Hyperfocus refers to a state of being totally dialed into something, where distractions and sometimes even a sense of time fade away. Many people with ADHD report experiencing this state, and a recent study adds weight to the idea that people with ADHD experience hyperfocus more often than people without ADHD.
For ADHDers, this finding is likely both validating and frustrating. It’s validating because it confirms what people who have experienced ADHD know to be the case: we don’t simply lack the ability to focus on any task at all. Rather, we have a different way in which our focus works, so we can focus relentlessly on some activities but totally fail to rally the cognitive resources to concentrate on others.
Now here’s why this finding is frustrating: it raises the nagging question of if we focus so intensely on certain activities, we can’t we apply that focus in all areas of our lives? Clearly, we have the ability to pay attention, so why are there tasks we do where that ability completely fails to show up?
It would be nice if we could just take our hyperfocus and apply it in all parts of our lives. If we could use it to become super-productive and slice through all the tasks where we’re unmotivated, disorganized or unfocused like a highly attentive knife through butter.
Of course, it doesn’t work that way. The reason we experience hyperfocus in the first place is actually the same reason we can’t choose what we hyperfocus on: an inability to control, or regulate, our attention.
In ADHD, our attention naturally gravitates to the things we find rewarding, stimulating or interesting. I like to call this aspect of ADHD magnetic attention.
One side of this phenomenon is that when we’re doing something we don’t find interesting, our attention is attracted elsewhere. It slides off the task as hand, toward more rewarding pastures.
But when we’re engaged in something we’re really into, our attention gravitates to that same task. This is basically how hyperfocus happens: when we’re doing something we really enjoy, our attention is glued to that activity by a powerful magnetic force.
Thus, the reason we have trouble concentrating on some tasks is the same reason other tasks bring out hyperfocus. We have less of an ability to tell our attention where to go, and our attention automatically goes to whatever is most rewarding. When that that happens to be the same task we’re currently working on, the stars are aligned.
So is there anything we can do to harness the fickle power of hyperfocus? I think there are two things:
- Get lucky. To some extent, it’s purely luck whether the tasks you have to complete on a given day are tasks that inspire hyperfocus. If you find doing laundry dreadful, you’re probably never going to be able to hyperfocus on doing laundry.
- Fill your life with activities you enjoy. You do have some control over what tasks you spend your time on. Look for hobbies that are truly rewarding. Try to find a job that’s stimulating. If you seek out activities you really find interesting, you’ll likely experience hyperfocus more often.
It’s impossible to leverage the power of hyperfocus in the sense of being able to point to an arbitrary task and say “I’m going to hyperfocus on that.“
But it is possible to schedule more frequent encounters with hyperfocus by seeking out activities that naturally bring out your more focused tendencies – that is, activities that are interesting, rewarding and stimulating.
If you have any other tips on “using” hyperfocus, please leave them below!
Image: Flickr/Justice Mitchell