“But I thought ADHD was a lack of attention. What is this hyperfocus thing you are speaking of?” - someone, somewhere, about ADHD, probably.
I’m sure you’ve had the experience of getting lost in some activity, only to notice later than you’ve been stuck there for hours - while you ignored your family, or other stuff you needed to get done, or you completely missed an appointment.
While some people might see this symptom of ADHD as a “gift”, and you can sometimes harness hyperfocus to your advantage, for many adults with ADHD, getting lost in hyperfocus is one gift we could do without.
In fact, the clinical literature calls “hyperfocus” perseveration - the inability to shift your attention when you need to shift your attention.
Hyper focus can cause you to lose hours and not even realize it. Days are wasted and relationships ignored. It is annoying and frustrating because there are real costs and pain associated with not being able to regulate what you pay attention to.
Problems with hyperfocus include:
- lost time, hours, and days
- lost productivity and work and home
- strained relationships and hurt feelings
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder is NOT a problem with attention.
It is a problem with self-regulation.
ADHD or ADD is the inability to regulate for yourself where you put your attention, among other executive function problems. Also, it is very important to remember that this problem with self-regulation is not a failure on your part, it isn’t because you haven’t been trying hard enough, and you can’t learn more or study about self-regulation more in order to be able stop hyperfocus.
- This symptom isn’t something that will go away, even with medication. At the same time, it can be managed and dealt with so that you don’t have to be hijacked by it anymore.
What to do when stuck in Hyperfocus
The biggest, most important thing to do is to ESTABLISH EXTERNAL CUES.
External cues are the exact opposite of will power, or relying on yourself to break out of it. Your brain is “broken” in this department, and you can’t expect a “broken” regulation system to work as if it weren’t broken. So, instead of trying harder to get out of it, TRY DIFFERENTLY.
Use External Cues to Try Differently
- Set an alarm - I use the alarms on my phone for this all of the time. (pic)
- Use a timer, either on your phone, computer, microwave, or an old fashioned kitchen timer
- Have someone check in on you at a predetermined length of time. They can text you, come into the same room you are in, flash the lights of the room you are in, etc
- Make sure you take your ADHD medication if you are prescribed meds. The medicine will help you shift focus more easily.
- Use natural breaks to remind you to change your focus - at the end of a TV show, or when the commercials come on, or the half-hourly news break on the radio, etc.
- Give yourself space and time to actually hyperfocus if you want. Choose when to do it, and give yourself permission to do it. That will sometimes help you switch focus when you have to at other times because you know that you will be able to hyperfocus later. You can even use hyperfocus as a reward for doing less interesting tasks.
Do you sometimes hyperfocus when you are procrastinating?
If you are struggling to put these ideas into practice on your own, then you might think about joining the Adult ADHD Treatment Group, where we can help you break out of hyperfocus, and support and keep you accountable to your personal goals. Registration closes soon, and there are only 8 spots available.
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