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Going Through the Motions of Paying Attention

When we say someone is going through the motions of something, we usually mean they’re carrying out the required steps without really being engaged.

As someone with ADHD, though, I’d like to say that it’s possible to go through the motions of something without paying any attention whatsoever.

ReadingADHDers do this all the time. Sometimes we do it when we’re reading a book. We read over the words and maybe even pronounce them in our inner voice, but we don’t process the meaning behind them. That would be going through the motions of reading.

Sometimes we go through the motions of listening. On a superficial level, we hear the words someone is saying, maybe we even nod along – but as in the case of reading, we’re not really processing the content of what’s being said, so we’ll miss potentially important information we’re being told.

We might even go through the motions of working, where we sit down at a desk and get out everything we need to work but don’t actually get much work done. This happens because even if we can decide we’re going to dedicate a certain period of time to work, getting our brains to engage with that work is a separate question!

Because ADHDers do go through the motions of reading, listening, working, or other tasks where inattention can interfere, outside observers might not even know how far we are from fully engaged. If you see someone reading, you of course don’t know whether they’re superficially reading over the words without processing the meaning.

That’s not to say that people with ADHD always go through the motions of tasks. Sometimes ADHD symptoms stop ADHDers from doing even that! Hyperactive symptoms might make you less likely to sit down and open that book in the first place, impulsive symptoms might lead you to interrupt someone rather than going through the motions of listening, and procrastination or motivation deficits might mean you never begin to go through the motions of working.

But if you do make it to the point of starting a task and then find yourself going through the motions without really being “in” the task, inattentive symptoms might be the culprit!

Image: Flickr/Chris McCorkle

Going Through the Motions of Paying Attention

Neil Petersen

Neil Petersen writes regularly on psychology, ADHD and education. In addition to ADHD Millennial, he writes about psychology at Psych Central's AllPsych blog and about ADHD at He can be found on Twitter at @ADaptHD_blog

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APA Reference
Petersen, N. (2019). Going Through the Motions of Paying Attention. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 24, 2020, from


Last updated: 23 Oct 2019
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