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December 13, 2011 at 12:12 PMComments: 7 Faves: 4

6 Tips For Harnessing Your Hyperfocus

By Dr. Jeff Chamberlain, MD More Blogs by This Author

In medical school I had never even heard the term “hyperfocus” being associated with ADHD. It is common knowledge that one of the main problems in people with ADHD is that they had difficulty focusing, and are easily distracted! We all know the children with ADHD who have trouble at school or adults with ADHD who attempt to start doing paperwork, but get distracted within seconds.

How could it be that these same people have the ability to “hyperfocus” - having intense, prolonged concentration on things that do interest them?!

If you think about it, you have probably seen someone with ADHD hyperfocus.  That same child that struggled to pay attention at school can spend countless hours playing video games, watching TV, or playing sports.  That same adult who got distracted after just a second of starting paperwork, is also an adult who will get lost surfing the net, watching spots, or working on cars.

Regardless of what it is that holds their attention, they can get so wrapped up in it, they become oblivious to the world around them. How is it that people with ADHD have problems focusing on certain things, but then can hyperfocus on other things? People with ADHD suffer from deregulation in the attention centers of the brain. 

In my article “Exercise for Kids with ADHD,” I talked about how the neurotransmitters epinephrine and norepinephrine help regulate attention. People with ADHD tend to have low epinephrine and norepinephrine levels and this makes it difficult for them to maintain prolonged attention on many activities, INSTEAD, their attention gets sucked into activities they find interesting.  Once their mind IS engaged in an interesting activity, it is difficult to draw the mind back to less interesting (although often necessary) activities. 

The four most common criteria of hyperfoucs are activities which:

1. Give Instant Feedback. Such as videogames, computers, sports, competitions, socializing and creative arts.
2. Are Active. Such as mechanical or hands on work, videogames, computers, sports, competitions and creative arts.
3. Are Fast Paced. Such as TV, videogames, computers, sports, competition and risky behavior.
4. Are Enjoyable. At least to that particular individual.

As you can imagine, some of these activities are more productive than others.  The problems is that for the average person with ADHD, the hyperfocus is not intentional. They usually do not even know they are doing it.  Not understanding hyperfocus can be a dangerous situation that can cause problems in school, work and at home.

Harnessing Your Hyperfocus Abilities

Most of the famous people with ADHD, such as Michael Phelps, Ansel Adams, and Alexander Graham Bell,  (see my list of famous people with ADHD) understood their ability to hyperfocus. They intentionally avoid situations which cause them to  hyperfocus on “bad” or unproductive activities and instead, intentionally channel their hyperfocus on productive ones.

Selective hyperfocus is a challenge and an ability that takes persistent practice.  This is not something that a person can get good at after a day, a week or even a month of half hearted practice - it requires real persistence. However, for those that master the skill,  the payoff is huge.

Here are some strategies that I recommend all people with ADHD follow:

#1. Do What You Love.

What do you love to do? What potentially productive things do you enjoy? Cultivate these interests!

It doesn't matter whether it's sports, painting, photography, computer programming, graphic design, science or  exploring the outdoors. Make time for you and your child do these things and you'll naturally develop your expertise in these areas. 

Doing what you love will help you hone your hyperfocus skills.

#2. Remember the Four Criteria of Hyperfocusing.

When there's an activity that you need to do whether it's schoolwork, paperwork, housework, come up with a way to make that activity:

1. active,
2. fast paced,
3. give you instant feedback, and
4. be enjoyable.  

The reason people, but ADHDers in particular, dislike most mandatory activities is that they are slow, boring and give no feedback. It is up to you to figure out how to do things in a new way so you use your hyperfocus to finish it off!

Try turning it into a game or jumping between activities so that it is faster paced. Think like Mary Poppins - "A spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down..."  Sometimes, it's just a matter of looking at in a different way.

#3. Broaden Your Interests.

Whenever you come across any activity, try to make it fun.  The wider your base of interest, the more things you can potentially unleash your hyperfocusing super power on.

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#4. Avoid "Time-Suck" Activities.

Initially, most of the things an ADHDer hyperfocuses are leisure activities that aren't really productive. 

Because the person with ADHD can not help but lose track of time when they are hyperfocusing, it might be necessary to set alarms when doing things such as watching TV, or being on the computer.  When the alarm goes off, the activity stops. 

At first, this is may be difficult, but it really is essential to an ADHDers success.  To make the most of your hyperfocus, you'll need to retrain yourself or your child to ensure it's being used in a life-enriching ways.

#5. Make Productive Activities Into Rewards.

Use the productive activities you enjoy as rewards for those tasks you do not. 

Keeping up the pace can be very helpful.  For example, a student might say, “I’m going to do 4 math problems, and then spend 5 minutes (set the timer) creatively drawing, and then do 4 more math problems.”  Or the small business owner might say, “I’m going to spend 30 minutes on taxes, and then 30 minutes planning my next big project (set the timer), and then it will be back to the taxes again.” 

Doing this breaks up the monotony of unpleasant tasks, but it also give you something to look forward to.

Notice how I don’t recommend doing tasks that are fun, but a waste of time. Think of it this way: if you're going to to lose track of time hyperfocusing on something, would you rather it be 1.) creatively brainstorming on your next big project OR 2.) surfing facebook? Which will ultimately leave you happier? Come on, you know the answer!

#6. Try Things In a New Way!

Never forget that having ADHD blesses people with creativity, imagination and problem solving skills.  Remember the famous people with ADHD. They were not afraid to think outside the box. Sometimes being "different" can feel like a curse, but when you think about, it's rarely the "normal" people we admire!

If you have ADHD and are trying to do things just like “everyone else” does, then you are probably causing yourself unneeded frustration.  Just remember that “everyone else” is probably doing things in inactive, passive, boring ways.  If you do things different than everyone else does, then you, and the world will benefit from your ADHD!

Stay Healthy,
Dr. Jeff. M.D.

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7 Comments

  • Learned to read and write...in a backwards way! I was blessed to have a Grandmother who was able to teach me how to read and write in spite of the "learning disabilities" I don't suffer from! I can hyperfocus and still deal with living a "normal" life! Thank you Dr, Jeff for validating what I always viewed as "my problem". As a professional artist I can tell those who have probelms with either ADD or Dyslexia that they are NOT stupid!!! My almost straight A's in college can verify that "lie"!

  • Love these tips!! Homework is the worst time!! My eight year old son is absolutely miserable and is done in the afternoon. Suggestions?

  • Silver, I think tip #5 would be good for your son. Or if he's into video games, maybe you could come up with a series of "achievements" for completing homework. (Achievements are like merit badges for video games, in case you're not familiar.)

  • As someone newly diagnosed with attention deficit and struggling with it immensely, I found this article extremely helpful. Thank you so much.

  • Lindsay, I'm glad it could help.

  • My daughter is 10 years old and she has a hard time staying on tasks (studying, retaining information). I believe she may have a learning disability but I am not sure , can someone help me please???

  • Very appreciated that you identify the strengths to having this different mental function. Too often those of us with ADHD think of ourselves only as being broken and needing to be fixed to fit into the non-ADHD world. I'm glad not only that you see that there are advantages, but that you offer to use those advantages to assist in areas of difficulty. Many, many thanks.

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