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Hyperfocus: The ADHD Phenomenon of Intense Fixation

Hyperfocus, a common — but confusing — symptom of ADHD, is the ability to zero in intensely on an interesting project or activity for hours at a time. It is the opposite of distractibility, and it is common among both children and adults with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

28 Comments: Hyperfocus: The ADHD Phenomenon of Intense Fixation

  1. I wanted to reply to kfioravanti’s post above but not seeing the Reply button. Everything that was said is exactly me… I was recently diagnosed at age 49, following the diagnosis of my 17 year old daughter, and can now clearly see traits in all my other children to a greater or lesser degree. How could I have missed it? We have all gone through the school system undetected, myself a University graduate, a daughter who has earned herself an open scholarship is currently studying abroad on her own strength, one who started off great academically but started to flounder upon entering high school… I just thought she was lazy and unduly aggressive…which I couldn’t understand, because I am calm-in-a-crisis mode all the time, but she’s the one who was also recently first diagnosed…then there are younger ones who, unlike their older siblings, are visibly hyperactive. As for me, I always thought I was just a good version of “quirky”. I am a Spanish teacher. I have struggled with punctuality issues almost everyday of my working life… even before I had kids. Not only am I late for work regardless of how many new morning routines I have tried, but I absolutely hate paperwork, and in my profession there is every variety possible, for students, their parents or for those in the hierarchy above me. I’ve sat before my Head of Department unsuccessfully fighting back undignified tears while being chastised for my “irresponsibility” and “nonchalance”. This is so far from the truth… I do care… and I often stay back late hours focused on my area of expertise, trying to create resources that would make me a better teacher, or working at some extra curricular activity that would benefit the students somehow… then because I hate paperwork so much I got this crazy idea that if I created a spreadsheet with mail merge… all teachers could enter student assessment data without ever having to tabulate anything again and transfer the information to multiple hardcopy sheets… simply enter personalized comments and sign off… it started as a small project because I knew nothing about Excel… and became a very elaborate project with complicated formulas, macros, colour coded columns, pie charts, bar charts… I don’t know how… I am a humble Spanish teacher and I am not good at Mathematics… but whenever I came across a difficult part, I would dig, research and read… hours and hours, late nights… when a new IT Technician came to our school and saw it… she said, “You probably don’t have a family”… I was too embarrassed to respond. And this is just the surface…….

  2. I can’t wait for the day when just plain changing the name of ADHD to exclude the term “Hyperactive” would greatly change the lives of afflicted people on the hyperfocused end of the spectrum, by not writing them off as no ADHD simply because they look calm and patient, and therefore ruining their lives, the lives of their loved ones, or future spouse, or their poor children who are brought into this world because their parents weren’t aware that they had a super complicated condition they could easily pass onto their child, just because they had missed the diagnosis of ADHD.

    I have been falling asleep at work, and the greater half of my life, being labeled as the dormouse of the era by everyone, and ruining the lives of myself, my family, my spouse, and creating a child with ADHD and Autism.

    I only realized it when my child got an autism diagnosis, and I started seeing my own surprising and conflicting behaviors in her.

    I am always terrified of becoming homeless because I can’t support myself, but also can’t prove that I really can’t help all of my weirdnesses.

    Yours Truly,
    The Champion of Patience

  3. I’ve been using this hyperfocus skill daily forcefully on mundane tasks for the past year or so, but because of that I am now recovering from a burnout. Now everytime I use the hyperfocus for too long, I fall back into my burnout symptoms. So there actually really is something to watch out for, when you have mastered it. (this could possibly be different if you are on ADD medication; I am not)

  4. also i forgot to add, saying things like ill do it with you and helping her makes the task feel less daunting. that way you can also make sure she doesnt drift off.

  5. hi idk how to comment on specific comments, wish additude would have a page where they explain their website functions, but kfioravanti as a adhd child of 2 parents with adhd i felt like i could give you some advice on helping your kid since were in such a similar situation but from opposite perspectives. when someone tells me to do something, i very much most likely am not going to do it. but when that person guides me to what they want me to do that isnt coming off as some confrontational attack, meaning to ask gently and respectfully (ex: “go and do it now” vs “hey can you please do this its important becuase ___ and ill let you go back to what you were doing before no intteruptions” when you make threats it just makes them want to rebel even more, and dont guilt trip either) can make a difference. and when i say guide i mean presenting it to me, getting started on tasks is very difficult but when its right infront of me it doesnt feel as hard. just lead your kid away from what theyre hyperfocusing on first but be discreet about it so theyre interested and then you can ask. i hope this helps you sound like a good parent for caring

  6. Just yesterday I told someone how I go down the “rabbit hole.” Fortunately, I frequently hyperfocus on work. Several of us had to submit some numbers for a budget to our business manager. I ended up spending HOURS creating a detailed spreadsheet, color-coded, with pivot tables, then started analyzing last year’s budget, found an error that I started looking into, and so on. Then a colleague lamented that she’d barely begun hers, so 2 hours later, I had set her up to have her numbers presented in great detail as well. (Down the rabbit hole…)

    Of course, unfortunately, it meant that I missed getting my allergy shots this week (I didn’t forget– I consciously “decided” I couldn’t stop working…), and then got home within minutes of when my husband needing me to take over with the kids at almost 7 PM. Hyperfocus makes my colleagues think that I’m SUPER good at my job (though not very fun), but it frequently takes my attention away from my family. Add to that, however, that if I don’t hyperfocus, my anxiety will kick in that I will somehow screw up in my job because there are things that feel like I take longer to “get” than others. We hyperfocus to get it done. But nothing is every really “done.” The house always needs something more, work always needs something else, but these realities don’t seem to help me stop and make sure I’m attending to everything.

    Now that I’ve already hyperfocused on this already-long comment (haha), I actually have a question for others. My high school age daughter also has ADD (not ADHD) that’s just like mine. Some of the strategies in this article would have been great for her if I’d built them in when she was younger. But now that she’s a teenager, I see that hyperfocusing is actually part of ADD, not just a coping mechanism, and she is worse than I am with it. If I set a time limit for her to do something she likes, then tell her to do her history essay, she will complain. If I gently tell her I’m taking her phone for just an hour to study for Geometry, she will have an anxiety attack! I’m certainly NOT a model for her not to hyperfocus (we’ve binge watched MANY TV series together), but my husband can’t relate, so his support is just to “tell her to just do it.” Any helpful ideas that others have tried?

  7. Sure, hyperfocus on the right thing can help you get things done. But here’s what I’ve noticed about hyperfocus in my ADHD clients (and myself). They will tell me that they were able to hyperfocus on something for hours and hours and get an amazing amount done. But, the next day – or maybe even next two days – they got NOTHING done – they could barely put one foot in front of another. Focusing for long stretches of time, when we can do it, seems to be like emptying a bucket. At a certain point if you don’t put something back in the bucket, it’s just empty and it’s not going to replenish very quickly on it’s own. That’s why I think it’s important to plan breaks that will help boost dopamine – take some time to let your brain be in default mode instead of task mode – because like too much of any good thing, hyperfocus has a way of biting you in the butt.

  8. So, in the end, such activities that contain so much movement would appear to me in the end to compound the condition rather than improve it.

  9. In a bid to understand hyperfocus, it may be helpful to appreciate that the objects of focus, like videos on phones that engage ADHD kids for hours on end, are usually full of movement as opposed to being static. So, in the end, such activities would appear to me to compound the condition rather than improve it.

  10. In a bid to understand hyperfocus, it may be helpful to appreciate that the objects of focus, like videos on phones that engage ADHD kids for hours on end, are usually full of movement as opposed to being static.

  11. I think its important to talk about the negative consequences with hyperfocus. If you dont relax and recover properly it can damaged and have a negativt impact on your mental health. When you hyperfocus your brain is working so hard so you really have to recover. This is importent so it doesnt become like an expected thing from People with ADHD, and so what those with ADHD doesnt push them self to hard.

  12. Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder is a misnomer. At a minimum the “Deficit” should be removed, even better is that it should be replaced with “Control” and split into two… Attention Control Disorder and Hyperactivity Disorder. There is no reason for these two things to be classified together much less improperly named.

  13. Hyper focus has been a blessing as well as a curse more than often. I am a suffering from hyper focus since childhood which I didnt realize until last year when I was being misperceived or misunderstood as insincere for not keeping up on mundane tasks. Often as a child I was struggling to sleep during exam time due to hyperfocus and deteriorate in my exam. Since past one year I started understanding myself better why I am so passionate and carry intense emotions. Most of the negative traits are suppressed from being expressed due to my public image. Hyperfocus helped me with insights , analysis, empathy, judgement , speculation and predicting things and people better. However, setbacks are usually when you appear deliquent due to failing on mundane tasks which become significant when less time is left to wrap them up. However, my hyperfocus is helping me to become an entrepreneur to change the world better. Soon in a couple of years you will see drastic changes in the way healthcare is being delivered.

    1. I am the husband and father of 2 severe ADD sufferers. This is my first time posting but I don’t know where to go. My wife has a huge issue with hyperfocusing and stays up to all hours of the night working. Before is was working out of the house and now she works at home and it is no different. How do I get her to stop the hyperfocus? I am ready for an intervention here.

      1. If your wife has been formally diagnosed, hyper-focus is a part of her that you and her must learn to accept. Embrace this feature of hers by learning how to mitigate negative impacts while accentuating positive impacts. If you are ready for an intervention, let her know in a non-confrontational and constructive way why you have a problem with what she is doing. Ask her to get feedback on her behavior and your reaction to it from her therapist. There are no better ways to improve the disposition of a diagnosed individual than treating with medication and CBT.

  14. Yosiro I totally understand. When my wheels hit the mud hole of oops, it can take so long to get back on track. If i can walk away from it for a bit to get a drink or a snack it helps me get back on track. I find having a partner to work with helps me stay more easily engaged with a problems or boring work. Then it is us, the team (1-2 people),against the problem or a race to get through the scut work to more entertaining work. Good luck i hope that you can find a way to use this successfully. Jeff

  15. Thank you for this helpful article. This helps make a lot of sense for my life and some problems that have been quite frustrating. Sometimes I would have a really hard time in school when I was studying something that I didn’t find interesting. I remember a number of times that I would need to read something out loud, but I couldn’t even tell you what I just read after I finished reading it out loud. I guess I wasn’t interested or engaged enough to really want to pay attention. I can focus on something very intently if I am really interested in it though. I would almost say that I had to change my attitude about being interested in learning.

    My biggest struggle in my life has been my desire to learn programming. The idea of being able to make an app on a phone do whatever you can set your mind to is amazing! Sometimes I really love the challenge of it and I would say that I am pretty good at math. I can hyperfocus on it, but the problem is when I get stuck on an error. Usually I will get a error like “An unexpected error occurred”. I will stare at the screen blankly wondering what I did wrong, but error can be so vague that I have no idea where to start looking for the problem. I quickly start losing interest and start “daydreaming” about other stuff no matter how hard I try to focus on finding the problem. It is almost crazy that I can keep focusing on something so intently as long as I can keep making progress, but as soon as I start “spinning my wheels” then I pretty much zone out. I guess I can relate to the part “The brains of people with ADHD are drawn to activities that give instant feedback”. Does anyone have suggestions for me?

    1. “The brains of people with ADHD are drawn to activities that give instant feedback”.
      So me…

    2. I’m a designer and have worked on websites for a while. The trick, and it took a LOT of figuring out…but it works everytime when I actually remember to stop and do it. Having ADHD I love analyzing and getting results. I can spend hours in dreamweaver totally hyperfocused to get that ‘success’ outcome, but I can also spend hours spinning my wheels on trying to figure out the problem. So the solution I’ve found, simplify. Theres always one element that has been added somewhere in the process, especially when your still learning and not sure what your doing, that needs to be ‘removed’…text, image, code, etc. So the answer: SIMPLIFY. I save my file with a new name, and remove absolutely everything but the basics to run with no error, then start adding in the ‘extras’ a few at a time, test again, continue. It’s utterly exciting to know your doing it correctly, and the mission now isn’t to make it work, but find the culprit that gives that error.

    3. I totally understand what you mean. I actually am a programmer, and I have the same problem. As you learn more it will be easier to maintain focus because when you encounter an error like that you will start to have an idea where to look for the problem. But until you get to that point, one thing that helps is people – talking to other people. If you can ask a real live person about the error the interaction keeps you focused. If you are learning online then try to find a forum where other learners post questions and discuss things together. Or, find a local hacker / programmer group.

  16. I could never know what hyperfocus was, or is, and am still learning. I am mid age, and went through this part of my life prior with no diagnoses, til recently, and struggled all my life with things that I didn’t think anyone else understood. I remember the song, Running on Empty, and thought that was me, I remember Beautiful Loser, again, thought it was me, and knew I was smart, and still do, but no one knew about this when I was in school, clear through cosmetology school, and grade school and college, two of them, cosmetology , I finished, as well as 12 years in public schools. I changed majors a lot, and eventually had an inhome day care when my kids were small. It was a great way to raise my kids, as a single Mom, then I went to hair school, when my last baby was a year. Then I worked long hours, and maybe it was hyperfocus, I liked it, but was away from home so much, and did not get much sleep, i wasnt diagnosed for years later, and took so much blame one me and shame, for not being home, and yet doing what i went to school for. Then I just burned out, emotionally, and fell asleep a couple times driving, and have been home, in my house a lot, knowing I did what I had to, my blood pressure was sky high, and I had anxiety, and panic attacks, and no energy, that was ten plus years ago. I just found out in last five years i had adhd, and now am learning, from here, who i have always been,in a way. anyone relate? I just want to be the best I can, at midage, as a grandma, and maybe work part time, at something else. I have dropped most of my friendships, as I knew I was spending too much time with some of them, and my house was disorganized, still is, somewhat. my daughter is very organized, i may have one daughter like me, and my son , somewhat. I am so grateful for this website, that I just joined. Peace, Mary

    1. Running on empty! Beautiful loser! You are not alone, I’ve had the same thoughts listening to those very songs. I would love to see more research and books on the adult diagnosed with ADD as it really feels like we are often just written off. I’d love to see a large study on the correlations between pre and post diagnosis for adults, both because I think it would be uplifting for those of us who spent many many years tormenting ourselves for not living up to our full potential thinking we were broken, and because there is so much hate and judgement around using prescriptions to treat things the rest of the world can’t see. I don’t believe most people really think for a moment about what happens when someone who has struggled all their life trying to get their shit together finally gets treatment, what that can look like and how it can completely change your life. Young people starting treatment haven’t had 20 years of failure and wondering how they can simultaneously be so smart and so “stupid” to use as a basis for comparison. We’re either overlooked entirely or sandwiched in with a paragraph as a side note in a study about the more relevant demographic, and it’s frustrating. It’s great to read about your stories, thank you!

    2. Your not alone Mary. Thanks for sharing. I like the part when you say that you are learning about who you have always been. And we shouldn’t have to chance….only with education it helps us to understand.

    3. I have narcolepsy which mimics a lot of ADHD symptoms. The hyper focus is bad for me to the point I’ve been reprimanded at work. I’m on medication for narcolepsy but recently went on Vyvanse and it helped quite a bit.

    4. I completely relate to your story. It’s such an amazing feeling for me when I read other people’s stories and experiences. I have such a hard time articulating how my ADD affects me, leaving me to feel as though there is nobody that really understands. My diagnosis which came in my early 30’s was one of the most revealing moments of my life. It gave me this entirely different understanding of myself and why I am the way I am. Most days I am good, I’ve develope systems and mechanisms that allow me to be successful in my role as a wife, mother, etc. but there are still days where I’m just sad that this will always be my life and it will not go away. I will struggle with these things for the rest of my life and sometimes that’s a tough pill to swallow. Despite all that, knowledge is power and it has helped me learn to accept the things about myself that I cannot change.

      1. I feel you. OMG, finding this website was one of the best things happening in my life.
        When I read comments like this, I feel I am not alone. I am not an Alien anymore.

        Yesterday a friend of mine joked: you shouldn’t get Tesla car! You would probably call from somewhere asking me to come, because you would forgot to charge it!
        I know it was just a joke, but out of blue I started crying. He reminded me of something I knew intuitively, and now I know for sure – no matter how many strategies I created, no matter how hard I work, I will never change who I am.
        P.S. Joking about integral part of someone else identity is never a good idea.

        Today is Friday and because of yesterday I am in grumpy mood.
        Reading comments here really helps me in my “just keep walking” strategy. Tomorrow will be a batter day.

      2. I can related to this so much! Most of the time I can laugh with those around me about myself but sometimes it hurts, a lot. When I was in graduate school one of my professors was telling a story about being in the hospital with her father when he was ill. She explained how this nurse came flying into the room and asked a million questions and bumped a machine trying to maneuver around the room. So my professor continued her story saying “ …and I thought to myself oh great how did we end up with the ADD nurse?” I’m sure she was joking but immediately I felt my throat tighten up and I wanted to cry.

      3. I just cried when i read this artical. Ive said hyperfocus a million times trying to describe this. But i never knew it was called that or that other people had it. Im 37 and ive never been diagnosed. Paper work and forms and non fun phone calls are like kryptonite. My brain will latch on to something at 7pm to avoid something and then i finish the thing and its 5 am. Shcedualing is awful. I am self employed and i build and sell costumes and am a circus performer. Ive always worked hard but rarely kept jobs because id be late often. I can leave the house with 6 errands in mind at 10 am and not get home till 2 am. Usually with something forgoten. As ive gotten older its worse. I addapted my life to work arround it. Which got rid of alot of stress. But its not solved and i just keep sliding to where life suffers more and more to avoid it. I know im not stupid. but my memory is really bad. Ill stop mid sentance and desperately try to find the word or even the subject i was just talking about. I can visualize where it is in my brain. Like a siloett i just cant recal the details enough to say the word i meant.

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