Hyperfocus and ADHD


When Zeroing in Can Help or Hurt

The name Attention Deficit Disorder can give the impression that if you have ADHD you can’t focus or pay attention to anything. However, this is misleading because ADHD is actually a problem of regulating attention rather than a lack of attention.

Children and adults with ADHD find it very hard to focus on boring mundane tasks, yet can focus exceptionally well on activities that interest them. In fact, when they are engaged in a task that is interesting to them, they focus so well that it is called hyperfocus.

The ability to hyperfocus can be frustrating to parents, teachers or spouses, and results in comments like, “They can focus when they want to.” However, the ability to focus is more complex than just wanting to. Lots of people with ADHD want to focus, perhaps on a lecture or what their partner is saying, yet they can only hyperfocus on an activity when there is the right balance of personal interest, stimulation, and reward.

What Does Hyperfocus Look Like?

When someone is in hyperfocus mode they become so immersed in the task that they are oblivious to everything else going on around them. You may notice this when your child is playing a video game, and you try to get his attention. You call him, but you get no answer. You try calling louder, but you still get no answer. Finally, you try raising your voice to a shout, and you still get no answer.

In her book, Adventures in Fast Forward, Kathleen Nadeau shares a story about a woman with ADHD who became so hyperfocused on a paper she was writing that she was completely unaware her house had caught fire. “She had missed the sirens and all the commotion and was finally discovered by firemen, working contentedly in her room while the kitchen at the back of the house was engulfed in flames,” writes Nadeau. Luckily, this woman was able to get out of the house safely. (Her paper was probably extraordinarily well written, as well!)

Benefits of Hyperfocus

When there is a deadline, you can push everything else aside and focus only on meeting that deadline.

If you hyperfocus on work-related tasks, you develop a reputation as someone who is talented and dedicated to their work. Plus, it means that you enjoy the time spent at work.

At the beginning of a relationship, you might hyperfocus on the person you are dating. This intense level of attention feels flattering and intoxicating to your date.

A parent can hyperfocus on an activity they are doing with their child. Having a parent that engrossed in a shared, fun project makes the child feel incredibly special.

A child might hyperfocus on an activity that builds their self-esteem. This is very positive, as living with ADHD can erode their self-esteem. The activity, whether learning to skateboard or to program a computer, is less important than how it makes them feel.

Some of the greatest discoveries and inventions result from an individual’s ability to stay “in the zone,” focused and immersed in an activity for hours and hours.

Negative Effects of Hyperfocus

Unfortunately, if it is not managed properly, hyperfocus can cause many problems. Some people escape into their own worlds, neglecting those around them and ignoring important tasks that need to get done. If this occurs, school and work performance suffers, and relationships become strained. For example:

At work, you might miss meetings, or get behind in your responsibilities because you are hyperfocused on the elements of the job you enjoy.

Your spouse might get frustrated and angry with you because you only seem to do activities that are fun for you while they are left to do the household chores.

Parents find they get frustrated with their child because when they are hyperfocused they don’t come to the table when dinner is ready, do their homework or help out with chores around the house without lots of reminders.

Life can get out of balance because it is easy to lose track of time when you hyperfocus. As a result, there isn’t time to do other important activities, like prepare healthy food, go to the gym or spend time with your loved one.

You can become critical of yourself and expect yourself to always be able to focus. For example, if you focused intensely for 12 hours one day to meet a deadline, you wonder why you can’t do that the next day too.

5 Tips for Getting the Most from Hyperfocus

Match Your Career with Your Hyperfocus Activities: Choose a career path that is in line with what you tend to hyperfocus on. As Nadeau explains, “Choose what you love to do as your life’s work.” This way, your hyperfocus is put to good use in advancing your career. Plus, you will be much happier doing what you enjoy.

What Does Your Child Hyperfocus On? Knowing what your child hyper focuses on gives you an insight into their areas of interest and motivation. It might not be what a typical 9-year-old is interested in! With this knowledge, you can adapt their activities to include this area of interest. For example, when Olympic swimming champion Michael Phelps was young he struggled in school. His mom tailored his education around his interest in swimming. To help him read, she gave him the sports section of the newspaper and made sure his math problems were customized so they were swimming related.

Identify What Your Hyperfocus Activities Are: When you know exactly what you hyperfocus on, you can choose carefully when you do them. If you only have a few minutes before you are going out with your partner or before you need to go to bed, don’t start a hyperfocus activity. Instead choose to do them on the weekend, when you have larger chunks of time. As a parent, you can help your child do the same.

Set Time Limits: It is helpful for parents to set firm time limits around “escapist” activities in which their children tend to hyperfocus. Sit down with your child, discuss the issue and together you can come up with predetermined time limits. Adults may also escape into television, video or online chat groups and forums.

Try to limit your time participating in activities that exclude you from the outside world. Figure out a predetermined amount of time to engage in the activity, and stick to it.

By Keath Low