Typical ADHD Behaviors

Hyperfocus: A Blessing and a Curse

ADHD expert Dr. Ned Hallowell shares insight into the joys of hyperfocus, as well as advice for overcoming the symptom’s challenges.

Attention deficit disorder is all about distraction… until it’s not! One of the most surprising aspects of ADHD is hyperfocus — a person’s ability to hone in on a specific task, sometimes to the exclusion of everything else.

Someone with an interest in computer programming may happily hunt for a bug in thousands of lines of code, regardless of the fact that he usually can’t sit still. A musician may write a symphony in only a few weeks.

A Blessing and a Curse

Unfortunately, hyperfocus can’t be reliably sustained or controlled. When parents tell me how their daughter breezed through a challenging science fair project only to settle into a spotty classroom performance, I know that she was hyperfocusing. Adults can find that kind of focus in a new job — working intensely for a year, say, to fix major problems in their department. When things finally run smoothly, they lose interest and move on.

[Free Resource: Secrets of the ADHD Brain]

At its best, hyperfocus is what psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls “flow” — a state of mind in which you are so immersed in a task that you become (not to sound too far out) one with it. PET scans have shown that the hyperfocusing brain literally “lights up” with activity and pleasure.

At its worst, hyperfocus becomes a trance-like state in which you do the same pointless act over and over again. A teen who creates vocabulary cards for an upcoming test, for instance, may spend hours decorating them instead of studying. With hyperfocus, you can easily lose all sense of time and perspective.

“Flow” Factors to Consider

If you hyperfocus regularly, congratulations! I do, when I am writing. But remember that it may cause you to forget about everything else — a Friday-night dinner with friends, a wedding anniversary, paying the bills. To ensure that family or coworkers aren’t left in the lurch, do the following:

  • Assemble a support system to see that the basics get completed. Having a trustworthy assistant at work and setting up automatic bill payments are good ideas.
  • Talk with your spouse or significant other about hyperfocus. Explain that it is part of your ADHD and that you can’t turn it on and off at will. Assure your wife that your focus on things other than her isn’t a reflection of your interest in, or love for, her.

[OMG, So That’s Why I Do That?!]

  • Agree on a cue to help you to snap out of hyperfocus. In the case of the teen with the flash cards, a parent could start quizzing her on vocabulary words. For an adult who obsesses about restoring an old car, you can say, “I see you have been completely focused on repainting your car for the past two weeks, but your family misses you. Can you take a break with us today and get back to painting the car tomorrow?”
  • Finally, if words don’t break the spell of hyperfocus, a gesture-placing a hand on his shoulder or standing between him and the computer screen-will do the trick.

Recipe for Hyperfocus

Hyperfocus is more likely to occur when you are engaged in a task that is challenging, that matters to you, and in which you make progress. These tips will help:

  • Follow your passions.
  • Explore with breadth and depth. Don’t be afraid to try lots of off-the-wall things — star-gazing, ice-climbing, training for a triathlon. Once you’ve found something you like, dig deeper.
  • Don’t worry about failing. The experience, however disappointing, can open up new horizons.
  • Surround yourself with people who appreciate that you sometimes take the road less traveled.

[Hyperfocus — at Your Service]

Edward Hallowell, M.D., is a member of ADDitude’s ADHD Medical Review Panel.