What is Hyperfocus?
One of Our ADHD Superpowers
Hyperfocus describes a tendency of some ADHDers to focus intently on what interests us to the exclusion of other, potentially more important things. Many times we might become so engrossed in doing something, we seem to tune out those around us, and the world as a whole. In some ways, hyperfocus can be seen as the other side of the distractibility coin.
Because we enjoy activities that provide instant reward, such as learning new things, or beating video games, we'll often find ourselves lost for hours on the things we enjoy. The instant reward associated with doing something fun often helps boost our low dopamine levels.
The Other Side of Hyperfocus
Hyperfocus is one of those "Yin and Yang" superpowers that when employed intentionally can bring us great success. When we unintentionally slip into hyperfocus, we can find ourselves skipping meals, missing bedtime, ignoring family members, skipping appointments, and burning dinner. Many times, hyperfocus will even cause us to wait until the bursting point before we use the restroom!
Using Hyperfocus Intentionally
Have you ever wondered why you can do really well at some things but not others? Or have you ever wondered why a child might do really well in some subjects while completely failing others. One of the answers may be in our ability to hyperfocus on that which we enjoy.
If you loved math in school and hated English, chances are you were an A student in math and did very poorly in English. The same type of thing can happen in our professional lives. Just as likely, you beat yourself up about those poor English grades because you didn't know about this magical power of ours.
While I was in the IT field, I taught* myself numerous programming languages. I could sit for hours working a code problem until it was fixed. I didn't do so well with the typical corporate politics one finds in the workplace, and it showed.
Breaking Hyperfocus is Painful
Many folks with ADHD, including myself, experience an almost physical pain when our hyperfocus is broken. Imagine you were afraid of heights trapped in a burning building from which you could jump to safety, without injury. What sorts of feelings would you be having? Keeping in mind you are afraid of heights, would you jump immediately? How would your body feel? Take a moment to imagine that feeling in your chest you know you'd have.
Chances are your stress level would escalate, adrenaline and cortisol would be released and you'd experience an overwhelming feeling of dread. You'd likely jump but not be all to happy with the decision. After you got to safety, a sense of anger might take over as you begin to resent the gaul of a burning building forcing you to jump.
The feeling you are imagining is what we ADHDers experience when hyperfocus is broken. When it is broken by someone else, it's as if that person pushed us out the window!
Breaking Your Own Hyperfocus
One of the best tools I've found to break my own Hyperfocus is timers. Generally I'll set two timers as I sit down to work on something interesting. The first reminds me that I agreed to a time limit, and that I need to begin wrapping up what I'm doing. The second is my "time to snap out of it" alarm. It signals me to at the very least get up, walk around a bit, do something else, and evaluate what else is needing my attention.
Aside: As I type this there are 2 minutes remaining on my first timer. This means I now have 12 minutes to wrap this post up.
I have been known to employ other technological tricks to break my focus such as setting a schedule on my Internet router that turns off access to the internet an hour before bed. I've also been known to set my automatic lighting to turn off at a certain time when I'm reading. No light, no book!
Breaking Another's Hyperfocus
First and foremost, it should be agreed that it's "ok" for you to break your loved one's hyperfocus. With a child, this may be a discussion before TV time that after two episodes of the child's favorite TV show, it's homework time. Or perhaps after 45 minutes of watching their favorite Youtube channels, it's time for a bath and bed. These strategies work for adults too. ;-)
When you attempt to break someone's hyperfocus without prior agreement, be prepared for a whole lot of yelling**. Be sure it's necessary to interrupt concentration before doing so. If you absolutely must, try to do it without startling us.
One method we use around our house is to turn on music at a louder than normal volume. Invariably the noise will get my attention, but not in a starling way. Because I know this is a signal, a cue, that my spouse needs my attention, it's not as startling as a yell across the house would be. I might still wonder whether insanity has invaded the house, but I'm not as like to yell "turn it down" as I used to be.
Likewise, waving a hand in front of the face is better than tapping me on the shoulder. Come up with gentle ways to break our focus and we'll be less likely to snap back.
It goes without saying, but, by all means interrupt me if the building is on fire.
As you have hopefully see,n hyperfocus can be a very useful skill. When employed intentionally it can provide tremendous opportunities. In future posts, I'll talk about careers, and activities that are great ways to use our hyperfocus.
* In reality I taught myself just enough to troubleshoot problems, and write code for things I wanted to implement. Over time, this would lead to mastery of a few programming languages, and enough knowledge to be dangerous with others.
** I have been known to yell at my phone when it dings to tell me someone has messaged me while I'm in hyperfocus mode.
Standard disclaimer: Just because you read something on the internet does not mean it's great advice for you. Remember to experiment with what "sounds good" to you, and discard the rest. : Just because you read something on the internet does not mean it's great advice for you. Remember to experiment with what "sounds good" to you, and discard the rest.