Ask the Experts

I’m Hyper Because I Hyperfocus on the Wrong Things

Hyperfocus can be a blessing and a curse. It feels great to get in the groove, but that feeling sours when you realize that you have ignored something important. It’s important to know how to intervene before your ADHD brain hones in on the wrong task.

Q: “I know about the benefits of hyperfocus in terms of getting things done, but sometimes I hyperfocus on the wrong stuff. I was supposed to call the dog groomer to set up an appointment, but I wound up researching a medicine for my dog that the vet said he needed. I spent over an hour on that and never called the groomer. How can I prevent hyperfocus from leading me astray?”

ADHD hyperfocus can be a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, people can be productive when hyperfocusing and it feels great to get in the groove. However, your focus may not be on the most important task.

Hyperfocus seems like a laser-like channeling of your attention, but it really reflects a temporary loss of the big picture. When people hyperfocus, they lock in on one task, and forget about other tasks and the time available to do them. Time disappears — at least until you become aware of the bigger picture again. That’s when you realize that you have ignored something important.

[Self-Test: Hyperactive and Impulsive ADHD Symptoms in Adults]

Hyperfocus involves a loss of awareness, so it isn’t helpful to tell yourself, “I will catch myself when I hyperfocus and switch gears.” That’s like saying, “I’ll catch myself when I fall asleep and wake up.” Intervention requires awareness.

Make Important Tasks Big, Bright, and Noisy

You have to intervene before you lock into the wrong thing. This means being ruthless about the distractions you allow into your world. The fewer distractions, the less likely you are to be distracted. Make sure that the things you are supposed to be paying attention to are as big, bright, and noisy as possible. If you need to make a phone call, set an alarm and put a sticky note reminder on the side of your computer screen. Or just make the phone call right away, so there is no remembering to be done. You don’t have to be perfectly organized, but you should make a point of creating a less distracting work environment.

The symptoms of ADHD are neurologically based, so trying harder isn’t enough. Avoid the little lies we tell ourselves, like “This will only take a minute.” We use these semi-reasonable justifications to allow ourselves to do something we know we shouldn’t. There are times when the task does take only a minute, but that is the setup for the times when it doesn’t. We don’t want to admit that it is a roll of the dice—maybe it will take a minute, maybe it will lead us down a rabbit hole.

Be Intentional About the Tasks You Start

Because of the neurology that makes it hard for us to pause and consider the best course of action, it is important to be as intentional as possible about which tasks you start.

[Free Handout: How to Focus (When Your Brain Says ‘No!’)]

Don’t think that distractibility and hyperfocus are inevitable, so there’s no point in trying to thwart them. Given my lifetime of experiences in which this seems to be true, I understand how one could conclude this. The challenge is to be diligent about managing the distractions that come into your world, and to be brutally honest with yourself about what is likely to happen next if you do take that first step. A little medication will probably make this happen more consistently. Remind yourself that you don’t have to be perfect. Even if you cut your hyperfocus episodes by half, that will change your life for the better.

Ari Tuckman, Psy.D., MBA, is a psychologist in private practice in West Chester, Pennsylvania. He is the author of three books and a popular presenter, as well as the co-chair for CHADD’s conference committee.