Typical ADHD Behaviors

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of Hyperfocus

Powerful, erratic, and somewhat mysterious, hyperfocus is a state familiar to any individual with ADHD who has ever zeroed in so totally on a project or task that the outside world has ceased to exist. Here, ADDitude readers describe their love/hate relationship with hyperfocus, and experts share strategies for managing it more effectively.

A woman hyperfocuses on her phone in a busy cafe

“You can’t have ADHD; you focus so intently on your fantasy football league.”

Or favorite video game.

Or Facebook and Pinterest.

Or knitting.

Or daily crossword puzzle.

You can fill in the blanks better than we can; you know the feeling of falling into a deep well of focus and swimming around the bottom of it for hours before realizing you’ve run out of daylight. You also know the frustration of explaining to people that your ability to focus in certain arenas and not others is not a matter of choice.

To the layperson, attention deficit disorder (ADHD or ADD) is defined by distractibility — and anyone who’s able to focus with laser-like intensity couldn’t possibly be diagnosed with ADHD. Right?

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Wrong. As it turns out, this ability to direct intense focus at one area of interest for an extended period of time isn’t antithetical to ADHD at all. It’s what’s known as hyperfocus, and it’s a critical (and complicated) manifestation of ADHD.

Hyperfocus is often painted as one of ADHD’s “superpowers” — and it’s true that it can be used for extreme productivity. But it has its drawbacks, too — particularly when the task being hyperfocused on is frivolous. Here, we explore the positives and negatives of hyperfocus, and offer strategies making it work for you.

The Good Side of ADHD Hyperfocus

Hyperfocus can be — and often is — an extraordinary gift. Not only does it allow people with ADHD to get a lot done in a short amount of time, it allows them to fully devote their attention to something that interests them — improving their skills through hours and hours of focused, dedicated effort.

“His hyperfocus means he usually excels at the things he chooses to do,” said one 38-year-old woman whose husband tends to hyperfocus on sports. While she admits that it can “monopolize” his attention, she believes that the skills it gives him outweigh any lost time.

Another, less welcome ADHD tendency — procrastination — can occasionally be canceled out by some well-timed hyperfocus. Author and entrepreneur Peter Shankman, who has ADHD, says that he once wrote an entire book on a round-trip flight to Tokyo. “I landed with a bestselling book,” he said. “You can’t do that if… your brain doesn’t work the way ours does.”

Hyperfocus may be trained on people, too — often resulting in whirlwind romances or deep, lasting friendships.

“[My husband] very often hyperfocuses on doing kind things for me,” said Elizabeth, 49. Alison, 34, agrees: “When he’s hyperfocused on how much he loves me, he shows it,” she said. “That’s always nice!”

[Click to Read: Never Enough? Why Your Brain Craves Stimulation]

The Bad Side of ADHD Focus

But hyperfocus is not a get-out-of-jail-free card. To outsiders — particularly the friends and family members who depend on someone with ADHD — it can be frustrating to try to break someone out from under its spell.

“I have to remind him constantly that it’s time to go, time to eat, time to sleep,” said Emily, a 39-year-old woman whose husband has ADHD. Keisha, also 39, said, “When I gave birth to my son, he spent so much time and detail on cleaning our car that it upset me. He had not seen our child yet — but he just had to complete the car first.”

And hyperfocus isn’t always directed at “positive” tasks. Lisa, a 49-year-old woman whose husband has ADHD, says her husband tends to hyperfocus on “computer games and movies on the Internet.”

“He spends hours on end on his computer,” she complained. “Then, he doesn’t help out with the chores unless I nag him — which I shouldn’t have to do.”

The dark side of hyperfocus is not lost on individuals with ADHD either.

“When I hyperfocus, it consumes me to the point [where] I lose the big picture and don’t complete the task because it overwhelmed me,” said Terra, 46. Her husband is often frustrated by her bouts of hyperfocus, she added, because she drops balls and shirks responsibilities in the process.

Others with ADHD say it gets in the way of physical needs, like eating and sleeping.

Because she can’t pull herself away from something interesting, Chris, a 36-year-old woman who has ADHD, said, “It can [result in] me staying up too late… Then I need help getting through the next day!”

How Can I Manage My ADHD Hyperfocus?

If these stories ring true — if you feel that your hyperfocus spins out of control or frustrates those around you — try these four strategies (devised by Edward Hallowell, M.D.) for managing this ADHD symptom, without sacrificing the benefits it brings to your life:

  1. Set up external cues to knock yourself out of hyperfocus. Timers, alarms, or phone reminders can alert you to appointments or responsibilities that fade away during a period of hyperfocus.
  2. Discuss how family members, coworkers, or friends can help you “snap out of it” if necessary. For many, physical touch is a great way to break the spell of hyperfocus. If your husband calls you a few times without an answer, ask him to gently touch your shoulder, instead — more often than not, he’ll be able to break through.
  3. Set reasonable limits. Spending three straight days working on an art project might make sense to you, but for the people who love and depend on you, it can be frustrating when you “disappear.” Decide beforehand how much time you can fairly dedicate to a project, without ignoring your relationships or shirking your responsibilities — and set alarms to ensure you stick to your plans.
  4. Be honest about hyperfocus. Talk to your friends and family about typical ADHD behaviors and how they manifest for you. Explain that, while you’re taking steps to harness hyperfocus, you may still be unreachable from time to time. Listen to any concerns they may have, and do your best to mitigate them — but remember that you shouldn’t have to apologize for how your brain works.

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6 Comments & Reviews

  1. This is exactly what I do. My house will go untouched for weeks while I’ll watch netflix for hours . I like to Garden and I will spend hours and hours gardening and not touch my house.

    This article hit it right on the nail. I have started setting an alarm to stop myself.

  2. As an ADHD person, the ability to hyperfocus caused me numerous times to tune out my wife and children during our 40 years of marriage. I really don’t recall that my behavior caused any great problems at work, however.

    Now that I’m divorced and retired, I only have two major hyperfocus issues: I tend to spend hours on Facebook almost every day, mostly communicating with my family and friends.

    The other is much more serious. I have had a porn addiction since I was 12 years old. This is one of the reasons my wife divorced me 8 years ago. Now that I live alone, I spend many hours overnight, some weeks, viewing literally hundreds of pornsites and loosing much sleep in the process. I am now taking steps to curb or eliminate my addiction all together, but when I’m ready to turn in for the night, along comes that urge to view porn online.

    My advise for those with ADHD hyperfocus is to seek professional counseling and to time yourselves when you know you’re about to get deeply involved in something you truly enjoy. It could save your marriage, your family and your job.

  3. So, this happened recently to me when I was about to pass my testpaper, i think it’s a compensation mechanism because I didn’t get to focus on taking my test because im near where people pass by and with the teachers roaming around i wasn’t able to focus and got distracted the whole time and just when i was about to pass my paper, the last thing i remember was im thinking where should i sort my testpaper(there’s two sets w/c are color coded) so thats what i kept thinking that i completely zoned out while standing in front of the room. If hadn’t the teacher tap the testpaper on my hand i would have stand there for an hour just thinking where to put my paper(and there’s only 2 sets!!!! Like, why did i have to think that hard where to put it?like???come on!) and i got so confused after she did that and i think she’s saying something but i can’t process it and hear nothing , i only stared at her for a second or two until i heard her telling me to just leave the paper there. And the funny thing is i walked out of there like nothing happened. And that night i realized the teacher was still talking when I left confused haha like, sorry for being rude but i really didn’t meant to walkout without letting you finish talk, I was just soooo confused that i even forgot that there’s still students behind me passing the testpaper. Oh boy this is getting out f hand haha

  4. For me I struggle with all these things. However, I find the worst aspect of this is the aftermath of intense hyperfocus episodes, where I sometimes struggle with extreme physical, mental, and emotional fatigue for days afterwards. I find now that I am at least aware of this, it is easier to manage and plan for in the event of, but it is definitely quite debilitating when it happens. I sometimes liken it to having a big-block engine, capable great displays of power, but quickly overheats and takes a long time to cool down. I often envy people with ‘normal’ brains, who output less, but have greater consistency, and have never known the frustration and struggle that comes with frequent mental burnout.

  5. I’ve had similar problems and challenges with test taking. In my case, I found background noise the biggest problem in maintaining focus. Beside taking ADHD medication (which does work!), I found using earplugs extremely helpful with combating this (the big orange ones), especially math problems where I have to slow my brain down and pay closer attention to the language being used.

    Also, if you’re in post-secondary it may be worthwhile seeking out accommodations. I did, and I found it well worth the effort and inconvenience getting them processed, because I ended up getting extra exam time and was able to write them in separate room, therefore eliminating my greatest obstacle, which was noise. With that stated, I did have to pay $2600 to get officially diagnosed, which was a huge detractor. However, my gpa performance afterwards, was well worth the investment, as it put my on the Honours track, versus struggling to get exams completed on time. As a result, I also received awards that completely offset the entire cost of my tuition, so the payoff in my case was doubly worth the investment.

  6. Hyperfocus is a huge thing in my life. I am extremely artistic. Im crafty and handy. These are the projects I usually get lost in. I’ve accidentally spent all day making something. People don’t understand that once you are locked in there is no concept of time. I didn’t stay in the backyard until after dark on purpose, I stopped working because all of a sudden it was too dark to see what I was doing! Sometimes everything just sounds like background noise, even when I know someone is talking to me and I try and pay attention! And when I get snapped out of that mode I still can’t stop thinking about it. It takes a while before I loose the feeling of needing to go back to doing that thing. Although it mostly happens with things I enjoy, this can happen with things like cleaning. Sometimes I’m afraid to sweep the floor because I know I’ll end up on my hands and knees scrubbing and polishing it! Or I’ll look up something and end up reading for hours about a random subject.. It sounds silly saying that outlook but its true. I now set timers for myself but that doesn’t always work. The other problem is complete exhaustion after, even if it was a project I was doing sitting down. My husband says its “selfishness” which is very hurtful. I have created some beautiful things. Every piece of furniture in our house is antique or salvaged and refinished. But it does get in the way of every day life. I had a job I loved and would hyper focus on work. Now I stay home so my hyper focus is all over. I try and put routines in place and that also helps some but I can’t change the way my brain works and it’s very frustrating when someone can’t understand.

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