A lot is made of ADHD’s super power of hyperfocus. I’ve written about it on several occasions over the years as well. I’ve even created a ToDo List technique to simulate it!
Should we really label hyperfocus as a superpower, though? I have always been painfully aware of the downsides to hyperfocus. I’ll even avoid undertaking certain tasks because I know that I’ll slip into hyperfocus and loose track of time and the events around me. It’s not always a desirable state of mind to be in.
Normally, adults with adhd might as well be hamsters on a wheel, furiously running, but not getting anywhere. Suddenly, hyperfocus grants us clarity of vision and purpose, opening the road in front of us into a straight line towards success. When your days are spent fighting against your own brain to get something done, hyperfocus is a big deal.
So, what’s so bad about hyperfocus?
Hyperfocus without limits is a form of tunnel vision. I like to say that character flaws are talents gone awry. If hyperfocus is a talent, then its flipside is fixation. This ADHD fixation occurs when hyperfocus has no endgame. There is only the project and the drive to complete the project. Everything else is ignored while we relentlessly pursue our goal.
“But Douglas!” I hear you say. “Isn’t focusing on completing the project an endgame?”
It seems that way, doesn’t it? Hyperfocus is wonderful when the project moves smoothly from start to finish without inconveniencing anybody. What happens if hyperfocus makes you difficult to work with, though? What happens when you encounter a hitch? Do you step back and rethink your approach to the project, or do you run forward in hyperfocused hamster mode, furiously running in circles, but with greater energy?
I recall a time when a college friend and I were working on an import Japanese goods startup business. We ran into software issues which affected the catalog layout. Instead of stepping away to research the issue, I continued struggling against the software for hours while my friend grew more and more frustrated. I didn’t listen to a darn thing he said. He pleaded with me to find another solution, but I continued. “I’m almost done. Just one more sec.” I never did resolve the issue, so what did all that intense hyperfocus accomplish? Over the last three decades, I have trained myself to not become so fixated when other people were waiting in the wings. However, I still inconvenience myself if I don’t watch for it.
How do I stop myself from slipping into hyperfocus?
Life is filled with moments where we have to park our hyperfocus in order to function with those around us. While raising children, I had to put the brakes on hyperfocus so that my children wouldn’t have to wait for me to finish a project before, oh, feeding them perhaps? Even last night, I put off writing this article until my adult autistic daughter was put to bed.
When I find myself out in the weeds filled with glorious purpose, I use these tips to drag myself back to the road:
Become aware of which activities you tend to hyperfocus on. The first step is developing an awareness of yourself. Knowing which activities catch your attention will help you avoid them when you have other responsibilities.
Clear away your responsibilities before allowing yourself to sink into hyperfocus. This is a core issue that is made difficult by the very nature of ADHD itself. However, you can train yourself to do this. It takes effort, but it is achievable.
Begin with the ending time in mind. This is where I trip myself up. Have a clear idea of how much time you can allow yourself to work on a project before you begin. Use physical timers and phone reminders to keep yourself on track.
Stop when you should. This is the hardest skill of all when hyperfocus whips us forward in a euphoria of clarity. You don’t have to wait until you’ve made a wreckage of your life before learning this skill.
Reassess your project and be flexible enough to change course if necessary. Hyperfocus will have you endlessly working the wrong approach to completion. Our first ideas aren’t always the wisest, even if they are compelling.
Get it right with practice.
I love hyperfocus; I despise ADHD fixation. Nothing good ever comes of being fixated. I become inflexible, obsessed, and out of touch with the world around me. Years ago, I melted more than a few pans on the stovetop before learning not to work on a project while also cooking. It is true that sometimes “brilliant” ideas are lost when I prevent myself from getting hyperfocused, but I’d rather be reactive and bored than brilliantly hyperfocused while the world burns around me.