Different Kinds of Attention and Their Effect on You

by Vicki Parker, Ph.D. CCC-SLP 

As consultants one of your biggest assets is your time management ability.   One of the components of time management is attention which is our focus today.  The other components of time management are; initiation, memory, logic/reasoning and processing speed.

Your attention is not what it used to be.  Imagine this, you are at a continuing education event and find yourself daydreaming or zoning out. Suddenly you hear a piece of information that is interesting and realize you have missed the previous comment.  This is an indication that you are having difficulty with sustained attention.

Sustained attention is your ability to focus over time.  Here are some things you can do to help sustain attention.

  • New and novel activities assist with keeping attention. Sit in a new seat.   Move your seat halfway through a lecture.  If you are presenting, think of how you can change your style for different segments of your presentation (i.e.  lecture, interaction, short visual clips)
  • Practice vigilant tasks such as scanning magazine articles for various letter patterns. Find word search activities.
  • Reading has been found to be an activity that helps with sustained attention. See how many pages you can read with focused attention and concentration.  Try and go a little farther each week. For example, week one 3 pages a day, week two 4 pages a day, and week three 5 pages a day and so on.

You are at a restaurant speaking with a friend and lose your thought and focus. The restaurant is busy and you frequently find that you are distracted by the other people in the room or noises you hear.   You may be having difficulty with selective attention.

Selective attention is one's ability to attend even in the presence of visual distractions and unrelated noise.  Here are some suggestions for something you can do to help improve selective attention. 

  • Sometimes knowing you have a limited amount of time causes you to focus intently short term. Set a time limit for how long you are going to work on something.  Kitchen timers that are visual countdown timers are wonderful for building sustained attention and practicing selective attention.  Make sure you are gradually increasing the time you are working on a task as the task gets more complex.
  • Estimate the time and give yourself short term goals to focus on.
  • Background instrumentals and white noise have been found to be helpful for many individuals.
  • Ask yourself at random points. Am I focused?  This will often be the nudge you need to get back on track.

You are working on a proposal, the phone rings, you need to pick it up.  While you talk you are trying to work on your proposal at the same time.  You are making errors on your proposal and asking your caller to repeat information fairly frequently.  Neither is going well. You may be having difficulties with divided attention.

Divided attention is one's ability to attend to one item, switch attention to another stimuli/task and  return to the initial task.  Many think of divided attention as multitasking.  Divided attention has to do with mental flexibility and processing speed.  Suggestions for improving divided attention include:

  • Actually, try not to multitask with items that require concentration. If  you must multitask, It is better to pair a repetitive motor task with a mental concentration task.
  • Physical activities that have frequent transitions and changes often help with divided attention and processing speed. These may include activities such as ping pong, racquetball, tennis or juggling.

There are evidence based ways to improve the three areas of attention we have discussed above.  However, it is important for you to know your strengths and weaknesses. Try and identify where you may be having attention problems so that you and a professional can better address your individual strengths and weaknesses in attention and make a plan that is tailored to your needs.

Parker is the sole owner of  The Brain Trainer, a cognitive learning center and speech pathology services for all ages.  The location is 11030 Golf Links Drive, Suite 204. The phone number is (704)541-1373.

Parents of Valor and Grace

I was stung when a dear friend of mine whom I respect said I was a tiger mother.  Then within the same week a 14 year old friend and successful student, read a paper Sally, age 16, had written.  At that moment I was giving Sally my feedback on her paper, Sally’s peer also aired his view that it was good and didn’t need any changing.  I thought am I too tough, what should my expectations be for Sally.  What is the right amount of feedback to have her think about things she hears, reads and assignments more deeply?  I have never thought of myself as a tiger mother; Sally doesn’t practice an instrument, language, sport or anything 2 – 4 hours a day and if she decides to stop something (i.e. both clarinet and piano she was able to at the end of the year).  I pondered this quite a while over the course of a few nights.  I was troubled.

Just like most people today I have had and still have many roles; daughter, camper, student, wife, speech pathologist and mother.  But mother is the one I’ve felt good about my choices, priorities and by the grace of something larger than me my daughter’s growth of skills, abilities and goals.  I am immensely proud of my daughter Sally. She self-initiates completing her homework, learns languages on her own and reads for pleasure.  She has always taken feedback regarding academics well and tried to address any questions posed to her regarding her work.  She prioritizes by importance most of the time and has good time management.  All the aforementioned skills I feel will help her toward successful independent living.  Even though I am happy with how Sally keeps maturing and her academic successes, I was still troubled.  I didn’t want to be in denial.  I didn’t want to be a tiger mom.  I didn’t want to miss if Sally was becoming anxious or stressed.  After a few more nights with this on my mind – I decided it was time.  Time for the talk, not with a psychologist but with Sally.

The vindication.  Sometimes we think that we will have to wait for our children to become adults to know that they understood and appreciated our guidance.  However, this is not true.  Sally told me she has not felt stressed with my questions or suggestions related to academics.  She is glad we worked hard for her to become a reader, that we pushed her auditory skills beyond reading so that learning a second language would be a possibility for her and that we went back and laid the cognitive foundation skills for math.  Sally still has to work hard to understand and achieve in math however she is doing it! More recently she was okay with direct feedback on her presentations, class choices and outside activities that were suggested for her.  She made the comment “how would I know some of the things I know if others didn’t bring them up.”  Sally made a valid and true comment.  We all need feedback from others to do our best.  We cannot always calibrate our abilities or plan for the future without candid feedback.

The ability to wear so many hats and be involved in their kids lives positively and actively without being a tiger mom or dad is one of the things I admire about so many of the parents I work with.  They are the true superhero’s that make success happen for their kids.  Here are the traits I see in these amazing parents.  I honor your skills, follow through and dedication.

These are my parents:

v  They lead their kids by strong examples.

v  They are not in denial.  They recognize the problem.

v  They know there is a way to solve the problem.

v  They set realistic expectation.  Their kids want to meet those expectations.

v  They let their kids know what they value and what their priorities are.

v  They reinforce and celebrate the positive.

v  They set limits and give feedback regarding behavior that requires shaping and where extra effort needs to be exerted.

v  They stay the course.

v  They are the parent.  Their kids know they are in charge.

v  They have hope and humor.

v  They take suggestions.

v  They don’t reinforce negative behaviors whether that is tantrums, whininess or manipulations.

v  They are their child’s biggest advocate.

v  They time spend with their child(ren).

v  They are generous and forgiving with their child(ren).

I am truly in awe of many of the hats the parents of my clients wear.  How daily you show valor in accomplishing your family goals and dreams for your kids.  How gracefully you execute the plan you have set forth.  Thank you so much for making me a part of your family’s plan to move your child forward.  It is truly a privilege to be working on your team.

And I leave you with an inspirational quote from Elizabeth Gilbert for this Mother’s and Father’s Day and all year long:

“The women (could be men) whom I love and admire for their strength and grace did not get that way because shit worked out. They got that way because shit went wrong, and they handled it. They handled it in a thousand different ways on a thousand different days, but they handled it. Those women (people) are my superheroes.”

Elizabeth Gilbert

(Inserts were added to this quote by Dr. Parker)