Hands up if you know what I’m talking about when I say hyperfocus.
I thought so.
There’s a general consensus that adults with ADHD hyperfocus. The exception comes from ADHD expert Dr. Russell Barkley. In this video clip, Barkley says we perseverate, not hyperfocus. But (with all due respect) we’re going to pretend we don’t know about that and go ahead and talk about hyperfocus anyway, okay?
While most of us agree that adults with ADHD do hyperfocus, what exactly is it? Here’s where things get tricky.
Hyperfocus – what it is – and isn’t
The concept of hyperfocus might be the most confusing to those who don’t experience it. I shared the example of when hyperfocus happens to me during a live theater or symphonic performance with a non-ADHD adult.
I told her that during these performances, if I’m totally absorbed and (God forbid) some cretin crinkles a gum wrapper behind me, it’s like a gun shot, startling me out of my reverie. Of course, this necessitates a pointed glare at the offending party, just to let them know of my displeasure.
The person I was explaining this to said it sounded more like distractibility or irritability (ok, she could have a point with that last one) and, she said, “It seems to me that if you were hyperfocused in these situations, you would be undistractable, even by gum wrapper crinkling.”
Oh, really? I thought. For my part, her description sounded more like that of an insensible zombie than hyperfocus. After all, I may have been in a reverie but it was because my ears were in tact that I was. And then wasn’t. I mean, yes, I was in a sort of rapture, but it’s not like I’d lost all contact with the outside world. Geez.
Still, the state of hyperfocus is complex and idiosyncratic.
When you think about it, it’s like sex.
What I mean is: when it’s good, it’s great; when it’s bad, it’s frustrating and maybe even downright unhealthy. Don’t believe me? Consider this excellent article about positive versus negative hyperfocus by ADHD Coach Jennifer Koretsky.
Koretsky outlines what all but hyperfocus virgins already know: there’s a time and place for hyperfocusing.
An appropriate time to hyperfocus for example is when making improvisational music with friends. When we’re in the groove, we can play for hours, not noticing the time slip away. We’ve dissolved into the music: the music is us and we are it.
On the other hand, just as Alex (played by Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction) was destroyed by obsessively hyperfocusing on her married lover, so too can hyperfocus destroy our relationships (and all areas of our lives) if we lose track of our priorities.
So choose the object of your hyperfocus carefully, lest you create your own fatal attraction – and always practice safe hyperfocus.