Have you ever been “in the zone”? You know when that important research paper suddenly seems to write itself? Where are you so close to win that video game you’ve been obsessed with for weeks? Or you just have know what’s going to happen in chapter 4… and chapter 5… and chapter 72? Have you ever looked at the clock and realized that you haven’t moved, eaten or been to the bathroom for about eight hours – and the rest of your family is sleeping soundly?
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Of course you have. We all have at one time or another. But why?
This is a phenomenon called hyperfocus. While we commonly associate hyperfocus with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), it’s something everyone gets from time to time. Depending on what you’re hyper-focused on and why, that can be a good thing. It could also be… well, not so great.
We spoke to pediatric behavioral health specialist Michael Manos, PhD, to find out what exactly happens when we hyperfocus, why hyperfocus is such a common feature of ADHD, and how to make hyperfocus work. for you, not against you.
What is hyperfocus?
Dr. Manos defines hyperfocus as “a person’s ability to engage in a task or activity to the exclusion of everything else.”
Although generally considered a symptom of ADHD, most people have the ability to hyperfocus in certain contexts.
“Many, many people can get overly involved in a task or activity,” Dr. Manos says. “Ask yourself: what can you do for hours on end that you don’t mind? »
Automatic attention vs directed attention
There are two types of attention: automatic and directed.
Automatic attention is something you can’t control, like noticing someone walking past you in the hallway. Hyperfocus is a form of automatic attention that is usually activated by doing something we find interesting. If your automatic attention draws you to your favorite TV show or a craft project, for example, it will stay there, hyper-focused, until it is interrupted by something more engaging happening in the environment.
Directed (or with effort) attention, on the other hand, is something you actively strive for, whether it’s paying attention in a boring meeting or putting aside the crossword puzzle to do the dishes.
According to Dr. Manos, sometimes we can make a conscious choice to focus on things we don’t like but know we need to do, such as homework. “In our educational careers, many of us have taken classes that we thought were completely boring, but had to master the material, pass the test, and do the homework regardless. You do this by using directed attention to turn off the mind. automatic attention.
Directed attention is a finite resource with specific “behaviors” in your brain that we call “executive functions.” Examples of executive functions are maintaining directed attention, self-motivation, and resistance to distraction.
That’s why it’s not uncommon, after spending all day trying to concentrate on work or school, to feel too exhausted to do chores or homework. All you really want to do is get out of the zone – let your automatic attention drive for a while.
What does hyperfocus look like?
Different people describe the feeling of hyperfocus in different ways. It makes sense because different people focus on different things.
Some people describe hyperfocus as similar to dissociation – a feeling of disconnection from themselves and their surroundings. Others describe it as laser focusing, a kind of tunnel vision. Still others describe hyperfocus as euphoric.
how people feel on their hyperfocus is also diverse. For many people, hyperfocus is essential to their success: it’s how they’ve mastered a hobby, achieved a goal, or built a career. For others, hyperfocus is a burden: it alienates them from their friends, prevents them from fully engaging in their work, or contributes to their chronic retardation.
For most people, it’s somewhere in the middle: hyperfocus is useful at times and problematic at others. It is not so much a symptom as a facet of everyday life.
How is hyperfocus related to ADHD?
If you’re confused to learn that hyperfocus is commonly considered a symptom of ADHD, you’re not alone. After all, “attention deficit” is in the name!
But remember that there are two different types of attention. When you have ADHD, the problem is not that you lack be careful, it’s that you’re fighting for control your attention – to put your attention where you want it to go rather than having it go where this wants to go there. Hyperfocus is a natural consequence of this lack of control.
It’s important to keep in mind that the behaviors that make up an ADHD diagnosis are behaviors we all experience in one way or another. We all get restless. We all have impulsive moments. We all get distracted from time to time. And nothing of us have total control over our attention.
However, when you have ADHD, these things happen more frequently and are more likely to have a net negative impact on your daily life.
Tips for dealing with hyperfocus
According to Dr. Manos, there is no drug to curb hyperfocus. That said, if you think hyperfocus is negatively impacting your life in any way, you box approach it.
Identify the problem‘
First things first: try vocalizing Why you feel that your tendency to hyperfocus is negative. Hyperfocus isn’t inherently a bad thing – as we’ve established, it’s often a good thing.
So think about the pros and cons. Hyperfocus can make you great at your job, for example, but also get you so caught up in an important project that you miss a team meeting. Instead of trying to “fix” your hyperfocus, try to address that specific impact.
Look at your surroundings
“If you see hyperfocus as a problem,” notes Dr. Manos, “then the solution must be something in the outside world.”
He elaborates by saying, “Hyperfocus is not something you can manage internally. This is why it is helpful for a person who knows they are hyperfocusing to put something in the physical world that will bring them back to directed attention.
Dr. Manos gives the example of a hyperfocused parent. “If you know you have to pick your kids up from school at 3:30 p.m., and you also know you’re working on something exciting, be sure to set an alarm on your phone or a reminder on your calendar.
“You could even have someone call you when it’s time to leave. Anything that’s going to intrude on your hyperfocus, so you can still engage in the world of accountability, do it,” he adds.
If you experience hyperfocus as a negative thing, take the time to understand what triggers it. Once you have a list:
- Avoid doing these things at bedtime, before work, or around activities, like homework, that you might be prone to skipping.
- Cultivate mindful habits. Try to notice when you are really grasping something. If you are aware that you are hyperfocusing, you have the power to stop. Getting up and walking around, for example, is a great way to reset.
- Use methods like the Pomodoro Technique® or Screen Time settings on your phone to limit activities that trigger your hyperfocus.
- Create small goals — also called “when-then contingencies” — around which you can structure breaks. For example, you have to go to lunch once you’ve written 500 words, or you’re only allowed to watch the next episode of your favorite show after you cook a healthy dinner.
If your for children hyperfocus becomes a problem, you can help them. Create structure in their lives by maintaining consistent schedules and limiting things like screen time. And be sure to set a good example.
You can also talk to your child about hyperfocus and help them recognize when they are having it. Working with your child to consciously develop the skills they need to maximize the benefits of hyperfocus and deal with its drawbacks will pay big dividends as they move through the world.
Is hyperfocus common with other medical conditions?
Although primarily associated with ADHD, hyperfocus is also commonly seen in people with autism, schizophrenia, and traumatic brain injury. If you find that your hyperfocus tendency has changed significantly or is accompanied by other symptoms, talk to a doctor.
The bottom line
Hyperfocus can be a symptom of ADHD, sure, but it’s also part of being human. We all do it to some degree, and that’s neither a good thing nor a bad thing. It just sort of…is.
If you understand what triggers your hyperfocus, you can structure your environment to ensure that this determination works in your favor, not against you. Properly managed, hyperfocus can make our lives richer.
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