make use of the services of a Body Double – as long as both partners are aware of some of the unwritten rules of the game.

Body Double Confusion

An ADD Coaching technique I introduced in Body Doubles for Activation & Accountability, the Body Double concept underscores how simply having another person in the room can make things easier to do — because it is an externalized reminder of the need to stay on track for the person being doubled.

Haven’t you ever noticed how much easier it is to stay on track on certain types of tasks when somebody is observing?

Some repeat information from the earlier article:

  • It’s important to note that the Body Double does not actively help, advise, disrupt concentration or comment outside of a structured, agreed upon set of circumstances.
  • The Body Double’s only task is to sit quietly out of the way, reading or writing while the ADD/EFDer attends to work (unless it has been agreed in advance that s/he will interrupt a hyperfocused worker-bee occasionally to ensure that s/he stops for periodic breaks or for meals).
  • Frequently, the Body Double brings along a compatible task of his or her own – like journaling, knitting or catching up with email on a laptop or tablet.  They’re only there to externalize the observing ego of the person they’re doubling – the witness self of the person they are assisting.

I have observed for almost three decades now that having another person in the room actually helps those of us with activation and follow-through struggles focus on the task at hand, and stay on-task to completion — provided that the person in our space doesn’t feel it is their job to “help” us with what we are doing.

THAT’s where the confusion begins

In general, people tend to think about “helping” as an active state: donating food, clearing the table, fixing a flat — DOing something.

So when they are asked for help as a Body Double, they tend to be as much an active off-task distraction as a passive partner who helps to improve the odds that someone with Executive Functioning struggles will stay on track.

  • They often assume they are at least supposed to ask how things are going, or for a report of what has been done so far, or to remind the person of the items still undone (or something else that also needs to be done).
  • Unfortunately, intruding on the process in a manner that might be intended to be  “actively helpful assistance” actually makes things harder – sometimes much harder.

To be really helpful to someone already struggling with attention, focus and follow-through, a Body Double needs to be passive.

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Helping Passively

Few people have trouble accepting the idea that Body Doubling does NOT mean the tut-tut-tut kind of watching.  It seems to make some sense to them that nudging and scolding would not be particularly helpful — especially since it has rarely worked in the past.

However, most new Doubles simply can’t believe that the very best thing they can do is to sit quietly in the corner, doing absolutely nothing that has anything to do with the task they are “doubling,” unless requested directly.

They don’t seem to understand or believe that the entire Body Doubling concept really works only when there is simply some other [non-distracting] person around while the person being doubled handles a task they otherwise tend to put off or avoid.

[See a more complete explanation with examples in Body Doubles for Activation & Accountability]

They also seem to struggle with the idea that what constitutes a “non-distracting” element varies by person and by task. 

  • Just because they can continue to work despite certain distractions – or some other ADD/EFDer can – doesn’t mean that everyone else (or anyone else) finds it equally easy to filter them out.
  • And just because one particular person can manage to filter out distractions well enough to be able to work on one particular task (or type of task), doesn’t mean that they don’t need a distraction-free environment to accomplish a different task  – at least not within a reasonable amount of time (or, sometimes, at all!).

They probably will never tell you

The person you are Doubling will rarely explain the concept of passive assistance in much detail – and fewer still will actively correct until the level is perfect for the task at hand. They are usually so grateful for any help at all, that they are extremely reluctant to tell anyone that they are helping “wrong.” 

Which is too bad, because an easy-to-give and easy-to-ask-for bit of assistance that could make a HUGE difference in an ADD/EFDer’s productivity remains under-utilized, primarily because it turns out to be as frustrating as it is helpful.

Another “help” that doesn’t

Since Body Doubling tends to be a rather boring assignment, most Body Doubles do bring along what they consider to be some compatible task, so that they don’t waste their own time sitting around doing absolutely nothing but watching someone else work – even if the agreement is that their turn is coming next.

The problem seems to enter the dynamic with an inability to understand how important it is to “play quietly.”

  • For people who don’t struggle with high distractibility personally, it seems that it is difficult to understand the huge problem it can be for those of us who do.
  • For people who don’t struggle with focus and task transitions, it seems practically impossible to understand the gargantuan effort that many individuals with Executive Functioning struggles must make to stay on track.
  • I promise you, there is NO SUCH THING as a “quick” question or a “brief” interruption to share some little tidbit of your own.  It will always, always, always pull the person struggling with focus off task – and it will almost always involve some degree of struggle to return to his or her “productivity zone.”

And yet, it seems that most Body Doubles find it difficult to resist either of them.

Some examples from my own life

Example #1: One of my friends who had been conducting an online job search agreed to Body Double me, while she continued to work on her laptop from my home office.

Sound’s perfect, right?  Except that she frequently demolished my concentration on my to-do list to show me something interesting, ask me if I needed more coffee, read me something she had just written to one of her LinkedIn connections, or to ask me what I thought about this or that job possibility.

The FaceBook funnies she “just wanted to share quickly” were the probably the most annoying to me – unless it was the times she simply chuckled heartily and didn’t show me!

I didn’t get much of anything done until she finally left – and I never asked for her help again.


Example #2: This is a story about a former assistant, not exactly a body double, but the details apply.

Before I went 100% virtual, I once had to fire an on-site assistant because I couldn’t get anything DONE whenever he was in the office.  I know he meant well, but he had some kind of urgent need to justify his pay, or stay busy every single moment he was at work, or to make sure he did everything absolutely correctly (or something). There seemed to be no brakes on his impulsivity driver.

It was as frustrating to my productivity as having a three-year-old “help” me prepare Thanksgiving dinner might be.

      • “Now what, Madelyn?”
      • “Is this okay?”
      • “How come you don’t want me to do that instead?”
      • “What color file folders did you want for these, again?”

Many days it felt more like I was his assistant than the other way around.

No matter what I said to him, he simply could not understand that, even if he had nothing to do for a period of time, he was still “on the clock,” and that he must allow me to work without interruption regardless.

What?  You hired me just to sit in a chair and watch you work?

Depending how quickly you finish, there will be times when I’m not ready to explain your next task until I get to a stopping point in a task of my own.  If you run out of things to do, then yes – sit quietly at your desk until I’m ready for you.  I hired you to assist me, not distract me.

But what if I have a question?

The time to ask them is when I explain what I want you to do.

But it takes so much extra time to do it that way — and what if I forget?

The extra time is worth it to me, and you won’t forget if you take the time to write down the instructions.

Well why should I go to the trouble of writing it down when you already know the answer and can simply tell me?

That comment was the deal breaker.  It let me know that he simply did not understand how disabling the constant distractions were – and probably never would.

So What Does Passive Help Mean in Practical Terms?

Basically, it’s help that doesn’t intrude on the process in any way – help that you can almost forget is there.  What that will look like will vary, depending on the individual attempting to work and how well-suited s/he is to the task at hand. You can’t really generalize, except to say that distractions disable.

One child, for example, will sail through math homework, still barely able to write a single paragraph without frustration; another will have the opposite experience – and that’s without factoring in bona fide learning disabilities.

Depending on the child before you, you will need to be increasingly careful of your contribution to his or her frustration level more in one environment than the other.

It’s not rocket science. It does, however, take a concerted effort to listen from belief — to jettison what you’ve always heard that “children” need, and pay attention to the needs of the one before you (even if the “child” whose follow-through skills you are concerned enough about to want to help happens to be fully grown).

Some “children” need periodic reminders to stay on task; others balk at reminders, responding best to unmitigated praise following every tiny accomplishment.  Still others will shut down completely if you try to “pressure” them to do more when they are expecting to hear, “Good job!” for staying the course for as long as they did.

My best advice is to ask the person what works best – and my strongest advice is to tread lightly.  Here are a few examples of what I mean by treading lightly.

Six Strong Suggestions from GREAT Body Doubles

  1. Put your cellphone on vibrate while you are acting as a Body Double.  If you get a call that can wait, return it later. If the call must be attended to immediately, take it in another room. (If your cell makes noises when you press the keys – even “quiet” noises – the same goes for texts.) Close the door and remain conscious of the volume of your voice. And for goodness sakes, don’t use the speaker phone!
  2. If you are reading a laugh-aloud comedy, bring a different book to read when you have agreed to act as a Body Double.  If you can’t read without making little sounds, pick a different task – a quiet task that absorbs your focus practically completely, so you aren’t tempted to comment without an invitation.
  3. Don’t disrupt their concentration to ask if they want something to drink or if they are ready for a little snack.  If you are fixing something for yourself, fix it twice and place theirs quietly next to them – out of the way of their workspace.  Allow them to ignore it, if that’s what they do – don’t intrude by pointing it out, however nicely or briefly. They’ll survive a skipped meal or snack, you know (and don’t take a head nod or a thanks as an invitation to dialogue).  Let them work when they are engaged.
  4. Don’t intrude on their workspace in any way. Cords can be especially distracting, so don’t use the plug under their desk to power your laptop or tablet.  Plug cords behind you or make sure you have fully charged batteries. Set up all electronics you expect you might want to use before the work session begins (phone charger included!).  Rummaging around while they’re trying to concentrate is not a quiet task.
  5. If they take a trip to the bathroom, don’t speak unless they initiate it.  You have no idea what they are trying to organize in their heads.  Don’t interrupt their process.
  6. If you suddenly recall something you need to tell them, or questions you need to ask, write them down — and wait to share them until your “helpee” is CLEARLY at a stopping point – or whenever the period you have both agreed upon is over.

    For a truly wonderful Body Double relationship, the main thing I would add to these six tips is a reminder that no session is truly “over” until you have asked how you can better assist them: a charge-neutral debriefing of what helped and what hurt.

    • As long as YOU make sure to make the environment safe for them to be truthful (no hurt feelings about whatever they say, which is especially “unsafe”), even young children will surprise you at how much they understand and intuit about what they need.
    • Once they figure out what they need and GET it, you will be further surprised by how very much they can and will accomplish.
    • You might even be inspired to request a Body Double session to make sure you accomplish something that you have been avoiding — and now you know what to think about when you set up the groundrules.

Remember, nobody has to have an ADD diagnosis to benefit from ADD Coaching techniques.

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About Madelyn Griffith-Haynie, MCC, SCAC
Award-winning ADD Coach Training Field founder; ADD Coaching field co-founder; [life] Coaching pioneer -- Neurodiversity Advocate, Coach, Mentor & Poster Girl -- Multi-Certified -- 25 years working with EFD [Executive Functioning disorders] and struggles in hundreds of people from all walks of life. I developed and delivered the world's first ADD-specific coach training curriculum: multi-year, brain-based, and ICF Certification tracked. In addition to my expertise in ADD/EF Systems Development Coaching, I am known for training and mentoring globally well-informed ADD Coach LEADERS with the vision to innovate, many of the most visible, knowledgeable and successful ADD Coaches in the field today (several of whom now deliver highly visible ADD coach trainings themselves). For almost a decade, I personally sponsored and facilitated seven monthly, virtual and global, no-charge support and information groups The ADD Hours™ - including The ADD Expert Speakers Series, hosting well-known ADD Professionals who were generous with their information and expertise, joining me in my belief that "It takes a village to educate a world." I am committed to being a thorn in the side of ADD-ignorance in service of changing the way neurodiversity is thought about and treated - seeing "a world that works for everyone" in my lifetime. Get in touch when you're ready to have a life that works BECAUSE of who you are, building on strengths to step off that frustrating treadmill "when 'wanting to' just doesn't get it DONE!"

7 Responses to Productivity, Focus & Follow-through

  1. Pingback: Climbing your Mountains YOUR way | ADD . . . and-so-much-more

  2. Pingback: Productivity: Paying Attention on Purpose | ADD . . . and-so-much-more

  3. Pingback: Why Accountability Leads to Follow-through | ADD . . . and-so-much-more

  4. Mark Burgesser says:

    Hi Madelyn,

    I just read an instructable I received today Instructables Article on one page HERE and it is a surprisingly helpful approach for my biggest bugaboo – picking up my cluttered mess of a house. I’m a recently diagnosed 60 year old and your blog has been a thankful relief from my constant frustrations. I love sending tidbits from your articles to those I care about because it serves as a validation and second opinion when I feel so incapable of credibly explaining my struggles. It’s calming for me to see in writing someone accurately explain the inexplicable.

    Anyway, the instructable does not mention ADD/ADHD and is not from a self-described anti-clutter guru, it is just plain relevant and appears to be a good tool with surprisingly good advice. I’m excited to try real hard and give it a fair test in one room. First, however, I wanted to share this with you before I forgot. Thank you so very much, Madelyn, for your stalwart demeanor and providing me and countless others with your support.



    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you Mark – for taking time to comment, for the instructable and [especially] for the acknowledgment 🙂 . I agree — it’s a good one, and I like the tone in which it is written. I’ll bet people with kids will really love her floor tips. Since I haven’t built “homes” for everything since my sudden move, I have “surface” clutter problems, not floor clutter (other than my dogs toys that need to go back to his “toybox” and the need to vacuum much more frequently than I want to ::huge grin::).

      My ADD/EFD clutter tips are amazingly similar — especially the “don’t leave the room” part, but I can follow most of those tips personally, if only to hear it in another voice.

      Late-life dx is tough – but now that you have an explanation, I’ll bet you feel a lot less lazy-stupid-crazy (from the book). I’m happy to hear that what I share has been useful – and I’m thrilled that you are passing things on.

      Onward and upward, yes?


  5. reocochran says:

    Dear Madelyn, I just wanted to let you know that I have a post on raspberries and I hope you won’t give me one, (silly face with tongue out and spitting occurring) since I belatedly found your lovely comment in my WordPress “penitentiary” waiting on my approval. I apologize and was so grateful for your sharing where you were when MLK, Jr. was assassinated. I just wrote back a heartfelt apology and what was going on in my own family during this period of time. Thank you for the nice offer of being a “kindred spirit” and hope you will check out tomorrow’s “Humble Pie” part of my post, offering you and a British author a “shout out” since you were kind enough to write lovely comments without immediate response by myself. Hugs, Robin

    Liked by 1 person

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