Adults with ADHD are both gifted and cursed with the power to hyperfocus.
Hyperfocus is a unique ability that we have to focus so intensely that the rest of the world temporarily disappears. It’s the opposite of boredom. Instead of having difficulty concentrating or getting started, the hyperfocused ADHDer has trouble shifting focus away from the interesting subject at hand.
Hyperfocus can be a really good thing. If you’re highly interested in what you’re concentrating on, or if you have an impending deadline, then the ability to hyperfocus is an asset. It can help you get through a difficult task, like a report for work or a household problem that needs to be fixed. It can also help tremendously during creative periods in which your juices are flowing and you’re having fun writing, painting, crafting, or expressing yourself in an artistic outlet.
This positive hyperfocus is what I call being in the flow.
You enjoy what you’re doing–whether it’s work, problem-solving, or being creative. You’re productive and you enjoy not only what you’re doing, but also the fact that you’re making progress. Your thoughts and actions are flowing.
However, hyperfocus can also be a bad thing. Adults with ADHD often go into hyperfocus mode when a stressful problem or situation presents itself, and the inability to tear yourself away results in more stress. This can happen when writing a paper for school, trying to solve a problem at work, attempting to fix a broken gadget, or even surfing the Internet.
Negative hyperfocus is what I call being in the stick.
It’s really about an inability to shift focus, and the frustration that results. It feels like you’re glued to whatever it is that you’re trying to do. You want to finish a task or just put it down, but your frustration in the situation has you feeling unable to move on. You become determined to do what you set out to do at any cost. (Perfectionism often causes negative hyperfocus.)
In this state, you keep telling yourself, “Just two more minutes. I’ve got to get this.” But it’s never just two more minutes. Your thoughts and actions are stuck. You don’t feel good about making progress. You feel compelled to finish what you set out to do at all costs–including losing sleep, skipping meals, and compromising your mental health.
In short, positive hyperfocus feels good and makes you happy. Negative hyperfocus feels bad and makes you stressed.
Negative hyperfocus is very difficult to break out of. It takes a lot of awareness and a healthy dose of rationalizing self-talk. Forcing yourself (yes, forcing yourself) to get unstuck by stopping and de-stressing is essential to breaking the pattern.
It helps to remember that in that stressed out and frantic state, the things you actually accomplish are often inferior to what you would accomplish in a relaxed state. Operating from a calm and centered place is sure to produce better results than operating from a stressed and frantic place.
The next time you find yourself hyperfocusing, stop and check in with yourself to determine if you’re fantastically flowing, or stressfully sticking. Follow these simple steps:
- Ask yourself:
- Do I feel good about what I’m accomplishing, or am I just stressed out?
- Do I need to be doing something else right now, like eating a meal, leaving for an appointment, or going to bed?
- Does what I’m working on really matter in my life? Will there be a serious consequence that results if it doesn’t get done *right now*?
- If you determine that you’re either stressed out, need to be doing something else, or wasting time on something that doesn’t matter, then you’re in the the stick of negative hyperfocus. Take a moment to close your eyes and take three very deep breaths. This will increase the oxygen flow in your body and relax both your muscles and your heart rate.
- Rationalize with yourself. Remind yourself that:
- You’ll be able to tackle this problem quicker and with much less stress when you’re feeling refreshed, calm and centered.
- Your hyperfocus on this problem is causing stress, which in turn will increase your ADHD challenges.
- In order to break out of this negative pattern, you have to do something different.
- Then force yourself to walk away. Yes, force yourself.
In the moment, walking away is a difficult thing to do. But it gets easier, and you’ll feel good about it later–especially if you reassess the situation and discover that you were negatively hyperfocused on something that really didn’t matter.
Remember, hyperfocus can be a wonderful asset, but only when you’re in control of it!