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ADHD

Hyperfocus and ADHD: Productivity Superpower or Kryptonite?

Four strategies for understanding and managing hyperfocus successfully.

Key points

  • Hyperfocus is total absorption in a productive or distracting task. It can be common for people with ADHD to experience.
  • By nurturing skills such as prioritization, time management, and self-awareness, you can experience the benefits of hyperfocus.
  • A strategy to manage hyperfocus is to improve planning and time management by separating tasks into urgent and important ones.
1305224036 Antonio Diaz
Source: Stock photo ID:1305224036 Antonio Diaz

Are you ever so engrossed in an activity that time seems to stop and nothing can tear you away? Does it ever seem like you lose a sense of where you are and what’s happening around you?

This can be the experience of hyperfocus for many people with ADHD. Hyperfocus is defined as “a phenomenon that reflects one’s complete absorption in a task, to a point where a person appears to completely ignore or ‘tune out’ everything else.”

Hyperfocus frequently occurs during a fun or interesting activity, and it often crops up without conscious intent. Your concentration is captivated by something, and although your attention can be channeled into have-to tasks, it can be drawn towards unproductive, procrastinating activities. That’s part of what makes it both exhilarating and frustrating.

Many people with ADHD see hyperfocus as a superpower: it’s a state of mind that fosters unusual productivity through total absorption in a task. But some folks also see it as a weakness: it accounts for vast periods of time spent on distractions to dodge unpleasant responsibilities.

Hyperfocus, it seems, is a double-edged sword: a great capacity for effective performance on interesting, high-value tasks on the one side and a great capacity for avoiding things by disappearing into pleasurable distractions on the other. By nurturing executive functioning skills such as prioritization, time management, and self-awareness, you can harness the power of your hyperfocus more efficiently.

Being aware of where you are directing your attention and for how long is an important step in addressing hyperfocus. Focus is a dynamic process of choosing what is critical to notice, attempt or recall. Where you direct your focus is akin to pointing the spotlight of your attention to something. Hyperfocus is an amplified type of focus where you can be totally captivated by something until you are interrupted or just lose interest.

Many folks with ADHD may not notice when the hyperfocus episode begins but become aware when they return from it. Perhaps this happens to you: you’re unsure where the time went, and you don’t really have a plan to re-enter or catch up.

1298099268 Lazy Bear
Source: Stock photo ID:1298099268 Lazy Bear

You can cope with these moments of disorientation by learning to be as intentional about what you’re not going to concentrate on as what you are going to do. To improve any focus, begin to notice where it is and where it isn’t.

This is more difficult than it sounds, and when somebody is stressed, anxious, depressed, it’s even tougher.

Marla, a twenty-year-old sophomore in college who struggled with panic attacks, complained to me about her required writing course and her distractibility: “It’s boring, I hate writing, and the teacher has a monotonous voice that puts me to sleep. I pay attention to any little thing except what’s going on, and then when he calls on me, I am totally lost and embarrassed.”

I asked her to make a list of things that distracted her in that class and bring it to my office for the next session. She reported that just by noticing where her attention went, she was able to bring herself back to the class discussion more often and even made a few relevant comments. Paying attention to where your attention goes is similarly effective in handling hyperfocus episodes.

The experience of hyperfocus differs widely from person to person because it vacillates from being a helpful tool for productivity and an effective way to escape. Self-care activities such as eating, drinking, and using the bathroom may be postponed for hours, resulting in low blood sugar, irritability, and fatigue.

Kieran, age 25, says:

Hyperfocus is confusing. It’s the only time when I get to be more productive at work than anybody else. I can do more in three hours than my neurotypical colleagues get done in twice that time. But, at home, sometimes I zone out while gaming and forget to check my phone for texts or even go to sleep. Then I’m exhausted the next day.”

Ellie, age 40, explains the value and challenges of hyperfocus:

Hyperfocus is the only time that I feel truly alive. My brain is fully engaged, 100%, time stops and I’m flying along. But my partner or my co-workers have to poke me in the arm to remind me about lunch or a big meeting. At the end of a good day with a lot accomplished, I can feel quite energized.

Tools for dealing with hyperfocus and using it thoughtfully typically improve with age. Michayla, age 33, has learned how to manage hyperfocus better as she has gotten older:

Hyperfocus is when I can do a single task without getting distracted and think only about it. But I also lose touch with my body and don’t notice that I’m hungry, thirsty or need to use the bathroom. As a child, I had so many bladder infections because I never stopped to go to the bathroom. On my home videos, I always have this little pink liquid and a straw with me. It's an antibiotic. That’s how many bladder infections I had. Now I stop to go to the bathroom, have a drink or eat something so I don’t get dizzy.

Although you may finish tasks, some of these aspects of hyperfocus do not foster healthy productivity.

1356177963 Sarah McEwan
Source: Stock photo ID:1356177963 Sarah McEwan

Hyperfocus and flow are related but not the same. Everybody experiences flow states at one time or another triggered by internal motivation and external situations. These flow states–often called ‘being in the zone,’ refer to heightened intuition and performance where decisions happen automatically, and creative breakthroughs occur. They are positive desirable that can be cultivated and planned for.

On the other hand, hyperfocus is typically experienced by people with ADHD and stems from challenges with handling the direction of focus and the depth of attention. Hyperfocus is more unpredictable. It appears intermittently, and its usefulness varies. When hyperfocus is helpful, it’s usually because somebody has entered into a temporary flow state. If you can identify the difference between flow states and hyperfocus for yourself, you are far more likely to optimize your productivity.

Here are four strategies to assist adults with ADHD with managing hyperfocus and using it as a superpower:

1. Identify and investigate: Learn more about your pattern of hyperfocus by increasing self-awareness. What does hyperfocus look like for you? How long does it occur? Do you neglect self-care? How do you respond to interruptions? Notice when you tend to engage in hyperfocus by examining the situation, the environment, and your motivation. Are you focusing on an interesting task or avoiding something unappealing? This type of reflection will increase your capacity for metacognition. Thoughtful self-evaluation will help you monitor when hyperfocus takes over and what you can do to exit mindfully from an episode.

2. Plan and prioritize: Do a brain dump of all of the tasks in front of you for the day or the week. Then make another, shorter list where you order them in terms of urgency (do it now because of a deadline) or importance (value and satisfaction with less pressure). Break down your day into blocks of time and assign the urgent tasks first, followed by the important ones. Flag the ones that can be rolled over into tomorrow. Limit the quantity of the tasks so you can achieve things and feel accomplishment.

3. Improve time management: Use tools to increase your awareness of time and how it passes. Set up several alerts using various tools–your phone, your computer, banners across the screen, analog clocks, or timers. Work in intervals with planned, structured breaks to keep yourself on track and limit the negative aspects of hyperfocus.

4. Find an accountability buddy: You don’t have to address the challenging, over-absorbing aspects of hyperfocus alone. Ask someone in your life who understands ADHD and cares about you (a family member, friend, or colleague) to check in with you when you are prone to hyperfocus. This can help you break up these periods. If this person also has ADHD, you can support each other. Helping somebody else with their hyperfocus can assist you with regulation as well.

References

Ashinoff, B. K., & Abu-Akel, A. (2021). Hyperfocus: the forgotten frontier of attention. Psychological research, 85(1), 1–19. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00426-019-01245-8

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