People with ADHD have difficulty focusing. But many can also hyperfocus on things they’re very interested in. Parents come to me and say my kid can play Fortnite for eight hours, why can’t they focus on the three regular chores they have to do in a week?
The idea of hyperfocus can be confusing. How can a person who has trouble focusing on most things lose themselves in a video game, movie, series, sport, or craft project for hours? It might look like that person doesn’t really struggle with attention.
Hyperfocus is a common but sometimes confusing symptom of ADHD, is the ability to zero in intensely on an interesting project or activity for hours at a time. It is the opposite of distractibility, and it is common among both children and adults with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
But actually having good focus requires two opposing elements. People need to be able to pay attention even if something isn’t that interesting. Many things are not interesting. And that is reality. Why do I have to sit through this meeting, take this class, work with this team, read this book, do such and such? Why the heck am I taking algebra or physics?
Secondly, they need to be able to not pay attention to something interesting, or something that’s bothering them (the biggest distractions are anxiety or sadness), when they need to focus on doing what they’re doing because it’s more interesting than what they’re being asked to do. Un-focusing and focusing. One of my clients reported that it’s like being in a tunnel, you only see one thing. Both good and bad.
The neuropsychology of hyperfocus.
Like distractibility, hyperfocus results from abnormally low levels of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that is particularly active in the brain’s frontal lobes. This dopamine deficiency makes it hard to to take up boring tasks. Many of our life tasks can be mundane, repetitive, and frustrating.
So, what can we do? How can we harness the power of hyperfocus?
Focus can be combined with a mental health exercise: when you take out the trash, you can visualize an exorcism of anything nasty that happened over the week. I teach imagery, this is your chance to take out your accumulated trash.
Purpose matters. And Distraction helps.
I have a client who stands in a queue to pick up her kids after school for almost an hour. She loves them with heart and soul and wants them to be safe. In the meantime, I gave her a podcast that has appeal. Zoning out in the parking lot scrolling through social media was not making her very happy. Now she is stimulating her brain with a great podcast she rarely gets to fit into her busy life.
Some of my teenagers have trouble with mindfulness and attention. Simple exercises can include, coming into a room, such as the kitchen. What do you see, what do you smell, what is the lighting? What do you hear. It pulls your attention back. And requires practice.
Timing and dosage.
Give yourself time you can play the heck out of the game that you love, watch the series that you are fascinated with, immerse yourself in the best book. Plan your binges. They don’t have to control you.
Also see, “On News Anxiety.”
Set external cues and reminders.
If you know you’re going to be lost in cyberspace, create multiple reminders. Set multiple alarms. Remember that we need to get up and move our bodies every 25 to 30 minutes.
Work with your own circadian rhythms.
If you work best in the morning with heightened alertness, do your toughest work then. If you’re tired in the afternoon, save that time for more rote tasks.
Engage with an accountability buddy.
This can be as simple as having a reminder that you need to get your stuff done, and then you can relax. Your buddy might say, we’re going to watch a great show tonight. Let’s get our work done.
Don’t set impossible standards.
Most people, optimally, cannot focus after 30 to 40 minutes, especially on complex tasks. Take a break. Regularly.
If there’s something that you really dislike doing, see if you can trade it off. We put off tasks that are aversive. I have a client who has sensitivity to washing dishes, it truly grosses her out, but she can do laundry and fold clothing like a luxury retail store. Ask your partner, child, roommate, colleague, to do things that you don’t love and vice versa.