Productivity: Paying Attention on Purpose
Monday, August 1, 2016 20 Comments
Keeping our Attention on Intention
Accountability check-ins for purposeful follow-through
© Madelyn Griffith-Haynie, CTP, CMC, ACT, MCC, SCAC
The Link between Attention and Intention
Many qualities and skills combine to produce successful follow-through. Today, we are going to focus on the importance of attention.
If you ever hope to stop scratching your head or beating yourself up over your struggles with staying on track and getting things done, understanding the implications of the concept of attention is foundational.
Every single technique I have developed, coached and taught over the last 25+ years has been structured with the underlying goal of strengthening the attentional muscles – or compensating for them when they are weak.
No matter what your most frustrating problem is: clutter-management or up-front organization, making yourself start or procrastinating at the back end, time or mood management — and a whole host of other challenges — underneath them all is a problem with attention allocation and management.
So let’s get to it!
As I said in Brain Waves, Scans and ATTENTION — One of the goals of comprehensive brain-based ADD Coaching is to identify areas where our clients can improve on the intentional direction of attentive awareness. Nobody gets much done if they can’t focus very well on what they’re attempting to DO.
As our attention meanders from distraction to competing priority our willpower seems to drain away, leaving us wanting nothing so much as a vacation or a nap!
And then we turn on ourselves, beating ourselves up with negative thoughts and comments we’d never say to another living soul.
In case you missed it in Why Accountability Leads to Follow Through, it’s not that we’re lazy or lack sufficient motivation, even though many of us have been accused of exactly that, far too many times.
It’s that few of us realize that, no matter how strong our initial commitment, will-power requires cognitive bandwidth that is limited in supply. Just like a a muscle, it can only be exercised for so long – and handle so much – before it gives out.
We see the negative effects most dramatically in the citizens of Alphabet City, whose attentional “muscles” aren’t as strong to begin with. However, we can ALL use a little wind beneath our wings to help us keep on keepin’ on.
Related Post: From Impulsivity to Self-Control
Unfortunately, it becomes difficult to impossible to reach that happy state of managing our attention with intentionality until we understand what it is, exactly, that we are attempting to manage.
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What IS Attention?
Webster’s Dictionary defines attention as
“the pointing of the mind to either an item or an idea.”
That definition leaves out more than it describes, yet it is what most people think when they find it tough to understand difficulties with the regulation of attention – contributing to the ubiquitous, “They’re not really trying!” beliefs, and comments that shame and blame.
William James, considered by many to be “the father of psychology” provided a bit more clarity in the late 1800s, one of the earliest descriptions of attention.
“Everyone knows what attention is,” he said. It is the taking possession by the mind, in clear and vivid form, of one out of what seem several simultaneously possible objects or trains of thought.
Focalization, concentration of consciousness are of its essence.
It implies withdrawal from some things in order to deal effectively with others, and is a condition which has a real opposite in the confused, dazed, scatterbrained state which in French is called distraction, and Zerstreutheit in German.”
James, W. (1890). The Principles of Psychology.
New York: Henry Holt, Vol. 1, pp. 403-404.
— format & emphasis mine
Not a Bad Beginning
That’s a fairly concise explanation. Many people would be willing to accept that definition today, even though James’ definition also leaves out as much as it includes. The biggest problem with his description is that it fosters the impression that focused attention is always amenable to WILL. I think we can do better with what science knows today.
A clinical hierarchy of attention
Dr. Catherine Mateer, a clinical neuropsychologist working with individuals who have acquired disorders of attention, memory, and executive function, suggests a clinical model based on attentional rehabilitation, published with McKay Moore Sohlberg.
According to the order in which brain damaged patients recover functioning following a coma, the Sohlberg/Mateer model arranges five categories of attentional processes, based on a statistical compilation as “attention” came back on board.
- Focused attention — The ability to respond to specific visual, auditory or tactile stimuli as independent events apart from the surrounding “stimulus soup” – recovered first (and developed first in babies).
- Sustained attention — The ability to avoid attentional lapses over a period of time, determined by the ability to maintain a consistent response during continuous activity and repetitive tasks (in other words, attention-span)
- Selective attention — The ability to avoid distractions to maintain a specific behavioral or cognitive set in the face of competing stimuli (what most people refer to when they say, “Pay attention!”)
- Alternating attention — The mental flexibility to shift focus between tasks having different cognitive requirements, accessing different sensory modalities and requiring different neurological response patterns.
- Divided attention — The ability to respond simultaneously to more than one task or a combination of task demands, when rapid alternation of attention (or motoric “automation” of one of the tasks) is required – recovered last.
Effectiveness of an attention training program, 117-130.
Journal of Clinical and Experimental Neuropsychology 9 (1987),
M.M. Sohlberg, & C.A. Mateer,
Perhaps more than we need to consider?
The Sohlberg/Mateer model is a recovery model. Their model breaks down attentional processes useful in evaluating attentional response to brain-based rehabilitation programs like their attention process training — or in evaluating neurological pathology or deficiency.
While extremely useful as background, I have found those five coma-recovery categories confusing to many individuals who are attempting to design systems to increase attentional effectiveness or to overcome or work around attentional glitches.
A three-part explanation
Robert Sylwester, Ed.D., Professor Emeritus at the University of Oregon, offers another explanation of attention. Sylwester’s explanation postulates that our neurological attentional system is composed primarily of three important functional categories:
- The orienting system, as Sylwester refers to it, is that part of the cognitive mechanism that allows us to shift focus from stimulus to stimulus.
- The executive system, in Sylwester’s explanation, is that part of our neurological wiring “that recognizes the challenge and searches for the relevant resources needed to meet it,” and
- The vigilance system, which requires the parts of the brain that allow us to ignore irrelevant stimuli while we “attend” to current challenges.
“One shouldn’t expect such a complex key cognitive system to continuously function without problems, or expect that a simple solution will solve all problems,” Sylwester points out, “A major distraction, will activate the orienting system, which will shift to the new focus, and begin the process anew.”
What Goes Wrong?
Sylwester suggests four main categories that momentarily or permanently disable attempts at functioning with intentionality. They are more complex explanations than most of us need, perhaps, but they offer a good set of reasons that are helpful when we examine productivity and follow-through.
- Inappropriate attentional prioritization – Over-responding to minor challenges while ignoring major ones.
- Inappropriate balance as the result of emotional valence – Becoming so concerned about what might happen that what IS happening is ignored, or becomes effectively disabled by events that trigger powerful emotional memories.
- Lack of neurological ability to respond appropriately to incoming information – difficulty attending to rapidly moving high contrast information.
- Impaired neurological ability to respond effectively to incoming information – distractability, the lack of extended focus ability, or a tendency to obsess over a problem rather than shifting focus and moving on.
A Brain-Based Coaching Model
I have found it more useful to focus my own observation of attention on the tasks involved in three “sub-domains” of a particular area of the Sohlberg/Mateer model: selective attention. I refer to these three domains or sub-divisions, collectively, as:
The Dynamics of Attending
1. Focusing on the Intended Object –
The ability to direct attention with volition, without becoming drawn inadvertently to a focus on competing priorities, your own or those of another. In other words, the ability to avoid interruptions and screen out distractions to be able to maintain a specific behavioral or cognitive concentration in the face of competing stimuli.
2. Sustaining the Focus –
The ability to avoid attentional lapses during continuous activity or repetitive tasks over as long a period of time as you choose (or as long as you must).
3. Shifting Focus at will –
The ability to re-direct attention with volition – to shift focus back to “the intended object” relatively quickly after a distraction from a competing stimulus.
Shining your Spotlight
In the model I embrace, the most important features of “attention” are those that govern your ability to direct your mind’s “spotlight” — shining the spotlight of attention where you aim it, no matter how many “actors” are on your attentional stage — in other words, intentional attending.
Time and time again, I have observed that strengthening attentional muscles makes everything less difficult – and that it is step ONE on the road to the development of adequate Executive skills.
Even though most of what you will read about the Executive Functions is targeted to parents, focused on executive skills development in children – back-filling missing executive skills may well be even more important for adults.
Many who continue to struggle with productivity into adulthood are slowed down by the impact of inadequate attentional skills on working memory. Having weak working memory creates obstacles to follow-through flexibility as well as learning new techniques and developing new habits.
But there are ways to get around these obstacles – like brain-based coaching and peer coaching. With adequate information and ongoing structure, you can work around attentional challenges and build up working memory skills, so that activation and follow-through is less of a struggle.
EVERYBODY struggles to some extent
Diagnostic ADD/EFDers and individuals recovering from a TBI or ABI (traumatic or acquired brain injury) typically have impairments in at least one of The Dynamics, often all three in combination. Attentional glitches domino into problems with the registration, linking and retrieval stages of the memory process, and make activation and follow-through much harder than it might be otherwise.
A former article, Symptoms of Attentional Struggles offers a composite list of only some of the ways “compromised attention” frequently shows up more often than anyone would like, not only in bona fide ADD/EFDers, but also in the lives of just about anybody who has ever been accused of procrastinating.
Accusations of Procrastination
Tough-love motivational strategies based on judgment, especially once we have internalized the comments, confound the thinking of each supposed “procrastinator,” who is more than likely to conclude that the comment is more than likely correct.
Without intervention, things go down hill from there.
- The person who is struggling frequently gives up and wanders away, disheartened if not depressed — even knowing they can’t win if they don’t try, they stop trying.
- Why? Because the number of hoops they must jump through first, coupled with the judgments of those who frequently mean to be “motivating,” leaves the person with the problem in High Boggle: they can’t believe they could EVER win
- They can’t really believe that anything they do to solve their “procrastination” problem will be successful, since they are clearly (fill in the blank with the invective that shuts you down most effectively)
Those “labels” may not have been accurate to begin with, but they have now become self-fulfilling prophecies.
Don’t Go There
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Related articles right here on ADDandSoMuchMore.com
(in case you missed them above or below)
- ABOUT Alphabet Disorders
- TYPES of Attentional Deficits
- Body doubles-101
- ABOUT Executive Functions – a brief introduction & overview
- What ARE executive functions? – several experts attempt to answer
- Executive Functioning, Focus and Attentional Bias
- ADD/EFD and TIME: will anything work?
A Few LinkLists by Category (to articles here on ADDandSoMuchMore.com)
- The Optimal Functioning (Challenges) Series of articles
(about the Inventory & articles from each category)
- The Peer Coaching Linklist
- The Help for Couples Series
- Back from Boggle™ Series
- The TaskMaster™ Series
- Time & Time Management articles
- The Transition Tamer™ Series
- The Stuff and Nonsense™ Series (clutter management)
- Top Ten Reasons to Reframe Procrastination & LinkList