Hyperfocus, in which all distractions fade away and are replaced with a laser-like focus on the task at hand, is one of the more mysterious aspects of ADHD.
On the surface, the phenomenon seems contradictory since ADHD is associated with inattention. Hyperfocus doesn’t tend to appear on “official” lists of symptoms like the DSM, but research suggests this state of intense concentration really is more common among people with ADHD.
Then there’s the fact that hyperfocus is unpredictable in when and where a given ADHDer will experience it.
It’s not necessarily a side of ADHD that people experience regularly in the course of everyday life. It’s “special” in the sense that it tends to be limited to certain activities, and unfortunately we can’t choose which activities will grab our attention in this way!
Maybe the least predictable part of hyperfocus, though, is its ultimate effect. Depending on the situation, the consequences of hyperfocus can be very good or very bad.
What made me start thinking about this was an article about ADHD that just came out in the Washington Post. That article describes a woman who “nearly got divorced after she arrived late to pick up her wife from surgery” because she got sucked into playing video games with her son.
In the article, the woman says:
Sometimes, when I’m involved in something, it’s like that feeling when you put your hand up to a vacuum and it sucks it up. I can’t tear away from something if I’m interested. We’ve lost at least five coffee pots after I let them burn on the stove.
Clearly, these are examples of hyperfocus bringing about negative results. Hyperfocus creates chaos in the lives of ADHDers when it leads us to neglect responsibilities, other pressing tasks, and time management in general because we’re unshakably dialed into a single activity to the detriment of all else.
But hyperfocus can bring positive consequences as well, arguably more so than other ADHD symptoms. For example, if you hyperfocus on a project for work or school, that could lead to real productivity. If you hyperfocus on a hobby that really adds something to your life, that could help rather than harm your overall wellbeing.
I’ve referenced this side of hyperfocus before when I’ve talked about trying to make the most of hyperfocus. Ultimately, we all wish that we would hyperfocus more on productive things and less on playing video games, browsing the internet, or other time sinks. But since hyperfocus comes from not being able to regulate our attention in the first place, what we hyperfocus on is outside of our control.
Today, though, I was struck by just how variable the results of hyperfocus can be. Hyperfocus could lead to a promotion at work, or it could lead to the end of a marriage, as referenced in that Washington Post article.
This range in its possible effects is what makes it the wildcard of ADHD symptoms, one that even psychologists and researchers sometimes seem at a loss to characterize and explain.
Image: Flickr/Robin Mehdee