It’s no secret that people with ADHD struggle to focus on tasks we find boring. But the flipside is also true: We can focus so intently on things that do interest us that we become oblivious to the world around us for extended periods of time. This common symptom of ADHD is called hyperfocus, and it can be an asset if we learn to channel our focus productively. Read on for tips on how to do just that.
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Like distractibility, hyperfocus is thought to result from abnormally low levels of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that is particularly active in the brain's frontal lobes. This dopamine deficiency makes it hard to "shift gears" to take up boring-but-necessary tasks.
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"Children and adults with ADHD have difficulty shifting attention from one thing to another," says Russell Barkley, Ph.D. "If they're doing something they enjoy or find psychologically rewarding, they'll tend to persist in this behavior after others would normally move on to other things. The brains of people with ADHD are drawn to activities that give instant feedback."
Unrestrained focus can be a liability. Left unchecked, it can lead to hours lost online, failure in school, low productivity on the job, and strained relationships with friends and at home. Ultimately, the best way to deal with hyperfocus is not to fight it but to harness it.
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Set Priorities Carefully
One way to make hyperfocus work to your advantage is by organizing your to-do list strategically. Take care of any time-sensitive tasks (scheduling or confirming an appointment, picking up your child, etc.) before tackling a project that you know will command all of your attention.
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Schedule a “Wake-Up” Call
In order to gain more control over your hyperfocus, decide ahead of time how long you have to immerse yourself in a project. Then, set an alarm or kitchen timer to go off when you need to wrap it up.
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Assemble a Support System
Ask a family member or a friend to help you stay on top of your hyperfocus — whether it’s a cue (reminding you that your family misses you when you’re absorbed in a work project at home) or a gesture (placing a hand on your shoulder or standing between you and the computer screen when you've been there for hours).
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Set Goals for Yourself
Hyperfocus is more likely to occur when you are engaged in a task that is challenging, that matters to you, and in which you can make progress. Take advantage of this! If you have a goal that’s aligned with something you’re excited about, you are more likely to stay on task and get the job done.
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Be Open with Others
Talk with your spouse or significant other about hyperfocus. Explain that it is part of your ADHD and that you can’t turn it off at will. Assure your partner that your focus on things other than her isn’t a reflection of your interest in, or love for, her.