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  • Writer's pictureAviva Nirenberg

Hyperfocus:The ADHD paradox

Inattention, the tendency to get easily distracted and consequently difficulty focusing is the most widely known and commonly experienced ADHD symptom. Not surprisingly, ADHD is formally called an “attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.”

One mother describes her own frustration at not having her son with ADHD diagnosed earlier. For years, her son’s teachers shared that while he was successful academically, he was often daydreaming in class. At home, she saw her son getting constantly side-tracked while getting dressed in the morning with legos, talking to his brother, the sound of a helicopter or the bird on the windowsill. Nonetheless, she completely dismissed any possibility of her son having ADHD. After all, he could sit and read for hours or getting completely absorbed in a puzzle. He couldn’t possibly have ADHD, she reasoned.

Unfortunately, this Mom operates under the very popular misconception that people with ADHD can’t focus. More accurately, though the hallmark trait of ADHD is inconsistent attention.

When an activity is interesting, new, enjoyable, competitive or urgent – the ADHD brain can focus intensely and for extended periods of time. A former client, Nancy, shared her experience as a summer intern in the Biochemistry lab. On the first day of orientation, after a tour of the lab and description of safety protocols, her supervisor explained the scientific dilemma that Nancy would be challenged to solve over the course of the summer. Without delay, Nancy eagerly got started and quickly was completely engaged in her project, so much so that she was completely oblivious to the passage of time and worked through the night. When her supervisor arrived early the next morning, she was delighted to see her new student already occupied. The supervisor was even more delighted but also amazed when she realized that Nancy had already discovered the solution to the dilemma that was supposed to have been the focus her 8 week internship program.

Another adult with ADHD completed the entire draft of a novel while travelling on a 16 hour transatlantic flight. So, hyperfocus certainly can be a source for tremendous accomplishments.

Nevertheless, this state of intense flow or Hyperfocus can be a double edged sword. For example, a child can hyperfocus on video games for the bulk of his weekend missing social opportunities, neglecting to study for the big math test, and not complete his chores. The adult lost in hyperfocus may miss an important appointment, deadline, or ignore his wife. So, how can we harness the power of hyperfocus while avoiding it’s inherent pitfalls?

Here are a few tips:

1. Make a list of which activities typically cause you to hyperfocus

2. Don’t start a hyperfocus inducing activity before bedtime or a time sensitive obligation (meeting, appointment, carpool, making dinner etc.)

3. Break large projects down into manageable chunks and take a break when you reach your preset milestone

4. If you notice you’re in hyperfocus, ask yourself – “Is what I’m doing now useful? Will I regret this later?” If so, get up and move to break your hyperfocus. Do a few jumping jacks, wiggle your toes, or change locations.

5. Use timers, alarms, or pop up messages on your computer to remain aware of passing time and/or to remind you of other obligations

6. Have others check in on you at a prearranged time by phone, text or in person – to break your hyperfocus.

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