Hyperfocus – A Double Edged Sword
Children and adults with ADHD often have difficulty focusing on tasks they find uninteresting. This high propensity for distraction is a key ADHD symptom and diagnosis criterion. The flip side of distraction is “hyperfocus,” or the ability to zero in intensely on an interesting project or activity for hours at a time. For adults with ADHD, hyperfocus can be a problem in the workplace. It can manifest as not getting paperwork done because it was boring, missing meetings because they became absorbed in doing something more interesting, or failing to meet a deadline because other activities had captured their attention.
Though hyperfocus is often a liability, it can be an asset. If you have ADHD, having a strategy to leverage your ability to hyperfocus can be important.
The Attention Spectrum
Researchers currently believe that hyperfocus results from abnormally low levels of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that is particularly active in the brain’s frontal lobes. This dopamine deficiency can make it difficult to shift gears to take on and complete the boring-but-necessary tasks in most jobs.
Studies conducted by Rony Sklar at the University of Johannesburg suggest that there is a spectrum along which attention gets channeled. Those diagnosed with ADHD don’t have less attention than normal. She found that their attention can be splintered, hyperfocused or it can swing between the two extremes. The challenge for them is to learn ways to distribute their attention more evenly, by regulating it or even manipulating it to serve their purposes according to the task at hand, often through the use of practical tools like timers, calendars, reminders, alarms, and breaking tasks into concrete steps.
How to use Hyperfocus to Your Advantage
So if you have ADHD, how can you harness hyperfocus for your benefit? Managing bouts of hyperfocus requires carefully managing your attention. Jeff Chamberlain, MD, writing at SmartLiving.com, has some advice.
- Do what you love – Find potentially productive things you enjoy. It doesn’t matter whether this involves sports, painting, photography, computer programming, graphic design, science or exploring the outdoors. Make time for to do these things and your ability to hyperfocus will naturally help you develop an expertise in these areas.
- Turn necessary but routine tasks into a game – When there’s an activity that you need to do, come up with a way to make that activity active, fast paced, provide instant feedback, and be enjoyable.
This lets you perform activities that are slow, boring and give no feedback in a game-like way that is enjoyable and interesting so you use your hyperfocus to complete them quickly.
- Broaden your range of interests – Whenever you come across any activity, try to make it fun. The wider your base of interest, the more things you can potentially unleash your hyperfocusing super power on.
- Use external cues to reduce the time you spend in unproductive activities – Try to set alarms when doing unproductive things such as watching TV, or web surfing. When the alarm goes off, stop the activity. To make the most of your hyperfocus, you will need to retrain yourself to ensure your hyperfocused attention is being used in life-enriching ways.
- Reward yourself for being productive – Use the productive activities you enjoy as rewards for those tasks you do not. Doing this breaks up the monotony of unpleasant tasks, but it also give you something to look forward to. Try to reward yourself with hyperfocus activities that will improve your life in some way.
- Try things in a new way – Many famous people with ADHD were not afraid to think outside the box. Sometimes being “different” can feel like a curse, but when you think about, it’s rarely the “normal” people we admire. If you have ADHD and are trying to do things just like “everyone else” does, then you are probably causing yourself unneeded frustration. Just remember that “everyone else” is probably doing things in inactive, passive, boring ways. If you do things different than everyone else does, then you, and the world will benefit from your ADHD!
If you have ADHD and are struggling to manage your hyperfocus, you don’t have to struggle alone. Consider working with an ADHD coach to help you use your capacity for hyperfocused attention to maximum advantage.