Typical ADHD Behaviors

What Is ADHD Hyperfocus?

A common — but confusing — symptom of ADHD is called “hyperfocus,” or the ability to zero in intensely on an interesting project or activity for hours at a time.

Man with ADHD holding lens with focused image of landscape inside it
Man with ADHD holding lens with focused image of landscape inside it

What Is Hyperfocus? Is It a Symptom of ADHD?

Hyperfocus is the tendency for children and adults with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD or ADD) to focus very intently on things that interest them. At times, the focus is so strong that they become oblivious to the world around them. Hyperfocus is the flipside of another ADHD symptom, distractibility.

How Does Hyperfocus Affect Children and Adults with ADHD?

For children, the object of “hyperfocus” might be playing a video game or watching TV. For adults, it might be shopping or surfing the Internet. But whatever holds the attention, the result is the same: Unless something or someone interrupts, hours drift by as important tasks and relationships fall by the wayside.

“People who think ADHD means having a short attention span misunderstand what ADHD is,” says Kathleen Nadeau, Ph.D., a psychologist in Silver Spring, Maryland, and the author of ADD-Friendly Ways to Organize Your Life. “A better way to look at it is that people with ADHD have a disregulated attention system.”

[Self-Test: Could You Have Adult ADHD?]

What Causes ADHD In the Brain?

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.

“Children and adults with ADHD have difficulty shifting attention from one thing to another,” says Russell Barkley, Ph.D., a research professor of psychiatry at SUNY Upstate Medical University in Syracuse, New York. “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.”

In the view of Larry Silver, M.D., a psychiatrist at Georgetown University Medical School in Washington D.C., such intense concentration is actually a coping mechanism.

[You’re Not Ditzy or Lazy or Bored — You Have Inattentive ADHD]

“It’s a way of dealing with distraction,” Silver says. “College kids with ADHD tell me they intentionally go into a state of intense focus to get work done. Younger kids do the same thing unconsciously when they’re doing something pleasurable, like watching a movie or playing a computer game. Often they aren’t even aware that they’re focusing so intensely.”

Is Hyperfocus Bad?

There’s nothing inherently harmful about hyperfocus. In fact, it can be an asset. Some people with ADHD, for example, are able to channel their focus on something productive, such as a school- or work-related activity. Others allow themselves to hyperfocus on something as a reward for completing a dull but important task.

“Many scientists, writers, and artists with ADHD have had very successful careers, in large part because of their ability to focus on what they’re doing for hours on end,” says Nadeau.

But unrestrained intense focus is most often a liability. Left unchecked, it can lead to failure in school, lost productivity on the job, and strained relationships with friends and at home.

[Free Expert Resource: Secrets of Your ADHD Brain]

“Children with ADHD often gravitate to what’s entertaining and exciting, and are averse to doing things they don’t want to do,” says Joseph Biederman, M.D., head of the pediatric psychopharmacology program at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. “Combine this with poor time management and problems socializing, both of which are typical of kids with ADHD, and the child can end up playing Nintendo alone all weekend long.”

Adults with ADHD tell stories of missing meetings or deadlines because they got so absorbed in something that they lost track of time. In one extraordinary case history, cited by Nadeau, a woman with ADHD was so focused on a project that she failed to notice that her house had caught fire. “It was only when firemen came through the house, searching for anyone left inside, that she looked up and realized what was going on,” says Nadeau.

How Can I Train My Child’s Hyperfocus?

If a child with ADHD tends to get lost in a favorite activity, parents or teachers should first take steps to limit the amount of time the child is allowed to spend on the activity.

“Even if a child is on ADHD medication, playing Nintendo will always be more attractive than studying for a math test,” says Biederman. “So the child should be allowed to play it only in doses — not at the expense of an entire day.”

“If you have a child who hyperfocuses on a favorite activity, you’ll need to counter this tendency by being extra-vigilant about limiting the time spent on the activity and about being careful to stick to his schedule,” says Carol Brady, Ph.D., a Houston psychologist. “It can also help to make an agreement with your child ahead of time about when the activity can be done, and when it can’t.”

Then, it’s essential to develop a system to help your kids redirect their focus. When the time comes to conclude the activity, Brady recommends being a bit flexible and, if possible, waiting for a natural break — the conclusion of a TV show, for example.

But it’s not enough to give the child a time limit and expect her to stop. “I tell parents they’ll need to do something to break the ‘trance’ their child is in,” says Silver, “such as tapping him on the shoulder, waving a hand in front of his face, or standing between him and the television or computer screen.” Unless you do, he says, the child may not even realize that you are trying to get his attention.

[Self-Test: Could Your Child Have an Executive Function Disorder?]

“These children aren’t being disobedient,” says Nadeau. “Their brains just aren’t registering what you’re saying. That’s why the interruption should never be done angrily, and why you should allow a few minutes for the shift in attention to occur. It’s almost like pulling someone out of a dream.”

To help smooth this process, Nadeau recommends taking the time to educate your child about the way his or her brain works. “Your child needs to understand why it’s hard for her to stop doing something she’s really into,” she says. “The child also needs to know that, because of this, teachers and parents may have to intervene from time to time to stop an activity.”

How Can I Train My Hyperfocus?

For adults with ADHD, managing bouts of hyperfocus requires setting up external cues to redirect their attention. “This sort of intense focus isn’t something you can just buck up and talk yourself out of,” says Barkley.

Nadeau, who has ADHD herself, often experiences hyperfocus when she tackles a writing project. So she sets a timer to remind herself of appointments she needs to keep or phone calls she needs to make. Computer messages, designed to pop up on the screen at preset times, can also be useful. So is enlisting the help of a spouse or co-worker. “I worked with one man who got so absorbed in his work that he trained a colleague to come and pull him out of his office for meetings,” says Nadeau.

[Self-Test: Could You Have an Executive Function Disorder?]

Another of Nadeau’s patients was in the habit of working on his computer after dinner. “He would completely zone out,” says Nadeau, “to the point where his wife would go to bed and he wouldn’t even notice. He’d just keep working until two or three in the morning.” Exasperated, the man’s wife began literally pulling the plug on his computer when bedtime arrived. “It was the only way to get his attention,” says Nadeau.

Making Boring Tasks More Compelling

Ultimately, the best way to deal with hyperfocus is not to fight it but to harness it. “If school or work can be made stimulating, it will grab focus in the same way,” says Nadeau.

“Kids with ADHD are demanding a higher standard of teaching,” says William Sears, M.D., associate clinical professor of pediatrics at the University of California, Irvine, School of Medicine. “A child with ADHD gets bored quickly when he’s asked to memorize a bunch of history dates. But if he helps write a play on the subject and then performs in it, he’s going to shine.”

[Hyperfocus: A Blessing and a Curse?]

The same is true for adults. “A job that provides public accountability, along with more immediate and enjoyable consequences, can be ideal for those with ADHD,” says Barkley. “Perhaps this is why 35 percent of people with ADHD are self-employed by the time they’re in their thirties — a figure far higher than the norm.”

The Upside of Hyperfocus

Once you learn to turn hyperfocus to your favor, it can be a built-in advantage. Stories abound about individuals with ADHD who can concentrate intently for long stretches of time on complex projects.

“When I used to direct TV commercials, I could never get myself to sit down and do an expense report,” says Frank Coppola, of New York City, an ADHD coach who himself has ADHD. “But on the set, I’d have nine things going on simultaneously, and I could focus on all of them without any problem.”

“I coach baseball,” notes Sears, “and I always put kids with ADHD in as pitchers and catchers. As pitchers, their ability to hyperfocus helps them focus on the target, and as catchers, it heightens their awareness of the batter. Kids with ADHD make great hockey goalies for the same reason. When the puck’s at the other end of the rink, they’re looking around, distracted — but as soon as the puck comes down the rink toward them, they click in to hyperfocus and become very alert.”

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  1. 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, insomnia, 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. 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.

    2. 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.

    3. 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.

  2. Pingback: 1 | The Greater Good – A Chance of Scattered Brain
  3. 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. 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.

    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.

  4. 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

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