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.
“You can’t have ADHD; you focus so intently on your fantasy football league.”
Or favorite video game.
Or Facebook and Pinterest.
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?
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!”
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.