By Sarah Ludwig Rausch
Whenever I do online research, whether it’s for personal or work purposes, I lose track of time. I can spend hours burrowing into site after site on my knowledge quests. Occasionally I forget to eat or even get out of my chair to move around. This happens with other activities too, such as doing taxes or scrolling through social media. Until I was diagnosed with ADHD, I didn’t know that this phenomenon wasn’t “normal,” or that it actually has a name: hyperfocus.
What Is Hyperfocus?
“Hyperfocus is like tunnel vision,” says Lindsay O’Shea, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist who helps people manage ADHD symptoms, anxiety, and improve their self-esteem. “It’s when you are completely engrossed in a task to the point where everything else gets blocked out.” When you’re experiencing hyperfocus, it’s difficult to switch your attention to other tasks. And if you get interrupted, you may be irritated or grumpy.
Usually, hyperfocus happens when you’re doing an activity that you find fun or interesting, explains Sharon Saline, Psy.D., a clinical psychologist, author and speaker. But it can also happen when you’re trying to meet a deadline or work through a task you find boring, according to Susan Ciardiello, Ph.D., LCSW, an ADHD coach and psychotherapist. This is what Saline calls “productive hyperfocus,” and it’s the opposite of scrolling for hours. “In a way, hyperfocus is like sustained attention on steroids,” she says.
Pretty much everyone can say that they have experienced being “in the zone” at one time or another. Saline calls this “flow” and she says it’s not the same as hyperfocus. Anyone, with or without ADHD, can experience flow. But it doesn’t cause you to lose time and there’s still an awareness there. With flow, you can work for an hour and then switch your focus to take a break. When you’re in hyperfocus, “time falls away and the task at hand becomes the only point of attention,” she explains.
What Causes Hyperfocus?
Experts believe that hyperfocus happens because of lower levels of dopamine in the brain than normal, says O’Shea. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that contributes to motivation, arousal and executive functioning. It gives our brains the drive to do a task and rewards us with feelings of satisfaction and pleasure when we finish. “The more engrossed you are in an activity, the more dopamine that may get released into your brain and the easier it becomes to work on that task,” she explains.
A study in the journal ADHD Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and republished in Frontiers for Young Minds found that ADHDers had higher hyperfocus scores than people without ADHD. That’s not surprising. But the researchers also found that the more ADHD symptoms a person had, the higher their hyperfocus score tended to be.
How Common Is Hyperfocus in People With ADHD?
Hyperfocus is an admittedly rather strange symptom of ADHD — because most people think ADHD is all about having a short attention span. While that’s certainly a part of it, limited attention is only a part of the picture. Hyperfocus makes it pretty clear that ADHD causes difficulty when it comes to adjusting and controlling attention. This difficulty tends to be extreme — you’re either easily distracted or you focus for excessively long periods of time.
Unfortunately, there isn’t a lot of research on hyperfocus in ADHD, so it’s unclear how prevalent it is. O’Shea notes that not all people with ADHD experience it. Saline and Ciardiello both say it’s pretty common. In fact, enough ADHDers experience hyperfocus that some experts believe it should be included as part of the criteria for a diagnosis.
How to Make Hyperfocus Work for You
Like anything, hyperfocus can be both an asset and a drawback. “Hyperfocus can truly be a superpower when harnessed well but can also be a potential liability if left unchecked,” says O’Shea. “The best way to deal with it is not to fight it, but to harness it.” Here’s how:
- Learn how to organize tasks. O’Shea says this helps you get in the zone. “Getting started on tasks is tough, especially if the task isn’t interesting,” she says. “Learning how to plan out tasks in order to complete them with enough time to spare can be very helpful.”
- Pick a career that interests you. When you’re doing activities you can hyperfocus on, this can lead to big success, says Ciardiello. “This makes sense because when you are in that hyperfocus zone, you don’t mind spending extra time. You thrive in that zone. It leads to such creative brilliance, too,” she says.
- Start your day by setting alarms for every appointment. O’Shea says some people find this strategy extremely useful to make sure they don’t miss anything thanks to distraction or hyperfocus.
- Set time limits. This is especially crucial for activities that cause you to use hyperfocus as a distraction or a way to procrastinate. “You could be hyperfocused on Tik Tok for three hours because it’s interesting, but you’re also not doing the article that’s due tomorrow,” Saline says. Limits are also important for kids with ADHD who can spend hours gaming when left to their own devices. Alarms and timers are great to keep everyone on track.
- Figure out which activities make you hyperfocus. Though you can’t switch hyperfocus on or off, you can identify what helps get you in the zone to get there, says O’Shea. Knowing this can help you plan better. “For example, if you’re super into organizing and it results in hyperfocus, don’t start an organizational activity right before you’re supposed to attend a meeting or event,” she advises. “Instead, do these activities when you have more space in your schedule.”
- Get your family and/or friends involved. “Figure out how a partner or family member can lovingly remind you that you’ve been doing your nails for two hours and it might be time to do something else,” laughs Saline. You can do this with work too. Have a friend or colleague call or email you at specific times to interrupt your hyperfocus.
- Schedule activities. Doing the same activity at the same time each day can be extremely beneficial in honing your hyperfocus abilities and staying on task, O’Shea says. Once you’ve pinpointed which tasks put you in hyperfocus, “create a schedule that includes time for these activities with a clear start and stop time,” she advises.
- Find a work environment that best suits your needs. You might need background noise to concentrate, such as soft music or TV. Or you might need total silence to work effectively. “What works for one person may not work for another, so take the time to figure out what conditions you need in order to thrive,” says O’Shea.
- Give yourself a break. Hyperfocus is not intentional; it’s related to a neurological condition, says Ciardiello. “Advocate for yourself. Educate the people in your lives about it. And as often as you can, treat yourself with kindness. You deserve to feel good about yourself,” she says.
Sharon Saline, Psy.D., clinical psychologist, author, speaker