Hyperfocus is characterized by an intense and heightened state of focused attention, commonly reported in individuals with ADHD (Brown, 2005).
It is the ability to intensely focus on a project or activity for hours at a time, being so engrossed that individuals can block out the world around them.
Hyperfocus is a trait that some people with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) may experience. People often think that those with ADHD have a short attention span or that they are unable to pay attention at all (hence the name ‘attention deficit’).
However, it is more accurate to describe people with ADHD as having dysregulated attention, meaning that there are some tasks where they may struggle to give attention, but others where they may give extreme attention.
Many people with ADHD find that they have trouble regulating attention on tasks that interest them. They may be able to spend hours playing a video game, watching their favorite show, or reading a book but find they cannot focus on uninteresting tasks such as school or work assignments.
In This Article
What does hyperfocus look like?
Hyperfocus is the opposite of distractibility and is common among both children and adults with ADHD.
When someone is engaged in a hyperfocused activity, they become so immersed in the task that they can be oblivious to everything else going on around them. unrelated external stimuli do not appear to be consciously perceived – they may have a diminished perception of their environment and may not even notice if someone is talking to them.
Many people have described this hyperfocus as falling under ‘hypnotic spells’ as they become immersed in an activity (Brown, 2005)
When someone hyperfocuses, it may be hard to get their attention. When spoken to, there may be no response or even acknowledgment that they heard anything. They can get so absorbed in a task that they appear to completely ignore or tune out everything else.
People who hyperfocus may often experience ‘time blindness,’ which means they do not see or feel time (Ozel-Kizil, 2016). Someone may hyperfocus for hours at a time and not realize how much time has passed. They are unaware of how quickly or slowly time is passing.
Parents of a child with ADHD may be confused as to why their child is able to spend all day focused on their hobby but cannot focus on other tasks or listen when spoken to. They may say to their child, ‘You can pay attention when you want to.’
However, people with ADHD often want to focus on other things, such as their schoolwork or household chores, yet find they can only hyperfocus on certain activities.
During a hyperfocus state, task performance improves. It can take a lot of energy to get started on a task, but then energy can be gained once one enters hyperfocus.
However, if someone goes too far into hyperfocus, it can drain all the energy and leave the person with a ‘hyperfocus hangover.’
What is a hyperfocus hangover?
When coming out of hyperfocus, it can often leave you feeling drained, as if you have a hangover. You may experience some of the following symptoms:
- Being unaware of what time it is
- Feel thirsty as if you haven’t drank for days
- Feel hungry and cannot recall when you last ate
- Feel as though you haven’t been breathing properly for hours and need to take some deep breaths
- Feel overstimulated, as if the lights in the room are too bright
- Feel as if you have overindulged in an activity for a very long time
- The desperate need to urinate that wasn’t noticed before
What can cause someone to hyperfocus?
Like distractibility, hyperfocus is thought to result from abnormally low levels of dopamine in the brain (Wu et al., 2012). Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that plays a role in motivation, reinforcement, and rewards. This dopamine deficiency can make it hard to shift from interesting tasks to more uninteresting tasks.
This is because the brains of people with ADHD are drawn to activities that give them instant rewards, such as video games, TV shows, and other activities they may find enjoyable.
There is significant evidence from brain imaging studies that demonstrate increased prefrontal activity when hyperfocused attention is in use (Sklar, 2013).
Activities such as video games provide instant feedback. Feedback is a response from the environment as a result of a person’s action.
Everyone can benefit from instant feedback, but those with ADHD thrive from it and will keep seeking feedback in order to get that dopamine hit.
Those with ADHD will usually hyperfocus on an activity that they are intrinsically motivated towards. Intrinsic motivation means that someone engages in an activity because they get pleasure from the activity itself rather than being motivated by external factors.
People with ADHD may have greater difficulty focusing on tasks that are not intrinsically rewarding (Kauffman et al., 2000).
For something to be intrinsically motivating, an activity may require the following:
- A clear goal to work towards
- Visible progress toward reaching that goal
- Clear and immediate feedback
- A balance of challenge and skill
What are the benefits of hyperfocus?
Many people with ADHD can see hyperfocus as their superpower in many ways if used to its advantage:
Many people with ADHD can channel their hyperfocus on productive activities such as school or work-related tasks. For instance, someone may focus on a work project until completion while in a state of hyperfocus (Hupfield et al., 2019).
Others may also reward themselves with a hyperfocusing activity for completing all their other tasks first, giving themselves the incentive to complete less interesting tasks. For instance, they may reward themselves by playing their favorite video game (an activity that triggers hyperfocus) after finishing work-related tasks.
A sense of accomplishment
If someone has hyperfocused on a task, spent a lot of time and effort on a project, or built something impressive, they are likely to feel a sense of accomplishment. Their achievements can also bring them self-confidence and increase their self-esteem.
Become successful in a career
Hyperfocusing can help elevate careers when used strategically. Scientists, writers, and artists, among others that are able to hyperfocus, can achieve amazing things and get a lot achieved due to their ability to focus on what they’re good at for hours at a time.
People who can hyperfocus on work-related tasks can develop a reputation as someone who is hard-working and dedicated. Plus, this means they are likely enjoying time spent working.
When there is a deadline approaching, everything can be pushed aside, and all of someone’s focus can be put on meeting the deadline.
Learn new skills
If someone can hyperfocus on a new hobby, they may become skilled in this quicker than others may be. For example, they may become masters at learning another language, knitting, or playing a musical instrument if they are able to spend large amounts of time and effort perfecting their skill.
Complete tasks quickly
When someone is able to hyperfocus on a task such as work or school assignments, they may be able to complete these in a shorter span of time than someone who cannot hyperfocus.
Become more skilled at tasks
Hyperfocusing allows people to fully devote their attention to something that interests them. This improves their skills through hours of focused, dedicated effort.
What are the limitations of hyperfocus?
While there are some benefits that can come from hyperfocus, if it is not managed properly, it can cause many problems:
Neglected school or work tasks
If someone is only able to hyperfocus on things they enjoy, they may not be able to focus on their school or work tasks. For instance, a child may spend hours after school hyperfocused on their hobby instead of doing their homework.
Adults with ADHD may miss meetings or deadlines because they are intensely focused on other activities outside of work and lost track of time.
Poorer work performance
If someone with ADHD does not find any enjoyment in their job, to the extent that they cannot focus on it, this can lead to poorer work performance. Those with ADHD may find that they can hyperfocus on some aspects of the job or schoolwork, such as a class that a child enjoys, but not other parts.
They may become hyperfocused on the parts of school or work that they enjoy that they neglect other areas and perform worse in them.
Puts a strain on relationships
Parents of a child with ADHD may become frustrated that their child doesn’t listen when spoken to and will not do chores or their homework without constant reminders.
Likewise, if someone is in a romantic relationship with someone who has ADHD, they may also become frustrated that their partner spends so much time focused on activities they enjoy rather than contributing to the chores or other house management tasks.
They might also feel that their partner does not seem interested in them if they feel ignored and that their partner does not give them sufficient attention.
No time for other tasks
Hyperfocusing on activities for hours can mean that other responsibilities may be neglected. It may be that once out of hyperfocus, there is not enough time left in the day to do the other tasks that were on the agenda for that day.
Their ‘time blindness’ can often result in them being rushed, late, and unprepared (Barkley, 1997).
People who hyperfocus on tasks may become very critical of themselves and feel frustrated that they feel they have wasted time on things that are not deemed productive to them.
They may also question why they cannot focus on important things like work when they can easily spend large amounts of time on enjoyable activities.
If someone hyperfocuses for hours on end, they may find that they have neglected to take care of themselves (Sklar, 2013). They may have skipped meals, not drank any water, showered, or spent any time outside or exercising.
Can people without ADHD hyperfocus?
A study found that people with ADHD experienced hyperfocus more often than neurotypical individuals, both in general and across a range of specific settings (Hupfield et al., 2019).
It is common for anybody to get lost in something that interests them or get into a flow of work. A lot of neurotypical people would likely report experiencing a hyperfocus-like state at some point in their lives.
Hyperfocus is often mentioned in the context of autism and ADHD – conditions that have consequences on attentional abilities. Those with autism can exhibit an intense focus on a particular topic which is sometimes referred to as hyperfocus (Rowland, 2020).
They often have special interests, which means they can spend a large amount of time researching and engaging in their chosen interest. Hyperfocus may also refer to stereotypic behavior or stimming in those who have autism.
Can you trigger hyperfocus on boring tasks?
There may be some ways in which hyperfocus can be used to your advantage if you need to complete boring tasks:
Put away distractions
If you have a work or school assignment to complete and you know you are likely to be distracted, remove the distractions. This could include putting your phone in another room or switching it off and blocking certain distracting websites on your computer until your work is complete.
Without your usual distractions, it could trigger you to hyperfocus on the task at hand.
Make work creative
If you find it hard to focus on writing study notes, make your notes into a presentation or performance instead. This may not work for everyone but think about ways in which you can tap into what is interesting and stimulating for you.
This is a technique that is commonly used for studying. It involves dedicating a certain amount of time to focusing on work, followed by a short break. For instance, you can set a timer for 25 minutes, during which you only spend that time on your task, then when the timer goes off, you have a 5-minute break.
Exercise before tasks
Before completing boring tasks, exercising, such as taking a 15-minute run, could help to settle the mind and feel calm and focused on the tasks for the day.
Don’t do fun activities first
It can be hard for someone with ADHD to switch out of doing fun activities once they have started, and this can also trigger hyperfocus on the fun task.
Instead, try to complete your other, less exciting tasks for the day first, then the enjoyable activity can be used as a reward for whatever time is left in the day.
Gamify your life
Gamification is the application of adding game-like elements to non-game contexts to encourage participation.
Since games are a popular hyperfocus activity for people with ADHD, gamifying tasks can make them more enjoyable and could trigger hyperfocus (Sújar, 2022).
For instance, there are many phone apps that are formatted as a game but help users to focus on their goals and productivity in real life.
Make tasks more stimulating
This can work well on cleaning and organizational tasks that need completing. For example, you could play some energetic music or a podcast you have been meaning to listen to while you clean your house.
Likewise, you could ‘challenge’ yourself to clean a room or organize files within a certain amount of time. For instance, you could set a 5-minute timer and try to fold your laundry before the timer goes off.
Any ways in which boring tasks can be made fun and stimulating could help to trigger hyperfocus on them to get them completed.
How to manage hyperfocus
If you find that you want to break out of a hyperfocused state, especially if it is negatively affecting your other responsibilities, there are some ways in which this could be achieved.
Note that not every tactic will work for everyone in all situations. If you are continuously trying the same tactic and it is not working, then that is probably not the right method for you.
Identify hyperfocus triggers
A good place to start is to be aware of what your hyperfocus triggers are. These will often be activities that are intrinsically enjoyable for you. Consider what it is about those activities which trigger hyperfocus.
Setting aside a certain amount of time for hyperfocus activities and then arranging a timer to go off at the end is a good indicator that it is time to stop and move on to something else. Setting multiple timers to go off every few minutes can also be useful if you find you may ignore the first timer.
It could also be beneficial to have a visual timer directly in front of you so that you can actually see the time in your environment. This can also help you to bring your awareness to your surroundings so that hyperfocus is less likely to happen.
For important tasks or chores, you could set reminders to go off on your phone or other devices. This can help to distract you from a hyperfocus task and bring awareness to what else needs to be done. You can also leave post-it notes in your line of sight as reminders of other tasks to complete.
Moreover, leave visual cues about tasks, such as placing a laundry basket in your doorway, so you have no choice but to be reminded that the laundry needs to be done.
Schedule the day
Come up with two or three reasonable tasks for the day that needs to be done. Aim to get these done first before moving on to other tasks, which can cause hyperfocus.
It may be helpful to also schedule each hour of the day dedicated to working on a specific task. Once the hour is over, it is time to move on to the next item on the schedule.
If you know that some tasks are likely to make you hyperfocus, but there are other important things to do in the day, consider asking a friend or co-worker to help you complete some of your tasks.
Ask someone to distract you
You could arrange with a friend or partner to distract you at a time that you wish to stop your hyperfocus activity. At work, this could involve asking a co-worker to send you an email as a reminder to move on to another task.
Consider your career
While this may not be possible for everyone, it may be helpful to find a career that caters to your interests. This can help to use hyperfocus to its advantage, and you will likely be more motivated in a career that you enjoy.
Schedule hyperfocus activities
If you need to be somewhere during the day, such as an appointment or work meeting, don’t start a hyperfocus activity just before. Also, try not to do this hyperfocus activity before going to bed, as you may find it hard to stop, and this can disrupt sleep.
Instead, you could schedule when you can allow yourself to hyperfocus, such as a day when you have no other responsibilities or after you have completed all you planned to do that day.
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