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The Smart but Scattered Guide to Success: How to Use Your Brain's Executive Skills to Keep Up, Stay Calm, and Get Organized at Work and at Home

The Smart but Scattered Guide to Success: How to Use Your Brain's Executive Skills to Keep Up, Stay Calm, and Get Organized at Work and at Home

by Peg Dawson EdD, Richard Guare PhD
The Smart but Scattered Guide to Success: How to Use Your Brain's Executive Skills to Keep Up, Stay Calm, and Get Organized at Work and at Home

The Smart but Scattered Guide to Success: How to Use Your Brain's Executive Skills to Keep Up, Stay Calm, and Get Organized at Work and at Home

by Peg Dawson EdD, Richard Guare PhD


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Are you smart, scattered, and struggling? You're not alone. Cutting-edge research shows that today's 24/7 wired world and the growing demands of work and family life may simply max out the part of the brain that manages complex tasks. That's especially true for those lacking strong executive skills—the core brain-based abilities needed to maintain focus, meet deadlines, and stay cool under pressure. In this essential guide, leading experts Peg Dawson and Richard Guare help you map your own executive skills profile and take effective steps to boost your organizational skills, time management, emotional control, and nine other essential capacities. The book is packed with science-based strategies and concrete examples, plus downloadable practical tools for creating your own personalized action plan. Whether on the job or at home, you can get more done with less stress.

See also the authors' Smart but Scattered parenting guides, plus an academic planner for students and related titles for professionals. 

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781462516964
Publisher: Guilford Publications, Inc.
Publication date: 01/16/2016
Pages: 294
Sales rank: 85,295
Product dimensions: 6.90(w) x 9.90(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Peg Dawson, EdD, is a psychologist on the staff of the Center for Learning and Attention Disorders at Seacoast Mental Health Center in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. She also does professional development training on executive skills for schools and organizations nationally and internationally. Dr. Dawson is a past president of the New Hampshire Association of School Psychologists, the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP), and the International School Psychology Association, and a recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award from NASP. She is coauthor of bestselling books for general readers, including Smart but Scattered, Smart but Scattered Teens, Smart but Scattered—and Stalled (with a focus on emerging adults), and The Smart but Scattered Guide to Success (with a focus on adults). Dr. Dawson is also coauthor of The Work-Smart Academic Planner, Revised Edition, and books for professionals including Executive Skills in Children and Adolescents, Third Edition.

Richard Guare, PhD, is Director of the Center for Learning and Attention Disorders at Seacoast Mental Health Center in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Dr. Guare's research and publications focus on the understanding and treatment of learning and attention difficulties. He is a neuropsychologist and board-certified behavior analyst who frequently consults to schools and agencies. He is coauthor of bestselling books for general readers, including Smart but Scattered, Smart but Scattered Teens, Smart but Scattered—and Stalled (with a focus on emerging adults), and The Smart but Scattered Guide to Success (with a focus on adults). Dr. Guare is also coauthor of The Work-Smart Academic Planner, Revised Edition, and books for professionals including Executive Skills in Children and Adolescents, Third Edition.

Read an Excerpt

The Smart but Scattered Guide to Success

How to Use Your Brain's Executive Skills to Keep Up, Stay Calm, and Get Organized at Work and at Home

By Peg Dawson, Richard Guare

The Guilford Press

Copyright © 2016 The Guilford Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4625-2365-8


Are You Smart, Scattered, and Stressed?

Ginger was behind the eight ball once again. She hadn't built in enough time to put the finishing touches on the presentation she was due to deliver tomorrow to an important potential marketing client, and now it was 4:45, and she had to pick up her son from soccer practice in 15 minutes. She was supposed to run the PowerPoint by her supervisor before she left work, and she probably still had 45 minutes of work to do on it. She dropped by her supervisor's office to deliver the bad news. "Kerry, I know you wanted to see what I came up with before I left, but Kevin's soccer practice ends at 5, and I can't leave him hanging. Can I get you something by 9 tonight?" Kerry didn't even try to hide her displeasure. "Ginger, this happens all the time. You need to figure out how to manage your time better — it not only is affecting your work, but it affects mine as well. I'm a morning person. By 9 o'clock, I'm getting ready for bed!"

Ginger apologized as best she could, gathered her things in a hurry, and dashed out of the office, already calling Kevin on her cell phone to tell him she would be a few minutes late. As she made the drive across town to her son's school, she frantically tried to think what else she had to do that evening. What were they doing for dinner? Then she remembered that she hadn't taken the casserole out of the freezer to thaw and wondered if her family would tolerate another night of fast food instead.

She pulled into the school, and there was Kevin looking forlorn, the last one waiting for a ride home. He threw his backpack in the back seat and climbed in front. "How come I'm always the last one to get picked up?" he stewed.

Ginger apologized to him and then tried to change the subject. "How much homework do you have?" she asked. Kevin shrugged. "I got most of it done in school," he said. "And Mrs. Clark gave us an extra week to finish our social studies paper." Ginger wondered if that was the case. The last time Kevin told her about an extended deadline, it turned out he'd made it up because he'd gotten behind on the assignment and didn't want to admit it. Ginger grimaced, remembering that incident, and then thought, not for the first time, the apple does not fall far from the tree.

Ginger pulled into the KFC and ordered dinner. This would just have to do, she thought, noting with relief that Kevin wasn't complaining. When they got home, she handed the dinner bag to Kevin and asked him to take it in while she grabbed her computer bag. As she lifted it off the floor of the back seat, it occurred to her it felt awfully light. She swore quietly to herself as she unzipped the bag and peered inside. Sure enough, the two files she needed for her night's work were there, but her laptop was not. Now what was she going to do?

By the time she got inside, there were tears in her eyes. Her husband, who'd barely beaten her home and was just taking off his coat, looked at her. "Now what?" he asked, and Ginger suspected his day at the office had been as stressful as hers.

She told him what had happened. "So now you have to drive back to the office to get the computer?" he asked. "Haven't you been forgetting a lot of stuff lately?"

"Oh, and like you're Mr. Perfect?" she seethed. "As I recall, we just had to cancel our credit card because you lost it on your last business trip. And you probably didn't even lose it," she added. "It's probably somewhere in the bottom of your briefcase that you never clean out."

Their daughter, Kim, had come downstairs while this conversation was going on and caught the drift. "Mom! Did you forget you were going to help me with the project I'm doing for my civics class? You promised me that I could tape an interview with you tonight — and the project's due on Friday! If I don't tape it tonight, I'll never be able to finish on time."

Ginger groaned. "Okay, folks. Let's get dinner on the table and we'll try to sort this out." She opened the cupboard doors and pulled down dishes. Her husband was heading to the television to turn on ESPN to catch up on yesterday's sports news. "Would it kill you to help set the table?" she thought to herself. As she gathered silverware and napkins it occurred to her that her life had been going like this for some time now. Either there weren't enough hours in the day for her to do everything that needed doing or she had no idea how to use the time she had. All her nerve endings stood on end, and she felt like she would bite the head off the next person who criticized her. Something had to change.

Does any of this sound familiar? We've all had days like this. You could undoubtedly personalize this scenario and add to the list of stressors. And maybe we've concluded that this is life in the 21st century, and there's nothing we can do about it. Just suck it up, grin and bear it, hang in there, take a deep breath, count to 10 — give ourselves or others little pieces of advice meant to make us all feel better. But somehow it never does.

There is, of course, some justification for our frayed nerves. Life is more complex and demanding than it was a generation ago. The jobs people hold today pressure them to work ever faster and harder, and increasing numbers of jobs involve working nonstandard hours and telecommuting. This may make it easier to be there when the kids get home from school, but it also blurs the distinction between home life and work life in a way that makes us feel that there's no downtime to be had, and we're constantly trying to multitask despite convincing evidence that our brains really can't do that. And technology and social media present additional intrusions on family life, so even when the whole family is together, we feel fragmented by smartphones and Facebook, texts and Twitter.

What does this leave us with? How many of the following apply to you or to people you live or work with?

• Too many job responsibilities to fit into an 8-hour work day.

• Home–work life conflicts as the demands in one sphere bleed into the other.

• Dissatisfaction with our work because to do it right eats into our home lives and then we feel guilty that we're not handling either arena the way we should.

• The lure of technology and a 24/7 wired world where we can't disconnect — and then we use the same technology to try to escape.

• Conflicts between spouses because the work–home pressures they're both experiencing leads them to blame each other for not doing their part to keep things running smoothly at home.

• Conflicts between parents and kids because kids don't seem to realize that there's a future out there that they're completely unprepared for.

• A daily schedule that requires us to juggle multiple home, work, and family demands that to do well would require a 36-hour day to complete and a three-dimensional spreadsheet to keep track of.

All these things challenge us because we're maxing out that part of our brain that is designed to manage complexity. Wrapped inside the prefrontal cortex (the part of the brain just behind the forehead) is a set of skills called executive skills — skills that are designed to help you manage tasks of daily living. Maybe you've heard of them. Possibly you've seen our other books, like Smart but Scattered, where we describe executive skills in children, or you've seen stories in the popular press and your curiosity has been piqued.

They're called executive skills because they're the skills required to execute tasks. They're a disparate group that includes things like task initiation, sustained attention, planning, organization, time management, emotional regulation, and impulse control, among others (see the box) — but what they have in common is that the better these skills work, the better able we are both to carry out tasks of everyday living and to develop a plan to achieve life goals that are satisfying to us. Conversely, the weaker these skills are, the more we're likely to struggle with the kinds of demands routinely placed on us by work, home, and family life.

Ginger is clearly struggling with several executive skill weaknesses, including working memory, time management, and emotional control. And it looks like her husband may have a set of weaknesses of his own, such as organization and metacognition (the skill that allows you to see the big picture — such as the possibility that you might help out by setting the table for dinner). And Kevin, like his mother, seems to have poor time management skills — and possibly weak planning skills. On the other hand, his sister may be good at many of those skills but feels frustrated because those around her struggle with some of the skills that seem to come naturally to her.

What the 21st century has done is to place demands on our executive functions like never before — the complexity we're asked to process, the things we need to remember just to get through the day, the tasks and obligations we have that are pulling us in many directions at once exceed what our frontal lobes can comfortably manage. We laugh and say we can multitask and that's how we get through our day, yet research shows that the brain cannot in fact multitask, and our attempts to do so degrade work efficiency and increase the likelihood of mistakes and omissions. Unfortunately, then, this is not the answer.

What is the answer? We think understanding executive skills, knowing how to use them and how to improve them, is the key to surviving life today — and maybe even thriving in it.


Once you understand executive skills, both the array of skills encompassed by this term and how both strengths and weaknesses impact our ability to make it through the day, you will begin to understand better both how you operate and why you manage some tasks and responsibilities way better than others. And if you stop to consider the executive skills profiles of those you live and work with, their behavior will suddenly make a whole lot more sense to you as well.

Our hope for the readers of this book is that you will carry away two things in particular. First of all, we hope to give you tools and strategies for improving whatever executive skill weaknesses you want to work on. Recent brain research assures us that neuroplasticity (the idea that the brain can change over time and with targeted practice) continues throughout our lives, rather than ending sometime in childhood, as was initially believed. The bad news is that it takes more effort and sustained practice to change the brains of adults than is required to achieve the same result in children and teenagers. The good news is that if you want to tackle executive skill improvement, psychologists and other researchers have developed proven strategies to do this. Some of this research is complicated and dense (and makes for boring reading, to be honest). Our plan is to distill the research into practical procedures that you can take and apply to your own lives.

Second, we hope you will become more forgiving of yourselves and others for the evident executive skill weaknesses as well as more appreciative of your strengths and those of the people you live and work with — such as spouses or partners, children, and coworkers — and how those strengths can be used to compensate for weaknesses. Ideally, after reading this book, you will not only be able to use your own strengths to get around your weaknesses, but you may even be able to figure out how to tap into the strengths of others to make up for your weaknesses. (Admittedly, this works best when you can offer up your strengths to help those around you work around their weaknesses, because it feels more like a two-way street than a one-way "mooch.")


Let's go back to Ginger. How might her life change after reading this book? In taking the Executive Skills Questionnaire in Chapter 2, Ginger might learn that while she has three particular weaknesses, time management tops them all, and because of poor time management, she stresses working memory, which then leads to frustration made worse by poor emotional control. This might lead her to decide that if she can put in place some strategies to improve her time management, her other weaknesses won't be taxed quite so much. Ginger will be able to improve her time management skills — maybe not completely, but where it counts the most — through a combination of environmental cues and supports (such as reminders on her smartphone and check-ins by her supervisor at key times when deadlines are looming), and by learning to attach time estimates to her work plans, so that she can make better use of her strength in planning to shore up her weakness in time management.

Our goal in writing this book is to help readers understand how executive skills are our best defense against the pressures we face at home, in the workplace, and in our relationships. Here's how we do this:

• We first describe executive skills in some detail and pin them to brain development so that you understand what role they play in cognitive functioning across the lifespan.

• We give a quiz you can take to identify your own executive skills profile. This will enable you to begin to think about how you can use your strengths and other resources to combat or diminish the negative impact of your weaknesses.

• We describe ways you can modify your environment to reduce the impact of your executive skill weaknesses.

• We lay out a variety of strategies you might employ to improve your executive skill weaknesses.

• We help you identify which strategies might be best for you, given your learning and behavior change preferences.

• We detail how you can use your knowledge of executive functioning in three key life domains: work, home, and relationships.

• In a chapter on the workplace, we talk about how you can assess the match between your executive skills profile and job demands, and we describe how you can use your understanding of executive skills to function better with coworkers whose executive skills profile may be very different from your own.

• In a chapter on the home, we talk about how even though your executive skills profile is the same in both settings, your strengths and weaknesses may manifest themselves differently. We discuss ways to harness your strengths and work around your weaknesses (and those of other family members) so that your home can run smoothly.

• In a chapter on relationships, we explain why the more you understand your own profile and those of others you're in a relationship with (particularly relationships with spouses and partners, children, and your own parents), the more likely you are to be able to manage conflict and tensions.

• We take each executive skill separately and identify common problems that arise when the skill is a weakness and propose some strategies you can use to tweak it, improve it, or work around it.

• Finally, we leave you with a description of what happens to executive skills — and cognitive capacity in general — as we age. It turns out there are things you can begin doing now, no matter what your current age is, to preserve your cognitive functioning in your later years. You'll want to read this chapter before you set the book aside.


Your Executive Skills Profile

You may be champing at the bit to start down the path toward self-improvement we alluded to in Chapter 1, but first we want to help you understand the process of change. In this chapter, we outline the course of brain development that enables executive skills to emerge and strengthen. You'll see that although the optimal time for developing these skills is when we're young, the brain is an adaptive organ throughout our lives, and all of us have the potential to grow and strengthen these skills. In the second half of the chapter you'll have the opportunity to assess your own executive skill strengths and weaknesses, which will give you the information you need to pursue a path to improvement. Since behavior change can be challenging, we also give you lots of ideas for how you can structure your life and environment to make this process of change and adaptation easier. In either event, you will be in control of a process we think will help improve the quality of your life and reduce your stress level.


Excerpted from The Smart but Scattered Guide to Success by Peg Dawson, Richard Guare. Copyright © 2016 The Guilford Press. Excerpted by permission of The Guilford Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

I. Understanding the Executive in Your Brain
1. Are You Smart, Scattered, and Stressed?
2. Your Executive Skills Profile
3. Managing Executive Skills by Modifying the Environment
4. Improving Your Executive Skills  
II. Understanding the Impact of Executive Skills in Your Daily Life
5. Executive Skills in the Workplace
6. Executive Skills in the Home
7. Executive Skills in Relationships  
III. Strategies for Individual Executive Skills
8. Controlling Impulses: Response Inhibition
9. Keeping Track of It All: Working Memory
10. Being Cool: Emotional Control
11. Avoiding Procrastination: Task Initiation
12. Staying Focused: Sustained Attention
13. Defining a Path: Planning/Prioritizing
14. Clearing Clutter: Organization
15. Sticking to the Schedule: Time Management
16. Shifting Gears: Flexibility
17. Learning from Experience: Metacognition
18. Reaching the Finish Line: Goal-Directed Persistence
19. Rolling with the Punches: Stress Tolerance
IV. Looking Ahead
20. Aging without Losing Your Edge: A Prescription for Preserving Executive Skills  


Anyone who has difficulties with time management, attention, organization, and other executive skills—or who just wants to become more efficient at juggling the multiple demands of 21st-century life. Also of interest to mental health professionals and coaches.

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