Hyperfocus: How to Control and Harness Your ADHD

Hyperfocus is a common but misunderstood symptom of attention deficit in children and adults who concentrate intently on one thing for an extended period of time.


Filed Under: Hyperfocus and ADHD, Learn to Focus with ADHD
Understanding Hyperfocus ADDitude Magazine

It’s no secret that children and adults with attention deficit disorder (ADHD) struggle to focus on tasks they find boring. But the flip side is also true: ADDers can focus so intently on things that do interest them that they become oblivious to the world around them.

Examples of Hyperfocus

· Children might play a video game or watch TV for hours instead of going to a movie or hanging out with a friend.
· Adults might shop or surf the Internet instead of talking with their spouse or taking out the dog.

“People who think that ADD means having a short attention span misunderstand what ADD is,” says Kathleen Nadeau, Ph.D., a psychologist in Silver Spring, Maryland, and author of ADD-Friendly Ways to Organize Your Life. “People with ADD have a disregulated attention system.”

Causes of Hyperfocus

· Low levels of dopamine, a neurotransmitter active in the brain’s frontal lobes, makes it hard to “shift gears” from fun activities to boring-but-necessary tasks
· The need to engage in activities that deliver instant feedback, enjoyment, or psychological reward
· A coping mechanism for dealing with distraction—intentionally going into a state of intense focus, say, to study for an exam

A Strength and a Weakness

Intense focus has its advantages in this busy world. “Many scientists, writers, and artists with ADD have had very successful careers, in large part because of their ability to focus on what they’re doing for hours on end,” says Nadeau.

But unrestrained focus can be a liability. Left unchecked, it can lead to failure in school, lost productivity on the job, and strained relationships with friends and at home.

Here’s how to break the spell of hyperfocus:

Helping a Child with Hyperfocus

Educate him about his ADHD brain and the need for parents to intervene to get him to snap out of it
· Set up rules about when he can focus on his favorite activity, and when he can’t
· Limit the amount of time he can spend on that activity
· Look for natural breaks—the end of a television show—to conclude his favorite activity

Quick Tip: To get a child to stop hyperfocusing, tap him on the shoulder, wave a hand in front of his face, or stand between him and the TV or computer screen.

For an Adult
· Set a timer to remind yourself of other tasks that need to be completed
· Enlist a colleague or co-worker to phone or email you at a set time
· Ask a family member to turn off the lights in the computer or TV room to get your attention

Harnessing Hyperfocus

Ultimately, the best way to deal with hyperfocus is not to fight it but to harness it. Find ways to make your child’s schoolwork more stimulating: Instead of having him memorize a bunch of history dates for a test, ask the teacher if he can write and perform a play on the subject.

Finding a job that provides immediate and enjoyable consequences can be ideal for adults with ADD. Perhaps this is why 35 percent of people with ADD are self-employed by the time they’re in their thirties. They are able to focus on their passion and earn a living at the same time.

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