By Bob Walsh

There was a great piece in the New York Times Magazine a few days ago about Microsoft’s efforts to find ways of taming the interrupt driven workstyle that has come to dominate us. I wish Microsoft well in its efforts, but the scientists look at it as something to accomplish “someday maybe” rather than right now.

We can’t wait for someday maybe. We have to take back control of our attention and our intention now.

h3. Attention vs. Intention

Similar words, but very different meanings:

* Attention: the act or state of attending, especially through applying the mind to an object of sense or thought.
* Intention: a determination to act in a certain way.

Getting things Done talks about both, but intention tends to get shorted.

Without intention, you spin and whirl in all directions focusing on this email or that web site or that document or that decision, steadily exhausting yourself as the day slips away until you can’t go on and you ask yourself, “If I didn’t get anything done today, why am I so damned tired?”

Intention is the learned and developable ability to commit a specific outcome and regardless of distraction, move to it.

h3. Developing determination

A quick story. Way back when, I earned the dubious distinction in my Tae Kwon Do (a Korean martial art) school to be the first black belt to slip back to being a red belt because I just could not break my boards one more time.

Elbow strike – that was easy. Jump sidekick – natch. Knifehand strike – thud. Try it again: thud. Try it two more testings: same results, and the black belt comes off, and here’s your red belt back. Not one of my most enjoyable moments.

Now, make no mistake, breaking those 9 #2 pine _ inch boards had my full attention each time. But I didn’t have the intention of breaking those boards.

When it came time to test again (stubbornness is my middle name) after sparring, and doing my form, and watching the board holders set up, and the rest of the school watching, I suddenly realized that no matter what I was going to break those boards. It didn’t matter whether it hurt. It didn’t matter that there was a roomful of people watching. None of that mattered. Nothing else mattered. I no longer cared or paid attention to whether my hand would go splat against the wood, or if I landed on top of the students I had to jump over to break those boards.

I was going to break those boards, no matter what. And I did. That’s the difference intention makes.

h3. Building your Intention

You don’t need to scream at the top of lungs the next time you are trying to ignore distractions and get something important done (although it might help!). But you do have to tell yourself regularly and in repeatable way that when you sit down to do something, your intention is to get that thing done, no matter what distractions popup on your screen. Developing your “intention muscles” can be the missing ingredient in your Getting Things Done recipe: give it a try.

Author Bio: Bob Walsh divides his time between improving and selling MasterList Professional, a personal task management application, writing a book for Apress (Micro-ISV: From Vision to Reality) on how to start a self-funded startup, blogging here and at, writing custom software applications for companies with needs and budgets and trying to remember what the words “time off” and “vacation” mean. He can be reached at [email protected].

2 Comments on Attention and Intention

  1. Max Leibman says:

    Great post, and great points.

    Attention vs. Intention–one of the best framings I’ve seen in a long time. I just attended a seminar where they talked about how many of us are busy, but get nothing done. Why? Because many things hold our attention–too many things, and too many of the wrong things–without intention behind them. Those weren’t the words used, of course. They spoke of our inability to say “No” to distractions, and taught that saying “No” comes easily when it flows from a “Deeper, burning ‘Yes'”

    I’d say that sounds like intention to me.

  2. Bob Walsh says:

    Me too! And I think you’ll like the next posting as well.

Leave a Reply