The Dynamics of Attending

Part 3 in the Intentional Attending Series of Posts — As I said in Part 2, Brain Waves, Scans and ATTENTION —  One of the goals of ADD Coaching is to identify areas where our clients can improve on the intentional direction of attentive awareness.

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The™ Favorite Model of Attention

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

A small man in the foreground watches fearfully while a larger one in the background juggles planets, both in the clouds, surrounded by worlds.Problems Juggling the Elements of our Worlds

Similar to Sylwester’s three-part model of attention (described in the prior article of the Intentional Intending Series of posts), I, too, favor a three-part portioning of the attentional pie.

I have found it more useful from an ADD Coaching perspective to focus my own study and 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
    2. Sustaining the Focus
    3. Shifting Focus at will

Underlying each of the Dynamics is the same impaired element of cognition common to all of the Executive Functioning Disorders: VOLITION.

The Dynamics of Attending

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.

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.

For Example:

How well could you stay focused on a lecture, even on a topic of interest, if a woman with bright green spikey hair was sitting a few rows ahead of you?

  • Would her green hair momentarily attract your attention every time she moved her head, pulling you away from your “focus on the intended object.”

Can sounds (like a whispered exchange on the back row or someone’s ringing cell phone) pull you “off-task” attentionally?

  • Have you ever silenced a noise-maker simply because they were disturbing, not because you weren’t able to hear over their distraction?

Could you maintain your focus on the speaker if you were sitting on a rather uncomfortable bench?

  • How about once your back got tired?
  • What if it were almost time to break for lunch? 
  • you still be “paying attention” to the lecture if you had hit the snooze button one too many times, getting out of bed too late stop for breakfast and it was past time to break for lunch?

Do you get distracted cognitively – by a mind rift in response to something the speaker said, perhaps, missing his or her next sentence or next point?

  • Would your mind keep wandering back to an earlier argument with your spouse, or would that fade away once you began to listen to the lecture?

Do you sometimes have problems quieting your mind enough to “pay attention?”

  • Do extraneous, unrelated thoughts swarm around in your head unbidden, in response to an external cue that links, in your mind, to something unrelated – like, wondering if it’s time to rotate your tires or replace the oil in your car, if you remembered to take the chicken for tonight’s dinner out of the freezer, or whether your annual physical was next week or the week after?

Those are all examples of difficulty focusing on the intended object.

2. Sustaining the Focus –

The ability to avoid attentional lapses over as long a period of time as you choose (or as long as you must) during continuous activity or repetitive tasks.

For Example:

Do you tend to experience “attentional burnout” after a specific amount of time has passed, even if “the intended object” is one of interest or importance?

  • Do you have trouble sitting through particular lengthy events, even if you enjoy them?
  • Do you tend to do better on short exams than long ones?
  • Do start feeling drowsy or “fuzzy” after a certain point of sustained focus, no matter what’s happening at that point?

Do you have difficulty maintaining your focus on something that is not particularly compelling, but something you need to “attend” to?

  • Have you ever taken a road trip and noticed suddenly that you had driven some distance with no attention on your driving?

Does your mind wander during repetitive or mundane tasks, causing you to make errors because you weren’t “paying attention.”

  • If you had to hand address and affix postage stamps to 100 invitations would you be likely to “space out” after a while?
  • Would there come a time when you would have to double-check because you weren’t sure if you had remembered to put stamps (or your return address) on one or two?

When you are reading, do you ever forget the beginning of a paragraph by the time you get to the end of it?

Those are all examples of difficulty sustaining the focus.

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.

For Example:

If the doorbell rings while you are talking to a guest, are you able to return to conclude the conversation once you have greeted the new arrival, or does everything change from that point because your “attention” has shifted?

Has it ever taken the smell of something burning to remind you suddenly that you left tonight’s dinner simmering on the stove when you had to “attend” to a distraction  (say, if your mother called from out of state, or your spouse needed your help for a moment?)

  • What about when the distraction is “tiered” – say, if the paperboy came to collect and you had a difficult time finding your wallet?
  • Would you be more apt to “forget” what you were doing before the interruption if the paperboy came while you were on the phone with your mother?
  • Might you “forget” that your mother was “holding” on the phone amid the rush to to turn off the stove, turn on the exhaust fan, dump tonight’s blackened dinner into the garbage, and fill the pans with hot soapy water, after clearing out the sink full of dishes to have a place to leave the pans to soak?
  • By the way, in your rush to the stove to handle whatever was burning, do you recall what you did with that wallet after you paid the paperboy?  Will you remember that you need to return it to your purse before or after you leave the house to go pick up fast-food fried chicken to replace tonight’s ruined dinner?

Those are classic examples of difficulty shifting focus at will

People who have a great deal of trouble with this third Dynamic of Attending experience days when they “shift” from one unfinished task to the next as if they were rushing from clue to clue in a race to win a scavenger hunt.

  • Because shifting focus at will is one of my personal bugaboos, I had to develop the habit of setting a countdown timer to remind me to go BACK to what I started, and to make an entry in my Interruption Log to remind me what in the world that was.

Now that’s trouble shifting focus at will!

Domino Problems

You know the kids’ activity where they place a series of carefully spaced dominoes on end, and then lightly touch the first to begin a cascade, watching all the dominoes fall down one at a time, one right after the other, as the falling domino before it knocks it over?

Life can be just like that particular game for many of us:  one area goes down, takes the next one down with it, which causes another to fall apart as well.  And so it goes, day after frustrating day.

ADDers typically have impairments in at least one of the Dynamics of Attending, often all three in combination, causing “domino problems” with the registrationlinking and retrieval stages of the memory process.

We’ve ALL had “one of those days”

Domino problems aren’t confined to the ADD population. Every single person living has problems with each of the Dynamics of Attending in some situations at some times.

A few of the ways those occasional “mind blips” show up in our behavior provide very funny stories – afterwards.

Unfortunately, some of them (or too many of them) frequently lead others to conclude that we are not reliable and can’t be trusted.

What Kind of Problems, specifically?

Difficulties with any of the Dynamics of Attending can show up in a variety of ways.  The fourth post in this series will provide a composite list of only some of the ways “impaired attention” shows up frequently in bona fide ADDers (and, in the lives of non-ADDers, more often than anyone would like.

Click HERE for the next article in this series . . .

Other Articles in the Attention series:

The above text is excerpted from Intentional Attending,™ the fourth of the twelve eBooks
in the upcoming Optimal Functioning eBook Series™
2000, 2006, 2011 Madelyn Griffith-Haynie, ALL rights reserved

The E-books in the Optimal Functioning Series™

For your convenience, the links below take you to a blogroll of the articles in each category – with just enough overlap that you will be able to find what you were looking for.  

Remember, once you click the link, to scroll down for other articles listed in the category.  

I’ve given you enough of the article to make a good guess about whether the content is what you were hoping to find.  At the bottom of each article preview is a link to “read more of this article.” Click it to read the entire article.

IMPORTANT: Since the newest article will always be listed first, and some articles are listed in several categories, don’t assume the lists are identical just because the first thing you see looks identical

1. The ADD Lens™
2. The Challenges Inventory™
3. Rewrite your Owners Manual™

NINE Individual Challenges Modules:

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!"

14 Responses to The Dynamics of Attending

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  12. Pink Phoenix says:

    This is great information, its nice to finally have someone actually explaining how our brains attend and the problems we have. I can say to people, “ADD is about not being able to control our attending ability, when and how we want it,” or “ADD is an attention disorder,” and “Hyperactivity is an Energy disorder,” and they go, “Oh…OK…” and don’t have a clue as to what that actually means or how it plays out. Which leads them to later say to me in frustration, “I feel like you are not paying attention,” completely missing the point. LOL I’m going to repost this info. 🙂


    • Thank you SO much – both for the comment and the repost.

      I hear you/feel you/grok you (grin) on the horrors of the frustration of attempting to explain the impact of kludgy attentional dynamics to others. I have been trying to explain why, how, and what to do about it for 25 years now, with frustratingly little success.

      The “vanillas” (as I have named the neurotypicals – unflavored by ADD) don’t really seem to WANT to get it. They just want us to climb inside the boxes they live in and gosh-darn BEHAVE!

      My students get it – but they don’t expect to understand it in a single conversation or class!!!!

      It takes six months of ADD Basics for them to understand how the basics interact (see the Challenges posts), and the IMPLICATIONS to memory, learning, and “simply” making a living and running a life — and then the rest of the training (two years) to learn how to work with it to (as I’m fond of saying), turn “can’t” into CAN!

      It took ME ten years of HOURS of daily research (before there was as much as there is out there now – on either side of the “is ADD real?” issue), and I’m still learning right along with the rest of the universe.

      Prior to THAT, I spent ten solid years in therapy with ADD-clue-free practitioners, being MISdiagnosed with everything in the DSM, so it seems, before I discovered the existence of ADD through a magazine article (briefly recounted in my rant about the NY Times article on “those DANGERIOUS stims” — not so, btw – nor are they new – unless you consider a hundred years new).

      ADD has EATEN my life – but at least, with understanding, I *HAVE* a life!

      So I do this blog for ME – I can’t get back the wasted decades – and my life will NEVER be what it might have been – but I can darn well “sing out Louise” – hoping that others don’t fall through the same cracks, which makes it, at least, worth SOMETHING.

      Because those of us with ADD are among the world’s best and brightest – not to mention MOST CREATIVE – individuals on the planet (look at YOUR site – and YOUR life for proof of that one**) who are doomed to “swimming upstream” until we understand how to drive our own brains.

      But most days I feel like I’m spitting in the wind – and I don’t mean “spitting” – so posts like yours REALLY make my day. Thank you SO much. And triple thanks for helping to get the word out that this info exists.
      **PS. re: your site – as you know from a comment I left there, I’ve been and am following you. GREAT job with the issues *you’ve* taken on.


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