How to Focus

Flow State vs. Hyperfocus: On Channeling Your Unsteady ADHD Attention

“When you are in a flow state, you’re moving and you’re grooving, but you’re not so zoomed into a task that you’re unaware of where you are. Sometimes, I like to put music on and dance in the kitchen when I clean. I’m not hyperfocused. I’m just trying to get into the flow of cleaning.”

Hyperfocused woman, flow state

Are there any differences between being hyperfocused and being in a flow state? Yes! A hyperfocused ADHD brain is completely absorbed in its task — to the point of seemingly ignoring or tuning out everything else. Some people describe hyperfocus as a dream-like state wherein the outside world ceases to exist.

A child in hyperfocus may become too engrossed in a video game to hear his parents call his name. An adult in hyperfocus may be reading a book so intently that they lose track of time and miss an appointment.

Some neurotypical people may occasionally experience a hyperfocus-like state. However, it occurs more often in people with conditions that reflect attention issues, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

Hyperfocus can prove helpful when you’re able to channel its intense focus into difficult tasks, such as paying bills or completing homework. People with ADHD experience the frustrating and time-wasting side of hyperfocus when they ignore pressing responsibilities because they are too immersed in unproductive activities. Basically, you get too engrossed in enjoyable things (like online shopping) and practically forget about your to-do list priorities (like the taxes due next week.)

Hyperfocus vs. Focus vs. Moderate Focus

Focus is the spotlight of your attention. Here’s an example of finding focus. Try making a fist, putting your hand on your forehead and pretending it’s a beam of light. Where are you directing this beam? You’ll find an immediate answer: “Oh, okay, what I’m paying attention to is this. This is what I’m working on.” You may also notice what you are not paying attention to. That’s part of observing your focus.

Moderate focus happens when we’re doing something but may experience some distraction. You are more aware of your surroundings and can interact briefly.

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Hyperfocus is a more extreme version of focus. It is when everything else falls away, and the only thing we’re paying attention to and engaged with is the task or activity we’re doing.

Flow State vs. Hyperfocus

Being in a flow state is much more common than hyperfocusing. In Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, author Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Ph.D., writes that most people will experience flow at one time or another.1

Csikszentmihalyi interviewed a composer who described flow like this: “You are in an ecstatic state to such a point that you feel as though you almost don’t exist. I have experienced this time and again. My hand seems devoid of myself, and I have nothing to do with what is happening. I just sit there watching it in a state of awe and wonderment. And [the music] just flows out of itself.”1

When we are in a flow state, we’re moving and you’re grooving, but we’re not so zoomed into a task that we’re unaware of our surroundings. Sometimes, I like to put on music and dance in the kitchen when I clean. I’m not hyperfocused. I’m just trying to get into the flow of cleaning. A hyperfocused person would not stop cleaning until it was well beyond what most consider clean.

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How Much Hyperfocus Is Too Much?

Some people become concerned about exiting a hyperfocused state and never returning. If they try to stop hyperfocusing (after working on something for four hours without eating, drinking, or going to the bathroom), will they be able to get back into what they were doing? One of my clients said she didn’t stop because she didn’t know if she could re-engage. You get into this mentality: “If I could just do one more thing, that will make this time even more productive.” So, you just keep going and going.

When this happens, we’re thinking so hard that we are using up fuel in our brains. Those energy reserves are glucose. The glucose centers (fuel) in our brain get depleted and adrenaline (cortisol) kicks in to keep us going. Hyperfocusing for long periods can cause stress reactions. Forgetting to eat, sleep, and hydrate, causes people to become irritable because they are running on fumes.

For hyperfocus to be useful, you need to give yourself a scheduled, screen-free break. Take a walk or have a snack. Read the paper or a magazine. Do a Sudoku or crossword puzzle. When you consider your planned break, do something that is pleasurable in its own way but won’t drag you in. For example, I love to walk outside in the winter, but after 15 or 20 minutes, I’m cold, so I’ll come home. I like to be outside, but I don’t want a frozen nose. Think about how you’re setting up your scales of balance and set a time limit for your break.

These pauses give you time to integrate the work that you’ve just completed and let your brain simmer with leftover ideas. Before pausing, leave notes about where you were and what you were thinking about. That’s the important thing. If you’re writing, empty your head. Your note doesn’t have to be grammatically correct. Then when you come back, you know where to begin and what to do.

How to Transition Out of Hyperfocus

One of the problems with getting out of hyperfocus is that whatever you do after will not be as compelling. After all, now your brainpower is so supercharged, energized, or maybe depleted. It’s hard to shift, right? The lure of the dopamine surge is strong.

Transitioning from a hyperfocused, high-dopamine-reward activity to a lower-dopamine one requires a lot of impulse control, emotional regulation, and metacognition. These skills do not come naturally to ADHD brains, especially developing ones, so start by creating and following schedule. Setting time restrictions and using alerts for watching YouTube videos or playing video games can help you (and your kids too) better transition off that hyperfocus activity into whatever comes next.

Articulation helps with the transition because you’re naming the activity you’re shifting to. Try saying to yourself: “I’m going to stop writing this report, use the bathroom and breathe some fresh air. Maybe get an iced tea. Then I can begin again.”

Encouraging self-talk is just as important for adults as it is for kids. The difference is that kids with ADHD usually need some help coming up with the phrases to say to themselves during the transition process: “I’ve stopped playing my game. I’m now walking into another room because I’m going to eat dinner,” or “I’m leaving the game. I’m going to play cards with my mother,” or “I’m leaving the game. We’re going for a run.” And by using language this way, you’re not just engaging some attention on that activity and assigning some value to it but also nurturing metacognition–self-awareness.

Hyperfocus Transition Tips for Kids

How can you help manage your child’s hyperfocus? First, set firm time limits for their high dopamine, hyperfocus activities (usually screen time).

Second, offer them an appealing alternative to this activity and a reward for ending it. For example, “If you get off your video game after the allotted time, we will play cards right away or you can pick the family movie for tonight.”

Third, help your child transition to lower dopamine activities by identifying the ones that really interest them and posting that list in the kitchen. Something that is fun and not a chore. Maybe it’s listening to music, helping with cooking, or riding a stationary bike. It’s hard for a child to transition from a video game and go straight to doing homework or chores. They need an in-between.

Harnessing Adult Hyperfocus

How can adults harness their hyperfocus and use it for their own benefit? Begin by listing all your daily tasks, prioritizing them into a smaller list with just three items and approach them one by one. Break down tasks into smaller chunks so that you can work on something, feel a sense of accomplishment, and then work on something else.

Set a timer to hold yourself accountable during periods of hyperfocus. You could also ask a friend, colleague, or family member to call or email you at a specific time. This can help break up intense periods of hyperfocus. On the flip side, when someone with ADHD is deeply engaged in doing something, a person may come in and innocently interrupt the work session without understanding the consequences to you. You might get irritable or be unable to return to what you were doing. It’s important to talk to our loved ones and colleagues about ADHD hyperfocus — when you do it and why it matters. If your hyperfocus is humming away on a work-related or school-related task, they need to respect the process and come back during a break time. You want to maximize your productivity and minimize your distractions.

Ultimately, the best way to cope with hyperfocus is not to fight it or forbid certain activities but to harness it and set limits. It can be a superpower if you learn how to manage it effectively.

Hyperfocus vs. Flow State: Next Steps

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1Csikszentmihalyi,M. (1990). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. HarperCollins.