When we focus on something, we make it the center of our attention. We block out distractions, (external and internal) and mentally engage with it, for minutes or hours at a time. Focusing is how things get done. It feels rewarding and satisfying.
ADHDers have the ability to take focusing to an entire other level and hyperfocus. When you hyperfocus, you do such a good job of blocking out distractions that you aren’t aware of what is going on around you. My friend, was reading a newspaper while her 2 small children were happily playing. The next thing she knew, her daughters head popped up between her and the paper and she was saying, “Mom, are you in there?” She had been trying to attract her mom’s attention for several minutes before deciding she needed to physically check in.
This lack of awareness of what is going on around you, can get you into trouble; you might miss appointments or worse. In her book, Adventures in Fast Forward, Kathleen Nadeau writes about an ADHDer who was hyper-focusing on writing a paper. She was so engrossed, she didn’t notice that her house was on fire. “She had missed the sirens and all the commotion and was finally discovered by firemen, as she was working contentedly in her room while the kitchen at the back of the house was engulfed in flames!” says Nadeau.
When you hyperfocus on a work project, or a creative hobby, it feels fun, creative, productive and gives a huge sense of accomplishment. When you hyperfocus on something such as a TV watching binge, or 8 hours surfing the web, it doesn’t feel good because it comes with an element of guilt or shame. Also, the people in your life gets annoyed when you are late, or they want your attention and you seem to be ignoring them.
Hyperfocus can be confusing. You can’t really choose what you hyperfocus on. Boring mundane tasks, like housework will never be tasks that you can hyperfocus on, even though you wish you could. In order to hyperfocus on something, it has to be interesting, and just the right level of difficulty. Not too difficult; not too easy, but taxing enough that it engages your brain in a rewarding way.
Here are some tips so that you can enjoy the benefits of hyperfocusing and limit the negative.
1) Write down the activities that you do hyperfocus on: The good stuff and the not so good stuff.
2) Plan chunks of time when you can do the good activities. When you have ADHD, a lot of the time, you are trying to force yourself to take action, or focus. It seems a shame to have to pull yourself away when you are being productive and focused.
For example, I get into the flow when I do my taxes (I know it s weird!) So once a year, I schedule an uninterrupted day where I can do all the tax things at once. This takes advantage of my brain energy and makes an enjoyable day.
3) Limit hyperfocus on the not so good stuff. When you have identified your danger activities, you can still do them, but know when you start them, it will be hard to disengage. For example, if a particular computer game is one of your hyperfocus things, plan to play a day at the weekend, rather than in the week when you have work commitments.
4) Set very loud timers. If you have an appointment, or a time you need to stop doing a task, set a very loud timer and put it away from where you are sitting. This means you will physically have to get up to switch it off. You will be forced to mentally disengage and then, it will be easier to stop your hyperfocus activity.