Hyperfocus

A common symptom of ADHD in children and adults is the inability to focus at length on the task at hand.  Those suffering from ADHD are easily distracted, which makes it difficult to give sustained attention to a specific activity, assignment, or chore. But a lesser-known symptom that goes hand-in-hand with inattention is hyperfocus. 

What Is Hyperfocus?

Hyperfocus is the experience of deep and intense concentration in people with ADHD. ADHD is not necessarily a deficit of attention, but rather a problem with regulating one’s attention span. So, while mundane tasks may be difficult to focus on, others may be completely absorbing. An individual with ADHD who may not be able to complete homework assignments or work projects, may instead be able to focus for hours on videogames, sports, or reading. 

ADHD sufferers may immerse themselves so completely in a stimulating activity that they become oblivious to everything around them. This concentration can be so intense that an individual loses track of time, other chores, or the surrounding environment. While this level of intensity can be channeled into difficult tasks, such as work or homework, the downside is that ADHD individuals can become immersed in unproductive activities while ignoring pressing responsibilities. 

The Benefits of Hyperfocus

Although hyperfocus can have a detrimental effect on a person’s life by distracting them from important tasks, it can also be honed in and used positively, as evidenced by many scientists, artists, and writers. Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps, for example, has been diagnosed with ADHD.  His hyperfocus has been directed toward swimming, allowing him to spend hour after hour perfecting his craft. Others, however, are less lucky—the object of their hyperfocus may be playing video games, building with Legos, or online shopping.  Unrestrained focus on unproductive tasks can lead to setbacks in school, lost productivity at work, or failed relationships.

Coping with Hyperfocus

It may be difficult to rouse a child from a period of hyperfocus, but it is crucial in regulating ADHD. Like all symptoms of ADHD, hyperfocus needs to be delicately managed.  When in a hyperfocused state, a child may lose track of time and the outside world may seem unimportant.

Here are some suggestions for managing your child’s hyperfocus:

  • Explain to your child that hyperfocus is part of their condition. This may help the child see it as a symptom that needs to be changed.
  • Create and enforce a schedule for common hyperfocus activities. For instance, restrict time spent watching television or playing video games.
  • Help your child find an interest that removes them from isolated time and fosters social interaction, such as music or sports. 
  • While it may be difficult to pull a child out of a state of hyperfocus, try using markers, such as the end of a TV show, as a signal to refocus their attention.  Unless something or someone interrupts the child, hours can drift by, and important tasks, appointments, and relationships may be forgotten.

Hyperfocus in Adults

Adults with ADHD also have to deal with hyperfocus, on the job and at home. Here are some tips for coping:

  • Prioritize daily tasks and accomplish them one at a time. This can keep you  from spending too much time on any one job.
  • Set a timer to keep yourself accountable and to remind you of other tasks that need to be completed.
  • Ask a friend, colleague, or family member to call or email you at specific times. This helps breakup intense periods of hyperfocus.
  • Enlist family members to turn off the television, computer, or other distractions to get your attention if you get too immersed.

Ultimately, the best way to cope with hyperfocus is not to fight it by forbidding certain activities, but rather to harness it. Making work or school stimulating can capture your focus in the same way as your favorite activities. This may be difficult for a growing child, but can ultimately become advantageous for an adult in the work place.  By finding a job that caters to one’s interests, an individual with ADHD can truly shine, using hyperfocus to his or her advantage.