Productivity: Paying Attention on Purpose

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 challengesunderneath them all is a problem with attention allocation and management.

If you don’t understand how to work with yourself to focus your attention on what you want, when you want and for as long as you must, you’re going to have problems in some or all of those arenas.

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.

HOWEVER, without supportive follow-through structures in place, whether professional, partner or peer, the self-discipline to stay focused and in action for as long as it takes, is rare.

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.

Related Posts: How to STOP Chasing your Tail
Productivity, Focus & Follow-through

How Come?

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.

Don’t forget that you can always check out the sidebar
for a reminder of how links work on this site, they’re subtle ==>

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.

    1. 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).
    2. 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)
    3. 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!”)
    4. Alternating attention — The mental flexibility to shift focus between tasks having different cognitive requirements, accessing different sensory modalities and requiring different neurological response patterns.
    5. 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:

      1. 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.
      2. 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
      3. 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.

  1. Inappropriate attentional prioritization – Over-responding to minor challenges while ignoring major ones.
  2. 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.
  3. Lack of neurological ability to respond appropriately to incoming information –  difficulty attending to rapidly moving high contrast information.
  4. 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.

Our Working Brain, Working Memory – Part 1; 11/2002

A Brain-Based Coaching Model

Every single executive function skill utilizes elements of the others. — Found HERE


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

Underlying each of The Dynamics is the same impaired element of cognition common to all of the Executive Functioning DisordersVOLITION.

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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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!"

22 Responses to Productivity: Paying Attention on Purpose

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  7. I am pretty good at focusing my attention on what it is I am doing at the time. The struggle I have is priority overload. At times I have many different sources that all rely upon my to take care a problem right away. When dealing with three different problems at the same time it becomes difficult to give my full focus and attention to each. I am not one who can simply put a bandaid on a wound when it actually needs surgery, but it seems that in this hurry up world we live in many in management are looking for simple fixes rather than dealing with a long term plan. I have always been a problem solver. It is what I do best, but I need the time to find solutions. It seems that there just is never enough time to take care of all the problems that come along each day and usually re-appear because they weren’t handled correctly the first time.


    • lol – my [neurotypical] college chum Cindi calls it “suffering from over-choice.” That never-enough-time thing has always been a bear for me, too – but time’s ticking seems to have become more insistent as I grow older.

      I’m also with you on the distaste for the quick fix mentality that seems to growing in popularity in our tweeting/texting universe. Determining what deserves stitches vs. what can get by with a butterfly bandage is tougher for those of us who have more than one burning desire to begin with, I believe. It makes me crazy[er] when items re-appear because I’ve made the wrong choice.

      Over-focus beats boredom with a stick, however.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. While not ADD/OCD/ADHD, all of those, I find myself multi-tasking like a crazy person. (My term for me, not anybody else) I’m one-handed so start several things at once while managing being put on hold on the phone, or whatever. I always manage to finish my emails(eventually) keep my kitchen turning over and laundry done. But at times, I still find myself eating lunch at 5.30pm.


    • Wait – 5:30 is not when everybody eats lunch? lol (I rarely eat *breakfast* before 1 or 2pm — but then my hours are DSPD-skewed to the night side.)

      Kudos on keeping up with the email. I get waaaay too much “last chance/important info/change your life” e-glut to keep up, even to attempt to get off or spam the “promise we won’t share your email” newsletters I never wanted in the first place. I’ve decided that even going through and deleting is not worth the minutes of what’s left of my life. If people want me, they can drop me a note on my blog or phone (not text!)

      Since the demise of the miraculous Eudora Pro & the shift from Pop3 to Cloud, I haven’t been able to find an email manager with decent boolean filters – which is what works with my ADD eyes. I take one look at my inbox and run away screaming.

      Multi-tasking on hold? I am SO distractible that I can barely *think* on hold. I could probably have written a novel in the time I’ve spent on hold if they’d given me a “no insipid music and do NOT advertise to me” option.

      Gosh – it’s Tuesday and I woke up grumpy! Gotta’ turn THAT around.

      Truly, you are made of better stuff than I. The 3 months I was one-handed, my biggest accomplishments were limited to catching up with what everyone was talking about on Hulu! I’m STILL putting downed systems back in place.

      You inspire me.


  9. PorterGirl says:

    A very interesting article indeed. I do love learning about how the brain works and the more I understand about the function, the more interesting it is! I know someone who – although not suffering from any known impairment – who will find this article extremely useful, so I will be passing it on. Thank you once again for the education!


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